Retiring Project Barnum

project barnum slide hayleyisaghost

I have retired Project Barnum, the no-frills resource that educated people about psychic trickery for a number of years. There are several reasons that led me to this decision and I wanted to discuss some of them here.

Project Barnum was first launched when the drama about whether Sally Morgan had used an earpiece in a Dublin show was going strong. A number of people helped create the website and offered support for the website to begin with, but after a while, when the Sally Morgan case was out of the headlines, the help and support pretty much disappeared. I ended up maintaining the website and answering emails from people who thought they were scammed myself. When I recently tried to find someone to spend an hour a week on the Psychic Trickery blog I had no luck.

I don’t know why this is.

Perhaps tackling psychic trickery in a non-confrontational manner isn’t cool enough? Perhaps the consumer-focus was what made it not hip? Perhaps because most of the conversations with the public happened privately people thought Project Barnum was boring? Maybe Psychic trickery isn’t considered a priority for some skeptics?

A priority for skeptics… that’s something that was suggested to me in a comment on a recent blog post, by the way. As though there is some way in which you can determine what is and isn’t a priority. Alt Med kills people, but so does psychic surgery. Alt Med robs people of their money, but so do Psychic Mail scams.

When it comes to nonsense harming people there are no priorities. There is just harm caused by nonsense.

I am frustrated that despite numerous demonstrations that the UKs top working psychics routinely fake their abilities, people still flock to their shows in their hundreds. I am frustrated that an over-worked and under-resourced Trading Standards only have a rubbish resource about Psychic Mail Scams, but don’t have any information available about Psychic Fraud that happens behind closed doors. 

I am frustrated that when people realise they have been tricked by people claiming to be psychic there is very little that can be done to help them. I am frustrated that even though I tried to help it wasn’t enough, and it never would have been enough even if I’d had the support and training that was needed.

I am frustrated that a lot of people who could help to make a difference only show an interest when psychic scams are ‘on topic’. I am frustrated that ‘For Entertainment Only’ disclaimers don’t make a jot of difference and that they are used as a Get Out of Jail Card, and that despite having ‘For Entertainment Only’ disclaimers on their posters psychic performers will then tell their audiences “we have to say that, but it’s all real.”

I am frustrated that when a group of volunteers helped Project Barnum phone up dozens of Theatres to ask ‘is the psychic you’re hosting real? Can I get a refund if they’re not?’ none of us got a consistent or straight answer.

I’ve retired Project Barnum today, but it won’t make any difference. 

Psychic Medium David Russell knows best… or so he thinks

trees thumb 1

As the creator and sole organiser of Project Barnum I get a lot of messages from all sorts of people, especially on Twitter. Most of the time it’s people who understand what I’m trying to achieve with Project Barnum, but occasionally I get contacted by someone who believes people can have psychic ability or can act as a medium between the spirit world and this world and takes what Project Barnum aims to do personally. Often Project Barnum gets completely misrepresented, and people try to sound smart in their take down of Project Barnum despite the fact that they’ve completely missed the point.

When I first launched the Project Barnum website, I did an interview for the lovely Kylie Sturgess – you can read it in full here, but there’s a particular quote I want to focus on for a moment. In the interview I was asked why I’d started Project Barnum and I said:

In one episode for the podcast [Righteous Indignation], episode 99, we interviewed a psychic named Litz Butcher and she was very much speaking out against those who use trickery. We interviewed her the day after the Sally Morgan story broke. She said, “I’m so shocked that Sally has potentially done this. I’m disgusted.”

It was something that I’ve heard time and time again with other psychics that we’d interviewed. I said to her, “Why don’t you do something about it?” because she also claimed that she knew numerous psychics who used similar tricks. I said, “Well, Litz, if you think you know, why don’t you speak out about it? I accept that you might be genuine and you think that your ability is genuine, but if you think you know people who are using trickery, why don’t you speak out about it and help to educate people?”

Then Litz said, “Well if I do, that it’s just a can of worms and I don’t really want to deal with that.”

With Project Barnum there has always been the approach that we’re not interested in whether it is possible for people to speak to the dead or tell your fortune, we’re just interested in explaining to people how those people who aren’t at all psychic can make it seem as though they are. Project Barnum achieves this by teaching people about the tricks and methods used by psychic tricksters. Yet, despite being open and honest about this many people just can’t understand what I’m trying to achieve with Project Barnum, and they completely misrepresent what it’s about.

Enter David Russell – a self proclaimed Psychic Medium, who has been tweeting the Project Barnum Twitter account with plastic pearls of ‘wisdom’ about how we’re doing it all wrong. The first time Russell got in touch he shared these gems:

I have no prob with people not believing in mediums but why spend so much energy trying to convince others.I’ve had my proof.
I’m not having a go but why look for the negative ? Why not do something on a greater scale by looking for genuine mediums?

The intention of Project Barnum has never been to ‘convince’ others and to turn them into non-believers. The sole of aim of Project Barnum is to demonstrate how to spot someone using trickery to convince you they are psychic. We do not state anywhere that everyone claiming to be psychic is using these tricks. The aim of Project Barnum has never been to prove that some mediums are genuine either – for one, the burden of proof falls upon the person claiming they are a psychic or a medium. Secondly, it would be hugely biased of me to set out with the intention of proving that something is genuine as I would have started with a conclusion and that is not the way to test a claim with an open mind.

I explained to David Russell what Project Barnum intended to do because, as I pointed out in the quote from the interview I did with Kylie Sturgess, although psychics often agree there is a problem with fraudsters in their industry, they often seem uninterested in actually doing much about it. When I also pointed out to Russell that the Burden of Proof lay with the person making the claim, not the one who is skeptical of said claim he explained to me that

what’s proof to one isn’t to another.

My response was to explain that what he’d just given me was a cliche, to which he explained it was the truth and that he’d seen incredible things that were proof enough to him and all he saw from me was one sided negativity. Now, if one mans definition of proof was not the same as another mans definition of proof then we’d have no facts. Ever. I believe that what Russell was trying to say is ‘what’s good enough for me isn’t good enough for you, so I’ll never convince you‘ or ‘my standard for evidence is set a lot lower than yours‘ or ‘how dare you suggest I should prove anything to you?

A short while later someone called Simon K tweeted Project Barnum to ask:

so when u say ‘fake psychics’ your admitting that there are real ones too?

Oh gee, he got me ther- no wait, no. He didn’t.

Simon has simply misrepresented what Project Barnum is about. We clearly state on the website that we’re not interested in whether any particular psychic is real or actually a trickster, we’re just interested in sharing the tricks used by those people who pretend to be psychic. We hope that by arming people with such information it can help them determine whether they’re being misled when and if they visit a psychic or medium in the future. Knowledge is power.

In response to Simon K’s tweet, Russell tweeted both Simon and Project Barnum to say that some psychics had passed testing in the past to which this little exchange followed

SimonK: tbh mate unless projectbarnum saw a ghost and it said hello then he wouldn’t believe lol
David Russell: pretty sure they wouldn’t own up to it in fear of losing face lol.
SimonK: lol u know it mate :0) just laughable aren’t they XD

Firstly, it’s ‘she’.

Secondly, I have seen what people would describe to be a ghost but I don’t believe it was a dead person because I am aware of the delusions of the mind and the way in which external factors can influence the ways human beings interpret things. I openly admit I have experienced things as a paranormal investigator that I cannot explain, I simply refuse to make illogical leaps of logic when there is no evidence to support the conclusion said leap of logic will have me reach.

I’m always willing to admit I’m wrong, and I do so on a daily basis. I don’t believe that admitting you were wrong about something equals ‘losing face’, but that admitting you were wrong about something actually demonstrates that you keep an open mind about the decisions and conclusions you reach. Think about it.

Finally, while logged in as Project Barnum one day I tweeted ‘Remember folks, the moment you insult someone you disagree with you lose any dignity your argument had. Even Acorah is better than that’ to which Russell responded

what about insulting peoples intelligence ? You do that quite a lot.

If doing what psychics and mediums often refuse to do and teaching the general public about the tricks used by those who pretend to be psychic is insulting peoples intelligence then yes, you’ve got me bang to rights. I’m guilty as charged.

Remember though, people are often shown to be faking psychic ability and using psychological trickery to achieve their deceptions, with Project Barnum I’m trying to show people how to look out for these tricks and how they work. How many Psychic Mediums like David Russell do you see doing the same?

I’ll just leave that thought there and let you ponder a while.