For Entertainment Purposes Only: On Psychics and Legislation

consumer

There is a UK Gov petition doing the rounds that states ‘Make all those who sell psychic services, prove that their abilities are real.’ You can read the petition in full here. 

It is well intentioned but it isn’t going to work. I know not because I am a psychic myself, but because consumers are already covered by The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act 2008 which replaced The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951.

It was under this previous piece of legislation that psychics and mediums would use ‘For Entertainment Purposes Only’ disclaimers to avoid prosecution for fraud. This is a practice that still continues, probably to avoid breaching the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 which prevents service providers from misleading consumers as to what they are spending their money on.

Yet despite the use of entertainment disclaimers at the start of their show many psychics and mediums will go on to deliver what is considered a serious psychic performance or seance. It will upset people, give them false hope, and those who come away from the venue will often believe that what the psychic was doing was genuine.

This is proof that is doesn’t matter if you force psychics and mediums to prove their abilities before the can perform to the public, people will still seek out their services regardless of the risk of being tricked out of their money.

People who visit a psychic show do not deserve to have their money taken from them dishonestly, but the best way to stop this from happening is to educate people about how to spot trickery for themselves and by raising awareness of existing legislation that is there to protect us as consumers.

There are a number of things that people can do to cover themselves; get a receipt, record your session with a psychic, learn what the tricks psychics use are and familiarise yourself with reviews from others who have seen the psychic in question. It’s also important to check the Terms and Conditions of purchase of the venue you’re buying a ticket from as many theatres do not issue refunds.

When I created Project Barnum (an online resource about psychic trickery) a group of volunteers and I phoned dozens of UK venues at which Sally Morgan, Derek Acorah and other well known psychics would be performing. We posed as potential customers and asked for clarification about whether the psychic was real or not because they had entertainment disclaimers.

We would ask “are they a real psychic or are using psychological trickery to make it seem so?” and none of the venues were able to tell us. We would then ask “if it turns out they’re using misleading tactics and aren’t really psychic can I get a refund?” Again, the venues were unable to provide any of us with consistent answers. Had I been a real customer I would have been very confused. Had I been an actual customer refused a refund I would have taken it to Trading Standards and I’m confident that it would be possible to get a refund as a result.

The only outcome of stopping psychics and mediums from performing will be to move what they do from the stage where we can all see them and into back rooms, secret shows, or back into the parlours that our psychic ancestors would hold seances and reading during the Victorian and Edwardian spiritualism trends. I think that’s a big risk that skeptics should consider very carefully. I don’t think it’s an outcome that anybody really wants.

 

A Psychic Died

fry

When Colin Fry died there was a huge rise in traffic to my blog because of a post I had written in the past criticising him for seeming to take advantage of the misfortune of a man who had fallen victim to a psychic mail scam. I got a number of messages telling me that what I had written was disrespectful as Fry had just died despite the fact that the piece is both informed and was written prior to his death or his cancer diagnosis. This led me to update the post to explain this and yet people continued to send their disapproval my way.

It’s sad that Colin Fry died aged 53 of terminal cancer. Cancer sucks, as does nicotine addiction and 53 is far too young to die but this doesn’t detract from the fact that Fry made dubious claims about having supernatural abilities and was once caught cheating at a seance – behaviour that justified skepticism of his claims. That stuff happened so why should we pretend it didn’t?

I wrote something similar when Fred Phelps popped his clogs in a post titled De mortuis nihil nisi bonumIf to respect the dead you have to ignore or censor whole parts of their existence then quite frankly you’re not being very respectful, are you? Fry, of course, was nothing like Phelps and I’m not suggesting he was… in fact Fry was gay and was critical of Sally Morgan’s husband when his homophobic behaviour was caught on camera.

‘I deplore all forms of prejudice, and of course I have personal reasons for particularly detesting any form of homophobia. Every one is welcome to attend my shows of any race, gender , religion or sexual orientation, even skeptics!’ – Colin Fry

I may be misguided but I always thought of Fry as the last of the old-school spiritualist mediums because he still worked with the Spiritualists National Union (SNU) and was even an SNU registered minister whereas the SNU tend to view other high-profile stage psychics in an unfavourable light. This, of course, doesn’t detract from the fact that there were claims made and behaviours observed that brought doubt to the validity of what Colin Fry was claiming.

To pretend that is not deserving of such criticism does the man a disservice and for fans to pretend that Colin Fry was better than or above criticisms levelled at him in life and death is purely a selfish move. He acknowledged and, to a point, welcomed the skepticism people held of his claims and I think he’d welcome it after his death too.

Psychic Sally Fans: Self Preservation At A Cost

sally morgan photo

I used to wholeheartedly believe that people could speak to the dead. These days I’m not so convinced, but even as a believer I wasn’t so blinded by my faith in psychics and mediums that I couldn’t spot when I was being purposefully deceived. In fact, it was Derek Acorah’s staged possession by a made up ghost called Kreed Kafer- an anagram of Derek Faker -on the TV show ‘Most Haunted’ that led me to the path of skepticism.

I worked with various psychics and mediums on paranormal investigations for years after the Kreed Kafer incident and although I often accepted their claims about hauntings at face value I was often doubtful of their abilities and they all did things that led me further down the path of skepticism until I eventually realised that enough was enough when it came to fooling myself. For example, on one investigation a psychic “healed” my “spiritually induced” headache and detected problems with my shoulders and teeth while doing so… but conveniently forgot to mention the potentially deadly and at-that-stage-undiscovered tumour growing in my skull that was causing the pain. Another psychic I worked with only ever communicated with ghosts from WW1 and WW2 or ghosts that were called Charlie or Eliza, and another once threw me across a room because I said a room didn’t feel sinister as she has insisted.

I believed in psychics and my belief in psychics and an afterlife was very important to me. Yet, despite the cognitive dissonance involved, I refused to allow myself to continue to be fooled by these people once they had showed that they probably didn’t have the abilities they claimed. I would not excuse their behaviour and I would not condone it for the sake of feeling comforted. This is why I find it very disheartening to watch fans of self-proclaimed psychic Sally Morgan continue to support her and her team after yet more controversy has come to light.

The recent release of footage that shows her husband and tour manager, John Morgan, threatening a man- Mark Tilbrook -leafleting outside of one of her shows, and making homophobic and racist remarks about high profile skeptics is just more damning material added to a list of occurrences that should make even the most faithful believer in psychics skeptical.

Watching the footage sickens me, yet fans of Sally Morgan have excused the behaviour by claiming John Morgan was protecting his wife and acting out of character. I personally find it difficult to accept these excuses considering that Mark Tilbrook is not the only person to have ever leafleted Sally Morgan shows, he didn’t impose a threat to Sally Morgan, he doesn’t focus purely on Sally Morgan, and it is alleged by other leaflet distributors that John Morgan and co. have behaved like this on numerous occasions before.

When people make excuses for this sort of behaviour what they’re actually doing is acting in their own best interests. They are convincing themselves that the person they have put their faith in- Sally Morgan -is not dodgy in any way and that the beliefs they have invested in are not tainted by any of this controversy. It is difficult to accept that a psychic you so strongly believe in has fooled you into thinking they are psychic and are a good, caring person… but at what point to do you accept that you’re wrong?

May 2007 – deletes claims re: working with the police  [Source]
Sep 2007 – claims re: working with Robert DeNiro and Bob Geldof are denied [Source]
Sep 2007
– falsely claims to have never met Brian Dowling prior to a “celebrity reading” [Source]
Sep 2011 – accused of cheating during a show at the Grand Canal Theatre, Dublin [Source]
Sep 2011 – denies using an earpiece in shows. Footage emerges that proves this is not entirely true.

Jan 2012 – takes action against the DailyMail for defamation [Source]
Feb 2012 – communicates with spirit that is a TV character [Source]
Mar 2012 – Fails to successfully cold-read Richard Bacon on BBC Radio 5 Live

Oct 2012 – Refuses to have abilities tested by Professor  by Chris French [Source]
Jun 2013 – Wins legal case but still refuses to provide evidence of her abilities [Source]
Mar 2014 – communicates with spirit of a woman who is actually still alive AND in the audience [Source]
Oct 2014 – Video of John Morgan intimidating critics leaked [Source]

If I was a Sally Morgan fan I would look at this list and ask myself at what point I would accept that perhaps not all is what it seems with this self-proclaimed psychic. Sure, she may get some “dazzle shots”-accurate hits that seem too good to be guesses -but when you put the good hits up against all of the fails it really doesn’t weigh up. This is especially true when you consider the fact that the above list contains only those fails that have been made public.

How many such fails have happened in her hundreds of shows that have never been made public? I’m willing to bet that it’s quite a few.

There is no scientific evidence to support the claim that Sally Morgan is able to communicate with spirits and she continues to refuse to have her abilities tested. To continue to cherry-pick only the positives and ignore the overwhelming amount of negatives that stack up against Sally Morgan, and to continue to insist that she is psychic is extremely dishonest of her fans even if they do sincerely believe that humans can communicate with the dead…

…but to excuse homophobic slurs and intimidating threats is a new low. I guess that to some people the idea that they might be wrong is too scary to admit, but you don’t have to believe that Sally Morgan is legit to still believe that there is an afterlife. To do so is self preservation at the cost of your intellectual honesty.

#notallpsychics

psychic

I recently spoke with the president of the Spiritualists’ National Union (SNU), David Bruton, and he was quick to point out that what people like Sally Morgan, Derek Acorah and co. claim to do is not actually psychic ability but, in fact, mediumship.

“I understand there is great interest from the general public but Spiritualism concentrates on mediumship and offering evidence of survival not psychic readings which are simply the reader feeding the sitter information gleaned from themselves.” He continued “within Spiritualist Churches you will see a service which includes a demonstration of mediumship which is dependent upon a link with the Spirit world, the majority of people that work in our Churches are properly trained to fully understand their gift of mediumship. Over the years the SNU has moved on many occasions to expose fraud within the movement, true mediumship needs no trickery… true mediumship does not require grand theatres, technology or slight of hand or mind techniques it is simply making a link between the two worlds and sharing the message in love.”

Following on from the controversy surrounding recently released footage that shows Sally Morgan’s husband and tour manager, John Morgan, being homophobic and threatening a skeptic outside a Psychic Sally show, lots of people have been tarring all psychics with the same brush. I’ve seen comments like ‘they’re all con artists‘, ‘they all prey on the vulnerable’ and similar.

I don’t believe this to be true and, in fact, I know that there are people who claim to be psychic who are not intentionally misleading people, who genuinely believe the have an ability and want to use that ability to help others. People who claim to be psychic and people who believe in psychic phenomena have been quick to criticise skeptics for the generalisation of all psychics as similar to Sally Morgan, one Twitter user that I follow wrote ‘While the actions of ‘Psychic’ Sally’s people is despicable, can’t help but note some serious generalising happening from top skeptics’ and it is a fair point.

Yet these despicable incidents are not just a symptom of famous psychics who feel the pressure to keep up the act. This is a problem that runs through the whole psychic industry, from the unknown psychic operating from offices at home to those who sell out theatre tours.

If it isn’t Sally Morgan communicating with the ghost of a fictional character, it’s Rosa Marks being imprisoned for fraud, it’s Nina Knowland offering to heal sick children with her hands, it’s Ian Lawman using dead kids to gain some publicity, it’s Sylvia Browne lying about missing children time and time and time again, it’s Goldy admitting to hot reading for a television show, it’s Vickie Monroe delivering messages from murder victims to their murderer, it’s Joe Power calling skeptics paedophiles, it’s Joe Power failing to realise that Karen Matthews (whom he posed with) had kidnapped her own daughter, it’s Adrian Pengelly claiming to cure cancer and being exposed on BBCs Watchdog, it’s Olivia Evans stealing $400,000 from clients, it’s Nancy Marks stealing $300,000 from customers, it’s Derek Acorah pretending to communicate with the fictional ghost Kreed Kafer who name is an anagram of Derek Faker, it’s Colin Fry being caught holding a “levitating trumpet”, it’s Michael Ireland being charged for sexually assaulting his customers, it’s Paul Eckersley doing the same, oh and Graham Dare too and it is the thousands of self-proclaimed psychics and mediums who demand that people take them at their word about their abilities and refuse to undergo testing in controlled conditions.

I think it is completely outrageous that people would criticise someone like Mark Tilbrook for trying to raise awareness when they do nothing themselves because “people have the right to believe what they want.” As true as that may be, people also have a right to not be intentionally misled and ripped off and if you do nothing to tackle a problem within the community or industry you are a part of – and you criticise others who do – then perhaps you are contributing to the problem and perhaps now is time to contribute to a solution instead…

cat putting bag on head gif

I Bought My Psychic Powers Online

Psychic Readings Sign

Magicians can spot tricks a mile off which means that for decades they have been the rationalists right hand man when it comes to exposing phoney psychics for the tricksters they are. 

Using simple-yet-effective tricks to make people think you have psychic abilities when you don’t without disclosing the fact that you are using these tricks and not a paranormal ability isn’t new. The most common trick used is a technique called cold reading where vague statements are made that seem personal to the sitter, convincing them that the message from the psychic is unique to them. In reality it would seem unique to a whole host of people. To see this in action you just need to look at the amount of hands that go up at a psychic stage show every time the psychic is looking for a new person in the audience to read.

At QEDcon in April, a science and skepticism conference held annually in Manchester, US based mentalist Mark Edward spoke out against psychic tricksters. For decades Edward had worked as a professional psychic but he revealed all the tricks used by modern mediums and psychics in his book ‘psychic blues’ in 2012. During his talk he told the audience that they should “get up on [their] feet and take out the garbage!” Garbage meaning fake psychics who prey on those who are vulnerable and desperate.

Yet, despite this, he still occasionally works as a medium or psychic without disclosing to his audience that he is using trickery to achieve his results, preferring to allow them to “make up their own minds”.

“There is wiggle room” he claimed in defence of this during the ‘Skepticism and Magic’ panel session at QEDcon while fellow panellists, Professor Richard Wiseman and Paul Zenon looked on unamused. If he used a disclaimer, he explained, the effect would be ruined, but the others didn’t agree. Edward met a similar reaction at another skeptic conference, The Amazing Meeting, held in Las Vegas in 2013 by the James Randi Educational Foundation.

So, why does Edward afford himself the privilege of using this so-called “wiggle room” to not reveal his trickery to his audience yet get angry when other people do the same? Is he alone in this approach? 

I wondered, does this so-called “wiggle room” actually exist at all? I wanted to find out if it was a common held view with magical communities and so I signed up to online magic websites and began asking other members how I could convince people that I was using paranormal abilities to read their future and communicate with the dead.

‘I am not a shut-eye’ I wrote on a forum, assuring the other members that I haven’t fooled myself into believing I am actually psychic (which is what a shut-eye does), ‘I want real work. How can I learn to do this convincingly?’

I expected to be called out as a fraud and as unethical but this never happened. Instead the other members of these magic communities sent me suggestions and tips despite the clear indication that my intentions were not completely honest.

When I used to think of magicians and psychics I would think of Harry Houdini, James Randi or Derren Brown cleverly revealing the tricks you should be wary of while well known psychics got angry in response. Now, following my brief introduction to magic communities I think of people like Paul Voodini instead. I was linked to Voodini’s website several times by magicians who assured me I could convince anyone of my non-existent abilities if I were to buy the pre-packaged tricks I found there.

One particular trick on Voodini’s website called Reader of Minds boasts ‘having worked for many years alongside the UK’s most popular “shut eye” mediums and clairvoyants, he has studied their performance techniques and is now able to present to you the subtle art of ungimmicked mind-reading’ all for the sum of just £18. Bargain.  

He isn’t the only one who sells tricks like this. Elsewhere I was offered routines that would teach me how to deliver convincing tarot card readings, zener card readings, gemstone readings, fortune telling, palmistry and more. Services that are regularly on offer at psychic fairs up and down the country every weekend.

These out-of-the-box tricks make fooling people an easy task for those with no imagination and creativity of their own and, although in a lot of cases they’re purchased by people who just want to be the next Derren Brown or Dynamo, there’s no knowing how many people who claim to have genuine paranormal abilities are actually customers on these sites. I don’t think you have to be psychic to predict that it’s probably quite a few…

It is difficult, then, to imagine how anyone can defend the idea that “wiggle room” should exist when it comes to disclosing or not disclosing the use of trickery and illusion to read minds and more. I wish I could say that Mark Edward and his fellow tricksters were just fooling themselves when they claim it exists for them, but sadly they’re probably fooling countless other people too.

Beware the Wiggle room…