The Misery Industry


On December 27th the ITV drama about Harry Price hits our television screens in the UK. I am quite excited about this because I’m a bit of a fan of Harry Price and although he wasn’t squeaky clean himself and was prone to exaggeration, it cannot be denied that he plays an important part of the history of paranormal research. You can’t talk about ghosts without Price coming up in the conversation.

Rafe Spall who plays Harry in the drama has caused some tension after speaking out about his skepticism. He called the psychic industry ‘the misery industry’ and said ‘… these mediums are making – as Harry Price said – a fat living preying on bereavement. It’s the misery industry – you’re making money out of people’s misery, which is very questionable’.

He went on to say ‘Even if you are a believer in the supernatural, or religion, I think if you are of rational mind, you would know that [mediumship is] nothing more than bollocks. It’s a trick.’

Rafe Spall, you’ve gained a huge fan in this fellow skeptic.

The admin of the Facebook page of the Society for Psychical Research wrote in response to Spall’s comments ‘because of course now he’s an expert’ and it’s a sentiment I have seen echoed elsewhere… but you don’t need to be an expert to see that there are huge issues with people who claim to be psychic or mediums. There are never a shortage of headlines about how people claiming to be psychics aren’t the lovely people they claimed to be and have abused the trust placed in them by their clients.

Not to mention the fact that many people who claim to be able to communicate with the dead demonstrate questionable behaviour. Sally Morgan, anyone?

In Episode 3 of The Spooktator Podcast which will be released on Thursday morning (on Soundcloud here and on iTunes here) we discuss a recent flurry of cases of alleged possession that ended up with vulnerable people being killed during so-called exorcisms, or treated in an unethical manner as a result of people with superstitious minds becoming involved in their situation rather than trained medical professionals.

Although these cases are the extreme end of the scale they are not rare. The story I chose to discuss in Episode 3 focusses on a family who live in Grimsby.

The Loche family claim they’ve been tormented by ghosts with a whole host of troubling activity allegedly happening at their home. When their story made the headlines in early November the family pleaded for help and Steve Kneeshaw got in touch with them claiming that he could help get rid of the ghosts. Kneeshaw calls himself a hypno-exorcist and on November 18th he performed what he calls a hypno-exorcism on the 16-year-old daughter of the family. Steve induced the child into a state of relaxation before he urged the spirit to communicate to him through her. He told reporters that he received strong signals from the exercise, but a clear message from any paranormal presence was not recorded.

Steve Kneeshaw shared his disappointment that a spirit didn’t communicate through the teenager after he put her into a so-called trance state and it’s deeply disturbing that it seems as though her welfare was not considered a priority above her potential as a communicative device. I find that extremely troubling and unlike Rafe Spall I have over ten years experience of paranormal research.

Psychics, mediums and ghost hunters who are led by their belief in ghosts routinely put their need to find evidence to show that they are right above the wellbeing of the people they come into contact with and it’s disgusting.

The illusion that exorcisms, spirit clearings work is a result of the placebo effect and the power of suggestion. The positive hits that psychics and mediums produce are often the result of cold reading and cognitive biases.

The Misery Industry is an issue we have to admit exists and although people have a right to believe what they want they also have a right to not be ripped off, abused or killed as a result of the actions of others who are making questionable claims and asking us to take their word on them. Anyone taking umbrage with Spall’s comments ought to ask why. It certainly isn’t because his observations are inaccurate.

The Police Should Use Psychics? Let’s All Freak Out!

calm down slide

The Telegraph have reported that ‘Psychic help finding missing people should not be ruled out, police officers told’

‘What in the Sam Hell is this bullshit from the UK College of Policing?’ asks Doubtful News, ‘Where do they get the foundation? Taxpayers may not be pleased.’

Firstly, shut up Doubtful News. Seriously.

This is not the College of Policing saying that psychics are real or that psychic insight is a valid form of investigation to be used in missing persons cases. They’re actually just holding a consultation about investigation practices in missing persons cases to make sure they are doing the right things with their resources. It runs until October. As a UK tax payer I am pleased that such consultations happen.

In the consultation documentation the College of Policing states ‘High-profile missing person investigations nearly always attract the interest of psychics and others, such as witches and clairvoyants, stating that they possess extrasensory perception. Any information received from psychics should be evaluated in the context of the case, and should never become a distraction to the overall investigation and search strategy unless it can be verified. These contacts usually come from well-intentioned people, but the motive of the individual should always be ascertained, especially where financial gain is included. The person’s methods should be asked for, including the circumstances in which they received the information and any accredited successes.

This is what some skeptics are getting their knickers in a twist about. The fact is though that self-proclaimed psychics have been approaching the police with tips about crimes for a very, very long time and the police, obviously, need to have a procedure in place to deal with this that doesn’t compromise the resources in the investigation but also doesn’t compromise the outcome investigation itself either positively or negatively. There have been several concerning incidents in the past where psychics have been listened to and the investigation has been derailed as a result. We’re quick to wag our fingers disapprovingly at the police for listening to psychics… but when they hold a consultation- the outcome of which will not be known until after October, by the way -about best practice in this sort of situation we wag our fingers in disapproval again.

How about, instead, taking part in the damn consultation? You can find their current information on the handling of psychics (and other practices) tips here and you can download the consultation form here to send back to them.

Be proactive and not reactive.

A Recent Investigation Into British Psychics Revealed Something Shocking


Volunteers from the Merseyside Skeptics Society (MSS) recently worked with the Good Thinking Society (GTS) with their investigation into psychics. The volunteers visited different “psychics” and filmed their readings and the results are, quite frankly, appalling.

The first investigation involved a GTS volunteer visiting a psychic in Blackpool and paying £30 for a 5 minute reading. The GTS outline the concerns with this first reading, point out that it ‘was inaccurate, vague and included 22 questions in under 5 minutes. The palmist showed no sign of the supernatural insight she claimed to be able to provide, and left us concerned that a vulnerable customer could be exploited.’

It seems this prompted further investigation and GTS teamed up with the MSS to go undercover with more psychics. Worryingly, one volunteer called Alice suffers from Hypermobility Syndrome (a chronic and highly-painful disability) and was given irresponsible information from the psychic.

The GTS say on their site ‘[Alice] responds to the palmist as she would have done prior to receiving her diagnosis. Everything Alice tells the palmist about her symptoms is true … [Alice] was told that her chronic, highly-painful disability was ‘nothing serious’ and that she would make a full recovery in a few months – and that she alone was responsible for how she felt. In fact, hypermobility is a genetic disorder which cannot be cured.’

I… just… what the…

Another volunteer posed as somebody with a gambling habit and the psychic encouraged them to continue their gambling. The GTS report ‘The palm reader directly encouraged a client with financial troubles to continue gambling, to expect a big win and to ‘do nothing different’.’

Then, in the final part of this undercover investigation three volunteers visited the same psychic for separate readings and the psychic practically gives them the same reading. When a fourth volunteer visits another psychic in the next booth (who happens to be the daughter of the first psychic) she too delivers an spookily similar reading.

What has been recorded in these videos is cause for alarm. The psychic industry attracts people out to make a quick buck from the general public who don’t seem to care about the welfare of the people they come into contact with. This has the potential for disastrous results.

Imagine for a moment that Alice didn’t know her condition and didn’t consult a GP as a result of this reading? Imagine if the volunteer pretending to have a gambling habit didn’t seek help and carried on, potentially getting themselves into further trouble which could result in homelessness or worse?

When I still believed in psychics I visited a stage show during which one of the guys on stage told a mother with a grown child who had some sort of developmental disability that her dead husband was telling her that her concerns about the medication for their son were correct and she should stop using those medications.

When I confronted the psychic about this online after the show he denied he’d said this and I wish I had recorded the show. With all of this in mind here are some steps that you can take to minimise the risk of being ripped off by a charlatan:

1 – Film your reading (and walk away if you’re told not to)
2 – Check reviews online before
3 – Ask for a receipt (and don’t pay and walk away if denied)
4 – Don’t answer questions with anything more than a “yes” or “no”
5 – Count the misses as well as the hits
6 – Count the number of questions asked and how many names you are given.

Yet even if you follow these tips the chances that you’re going to be ripped off is still pretty high. Last year I visited a local psychic fair with my mum out of curiosity and I was amazed at how flattering the psychics were during their readings. Nobody is going to disagree with an encouraging statement about themselves, are they?

Is it worth the risk? I don’t think so…

People can believe in what they wish and they can visit a psychic if that’s what they want to do, but investigations of this nature are important and should not be seen as non-believers/skeptics attacking believers. In my opinion, this is people working to help other people – in this case those who seek guidance from psychics.

I can only take my hat off to the MSS and GTS for this work. I hope it will open a few eyes.

Taking out the garbage: on approaching Skeptical Activism

Bertrand Russell - Love is Wise quote

For me, skeptical activism is all about information and how it is communicated with the world. I’m a grassroots skeptic activist, so good activism is all about how rational information is shared – but how successful your skeptical activism is depends upon how you measure success.

Just getting someone to consider my point of view for a moment is a success in my mind (even if they’re not totally convinced by what I’ve said.) Some would say this is setting the bar low and that success for skeptical activism comes in the form of people turning their back on nonsense beliefs, but as a former believer in a few types of nonsense, I consider that to be a very big ask. The transition from believer to non-believer is a personal decision that takes a lot of consideration, especially if it is a long standing belief that has a lot invested in it.

Sometimes peoples whole lives are built upon the foundation of belief. 

At QEDcon this weekend Michael Marshall, Samantha Stein, Eran Segev and Susan Gerbic sat on a panel called Engaging Believers: Loud and Proud or Softly, Softly? exploring ways in which to approach activism while engaging with those who believe in the topic you’re opposing.

I guess that my personal form of skeptic activism would be considered ‘softly softly’. I use many methods to tackle nonsense claims; making complaints to the right authorities (Trading Standards, Advertising Standards etc.), speaking at events tailored towards believers, creating links with regional journalists and getting rational information included in paranormal-related news stories (or stopping hoaxes going to press in the first place), and making as much rational information available to the general public as I can.

Yet, I don’t think my skeptic activism isn’t ‘loud and proud’ either. I’ve participated in public stunts and demonstrations that call for an evidence based approach to health care etc. in compliment to the previously mentioned admin-type tasks. I do not believe that activism is either ‘softly, softly’ or ‘loud and proud’ and I think a mix of both approaches works if you judge it correctly. 

…unless, of course, by ‘loud and proud’ what we really mean is ‘aggressive’.

‘Guerilla Skepticism’ is the name that Susan Gerbic and Mark Edward (both speakers at QEDcon this year) would give to their own approach to skeptic activism, and after listening to them talk this weekend, it isn’t an approach that I find at all appealing. I also don’t think it is as productive as people would have us believe.

Although the tackling of pseudo-science on Wikipedia is admirable (Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia being one project of many headed up by Gerbic), the fashion in which it is done leaves many questions unanswered… as did Gerbic during her QEDcon talk about that very subject. For example, an audience member who is studying the way information is shared on Wikipedia questioned why the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia group have a private (described as “secret”) forum away from Wikipedia if what they do isn’t agenda driven. This went unanswered with just “my editors only put out good stuff” given in response. If skeptics can’t get a straight answer is it any wonder that believers are wary of such a campaign?

During the Engaging Believers panel it was mentioned by Gerbic how there wasn’t much that could be done to change the minds of believers attending psychic shows and so it was about just shouting down the psychic instead and “letting them know there is a skeptic group in town and they’re [the psychic] not welcome there.” 

I dislike fake psychics and grief leeches as much as the next person (and trust me, it isn’t just skeptics who are opposed to psychic trickery), but I don’t want to censor them or chase them out of town. I want to help people spot psychic trickery and make the empowered decision to not attend a psychic show for themselves.

I think holding up banners (like the one pictured below) stating ‘Syliva Browne: convicted felon’ outside of Browne’s shows was done in poor taste considering her felony wasn’t connected to her psychic claims. We are routinely told that we can still trust Brian Dunning despite his guilty plea for wire fraud, but skeptics tell the general public they couldn’t trust Browne because of her felony for investment fraud? Hm.

Photo of the Felon banner

photo: MikkelHH from Stuffpoint

This feels too personal and as though there is a score to be settled, and it’s an approach I just cannot fathom, especially considering the fact that Mark Edward is a mentalist who performs as a working psychic without disclosing to his audience before or after his show what he is doing. He also actively opposes working psychics as a skeptic – the majority of which, he believes, are purposefully deceiving their audiences. There is so much conflict in this approach that I’m worried my nose is going to bleed if I think about it too hard.

“Get up on your feet and take out the garbage” Edward told the audience during his talk on Sunday. We are, Mark, we just tend not to call people garbage no matter how badly they may have behaved.

When I see skeptics behaving like this it disappoints me, and it makes me think of Simon Singh who, while sitting in an audience full of Sally Morgan fans, calmly explained to Sally face to face why she should undertake tests of her alleged abilities. In the end some people in that audience agreed with him. That is the kind of skepticism I can get behind any day of the week.

Edward claimed during the Skepticism and Magic panel chaired by Deborah Hyde and featuring Professor Richard Wiseman and Paul Zenon as well, that there is “wiggle room” when it comes to disclaimers about being a performer and not a “real” psychic and that revealing the trick ruins the illusion – a point that Professor Wiseman strongly disagreed with. Things actually got a bit heated during the panel, as they did at The Amazing Meeting! last year where Edward sat on a panel with Jamy Ian Swiss who didn’t think Edward was working the psychic phone lines to promote skepticism but, in fact, to make a living. As such, he claimed that Edward can’t be considered part of a skeptic movement. You can read more detail of that exchange here.

qed tweets

I also worry that an aggressive approach to skeptic activism can have the undesired effect of turning people further towards the psychic they’ve paid to see. When presented with two opposing views, those attending a psychic show are going to focus on the option that brings them the most comfort, and skeptics behaving badly probably isn’t it.

I appreciate that the organisers of QEDcon gave a platform to those who undertake different approaches to skeptical activism as these are important discussions to have, but you only had to look at the conference Twitter hashtag at certain times to see how uncomfortable such a confrontational approach made the majority of skeptics in attendance feel.

I understand what people feel when they attend a psychic show because I used to do the very same thing. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the front row at a psychic show hoping that a relative would come through because my belief in ghosts was wavering a little bit and I really didn’t want to believe that there was no afterlife. I can remember sitting there, desperate, wide-eyed and full of hope. I can remember the disappointment when nothing came through.

It makes me angry that I was decieved and it makes me angry that I was foolish, but it isn’t anger that I allow to lead my activism as that would be a mistake. Instead I allow my experience of losing a belief in psychics and more to help me find some commonality with those who visit psychic shows or visit a chiropractor or a herbalist. I try my best not to judge them for what they believe and I try and share the information that I think they should know, and if they listen I feel I’ve succeeded and if they don’t listen I hope they remember just in case they change their mind. 

My experiences as a believer are why I co-host Be Reasonable and interview people with strange or unconventional beliefs, because I know that behind every belief is a complex story, and often, before walking away from a belief a person has to work through these stories and make sense of them and that is difficult.

Ultimately, to conclude, it is difficult to engage with people who visit psychic shows and believe in psychic powers. It isn’t impossible though, and to ignore those attending such shows because they seem to be lost causes and instead “rattling the cage” of the psychic is easy.

Yet, although engaging with believers is not easy… I know which I prefer to attempt.

“Love is wise. Hatred is foolish” – Nate Phelps, QEDcon 2014
(based on a quote from Bertrand Russell)

Criticising psychics isn’t like racism…


I can’t believe I am writing this. I just can’t.

I’ve just read a user submitted piece by ‘Tap’ over at the Daily Grail titled ‘Bigotry towards psychics: why it is no different to racism and homophobia‘. The opinion piece from September 2013 has been doing the rounds lately (which is how I stumbled upon it.) It was inspired by a 2006 article on The Guardian site by Charlie Brooker titled When it comes to psychics, my stance is hardcore: they must die alone in windowless cells’

In it Brooker strongly criticises OFCOM and their clearing Channel 5’s ‘The Baby Mind Reader’ starring Derek Ogilvie of any wrong doing with its tasteless show and exploitation of those involved. Brooker states that he thinks psychics belong in prison. His words are harsh, but this is Charlie Brooker and that is his style – over exaggerated anger while, underneath the pantomime angry man act, there are decent points being made. 

By writing this Charlie Brooker is apparently not only ‘displaying hate and bigotry against psychics and mediums, he’s also demonstrating how heartless he is to people he considers to be mentally unwell. Not only is he a bigot, but he has no compassion to boot.’

nope2Brooker wrote:

I’ve never fully understood the public’s docile acceptance of psychics, or why, when it comes to their supposed abilities, the burden of proof is assumed to lie with the sceptic, as opposed to the sort of shrieking idiot who claims to be able to contact the spirit world (or in Derek Ogilvie’s case, communicate telepathically with kids too young to talk).

I’m quite hardcore on this. I think every psychic and medium in this country belongs in prison. Even the ones demented enough to believe in what they’re doing. In fact, especially them. Give them windowless cells and make them crap in buckets. They can spend the rest of their days sewing mailbags in the dark.

The audiences that psychics prey on are equally infuriating, albeit less deserving of contempt. They’re just disappointing, like a friend who’s let you down. Often, they’re simply grieving and desperate.

Over at the Daily Grail, Tap finds this offensive and believes that Charlie Brooker’s opinions (which have been taken at face value) are kin to homophobia or racism. Tap states ‘Brooker is calling for the oppression and marginalisation of a group of people, a minority group who are different, a group that is outside what is considered “normal” or “mainstream”. Why? Because he *believes* they are all either fraudulent or mentally ill.’


Likening the Brooker commentary to racism or homophobia is naive and it’s insulting to those who have to deal with actual bigotry on a regular or semi-regular basis. People of colour and non-heterosexual people do not have the burden of proof at their feet because they are not making claims that require evidence to back them up. They do, however, deal with ingrained prejudice in many areas of society despite this. 

People who demand evidence that gay people or black people are “normal” are bigots. People who demand evidence that psychics are psychics are not. Here’s why:

People who claim to have psychic or mediumistic abilities do have the burden of proof and most psychics, such as Sally Morgan, believe that they do not have to prove anything. This is why people are untrustworthy of those who claim to be psychic, and it’s why people like Charlie Brooker get angry when people who don’t provide the evidence to back up their claims are still able to harm those who are vulnerable without being held responsible.

By the way, Derek Ogilvie has actually failed controlled tests of his abilities by Prof. Chris French, so I think the anger is justified. It’s also worth pointing out that many people claiming to be psychics HAVE gone to jail because of their fraud – the most recent example being fraudulent psychic Rosa Marks. 

When Charlie Brooker says that all psychics belong in prison I think it’s safe to say he was over-exaggerating, but all things considered, he wasn’t that far off the mark…