Mediums aren’t like plumbers

Recently on the Righteous Indignation Podcast we released an interview we conducted with Steven Upton who is a medium, as well as a Minister for the Spiritualist’s National Union and the SNU’s communications director. It was released in two parts and you can find part one here and part two here.

One question that was asked during the interview was whether it was possible to safeguard or regulate who is able to practice as a medium. Steven answered that is was very much a case of “buyer beware” when it came to employing the services of self-proclaimed mediums, but that bodies such as the SNU self-regulated the field as much as they were able to. He pointed out that the SNU has been training mediums for over 100 years, issuing certificates and diplomas to mediums since around 1916 . He said there are roughly 100 trained or SNU accredited mediums who often have letters after their name, such as CSNU or DSNU. If a member of the public is choosing a medium to have a reading from and they choose a medium who has a diploma or certificate from the SNU and they’re not happy with the reading or they think they’ve been misled, they can issue a complaint to the SNU. All mediums accredited by the SNU have to follow a code of practice and if a complaint is made about an accredited medium, they’d be investigated – awards can be removed, the medium may be unregistered or the SNU might reassess them if a complaint held up.

Steven likened this to buying a kettle with a kite mark, or choosing a plumber who was registered with a regulatory body – like CORGI or similar. This is a point that I very much disagree with and although I voiced this disagreement in the interview it wasn’t really the place to elaborate as much as I would have liked.

I think that the attempt to regulate a field such as mediumship and to implement a code of conduct shows that people involved in said field recognise that there is a chance for abuse and they’re trying to control it, which is admirable. However, I do not believe that self-regulation can work for claims that have not been proven to exist under testing in scientific conditions. That is essentially what this boils down to – people regulating people who claim to have unproven abilities.

When you buy a service from a plumber you are paying them to do plumbing, so we asked Steven to define exactly what service it is a customer would be buying from a medium. His response was that the service a medium gives is providing the customer with proof of existence after life/death. I vocally doubted that many mediums would say this was the service they offered, or that people who go to mediums for readings would know that was what they were paying for.

I have seen mediums – who indeed call themselves mediums – claiming to see the future, or reading cards or stones or crystals. In fact, just this week I spoke to a medium who had a very different definition for what a mediums role is (which you can hear on a future episode of the Righteous Indignation podcast.) I do not believe that paying a medium for a service (i.e. to provide evidence of existence) is akin to paying a plumber for plumbing services simply because there is no clear-cut definition for what a medium is or does. If you asked a selection of people who might visit a medium for a reading or session what service they were paying the medium for , I am sure that there would be many different answers to your question which isn’t comparable with a service such as plumbing or carpentry. With this in mind, I think it’s pretty unlikely that a paying customer would always be aware that they were being misled or potentially tricked out of their money, thus they wouldn’t know they had a valid complaint.

This is why I do not believe that self-regulation is effective for practices such as mediumship.

Steven was quick to point out that the same could be said for plumbing – if a plumber hasn’t repaired a boiler correctly you might not be aware of the fault until it’s too late, and such a fault could kill you. However, such a fault is defined and can be proven by other experts or people. When it comes to mediumship the only experts we have are those who themselves claim to be mediums or believe in mediumship (an ability that is unproven, remember), which I don’t see as impartial regulation whatsoever.

Another point that Steven raised in the interview was that the term ‘psychic medium’ didn’t make sense as somebody was either psychic or a medium. Later, when I pointed out that there were mediums who made all sorts of claims, not just that they could provide evidence of existence, Steven pointed out that predicting the future, the reading of palms and similar was actually illegal under the Vagrancy Act of 1824. This was true until 1989 when the law was repealed [read F2 of the act] under the ‘Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1989 (c. 43)‘. Until then it had stated that the act included:

“every person pretending or professing to tell fortunes, or using any subtle craft, means, or device, by palmistry or otherwise, to deceive and impose on any of his Majesty’s subjects”

I was rather surprised that somebody involved in a regulatory body dealing with similar trades would so confidently refer to out of date legislation that, quite frankly, deals with little more than superstitious nonsense.

Many will claim I’m being closed-minded, but I’m afraid I will only take self-regulation of mediumship as seriously as I take mediumship, which is not very seriously at all. By all means prove me wrong, and bring evidence to the table that proves such abilities exist, but until then trying to regulate people who claim to have these abilities is in my mind similar to pissing in the wind. Just a messy battle with hardly any good progress being made.

About Hayley Stevens 434 Articles
Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

11 Comments on Mediums aren’t like plumbers

  1. What I was thinking while listening to the episode is that plumbers produce clear, defined results. Your leak is fixed, your toilet is hooked up to the mains water supply. You can see it because your toilet works. With a medium, the result is ‘your mother still loves you’. It’s not something that can be seen and checked.

  2. I had a phone call from a local clairvoyant a few months ago. It was a recorded message inviting me to contact him if I needed his help. My immediate response was ….. “If he was any good at his trade, then he would know I wasn’t interested”. As for mediums; if there was just one ‘real’ one then they would be able to prove their abilities time and time again by giving provable information to complete strangers. They would then be ‘testable’ and I’m sure would become world famous. Any mediums out there who would like to take a blind test? Thought not ….. I must be clairvoyant!

  3. I thought you guys handled yourselves really well on this one. It was hard trying to call him on the flawed analogy when he kept barrelling on so persistently.

    But I think arthwollipot’s summed up the problem he never quite seemed to get. If a plumber does a bad job, a consensus of other experts in the field might agree on the problem before a layperson would notice anything wrong – but even without consulting an expert, at some point you’re going to notice your feet are getting wet as you walk across your kitchen. And you’ll be able to identify this as a plumbing problem specifically.

    In mediumship, there’s no guarantee of any obvious giveaway sign like this. He admitted that, in the case of the guy claiming to be in contact with Trystan’s still-alive grandmother (was it Trystan who brought that up? I hope I’m remembering that right), it was clear that the medium was just guessing. But what if Trystan’s grandmother had in fact passed away?

    Nothing would have stopped the medium from making exactly the same false guess – only this time there’d be no way to identify it as such. The fact that there isn’t always obvious proof that a medium’s just making stuff up shouldn’t be enough to give them credibility.

    I also think Mr Upton was a little disingenuous in dismissing so many other things as being “not what mediums do”, when discussing fortune-telling and such. It’s entirely fair for his union to only concern themselves with certain issues, but terms like “medium”, “psychic”, and “fortune-teller” can be largely interchangeable in a lot of people’s minds. I think the responsibility is somewhat on him to be more clear in what he means when talking about what “mediums” do and don’t do, if he’s using the word differently than most people do.

  4. Upton resorted to the No True Scotsman fallacy so many times that I began to wonder if there existed even a single medium who conducted his/her work within the narrow definitions he prescribed.

  5. I would have thought that all you a priori sceptics could read:

    Medium, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary wrt this article::

    “5 (plural mediums)a person claiming to be in contact with the spirits of the dead and to communicate between the dead and the living.”

    http://oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_gb0508890#m_en_gb0508890

    and Psychic from the OED:

    “1 relating to or denoting faculties or phenomena that are apparently inexplicable by natural laws, especially involving telepathy or clairvoyance:psychic powers”

    http://oxforddictionaries.com/view/entry/m_en_gb0670490#m_en_gb0670490

    Have you people ever heard of research?

    If you guys can’t get the terminology right, how the heck can you comment about a subject you know NOTHING about? You prove your ignorance of the subject matter….. I have no idea whether or not mediums can receive messages from the dead but if they do and can, science will only find out by engaging them in research, which with the polarization of viewpoints means that isn’t going to happen.

    WRT the plumber discussion, we can’t always see what a plumber has done with a job, there are examples of fraudulent practices, even with registered plumbers!!! A classic is using second hand parts and charging the price of a new component…..and BTW CORGI is no more, the gas safety registration body is now called Gas Safe.

    I think too much time was wasted on the analogy of the plumber in the interview, it stalled things a little, and the interview just drifted into the usual areas of the subject….with accompanied sighs and groans!!!

    • I wondered when the first comment of this nature would be made. I think you’ll find that you have made exactly the same points as me. I know what the definition of mediumship is – but as I wrote in the blog post above, numerous mediums make various claims about what their ability allows them to do. It isn’t as clear cut as the dictionary definition makes out. If you think it is, you’re ignorant.

      Regarding the fraudulent plumbers – well yes, registered plumbers can cheat people out of their money, but a customer is more likely to know about it.

      In future, READ the blog post before leaving a comment in which you patronise me for not knowing something I know.

    • You did very well, the mster, to distinguish ‘medium’ and ‘psychic’. People who do not understand the difference (there are many!) rabbit on about the things mediums do that exceed the scope of the dictionary definitions. The facts are simple, though: When a person contacts the discarnate, that person is being a medium. Nothing else is a mediumistic activity. This is not to say that a medium cannot also be psychic. But being psychic, a person is not per se mediumistic.

  6. the mster:

    It is clear from browsing the list of SNU-accredited mediums that they offer a variety of different services which, while falling under the very general definition of mediumship you gave, have markedly different degrees of testability. Some offer “spiritual assessments” while others offer Upton’s proof of existence.

    How on earth one is supposed to verify the accuracy of a “spiritual assessment” is anyone’s guess.

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