OK, a very quick post. I don’t know anything about stage psychic Sally Morgan, apart from having once seen her name on a poster. I looked her up on Wikipedia, and there was not much to say: she has received criticism for having lied about not previously knowing a Big Brother star she did a reading for, but replied she did it because “the director told her to”. Anyone who has ever worked in TV knows how easy it is to be inadvertently misrepresented or be set up, and how much the pressure is to comply — and how selective editing can make you look daft or dishonest. While I am as everyone probably knows by now no fan of mediumship, and automatically assume that celebrity psychics (with one strong possibility of an exception) are probably frauds or self deluding, well it’s hard to feel she was really deliberately deceiving there. Of course the SPR would probably say “caught cheating”, and break off any further investigation of her, as that was the historic rule, but I don’t think Sally Morgan is the type to step forward for controlled tests somehow.
Anyway Sally makes dodgy psychic TV shows that are the kind of thing I despise, along with the whole celebrity medium thing. “The problem with TV mediums if they are neither rare nor well done” — and they should be burned at the steak… 🙂
I woke up this morning to find Richard Wiseman tweeting about her being caught out; given it’s Richard, I have to obviously disagree. I am hampered by my almost total lack of knowledge of the facts of the case, but let’s face it that won’t stop anyone else having an opinion, including big name defenders of mediumship and big name sceptics. So in my obscurity I feel perfectly justified in speculating without all the facts, and Sherlock can slink off to Baker Street today and enjoy his 7% solution!
Yet, I have to question everything, including this…
How Sally Met Infamy
OK, briefly: she is doing a stage psychic show in a packed theatre, giving readings to the crowd. Everyone enjoys the first half. Then in the second half, a man’s voice is heard coming from the back of the room, through a window, and what the voice says, Sally says! This came to attention when RTE Liveline an Irish chat show ran a piece and several callers who heard the voices rang in. So let’s start there…
The whole thing came to light on Joe Duffy’s excellent show on RTE. Of the callers who rang in, two heard the mysterious voice coming from the projection room. They appear totally convinced of what they heard, and while they could be lying, why would they bother? No, I think the testimony may well be true. But as a sceptic I will question even that. Still it’s bloody convincing – here is the RTE Liveline show link…
The accounts are it seems pretty clear. Still ,let’s see what the Irish Independent has to say on the story! Their piece is pretty good, and well worth reading.
But the plot thickens, for an explanation is herein offered for what supposedly happened. The voices were real, but of theatre techs talking?
Stephen Faloon, the theatre’s general manager, last night denied anything underhand was going on and said the voice heard by the audience belonged to two ‘follow-spot operators’ working for the theatre, and not Ms Morgan.
“These two guys, Stuart McKeown and Mick Skelly, are professional light technicians who were working for us, and unfortunately because a window had been left open, were heard talking.
“But as soon an usherette heard them talking, and informed her supervisor, the window closed and the talking stopped.
“It was a slight distraction but that was the chain of events on Sunday night.”
The theatre stressed it would “never be a part of any scam”, or attempt to “mislead” its audience.
So says the Irish Independent. It seems entirely reasonable, the only thing I am surprised by is the naming of the two lighting techs – and I wonder if they will give statements at some point. Normally the theatre would juts say “staff members” in my experience, but the techs have been identified, the whole thing seems to be explained. Well maybe?
Yet Sue and Dorrie are absolutely clear this is not what they heard – they heard a voice saying things before they were said on stage, and many others heard it too. Sue even suggests the modus operandi- plants in the foyer relating what was heard there as psychic information to sally over a radio link.
Well if so, it does mean that all the people over the years who have accused Sally of Cold-Reading were wrong — she is actually Hot-Reading, using fraudulently obtained information. My first thought was that the Theatre managers account was entirely plausible – because as a sceptic I know how often human testimony can be mistaken, and the voice was a soft one we are told by Dorrie. Did they really hear two techs having a discussion, with a window simply left open cos it was so hot, and the annoyed usherette closed it gently for that reason? As the audience became concerned , if only a few words matched what was said on stage, then they could misheard and Sally be convinced of cheating — but is this what happened?
The issue for me as a sceptic is that I must be as critical of witness testimony that appears to debunk the paranormal claims as that which supports it. All too often sceptics fail this first test of objectivity. The witnesses COULD be wrong. Certainly they seem to have all discussed it and developed a pretty good theory as to the methodology: though perhaps not a method well known to the general public for psychic style scams, what they outline is a variant of one of the most famous exposes of all, that of Peter Popoff by James Randi. Watch this…
The method is known, has been used, and works pretty well, as we can see. It is also after “cold reading” the most popular suggested method for how psychic stage scams work. I still have my doubts though, for exactly this reason. It is so well known, and so easy to detect, that you really would have to be pretty crap to employ it. It relies on theatres and some of their staff being potentially aware and complicit in the set up, and those people never coming forward and denouncing the whole thing as a fraud. In this internet age where pretty much anyone could post anonymously, and upload video clips and recordings of the fraud as it happened, I’m surprised it hasn’t if this method is being employed extensively as often suggested.
My Tentative Hypothesis…
I am on record as saying that one does not even have to assume fraud to explain naturally enough celebrity psychic acts, though I’m sure fraud features in many. I believe psychics learn a language, a way of talking and expressing ideas, quite naturally, and that language actually includes many of the “cold reading” methods. I think it was Tanya Lurhmann’s superb Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (1989) that first alerted me to this possibility. Her PhD thesis published by Harvard the book gives an account of how she carried out research in to British witches, and learned how they learned to be witches by developing interpretative frameworks and language codes that build up and support their religious beliefs. I had been observing how the Christian Union at my university had a set of linguistic tools and expressions that performed theological and analytical work for them automatically, and had wondered if they were expressions of heuristic short-cuts; I later observed how sceptic groups also build their own linguistic communities,and protect their beliefs by similar devices. I think every sub-culture does it – we all do it. I can talk sceptic, talk Christian Union, talk parapsychologist, and talk roleplaying games geek. I probably can not talk medium very well though…
Years later I read Prof Robin Woofitt’s work on Conversation Analysis of Paranormal types, especially two books,The Language of Mediums and Psychics; the Social Organization of Everyday Miracles (2006) and Telling Tales of the Unexpected: The Organization of Factual Discourse (1992) and a couple of shorter but brilliant articles by him. Woofitt is not investigating of the paranormal claims are actually true, but how the organization of ordinary language conversation works, and in doing so I believe he shows ways in which even people who are not in nay sense remotely psychic could certainly come to believe they are, and learn linguistic methods (some similar to cold reading) that would certainly convince them and others of that. I’m not saying all psychics are fakes or deluded at all: but I certainly believe a lot are, and Woofitt has provided invaluable guidance for those interested in this area.
So even celebrity psychics could genuinely believe in their gifts. If so, then how do they manage to convince an audience, with rather wooly statements?
I have long offered my theory on this, and curiously enough it takes us back to something I mentioned Sally Morgan saying at the beginning of this piece. Remember she said she went along with her Director telling her to lie about not knowing the reality TV client? She complied, and tried to please.
Now imagine you are in a stage show, and the camera puts your face up on the screen. You have been singled out by the medium, and agreed you may know “Godfrey” who died of eating too many pickled onions. (Actually that would convince me!) Once you have agreed you may be the person the spirit is talking to, it’s really just you and the psychic – her on stage, your ugly mug plastered all over the screen. She makes a whole series of announcements, and “facts” about your deceased love one, and you nod, say “er not quite” etc – but even if they say something totally wrong, would you call them on it? And if you do, they will say either “go home and ask about it” – suggesting further research may show they were right about the fact – or “oh, I think this is another spirit coming through” – shifting to a new client, or ” I don’t think this message is for you after all, anyone else?” Watch some stage psychics in action: they have learned, probably unconsciously, how to do this. These are all strategies for avoiding the uncomfortable fact they are wrong — and yet there is more.
The audience member who is being spoken to and whose face is on the screen probably wants to believe, and has a vast emotional investment in receiving a genuine message from the deceased. There are enough people in most theatre audiences that almost all the time someone can identify with a “Dave” with a “bad back” or similar, but from here on in what is happening is a process of negotiation between the medium and you as they offer facts and you confirm or reject them. Not only have you an emotional investment, your face is on the screen – you are under immense pressure to comply, to please the believing audience. So you will probably “accept statements” even if they are questionably true, or perhaps even if you think they are false.
If my hypothesis is correct, when you go outside after the performance, you may start to question some of the statements you accepted in the theatre. I am surprised that no one has in the seven years since I first proposed this idea publicly as far as I know actually tested this by conducting research: maybe they have and I have not seen it.
Yet in this hypothesis, there is no need for fraud, sophisticated or simple. The whole transaction is a negotiated one; the medium still believes they are psychic, the client accepts some but not all of what they were told, and tends to remember the hits not the misses as much research has shown. Simple cold reading or the Law of Large Numbers may not be enough to explain the celebrity psychics, and Roy and Robinson have certainly thrown great doubt on it, despite my confusion over their third paper, but there are certainly good academic papers supporting paranormal cognition out there. Here I don’t see any need for fraud.
So What Happened?
I don’t know what happened with Sally Morgan on Monday night, but honestly, I think we need to be fair, critically minded, and accept that it all may be more complex than a Twitter message can convey . Perhaps she just researched local newspapers,as one might think from the final section of the RTE show, where it was noted most of the cases were of this type of “big story”; perhaps she is genuinely psychic, perhaps she is deluded, and perhaps she is dumb enough to use the Popoff technique, in which case she will be caught pretty soon.
I for one am not quick to judge, and will wait and see. I do feel a bit sorry for everyone involved – the poor lighting techs, the ladies who are rightfully outraged after what they heard through the window, and even I guess Sally Morgan. I doubt it will effect her popularity though, as these scandals rarely seem to have much effect in the face of people’s will to believe…