"And sometimes he's so nameless"

When Psychics Fail — Beyond Sally Morgan

Posted in atheism, Debunking myths, Paranormal, Religion, Social commentary desecrated by Chris Jensen Romer on September 20, 2011

OK, last week I wrote a short piece on Sally Morgan, in which I critiqued the evidence that she was using a well known fraud trick, that is having accomplices gather information in the crowd (or prepare information from public sources like newspapers), and then being fed it by hidden assistants using a radio connection. (I almost wrote “wireless” there for “radio”; astonishing how the meaning of that word, so common in my youth, has changed forty years on!). I doubted this partly on the fallibility of witness testimony, partly because the Theatre manager had came forward with a fairly convincing “alibi” involving two theatre techs being overheard being the cause of the whole matter. I lay out all the facts as I had them in my previous piece, which may be worth reading as it links to the RTE broadcast and the Irish Independent article, if you have not been following the case.

Well Sally Morgan has now issued a statement, categorically denying fraud — you can read it here.

Sally Morgan

Sally Morgan

It does not actually say anything new; and certainly does not come any closer to proving she possesses a genuine “paranormal gift”. I guess the only way she could convince us all of that would be to undergo some kind of scientific test – after all plenty of protocols for testing psychics and mediums exist, and if I ever have time I will write on them here.

Still, today one person who has been involved in testing psychic claimants in the past, the excellent sceptic Professor Chris French wrote a short piece on The Guardian site. I note with approval that like my earlier piece on Sally he mentions perfectly natural ways in which people might convince themselves they are psychic, though he does not go in to as much detail as I did in mine. It’s a good piece, but part of it caught my attention…

This episode is reminiscent of the exposure of faith healer Peter Popoff by James Randi in 1986. Popoff would wow his audiences by giving specific and accurate details of their medical problems before claiming to cure them with his divine powers. This information was, according to Popoff, provided to him directly by God. It was certainly an effective technique, as at this time Popoff was raking in around $4m per month (tax-free) from his poor, sick and uneducated followers.

Randi, with the assistance of investigator Alexander Jason, convincingly demonstrated that Popoff was actually receiving the “divine” information from his wife via a hearing aid. Following his exposure on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Popoff declared bankruptcy in 1987.

In a more rational world, that would have been the end of Popoff’s career as a faith healer. Sadly, we do not live in a rational world. Popoff is back, earning more than ever by fleecing his flock using exactly the same techniques that Randi exposed, plus a few new ones, such as the sale of “Miracle Spring Water”. According to ABC News, Popoff’s ministry received more than $9.6m in 2003 and more than $23m in 2005. In that year, Popoff paid himself and his wife a combined total of almost a million dollars (not to mention two of his children receiving more than $180,000 each).

Since the heyday of mediumship during the Victorian era, exposure as frauds has typically done little to diminish the popularity of alleged psychics in the eyes of their followers.

There is of course a caveat offered at the end of Prof. French’s piece –

Phone-in caller Sue, who believed that Morgan had psychic powers before her experience at the theatre, described herself as being “totally disappointed” and insisted that she would not be attending such shows again. Maybe some of her friends and others sitting near her that evening will follow suit. Sadly, however, history suggests that most of Sally’s followers will continue to adore her and pay the high prices demanded to see her in action.

Prof. Chris French

Prof. Chris French

Watching ‘Nationwide’

I immediately began to question this. Does exposure as a fake always result in people continuing to believe, regardless of the evidence?

My first thought was of the cultural studies writer  Stuart Hall and David Morley, who if I recall correctly argued that when provided with something like a television programme (the original research was the study Watching Nationwide, on the show which brought us skateboarding ducks…)

– people do not simply respond  by accepting the “story” as given. Some will buy in to the “dominant” reading, and enjoy or accept it as given: some will “negotiate” what it means, framing what is presented in terms of their own lives and own experience, and some will create “oppositional” readings. There is  a short wikipedia discussion here.  I often find this quite a handy model to look at things.

Whereas the dominant motif in most media coverage is “so called psychic Sally Morgan was caught in fraud”, and let’s face it most people will have a good laugh and think little more about it, there have certainly been some negotiated readings. As someone interested in both critical thinking and psychical research I offered my alternative reading of what happened in my last blog piece, and Derek Walsh who is clearly extremely unsympathetic to psychic hocus pocus offered an excellent sceptical appraisal of the dominant sceptical message on his blog here in a great example of scepticism squared – when a sceptic applies scepticism to the sceptical consensus, something which is eternally necessary, but rarely makes you friends…

But it is the “oppositional” readings, the defenders of Sally Morgan who really caught the attention of the sceptic world. And let’s face it, some of them really are incredibly dedicated, indeed I think they I will use the word “devoted” to the cause.  Want to  have a look at some? Try Sally’s facebook pages! I note with interest it is her birthday today, and I sincerely hope she has a lovely day. (These things are never personal to me, despite my strong distaste for fraudulent psychics who should be prosecuted as the money grabbing vultures preying on the vulnerable they are — and after all, I am not personally convinced of fraud, or of her psychic gifts, which may place me in a minority of one! ;) )

So in this instance an awful lot of believers in Sally are refusing to accept the evidence of fraud, and carry on believing. And to be fair, I don’t think that is actually as silly as it sounds. Firstly as Derek and I have both pointed out, the evidence for fraud is actually not overwhelming – there are other explanations, and the theatre has leapt to her defence.  Sue she is a big name draw, but I’m pretty sure that theatre in Dublin does pretty well anyway, and is hardly likely to be “in on it”.  If even a handful of sceptics are not sure she actually cheated, well, I can hardly blame her devotees for questioning it?

What if Sally WAS ever caught?

So let’s try a thought experiment: imagine Sally has been caught cheating, absolutely blatantly, flagrantly, and beyond a shadow of a doubt. I don’t know much about the Popoff affair, but I do remember a case many years back when a young “physical medium” called Lincoln was caught in very embarrassing circumstances when the lights went unexpectedly up on his seance, back in 1993. Tony Youens maintains a superb archive on this here, with the full text and many related articles. Yet Lincoln went on to a successful TV career, and is still today a major figure in the world of these stage show psychics, now doing mental not physical mediumship (albeit now known by another name: though forever plagued by jokes like “Colin is not afraid to blow his own trumpet!”).

As with Popoff, exposure seems to have done him no harm at all, though he did spend almost a decade away from the public eye? I don’t actually know much about Popoff, and the circumstances, but yes he bounced back like Alan Partridge.

So we would expect that even if Sally was caught, then she would be back on the scene within a decade, and perhaps as popular as ever? Why? Are people inherently gullible?

Um… I might have left it there if Tracy King had not questioned this on Twitter. I knew instantly she was right: for every big name caught out who bounces back, there are others who slink away and quit the limelight.

When Prophecy Fails…

Certain texts that would be considered obscure at best by non-academics take on a life of their own in popular culture, and in certain subcultures. One of these, When Prophecy Fails (1956) by Elliot Aronson, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter is a book that few in sceptical and atheist circles can fail to have heard of. The book is a sociological study of a UFO cult whose leader predicted a cataclysmic event, a flood that would embrace their city. The flood failed to materialize — and the cult kept right on believing.  I think it’s important for people to check the facts, and the wikipedia account is very good.  Now there is one real critique of the book, which is very simple; as you will have seen from the Wikipedia page if you had a look, in the view of the people involved the prophecy did not actually fail, they had saved the world by the faith, averting the cataclysm.

cover of When Prophecy Fails

Some of you may recall the incident I am fond of mentioning when I was a young student at university and the Christian Union outing was called off after the bus broke down before we departed, and the various members of the C.U leadership offered contrasting theological explanations. That is the nature of theological talk, to explore why things are in terms of God and the universe I guess.  I found it all fascinating, and rather unconvincing — did God really want us to stay and spend the day on evangelism to our heathen fellow students, or was it really the Devil trying to thwart us? I thought the bus had broken down…

Anyway, we recently saw an example of this when Mr Harold Camping’s much publicized prophecy of the End of the World failed to manifest.   The bad news is he has revised his prediction to October 21, 2011 so folks we have just a month left. Um, assuming no particle physics disaster or asteroid strike I’m going to enjoy writing on the 22nd October about what he says next! :) Strangely there has been very little academic discussion of how his followers have responded beyond the immediate disappointment; I suspect an awful lot have drifted away, but I can neither conform nor deny it. Yet this is all very familiar to those who follow such things -  if any one really has read this far, they may well want to acquaint themselves with The Great Disappointment.

So yep, I think most sociologists of religion agree with Festinger, who also gave us the concept of cognitive dissonance – and while I have critiqued When Prophecy Fails in the past, and equally have critiqued the idea of cognitive dissonance (favouring Bem’s alternative Self-Perception Theory) many of my critiques are actually of the rather shoddy precis of the book one sometimes finds in sceptical articles and books. Festinger et al were much more careful in their claims, and the Wikipedia article gives the conditions for faith in the prophet to “survive” the disappointment –

Festinger stated that five conditions must be present, if someone is to become a more fervent believer after a failure or disconfirmation:

  • A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he behaves.
  • The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual’s commitment to the belief.
  • The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
  • Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.
  • The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence that has been specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, the belief may be maintained and the believers may attempt to proselytize or persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.

In the case of Sally Morgan number 5 is true: her supporters help each other maintain their faith, that much is clear. I’m not convinced any of the others are, so perhaps we do not need to look to Festinger after all for an explanation.

Other sociologists of religion have argued that when an adherent of a faiths faith is weakest, they are prone to proselytizing more, buoying up their faith by convincing others. Maybe! I think we actually face slightly more complex issues here….

Counting Crows…

Firstly, there are allegations she was caught cheating, but it’s far from clear, and a reasonable person could doubt this as I have already stated. Secondly, the believers are by their nature already disposed to belief in life after death and psychics I assume, and very few of them will place their faith in one psychic alone. Even if Sally is caught cheating, there are still thousands of other psychics, and the Problem of Induction tells us that one psychic being a fraud in no way means all are: after all as William James famously stated, the claim “all crows are black” is falsified if we find a single white crow. (James believed he had in the form of the medium Leonora Piper).  Spiritualists certainly acknowledge the existence of fake psychics and fraudulent mediums, so one being caught is no problem to them, just as one failed Christian sect’s prophecy is no issue to the rest of the Christian world.

Beyond this, we have to consider what would happen if a personal friend was accused of a serious crime (something like this is currently occurring on the JREF, a miserable business we will pass over beyond noting the potential parallels). Many will spring to their defence, some will renounce them, and some will wait further developments.  There is nothing unique in the way Sally’s adherents are reacting right now, we can all do it when our beliefs are challenged…

So Can Sceptics Win?

No matter how many psychics get debunked, others will step forward. No matter how good the evidence against a fraud, some people, but not I am convinced most, will continue to believe. So is there any point in pursuing the frauds?

My answer is a resounding “Yes!”.  It is in no ones interest to have vulnerable individuals preyed upon by the pond scum who represent themselves as psychic and offer false comfort while using fraudulent means. While there may well be very real benefits to the grieving in seeing a psychic, no matter how much we may question the morality of it all, the frauds are just that – frauds and criminals.  Whether a sincere but deluded individual is better than a fraud is a tricky question, but my personal belief is yes, there is  a huge difference, though I understand others may disagree. Are there real psychics? I can’t discount that possibility; my personal experience suggested it could be, but I honestly don’t know.

So it is really important for sceptics to challenge these people. I’m not sure it’s safe, rewarding or sensible, but it has to be done. I’m not convinced on the current evidence that Sally Morgan is either a) psychic or b) guilty of fraud, and I make no claims to have a real knowledge of her case, but as even spiritualists and psychics acknowledge wholeheartedly there are  lots of scam artistes and conmen and conwomen out there teaching critical thinking and sceptical approaches does no harm to anyone.

Most people will not make their minds up on psychics, life after death, mediumship, or any of these issues based on the academic or scientific evidence. Given there is very little mainstream discussion of the topics, and the journal articles are hard to come by, and the sociology and religion texts fairly obscure, it’s hard even for someone passionately interested to make a rational evidence-based decision on these matters, so we tend to go on the other type of evidence, personal experience. I hope my musings on all this help people to gain a slightly broader perspective, and to think a little deeper about it.

So why have I written all this?

A while ago when I interviewed Dr Matthew Smith on this blog we noted how we live in a very unfashionable neighbourhood indeed, what one of us (I forget which!) termed “the uncomfortable middle”. That is neither of us is wholly “woo”, if such a creature exists, or wholly “sceptic”, if such a thing exists.  Back in the days of the old Most Haunted Forum on Living TV’s site I watched as “parties” formed, one “skeptics”, the other “believers”. There is a polarization of views, and a growing culture of sceptics (who also fight among themselves, argue and debate) and believers (who also fight among themselves, argue and debate). Seeing that I regard scepticism as a methodology, and  belief in any given proposition an outcome, well I don’t see them as really opposed, but you would never get that from reading much written by either side. Venom, hatred and antagonism are all too common: and both “sides” close ranks. And then, when something like this happens, well the sceptics tend to say “I told you so” and the believers say “all sceptical lies”, and people stop talking. Real research does not fall victim to this, but the rhetoric of subcultures fighting for the hearts and minds of the masses do.

I encourage everyone to take a step back, take a deep breath and try to lose the vitriol. Britain is a sceptical country: and no one is going to stamp on you if you believe in fairies here, either.

And on that note I willonce again wish Sally morgan a very happy birthday, and “peace to all people of good will on Earth.” :)

cj x

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,033 other followers

%d bloggers like this: