Skeptics shouldn't have lined up with the Mail to call Psychic Sally a fraud

We shouldn’t be afraid to tell people the full story, or admit the things we don’t know. Otherwise, we’ve engaged in exactly the sort of sloppy, lazy, error-prone journalism we’d normally criticise.

The great pity about the legal battle between the Daily Mail and ‘Psychic’ Sally Morgan was that somebody had to win. The Mail’s humiliating failure to outsmart a Come Dine With Me contestant who talks to dead people is delicious, but it's spoiled somewhat by a psychic’s ‘vindication’ in the courts, like biting into a Wagon Wheel and finding Bovril inside. What’s even more galling is that she deserved to win.

Before we go any further, one thing needs to be made crystal clear. Ben Goldacre claimed on Twitter yesterday that, “The libel lawyers of the UK have decided in their wisdom that psychic powers are real after all.” Ben, I love you, but this is complete nonsense. The case was not about whether Sally Morgan is a psychic.  Morgan sued for defamation because she felt the Mail’s article amounted to an accusation of fraud; that it suggested she deliberately misled the public by pretending to be a psychic. In particular, they accused her of using “a hidden earpiece in order to receive instructions from her team which she then repeated on stage as if she had received them from the spirit world.”

It sounds very plausible. Psychics and televangelists have used this technique in the past – Peter Popoff was famously exposed by James Randi, who used a radio scanner to intercept and expose radio communications between the performer and a backstage accomplice – his wife. She collected information from prayer cards filled out by audience members before the show, and then broadcast details to Popoff’s earpiece. To those in the theatre it seemed as if God Herself were channeling information to the performer (God’s contempt for personal privacy apparently exceeded the NSA’s by several orders of magnitude.). In reality, it was his wife: “Hello Petey, can you hear me? If you can’t you’re in trouble . . .”

Exposing Popoff’s fraud was a great feat of investigative journalism and rational inquiry. In the case of Sally Morgan however, nobody – not journalists, bloggers or skeptics - bothered to step up to the plate. In a supreme fit of irony, rationalists accused her of fraud without bothering to collect the evidence they needed to substantiate the claim. She sued, she won, and she deserved to win.

The response has not been very constructive, as Hayley Stevens noted in a blog post last night: “I saw many other angry tweets about how Sally Morgan was an obvious fraud and that it was ridiculous the courts has sided with her. It made me chuckle because most of the people making these statements were self-proclaimed skeptics and rational thinkers who ought to know the importance of evidence and how evidence actually works.” 

This is just the most recent example of a much wider problem I have with people abusing terms like ‘fraud’, ‘scam’, or ‘liar’ when talking about quacks or charlatans. I’m not going to link to specific examples of this sort of defamation for obvious reasons, but you can easily see what I mean if you google, say, ‘homeopathy’ and ‘fraud’ – rationalists and skeptics merrily throwing around accusations of deliberate deception that they have absolutely no evidence for and no ability to stand up.  The only way a skeptic could possibly ‘know’ without evidence that Sally Morgan intended to deceive people would be if they could somehow see into her mind and read her thoughts, like some kind of psyc . . . oh.

For many, it’s enough that someone is ‘wrong’. Meeting the ‘enemy’ or conducting the careful detective work that exposed Popoff, is unnecessary when you can just slag people off in a blog post about some stuff you found on Google, calling them a ‘fraud’ or a ‘murderer’ in the process. The problem with this sort of attitude – which I’ve been guilty of plenty of times myself - is that it’s unconvincing, strewn with errors, and it fails to understand the people involved.

For example, a lot of people seem unable to accept that psychics using tricks like cold reading – or even an earpiece - may still genuinely believe they have a supernatural skill. To them I would strongly recommend Derren Brown’s fascinating uncut interview with Richard Dawkins which tackles exactly that question. Belief is far less binary than a lot of people . . . well, believe; and people are rarely simple.

I learned this lesson myself when I met Jeremy Sherr - a homeopath who claims to treat HIV patients – in Tanzania.  A number of people, myself included, had portrayed him as a sort of cartoon villain, laying waste to vast swathes of Africa. The reality on the ground was rather more complicated. Sherr is charismatic; a passionate true believer who makes real sacrifices to help African communities. He also does a hell of a lot of good beyond homeopathy – supporting victims of domestic violence, working to reduce Aids stigma, ensuring local children are fed and educated, and much more besides.

Of course I also believe that he’s profoundly and dangerously wrong, and that his activities may be putting lives at risk. Just how dangerous I can’t say, because like everyone else in the UK I simply don’t know. One of the big problems with homeopathy – and a lot of other interventions, bogus or otherwise – in Africa is that we just don’t have the data we need on what goes on there. There are no statistics, no monitoring agencies, and often no information at all beyond that supplied by aid workers themselves. It is impossible to quantify either the good or the harm that somebody like Jeremy Sherr does, and that in itself is a massive problem.

It’s tempting to say that he simply must be harming people, but that’s the opposite of rationalism. I’m not playing with scales of morality here, weighing up the good and the bad. Neither am I suggesting inaction. The bad is bad whatever the good, and it needs to be stopped if possible. (On that note, if you’re a skeptic and you want to help tackle homeopathy in Africa my advice would be to work with groups like INASP or SciDev. My point is that rationalists need to admit when we don’t know things. That, after all, is supposed to be the fundamental basis for rational inquiry.

We also need to be willing to trust people with the full story. Jeremy Sherr is a man with admirable qualities, who does a lot of good work.  Some people will be unhappy with me making that statement, but it’s true, and failing to acknowledge this can be catastrophic. I interviewed a science teacher and NGO founder in Tanzania who was had read a number of skeptical blogs and been persuaded by them . . . that Sherr was probably right. Our descriptions of Sherr and his operation  - some bloggers went so far as to imply he was a ‘murderer’ - were so comically cartoonish that they were easily dismissed. It was, if I’m honest, a humiliating lesson, one that made me question a lot of my previous writing.

We shouldn’t be afraid to tell people the full story, or admit the things we don’t know. If the facts are damning, we shouldn’t need to be spin them, leave bits out or exaggerate them. You don’t need to ignore the complex realities of Jeremy Sherr’s activities or imply that he’s a pantomime villain to highlight the very serious problems with his arrogant and dangerous behavior. You don’t need to call Psychic Sally a fraud to point out that it’s fundamentally sickening to see people pay money to a woman who claims to be able to speak to the dead.

When we go down that road, we make mistakes, we get sued, and it’s right that we get sued, because we’ve engaged in exactly the sort of sloppy, lazy, error-prone journalism we’d normally criticise. The irony hasn’t escaped me that I’m criticising an article in the Daily Mail, and I’m probably going to take a lot of flak for it.

A still from SallyMorgan.tv

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.