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.

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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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Why have men become so lonely – and how does it affect their health?

New findings show the consequences of having a lonely heart.

Go out and get some friends. No, seriously. Hop on the Tube and act faux-interested in the crap-looking book your fellow commuter is reading, even if it's on their Kindle. Chances are it's better than the one in your bag, and they're probably a decent human being and just as lonely, like you and me.

A new slate of facts and figures are showing just how widespread loneliness, is while simultaneously being amazingly terrible for your health.

Research led by Steven Cole from the medicine department at University of California, Los Angeles is showing the cellular mechanisms behind the long known pitfalls of loneliness. Perceived social isolation (PSI) – the scientific term for loneliness –increases the exposure to chronic diseases and even mortality for individuals across the world.

The authors examined the effects of loneliness on leukocytes, also known as white blood cells, which are produced from stem cells in the bone marrow and are critical to the immune system and defending the body against bacteria and viruses. The results showed loneliness increases signalling in the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for controlling our fight-or-flight responses, and also affects the production of white blood cells.

Recently, the Movember Foundation, which focuses on men's health and wellbeing, carried out a survey with the help of YouGov investigating friendship and loneliness amongst men. The results are alarming, with only 11 per cent of single men across the spectrum in their early 20s to late-middle age saying they had a friend to turn to in a time of crisis, the number rising to 15 per cent for married men.

Friendship has shown not only to be important to a person's overall wellbeing, but can even add to a person's earnings. A previous study involving 10,000 US citizens over 35 years showed people earned 2 per cent more for each friend they had.

The Movember Foundation survey comes soon after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that men in Britain make up 58 per cent of the 2.47m people living alone between the ages of 45 and 64. The reasons behind this figure include marrying later in life and failed marriages, which usually result in children living with the mother. Women still make up the majority of the 7.7m single-occupant households across all ages in the country, at approximately 54 per cent.

Chronic loneliness seems to have slowly become a persistent problem for the country despite our hyper-connected world. It's an issue that has made even Jeremy Hunt say sensible things, such as "the busy, atomised lives we increasingly lead mean that too often we have become so distant from blood relatives" about this hidden crisis. He's previously called for British families to adopt the approach of many Asian families of having grandparents live under the same roof as children and grandchildren, and view care homes as a last, not first, option.

The number of single-person households has continued to increase over the years. While studies such as this add to the list of reasons why being alone is terrible for you, researchers are stumped as to how we can tackle this major social issue. Here's my suggestion: turn off whatever screen you're reading this from and strike up a conversation with someone who looks approachable. They could end up becoming your new best friend.