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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Meet the evangelical Christian persuading believers that climate change is real

Katharine Hayhoe's Canadian missionary parents told her science and God were compatible. Then she moved to Texas. 

During Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, alarm rose with each mention of climate change. Denial, dismissal and repeated chants of “hoax” left no doubt as to his position.

Now President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has been seen as a seminal moment in the fight against climate change - one which many fear could lose the battle ahead of humanity.

But one scientist has been fighting a war of her own on the ground, against those who typically doubt the facts about global warming more than most - the evangelical Christian population of America.

And to make matters even more unusual, Katharine Hayhoe herself is an evangelical Christian who lives in the indisputably "bible belt" of Lubbock, Texas.

The atmospheric scientist has been named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people and one of Politico’s 50 thinkers transforming American politics. Now she is using her considerable heft to speak to those who are hardest to convince that there is a manmade problem that threatens the Earth’s future.

I meet her at the science and music festival Starmus in Trondheim, Norway, where she is to address the attendees on Thursday in a talk entitled "Climate Change: Facts and Fictions".

Hayhoe was born in Canada, to missionary parents. Her father, a former science educator, showed her that there was no conflict between the ideas of God and science. However, it was something of a surprise to her when she discovered her pastor husband, whom she married in 2000, did not feel the same about climate change. It took her two years to convince him.

What started as a conversation became an organised project when she moved to America's South in the mid 2000s. 

“Moving to Lubbock was a culture shock," she tells me. "When I moved there I wasn’t doing much outreach, but it moved me in that direction.

“Lubbock is very conservative. It’s small and isolated.

“I would say the majority of people in Lubbock are either dismissive or doubtful about climate change. I was surrounded by people - neighbours, parents of friends, people at church, colleagues down the hall in the university - who weren’t convinced.”

So Hayhoe, who works as an associate professor and director of the Climate Science Centre at Texas Tech University, set to work. She began to collect the responses she was seeing to the climate change discussion and prepare her counter-argument.

“When I talk to people who are doubtful, I try to connect with the values they already have," she says. “The greatest myth is the myth of complacency - that ‘it doesn’t really matter to me’.

"But I would say that the second most insidious myth is that you only care about this issue if you’re a certain type of person. If you’re a green person, or a liberal person, or a granola person."

The stereotypes mean that people outside that demographic feel "I can't be that kind of person because that's not who I am", as she puts it.

Hayhoe convinced her husband using data, but rather than repeating a formula, she tries to find out what will resonate with different people: "For many groups, faith is a core value that people share.”

Whether she’s speaking to city planners, water company managers, school kids or Bible believers, Hayhoe says her hook is not the facts, but the feelings.

“I recently talked to arborists," she says. "For them, trees and plants are important, so I connect with them on that, and say ‘because we care about trees, or because we care about water or what the Bible says then let me share with you from the heart why I can about these issues because it affects something that you already care about’.

“My angle is to show people that they don’t need to be a different person at all - exactly who they already are is the kind of person who can care about climate change.”

Hayhoe came to public attention in the United States after appearing in a Showtime series on climate change. She has appeared on panels with Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio, and launched a web series. As well as plaudits, this level of fame has also earned her daily threats and online abuse. 

“My critics think they’re coming from a position of religion, but they aren’t," she says. "They’re actually coming from a very specific political ideology which believes that the government should not have control over people’s lives in any way shape or form - very libertarian, free market, free economy, Tea Party."

She believes that in the United States, faith and politics has been conflated to the point "people can no longer tell the difference". 

“Now it’s conservatism that informs religion," she elaborates. "If the two are in conflict - like the Bible says God has given us responsibility over everything on this earth - then people say ‘oh, we can’t affect something as big as this Earth, God will take care of it anyway’."

Around half of those who attack her on social media identify themselves as Christians, she notes, but almost all call themselves conservatives. 

As a scientist, she’s been preparing data herself - naturally - on her online attackers, with depressingly familiar results.

“As soon as you stick your head out of the trench, you get it. There have been papers published showing that white men disproportionately form up that small group of dismissives. They’re almost all men. When I track my social media comments, I would say that 99.5 per cent of them are white men.

“Out of 1,000 negative comments, I have maybe five from women.”

After the climate change argument moved up a gear - following the Paris withdrawal - Hayhoe admits that she and her fellow scientists are concerned, although she pays tribute to the businesses, cities and states from the US that have committed to following the Paris agreement themselves.

On the subject of the chief white male denier, Trump himself, Hayhoe says she has a discussion point which she feels may convince him to think carefully about his role in the fight against global warming’s impact on humanity.

“I would attempt to connect with the values that he has and show him how acting on this would be in his best interests," she says.

“One guess would be ‘what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want to be known as, the man who destroyed the world, or the man who saved it?’”

Katharine Hayhoe is speaking at Starmus on Thursday June 22. For more details, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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