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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It’s 2016, so why do printers still suck?

Hewlett Packard recently prevented third-party cartridges from working in their printers, but this is just the latest chapter of home printing's dark and twisted history. 

In order to initiate their children into adulthood, the Sateré-Mawé tribe in the Brazilian Amazon weave stinging ants into gloves and ask teenage boys to wear them for a full ten minutes. The British have a similar rite of passage, though men, women, and children alike partake. At one point in their short, brutal little lives, every citizen must weep at the foot of a printer at 2am, alternatively stroking and swearing at it, before falling into a heap and repeating “But there is no paper jam” 21 times.

There are none alive that have escaped this fate, such is the unending crapness of the modern home printer. And against all odds, today printers have hit the news for becoming even worse, as a Hewlett Packard update means their machines now reject non-branded, third-party ink cartridges. Their printers now only work with the company’s own, more expensive ink.

Although it’s surprising that printers have become worse, we’re already very used to them not getting any better. The first personal printers were unleashed in 1981 and they seemingly received the same treatment as the humble umbrella: people looked at them and said, “What? No, this? No way this can be improved.”

It’s not true, of course, that printing technology has stagnated over the last 35 years. But in a world where we can 3D print clitorises, why can’t we reliably get our tax returns, Year 9 History projects, and insurance contracts from our screens onto an A4 piece of paper in less than two hours?

It’s more to do with business than it is technology. Inkjet printers are often sold at a loss, as many companies decide instead to make their money by selling ink cartridges (hence HP’s latest update). This is known as a “razor and blades” business model, whereby the initial item is sold at a low price in order to increase sales of a complementary good. It explains why your ink is so expensive, why it runs out so quickly, and the most common complaint of all: why your cyan cartridge has to be full in order to print in black and white.

But technology is complicit in the crime. HP’s new update utilises the chips on ink cartridges to tell whether a refill is one of their own, and have also previously been used to region-block cartridges so they can’t be sold on in other countries. Those little chips are also the thing that tells the printer when your ink is empty. Very good. Fine. Except in 2008, PC World found that some printers will claim the cartridges are empty when they are actually nearly half-full.

Back to business. Because this profit models means companies sell printers for so little, quality inevitably suffers. If they’re not selling them for much, companies will naturally try to keep the costs of making their printers down, and this is the reason for your “Load paper in tray two”s, your “Paper jam”s and your “Would you like to cancel this print job? Nope, sorry, too late, here are 100 copies.”

So why are printers bad at networking? This isn’t a set up to a lame joke (unless the joke is, of course, your life as you try to get your wireless printer and your PC to connect). There doesn’t seem to be a definitive answer to this, other than the fact that Bluetooth is still fairly patchy anyway. Some errors, just as you suspected, happen for no bloody damn good bloody reason at all.

On a bigger scale, the printers in your office are difficult because they work harder than you ever have. It’s a stressful job, for sure, and this naturally comes with errors and jams. The reason they are so hard to fix after the inevitable, however, again comes back to capitalism. Because printers don’t have a universal design, most companies will protect theirs, meaning you can’t know the specifics in order to fix a device yourself. This way, they also make money by sending out their own personal technicians.

Thankfully, although every personal printer you’ve ever bought seems to be on collaborative quest to drive you to madness, there is an easy fix. Buy a laser printer instead. Though the device and the replacement toner cartridges are more expensive, in the long-run you’ll most likely save money. In the meantime, there's only one solution: PC load letter. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.