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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“WhatsApp isn't for parents”: how we contact all the different people in our lives

I wanted to find out how our digital hierarchies operate, so I asked people how they communicate with their family, friends, and colleagues. 

Recently, my family made an important decision. Too many conversations had petered out and decisions had been deferred because text messages had been going astray. Someone would end up calling someone else to talk for half an hour about how frustrating it was that they hadn’t replied to a question from three days ago, when all that was really required was a simple “Yes, see you there on Saturday”.

So, we became a WhatsApp-only family. It makes sense – we live on two different continents and travel quite a bit, and using the internet rather than cell service for sending text and pictures has already proved a lot more reliable. Still, though, when I need to tell my mum something and go to open the app, I can’t shake the feeling that it isn’t right. As far as I’m concerned, WhatsApp isn’t for parents; it’s for flatmates and groups of friends roughly the same age as me. It isn’t for your grandfather to pass on news of his latest Scrabble triumph.

This got me thinking – what is it about different methods of communication that make them feel appropriate to some people in our lives and not others? Why do I feel like text messages are inherently more “mum”, whereas Twitter DMs are really only for colleagues and creepy strangers? And does everyone have the same sense as I do? I’m a woman living in London in her late twenties and I work in the media: how does the hierarchy of digital communication methods look from other perspectives?

I designed a survey to try and find out. I asked respondents to select the means they use to communicate with people who occupy different roles in their lives, as well as for some basic personal information like where they live and how old they are.

I had hundreds of responses, from people of all ages and from all over the world (feedback came from places as far flung as Auckland, Puerto Rico and Kolkata). I think inevitably since I was promoting the survey via my own networks the respondents skewed to my own age group – 43 per cent were in the 22-30 bracket, but the second largest was 31-40 and the third was 51-60.

Nearly half of all respondents said that they would communicate with their mum and/or dad via phone call, while 47 per cent picked text message for siblings. The older the respondent, the more likely they were to pick phone call as the means of parental communication. Interestingly, for mums text messages came in a strong second (32 per cent), while with dads email and text tied on 24.7 per cent. The same goes for extended family – 44 per cent said they would call – but email came second on 35 per cent.

Facebook is the preferred means of communication for schoolfriends, at 52 per cent – something that was consistent across all age groups – whereas what I called “friends you’ve made as an adult” are mostly contacted via text message (56 per cent) or email (41 per cent). But there were some important distinctions made in the notes. One person commented: “When I have selected Facebook, I mean Facebook Messenger as a separate app on my phone and tablet rather than writing on their walls,” suggesting that there’s even greater nuance to how people are using the social network to stay in touch.

I’m unusual in using Twitter as a means of talking to colleagues, apparently: email came in at a whopping 70 per cent, followed distantly by text and phone call. Flat/housemates was a less conclusive spread, with 24 per cent using text messages, and 14 per cent apiece using WhatsApp and Facebook. Other messaging apps and systems that got frequently flagged for communicating with friends include: Telegram, Viber, Line, Instagram, Google Hangouts, iMessage and Skype chat. Interestingly, one person noted that “I haven't had a text from a person for months, now just a marketing channel for me”.

The majority of people still regard email as the most “official” means of digital communication, with twice as many people saying they would use it for their landlord as opposed to picking up the phone. And for the category I called “official, eg job application or complaint”, 92 per cent of respondents said they would use email.

Of course, there were lots of interactions that the survey couldn’t pick up – there were lots of comments of the kind that “I live with my mum and my partner, so it's mainly face to face”. What emerged as I was going through the data was that I am by no means alone in feeling that some methods of communication are more “appropriate” to people occupying particular roles in my life, but that we don’t agree on who goes with what.

There are myriad factors involved: when we first started using various apps and technologies; the age and tech literacy of both the person sending the message and the person receiving it; how we feel about privacy and security online; and much more besides. As technology has advanced, our means of communication have fragmented, and we’ve all gone in different directions. Somehow, it works.

That is, until my grandfather learns to use Snapchat – then all bets are off.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.