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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The moonwalkers: what it's like to belong to the world's most exclusive club

"The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space."

It’s been almost 50 years since man first walked on the moon – and there were only a grand total of six missions.

From 1969 until 1972, as humanity reached out into space, these men – and they were all men – were at the forefront of scientific research and discovery.

But in 2017, the six survivors – now with a combined age of 505 – are the rare members of an exclusive club. The other six moonwalkers have already passed away.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was on Apollo 11, Charlie Duke was on Apollo 16 and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt was an Apollo 17 moonwalker. For the first time, at the Starmus festival in Trondheim, Norway, the three have come together to discuss their experience.

The three share “a special relationship, no question about it”, according to Duke. He tells me: “Our experiences are different but they’re the same in so many respects.”

Aldrin – unable to appear in person due to doctor’s orders – quips on camera from his home in Florida that President Dwight Eisenhower was advised that they should send a philosopher or maybe a poet up. His response, possibly apocryphal, came: “No, no - I want success."

As a result, it is up to these scientists to find the words to describe the off-Earth adventure which is the defining event of a moonwalker's life. 

A poetic description comes from Texan resident Duke. First and foremost a test pilot, his interest in space was piqued by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. He joined Nasa in 1966.

Now 81, Duke served as mission control support throughout many Apollo missions, most notably as the voice of Capsule Communicator when Neil Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969.

He tells me: “Once we left Earth’s orbit, we turned our spaceship around and there was the whole Earth 40,000km away.

“The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space. That contrast between the vivid blackness and the bright Earth – this jewel of Earth I like to call it - was right there.”

Aldrin started his career as a mechanical engineer, before joining up as a jet fighter in the US Air Force during the Korean War.

His gung-ho spirit and enthusiasm for space have not deserted him even at the age of 87 – he appears onscreen at the festival wearing a "Get your ass to Mars" T-shirt.

The most memorable experience for him came when he congratulated Neil Armstrong, the first of the team to walk on the moon (he died in 2012). But in the lunarscape, memories get confused – the men remember the moment differently.

“After the landing, I looked over at Neil, and we smiled. I remember patting him on the back and he remembers shaking hands. So here were two first-hand witnesses and we couldn’t agree on what actually happened when we got there.”

For Aldrin, the significance of the moonwalk was looking at the moon’s surface from close-up – the lunar soil, or regolith – and what happened when an astronaut's boot stepped onto it. 

“It was so remarkable, the way that it retained its exact form,” he marvels, 48 years on.

Aldrin's fascination with the moon's surface was shared by Schmitt, the 12th, and so far, last, man to walk on the Moon. A trained geologist, he was also the first scientist to do so.

In Schmitt's case, the rocky surface of the moon was enough to draw him into lunar research, which he still conducts at the age of 81.

“The commander told me as soon as I got out I had to look up and see the Earth," he recalls. "I said ‘Well, chief, you’ve seen one Earth, you’ve seen them all’."

In truth, having spent three days looking at the Earth from his craft, Schmitt’s priority was in looking down at the new surface under his feet.

After landing in a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon, his chief concern was just getting to work collecting samples in a lifesize laboratory.

While the moment on the moon may be the initiation into an elevated celebrity, it is followed quite literally a fall back to earth. 

In his post-Moon life, Duke found God.

“A lot of us have a letdown [afterwards]," he admits. Duke was 36 when he landed on the moon in April 1972. By December, the Apollo programme was over. "In January ’73, the thought occurred to me, ‘what am I going to do now?’"

Achieving his life's ambition before hitting middle age turned out not to be as satisfying as he expected. "Because you’d climbed the top, you got to the ultimate high when you were still a young man - and the drive that took you to the ultimate high was still there," he says. "That was a struggle."

In the years since, Duke has looked at his experience as a religious one. Yet he insists God wasn’t present for him when he touched down on the lunar body.

“The Moon flight was not a spiritual experience," he says. "I didn’t understand the wonder of God’s universe. I was enjoying the beauty and the excitement of this mission.”

The three men agree that Mars is the next step for the future of humanity, but there are safety and speed concerns.

“There is potential important work to be done in better physiological understanding of human exposure to long duration space flight which is going to happen whenever we go to Mars,” says Schmitt.

“Anything we do as human beings that’s productive and worthwhile carries risk, either physical of psychological. Radiation, physiological exposure to weightlessness for long durations, and the danger of landing on a distant planet where the atmosphere is not going to be much help - but you do accept the risk that it might end up as a one-way trip.”

But after all of that - the life, the death, the heartache - Duke says he would go back up there if he could.

“At my age now I wouldn’t volunteer to go to Mars - but I would volunteer for a round-trip to the Moon again.”

Starmus Festival runs in Trondheim until Friday June 23. For more information, visit Starmus.

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

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