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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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

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