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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“Stinking Googles should be killed”: why 4chan is using a search engine as a racist slur

Users of the anonymous forum are targeting Google after the company introduced a programme for censoring abusive language.

Contains examples of racist language and memes.

“You were born a Google, and you are going to die a Google.”

Despite the lack of obscenity and profanity in this sentence, you have probably realised it was intended to be offensive. It is just one of hundreds of similar messages posted by the users of 4chan’s Pol board – an anonymous forum where people go to be politically incorrect. But they haven’t suddenly seen the error of their ways about using the n-word to demean their fellow human beings – instead they are trying to make the word “Google” itself become a racist slur.

In an undertaking known as “Operation Google”, some 4chan users are resisting Google’s latest artificial intelligence program, Conversation AI, by swapping smears for the names of Google products. Conversation AI aims to spot and flag offensive language online, with the eventual possibility that it could automatically delete abusive comments. The famously outspoken forum 4chan, and the similar website 8chan, didn’t like this, and began their campaign which sees them refer to “Jews” as “Skypes”, Muslims as “Skittles”, and black people as “Googles”.

If it weren’t for the utterly abhorrent racism – which includes users conflating Google’s chat tool “Hangouts” with pictures of lynched African-Americans – it would be a genius idea. The group aims to force Google to censor its own name, making its AI redundant. Yet some have acknowledged this might not ultimately work – as the AI will be able to use contextual clues to filter out when “Google” is used positively or pejoratively – and their ultimate aim is now simply to make “Google” a racist slur as revenge.


Posters from 4chan

“If you're posting anything on social media, just casually replace n****rs/blacks with googles. Act as if it's already a thing,” wrote one anonymous user. “Ignore the company, just focus on the word. Casually is the important word here – don't force it. In a month or two, Google will find themselves running a company which is effectively called ‘n****r’. And their entire brand is built on that name, so they can't just change it.”

There is no doubt that Conversation AI is questionable to anyone who values free speech. Although most people desire a nicer internet, it is hard to agree that this should be achieved by blocking out large swathes of people, and putting the power to do so in the hands of one company. Additionally, algorithms can’t yet accurately detect sarcasm and humour, so false-positives are highly likely when a bot tries to identify whether something is offensive. Indeed, Wired journalist Andy Greenberg tested Conversation AI out and discovered it gave “I shit you not” 98 out of 100 on its personal attack scale.

Yet these 4chan users have made it impossible to agree with their fight against Google by combining it with their racism. Google scores the word “moron” 99 out of 100 on its offensiveness scale. Had protestors decided to replace this – or possibly even more offensive words like “bitch” or “motherfucker” – with “Google”, pretty much everyone would be on board.

Some 4chan users are aware of this – and indeed it is important not to consider the site a unanimous entity. “You're just making yourselves look like idiots and ruining any legitimate effort to actually do this properly,” wrote one user, while some discussed their concerns that “normies” – ie. normal people – would never join in. Other 4chan users are against Operation Google as they see it as self-censorship, or simply just stupid.


Memes from 4chan

But anyone who disregards these efforts as the work of morons (or should that be Bings?) clearly does not understand the power of 4chan. The site brought down Microsoft’s AI Tay in a single day, brought the Unicode swastika (卐) to the top of Google’s trends list in 2008, hacked Sarah Palin’s email account, and leaked a large number of celebrity nudes in 2014. If the Ten Commandments were rewritten for the modern age and Moses took to Mount Sinai to wave two 16GB Tablets in the air, then the number one rule would be short and sweet: Thou shalt not mess with 4chan.

It is unclear yet how Google will respond to the attack, and whether this will ultimately affect the AI. Yet despite what ten years of Disney conditioning taught us as children, the world isn’t split into goodies and baddies. While 4chan’s methods are deplorable, their aim of questioning whether one company should have the power to censor the internet is not.

Google also hit headlines this week for its new “YouTube Heroes” program, a system that sees YouTube users rewarded with points when they flag offensive videos. It’s not hard to see how this kind of crowdsourced censorship is undesirable, particularly again as the chance for things to be incorrectly flagged is huge. A few weeks ago, popular YouTubers also hit back at censorship that saw them lose their advertising money from the site, leading #YouTubeIsOverParty to trend on Twitter. Perhaps ultimately, 4chan didn't need to go on a campaign to damage Google's name. It might already have been doing a good enough job of that itself.

Google has been contacted for comment.

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