One of the most important, and least considered, questions about belief is, “What would it take to convince you that you were wrong?”
It is something we should always keep in the front of our brains, whenever considering a claim. We all have biases; we all have preconceived notions. These only become a problem when either (1) they are unexamined, or (2) we become so attached to them that nothing could persuade us to abandon them.
I’m very much afraid that for some people, belief in the power of psychics is one of those unexamined, immovable ideas. I say this because of the response people have had to a catastrophic faceplant performed last week by Skeptophilia frequent flier “Psychic Sally” Morgan.
“Psychic Sally,” you may remember, is the performance artist who has thousands of people convinced that she can communicate with the dead. She bills herself as “Britain’s favorite medium,” and fills halls with people who have purchased expensive tickets to her shows. This is despite the fact that in a previous show she was caught “communicating” with a fictional character, and was once accused by a journalist of receiving information from a helper through an earpiece.
None of this diminished her popularity. The first incident was only revealed in a newspaper article after the fact, and in the second, the journalist was actually sued by Psychic Sally for libel — and she won. There was no proof, the judge ruled, that the Sally had cheated. The journalist, and the newspaper he worked for, were forced to pay reparations. But this time it is to be hoped that things are different, because Sally did her monumental kerflop right in public. Here’s how blogger Myles Power, who was there that night, describes it:
Sally came to Middlesbrough on Friday night and her show started off very well. Even though she was getting the vast majority of what she was saying wrong the audience did not seem to mind and seemed to be having a good time. The point at which the audience became disillusioned with the performance was quite specific. One aspect of the show is that audience members can submit photographs of dead loved ones, in the hope that Sally will select theirs, and give a psychic reading from it. Sally pulled out of a box on stage one of these pictures. She held the picture up to the camera and it was projected on the large screen behind her. The picture was of a middle-aged woman and by the clothes she was wearing and the quality of the image, I guessed it was taken some time in the 1990s. Sally immediately began to get communications from beyond the grave from a man holding a baby named Annabel……or was it Becky. Noticing that no one in the audience was responding, Sally asked the person who submitted the photo to stand up. A rather small chunky woman at the centre of the hall stood up and Sally once again began to get messages from the afterlife. She was informed that this man and baby were somehow linked to the lady in the picture. However the woman in the audience (who was now also projected behind Sally) disagreed and started to look increasingly confused as, presumably, nothing Sally was saying made any sense to her. Sally then decided to flat out ask her if the woman in the picture had any children who passed and, when informed that that she hadn’t, responded by saying “I will leave that then.”
Sally then became in direct contact with the woman in the photo who began to tell her that there was a lot of confusion around her death and that she felt it was very very quick. She later went on to say that the day Wednesday has a specific link to her death and that she either died on a Wednesday or was taken ill that day. As the woman in the audience was not responding to any thing Sally was saying, she decided to ask how the woman in the photo was related to her. It turns out the woman in the audience got the whole concept of submitting a picture of someone you wanted to talk to from the afterlife completely wrong – and for some unknown reason submitted a younger picture of herself.
So there you have it. “Psychic Sally” has now been caught not only summoning up the spirit of a fictional character, she has gotten into psychic communication with the ghost of a person who is still alive and sitting right there in the audience.
Apparently the hall erupted in laughter when it became evident what had happened, and Psychic Sally never really did recover. A number of people walked out. People wouldn’t answer her leading questions. The audience, for that night at least, was a lost cause.
But here’s the problem:
Last week, the British newspaper, “The Daily Mail,” acquiesced in the face of a lawsuit filed by Sally Morgan, aka “Psychic Sally,” a talk-to-the dead medium and self-styled professional psychic. The paper agreed to pay £125,000 in libel damages and issued a full apology for running a story written by the British magician, Paul Zenon, which alleged that Ms. Morgan had relied upon concealed electronics in order to gain information used in a public performance of psychic readings and mediumship.
Obviously this is a tremendous disappointment to skeptics everywhere, because many in the general public will take the judgment as some kind of evidence that Morgan is genuinely psychic. Of course there is no basis in the judgment for such an interpretation because the case was purely about whether the paper could prove that Morgan had used the alleged radio devices and hidden earpieces to gain information about her subjects. The case began when two women who were at the show in question later called into a local radio talk show and claimed they heard Morgan repeating information that they overheard in transmissions from the production crew’s headsets. Morgan immediately denied the charges and the venue eventually announced that the crew in question was a local house crew that was not on Morgan’s payroll.
Given what we know of the British libel system, albeit very recently reformed and legally improved, we might speculate that the paper decided that it was less costly to settle now rather than pursue the case in the courts, with an uncertain outcome. Then again, with the theater confirming that the crew in question was not in Morgan’s employ, it does seem quite conceivable that the assumptions made by the women callers were in error. It is simply sad to see someone who makes their living on the dubious claims of Ms. Morgan ends up being further rewarded beyond the already grotesque sums she makes portraying herself as a communicator with the dead relatives of grieving supplicants.
But I think there are also lessons to be had for skeptics in these events, beyond thoughts about the British libel system.
Skeptics – even skeptical magicians – can and have often been misled by their own complex theories about how phony psychics ply their trade. When Uri Geller first came on the scene, the noted magician and author Milbourne Christopher theorized that Geller was using corrosive chemicals on his hands in order to achieve his “psychic” spoon-bending. Christopher was an expert magician and a skeptic, but he was fooled by Geller, and concocted an elaborate but completely mistaken theory in order to fill the gap in his knowledge and understanding.
Similarly, the two women who thought that Sally Morgan was getting inside information relayed by her crew were doubtless sincere in their theorizing, perhaps because they did not believe that Morgan was psychic, but could not explain how she was achieving success with her readings.
- Psychic Sally Damages (In More Ways Than One) (randi.org)
- Sally Morgan Libel Suit (theness.com)
- British Psychic TV Channels Fined For Not Telling Viewers It’s All B.S. (illuminutti.com)
In a move no one saw coming, A British TV channel set up to offer dial-up psychic services has been fined for not telling viewers it’s all “for entertainment purposes only.”
Psychic Today, a 24-hour psychic network, was fined the equivalent of $19,079 U.S. for claiming on-air that its psychics could provide “accurate and precise” readings for callers, for offering anecdotal stories of successful predictions, and for making claims that presenters had helped solve crimes for the police, according to the Register.
The fines were laid down by Ofcom, an independent regulator of the British communications industry that has strict rules about how psychics can label their skills.
In one case, a psychic told viewers she was involved in the police investigation regarding the death of teenager named Milly Dowler, while another claimed she once accurately predicted that her friend would become friends with Michael Jackson.
Majestic TV, which holds the license for Psychic Today, told Ofcom that while the claims made in both cases were “factually correct,” the reference to Dowler was “unfortunate,” SkyNews reported.
According to a document the organization released in December 2011, anyone claiming to be in touch with a spirit guide or a dead person must qualify their powers by saying it’s “for entertainment purposes,” a phrase that must also be stated by the presenters and scrolled on screen.
Psychics are also prevented from predicting the future, offering life-changing advice, talking to the dead or even claiming to be accurate, the Register reported.
- Skeptical ‘Zombies’ Attack Alleged Psychic James Van Praagh (VIDEO) (illuminutti.com)
- Telly psychics fail to foresee £12k fine for peddling nonsense (go.theregister.com)
- Storage Wars Star: I’m Psychic & God Told Me What The Ratings Would Be – Listen To Her Bizarre Claims (radaronline.com)
- Beware the Psychic Scam (alternet.org)
- How to PROTECT YOURSELF against PSYCHIC ATTACKS AT ALL TIMES (sacredascensionmerkaba.wordpress.com)
I have one question for this Long Island psychic: Did she predict the absolute devastation hurricane Sandy would bring to Long Island? No? Really? But, but, but … she’s psychic!!! Right? ;)
If you didn’t watch the Nov. 8th episode of “Inside Edition,” you missed an expose of “America’s favorite psychic” and star of the popular “Long Island Medium” television “reality” series, Theresa Caputo. A few weeks ago I was asked to take part in a “sting” on Caputo with several IE investigative reporters who had been singling out Caputo for a serious takedown for months. We worked hard to reveal her for what she is – a fast talker of the lowest order. There was no question she was doing old cold reading bits, but her other methods were less obvious to the untrained eye. I was put on the case in New York City for four days. It was a eye-opening experience and great fun watching Caputo going through her histrionics, but I quickly learned that mediums and psychics are getting more and more slippery and hard to catch red-handed than they were only a decade ago.
Like many of the latest crop of bullshit tossers making the rounds, Theresa and her savvy crew have learned from the mistakes of others like Sally Morgan, John Edward and Jimmy VanPraagh. Instead of taking chances with too much guessing, Theresa bumps-up her percentage of hits and avoids bad misses by front-loading her stage shows with a combination of techniques; some time tested like cold reading and planting previous clients they have already read for in specific seats in the audience, (ala Rosemary Altea on the Penn & teller “Bullshit!” episode I worked on) but also making use of the latest social media outlets.
In combination with selling seats through Ticketmaster and the use of credit cards, Facebook, Fousquare, Twitter and all the rest of the latest places people post private information, our own egocentric fascination with ourselves makes it easy for the techie-smart-agent or producer to make seeming miracles happen. Like the old days when the gypsy only needed to tell her sitters what they wanted to hear about themselves, we are now in an era when anyone can tell you more about yourself than you might ever want to know.
At the show we saw, at one point Theresa asked a woman, “…Why am I picking up baby clothes?” To which the woman replied, “Oh, that’s weird. I just put up a bunch of pictures of baby clothes on my Facebook page!”
Not weird at all really. With five or six gathered bits of information like that placed beforehand on a seating chart of the show it’s easy to be cued by her staff of roving microphone and camera people. All seats are numbered and the sections are far enough apart so even Theresa can’t screw up: a red shirt is a fireman, down in front under the lights is the missing child, on the left is the suicide’s mother, etc.
After watching this crew with their equipment move over to a person who was next called upon by Theresa, it became apparent that only one of two things could be happening. The only two logical reasons for the roving crew to move BEFORE Theresa points out the person in the audience they are standing near are:
1. Theresa has already planned with her crew what people she is going to be talking to before the show.
2. The crew is psychic and knows who Theresa is going to be calling on.
I leave it to the reader to decide which option is more likely.
On the heavily edited segments for Caputo’s so-called “reality” program, everyone who happens to apparently casually “bump into” Theresa on the street or in supermarkets or beauty parlors, each is a carefully choreographed set-up. In classic mentalist style, everyone must sign a pre-show waiver or agreement to have their image used on television. It’s only a standard form to those folks. Why would they suspect anything? They should. All the staff needs is a laptop, a name, an address and a willing victim.
The slippery part is this perfect storm of information availability seems to make no sense when you watch Theresa live doing nothing but asking a non-stop machine gun scatter shot of questions, one after the other. It would be so much easier for her to just stick to a list of sure-fire pre-show information. That’s what I would do… So why doesn’t she stick to that strategy?
I’ll tell you why: She’s not a professional mentalist for one, and also because if she did use all the information available all the time, she would be far too accurate and her audience of adoring believers would begin to smell a rat. She has to play that “odds” part down to a believable minimum. It’s the “less is more” angle mediums have been using for centuries.
It was amazing to see her act “surprised” by her hits, as if she had no idea how she did it. Maybe a few times she was genuinely surprised
The Long Island Medium – Can She Really Communicate with the Dead?
She’s one of the most popular reality stars on TV today. For three seasons now, Theresa Caputo, the Long Island Medium, has amazed viewers and brought people to tears by communicating messages from beyond.
“I have a very special gift. I talk to the dead,” Caputo says on her hit series.
So is the Long Island Medium really communicating with those who have passed on, or is she simply using trickery to fool the living? INSIDE EDITION decided to see what happens at her popular live readings across the country. What we saw was starkly different from what viewers see on her TV show.
On TV, she’s almost always dead right, but at her live shows, we watched her strike out time and again.
Caputo asked one audience member, “Is your mom also departed?” “My mom? No, she’s with us,” said the audience member.
“Is your mom departed?” she asked another fan. The woman responded, “My mom? No, she’s still with us.”
Caputo asked another audience member, “Did they pass one right after the other?” to which the audience member responded by shaking their head ‘no.’
She asked one person, “Was this on your mother’s side.” “No, my dad’s,” she replied.
“I know a trick when I see one,” said Mark Edward, after watching the L.I. Medium’s live show. Edward once made a living as a psychic, but he’s now coming forward to reveal the secrets that he says some psychics use to convince people they really do communicate with the dead.
Edward believes one technique Theresa Caputo uses is a classic trick called “cold reading.” It’s done by firing-off open-ended questions that someone in a large audience will surely relate to, like a number.
“How do you connect with the number 2? Is it the month of February? The day?” Caputo asked an audience member.
Inevitably someone raises a hand.
MORE . . .
- Is Caputo Kaputo Yet? (skepticblog.org)
- Social Media – A tool for “psychics” (bluelyon.wordpress.com)
- ‘Long Island Medium’: Theresa Gets Her Own Psychic Reading (5min.com)
- ‘Long Island Medium’ Isn’t Going Anywhere (huffingtonpost.com)
- Psych! (thepsoop.wordpress.com)
It’s often said in their defence that psychics such as Sally Morgan do little harm, even if their powers are illusory
It has been a difficult, but financially very rewarding 12 months for Sally Morgan, otherwise known as Psychic Sally. Although most nights she is giving demonstrations of mediumship on stage to an audience of more than a thousand people (each paying £25), there have been concerns about whether she has genuine psychicpowers and whether she obtains information about audience members in advance.
In Dublin in 2011, two audience members said they overheard a voice at the back of the theatre, which they felt was feeding Sally information via an earpiece. In Edinburgh in 2012, there was another odd incident, this time involving a large glass bowl always placed in the theatre foyer by Sally so that audience members could write notes about the departed. One audience member wrote a fictional name on a slip of paper and placed it in the bowl, only to receive a message during the show apparently from that fictional person (Toby Wren, played by Robert Powell in the BBC Doomwatch drama in 1970).
I should stress at this point that Psychic Sally strenuously denies any allegation of being fed information via an earpiece or peeking at the contents of the glass bowl, and she continues to believe that she can speak to the dead. Actually, talking to the dead is not particularly impressive, but Sally also believes that the dead talk to her. That is the spooky bit.
- This Week In Doubtful News (randi.org)
- Tricks of the Psychic Trade (illuminutti.com)
- #TAM2012 Plenary: You Are the Future of Skepticism on the Internet (skeptools.wordpress.com)