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)
Ah, conspiracy theories.
Talk radio personality Alex Jones attracted attention for his petition to deport Piers Morgan. Then he showed up on Monday night on Morgan’s CNN show and attracted more attention, spewing conspiracy theories right and left. He spouted off about 9/11, the New World Order, suicide pills and at one point began speaking in a fake British accent. He leaped straight to Mao and Hitler without pausing to reflect on Godwin’s Law. All in all, it was a remarkable show. Morgan won the debate, but only, as Tim Stanley noted, because Jones did not let him get a word in edgewise.
This is saying something. The last time Piers Morgan won a debate was against Clint Eastwood’s Invisible Chair Obama, and that was because most of the chair’s comments were too ripe for cable. Once an actual straw man came on, but they tied. Jones, as a talk radio personality, is as close to a living straw man as you can hope to get.
There are reasons that people do not embrace conspiracy theories, aside from the high level of organization that they require us to believe is going on beneath the surface at the Denver Airport. The people who embrace them most tightly tend to yell and spit when they talk. There is a reason the only verbs associated with conspiracy theories are “spout” and “spew.” No one ever says, “And then he sat down and explained quite reasonably, calmly and without bursting out into a full-body sweat, what was Really Going On with the suicide pills and 9/11.” The reason they and their arguments are not featured more often on national news is not that they are being suppressed, exactly, as that producers fear that once they started talking, they might never stop. This only feeds it. “I’m being suppressed!” they yell.
“You just chewed through a sound cable,” we say, “and you’re frightening the houseplants.”
Perhaps to compensate for years of silence, the tendency of conspiracy theorists is never to stop talking. And this is problematic. You hear an argument that might, in isolation, be convincing, but it is quickly followed by the observation that
Congress is comprised entirely of malignant lizards Congress is doing a great, productive job! “I was with you until the New World Order,” you say.
Sometimes the best argument against an argument is its adherents. “I’ll have the opposite of what he’s having,” we say, pointing at the man in the black shirt who has just called someone a “hatchet man of the New World Order.”
I was all for deporting Piers Morgan, if only to pump excitement into the post-cliff news cycle. But after reading the piteous pleas of numerous Brits who had just put in so much effort to get rid of him, it seemed cruel. And after seeing the person who is leading the deportation charge — well, there must be some merit to keeping him that I’ve overlooked.
Besides, there are few more cutting responses to an American waving his arms and shouting about factoids than a person with a British accent saying nothing. Even if it is Piers Morgan. We can’t deport him now.
Editor’s note: I did find a video of the show on YouTube. I haven’t watched it yet and i don’t know how long it will remain posted before YouTube takes it down. Get your popcorn.
A short version:
- Deport Piers Morgan founder rants in face of his nemesis (guardian.co.uk)
- Alex Jones Berates Piers Morgan On CNN (buzzfeed.com)
- Creator of the ‘Deport Piers Morgan’ Petition Loses It on Piers Morgan’s Show (theatlanticwire.com)
- ‘Deport Piers Morgan’ Petition Creator Goes Ballistic In Faceoff With Morgan On CNN (deadline.com)
- Creator of the ‘Deport Piers Morgan’ Petition Loses It on Piers Morgan’s Show. (greatriversofhope.wordpress.com)
- Alex Jones to Piers Morgan On CNN: “You’re a hatchet man of the New World Order!” (sgtreport.com)
- Pro-gun advocate Alex Jones rants at Piers Morgan in studio ‘debate’ (metro.co.uk)
- WATCH: Alex Jones Blows Up at Piers Morgan (schnittshow.com)
- WATCH: Alex Jones Blows Up at Piers Morgan (mega949.com)