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Psychics and morality

Yes, I know, it’s another blog that begins with a twitterspat.

Someone on twitter was criticizing the use of death threats against Sally Morgan, aka Psychic Sally. Apparently Psychic Sally has had some success in the libel courts when specific allegations of fraud have been made against her. Notoriously, too, her husband has threatened to make a protestor disappear from outside one of her gigs. Some of the death threats against her may have been a reaction to her husband’s homophobia and violence. Sally is notoriously litigious, and likes to use the libel courts to defend her reputation as a psychic. Fine by me. The courts are not well placed as tribunals of science. It is however, still legal to have an opinion about the morality of certain types of work, and being a psychic has always struck me as a cruel trade involving the exploitation of the bereaved for no good purpose other than the benefit of the psychic. Just as we discussed the other day the idea of regulating all the practices of providing talking therapies, so you could make an argument for including anyone who claims a psychological benefit for the customer from the work of a psychic.

Now, here’s a thing. Psychics are not in the healthcare business. They’re not charities, and they don’t do their work in a clinical environment. They do it in the same way magicians operate; in front of big audiences, with every technological aid and gimmick at their disposal, for money. There is no National Psychic Service, no cohort of charitably disposed psychics travelling the country to provide care and succour to the poor. Psychics Sans Frontieres do not rock up in the trouble spots of the world offering to connect people to their recently departed loved ones, although, to be fair you can imagine a cold reading going well in Gaza. ‘Yes, I’m getting someone whose name begins with M, there’s a stone involved, and for some reason I can see a blue star.’ That would probably bring the house down were it not for the fact that the practice of fortune telling and talking to the dead is prohibited by Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

All the same, there is a school of ultra rationalists who say that without evidence of how each individual psychic is working their magic, believing all psychics are frauds is no better than believing in psychics. You don’t have to be a member of such a group to believe that it’s wrong to issue death threats against Sally Morgan. The trouble is that the objection to death threats against Sally Morgan was couched in the context of it being a death threat against a woman.

I’m not opposed to death threats against women. I’m opposed to death threats. There is a difference. The first is a kind of trade union position, us against them. The second is a more general, these things are wrong position. A good philosopher like Jem can probably come up with posh words for the difference.

I’m not opposed to psychics. I think, if people want to believe that someone can conjure up conversations with the dead, good luck to them. It isn’t the job of science, or skepticism (which is a tool, not a belief system, so far as I am concerned) to stop people believing silly things. I’m not opposed to people believing in psychic powers, or claiming that they can talk to the dead. I’m opposed to people charging money for it, and to the lionization of these people as having some kind of talent when in fact everything they do can be replicated by simple cold reading practices.

However, I’m also intrigued by the way in which ultra rationalism, a kind of extremism, has emerged amongst those who are skeptical about the paranormal. If your opposition to psychics is based on skepticism, are you saying that you don’t care about the way in which these people operate? There is no charity in what psychics do; you have to cross their palms with silver before the meter starts running and the ether starts humming with messages from the dead, and the cure for every communications breakdown is more money.

If you’re more concerned about dubious science than you are the exploitation of the gullible, we’re probably not going to get along.

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This entry was posted on November 17, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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