A Daylight Atheism Consumer Warning

Consumers, be advised! When you want to know the future or ward off bad fortune through the invocation of magical power, don’t trust just any fake dime-store psychic. Be sure to choose only the best fake psychics for all your supernatural needs.

Such is the message of a bulletin issued recently by the United Kingdom’s official consumer-protection agency:

The UK’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT) has warned consumers not to fall for scams perpetrated by bogus clairvoyants, fortune tellers and healers.

Fake psychics had been mailing UK households saying “something bad” would happen to them if they did not buy a lucky charm or send money, the consumer protection agency said this week.

I have called before for consumer-protection groups to take action against individuals making extravagant and unproven supernatural claims, and this cannot help but be a step in the right direction. However, I fail to see why the Office of Fair Trading took action against only this psychic scam and not others. The only important difference between these psychic claimants and the other, more prominent ones is the directness with which they promise magical help in exchange for money.

Is it that these scams seem to be threatening consumers, whereas the so-called “genuine” psychics never stoop to such explicitly extortionate tactics? But how could that be? Everyone experiences both good and bad fortune in their lives, and a genuine psychic would surely be able to foretell both and tell customers how to avert the latter. If the more prominent media psychics never warn people about threats to come, surely that must mean that they are also scammers. They’re merely running the opposite scam: telling people what they want to hear for money, as opposed to telling people what they don’t want to hear and then demanding money to nullify their own prediction.

In fact, the OFT appears to take action against garden-variety scammers doing this very thing:

Others had offered Money Creating Scarabs of the Pharos (sic) and Parchments of the Sacred Olive Branch, claiming to bring good fortune, the OFT said.

Again, if this is illegitimate, why are the more prominent psychics and mediums who do very much the same thing not subject to liability?

But the most ironic part of the article must surely be the following:

Den Jones, a spokesman for the Spiritualists’ National Union, the largest organization of healers and mediums in the U.K., said consumers shouldn’t respond to mass mailings.

“If one is looking for a spiritualist healer or medium, there are qualified ones and unqualified ones,” he said. People wishing to use one should only go to people certified by his organization, he said.

For the record, here is how to become a member of the Spiritualists’ National Union. The major hurdles, apparently, are twofold: gaining the sponsorship of two existing members, and paying an annual application fee.

The procedure is that the appropriate application form is completed and returned by the applicant with the appropriate remittance to the Union’s Head Office: if it is received in correct form, i.e. correctly sponsored and the correct amount of subscription and joining fee enclosed, the applicant will be accepted immediately into provisional Class B membership for a period of twelve months…

Notably absent on that page is any mention of actual testing or examination to see if the applicant possesses any genuine psychic power as a precondition of membership. If customers go to a psychic claimant who is a member of the Spiritualists’ National Union, the only thing they are assured of is that they are consulting a person who has paid his membership dues to the Spiritualists’ National Union. There is no formal test whatsoever to ensure that the applicant has any psychic abilities at all. The SNU does claim to conduct tests on its members, but it makes it plain that these are strictly voluntary and carry no penalties for failure:

One important facility which the Union offers to members is the provision of an educational scheme which provides courses in the various aspects of the movement: it conducts examinations for those who wish them and makes awards to successful candidates.

Of course, if this organization were to establish an actual test of competence for membership, one that ruled out the possibilities of subjectivity and fraud, there would almost certainly be no members left. The fact that James Randi’s million-dollar prize has gone unclaimed for years is good evidence for that.

* * *

In other news, the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab is closing its doors after 30 years of operation. Set up to study claims of human psychic ability, the lab’s major (in fact only, as far as I know) experiment consisted of having volunteers stare at a random number generator and try to alter its output through willpower alone. The results? After three decades, the lab’s director claims, his data shows a deviation from pure randomness by 2 or 3 parts out of 10,000. In other words, the PEAR lab claims to have shown that, in a run of 10,000 coin flips, participants can on average produce 2.5 more heads than would be expected by chance alone. How many millions of dollars have gone into producing this result?

As Robert Park has written, one of the sure signs of pseudoscience is an effect that can be found only at the very limits of detection, hovering at the boundary where results fade into statistical noise, and cannot be amplified. This is just what we would expect from a self-deceived scientist misinterpreting occasional fluctuations in randomness as data, which is almost certainly what has happened here. The PEAR lab has had more than enough time to produce a genuine result, and they have failed to do so. It’s about time that they close down so that those resources can be redirected to areas of real importance where there are actual discoveries waiting to be made.

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