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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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • James Bradbury

    It seems the OFT has some pretty good advice, especially for theists.

    stop, think and be sceptical – if something sounds too good to be true it probably is.

  • James Bradbury

    Here’s the official article of 19th Feb.

  • Boelf

    Imagine being the director (or whatever) of the Office of Fair Trading. Regulating para-normal activity would be a mind field of grief. If you regulate them to the standards that might apply for say consumer goods you would effectively make religion illegal.

    I can’t imagine how you could single out in some objective way the quick buck artists from those in it for the long haul (some of whom may actually believe).

  • lpetrich

    I remember someone once pointing out that psychic researchers’ taste for studying statistical effects is much like spiritualist mediums’ taste for working in the dark — it’s a very convenient hiding place.

    After discussing it a bit with someone else, I decided that a supersensitive torsion balance would be an ideal way to demonstrate psychokinesis; such balances have been used in Eotvos experiments for testing Einstein’s Equivalence Principle.

    But they haven’t even tried. And they’ve been reluctant to report upper limits on various effects, as mainstream scientists often do. For example, the Particle Data Group reports numerous lower limits on various possible particles’ masses and upper limits on various possible decay modes.

  • Stephen

    The PEAR results are even less impressive than you suggest. The tiny statistical significance is entirely due to the results of a single experimental subject: “Operator 10″. I once had a chat with Ray Hyman, who investigated PEAR. I believe that he wasn’t prepared to go into print about his suspicions, but he was fairly sure that “Operator 10″ was none other than Brenda Dunne, one of the people who ran PEAR. Draw your own conclusions …

  • Hyphenate

    I once got a piece of what I considered “junk mail” from a supposed psychic who told me that if I sent $19.95 she would tell me all the wonderful things that were going to happen to me. I sent a reply back to her that said, essentially, if she wanted money from someone she should have known through clairvoyance that I had none, and perhaps she could tell me the lottery numbers so I could send her some. I never heard from her again.

    I can say that while I believe in no deity, I do believe that most of us have some amount of a “sixth sense” and that it is no less scientifically possible than many other things. We still do not have a great deal of knowledge about the brain and the parts of the brain which have yet to be mapped and understood. I’ve experienced enough “unexplainable” things to know it’s beyond randomness. But I know I would never charge for the use of whatever “gifts” I might have–I have been reading tarot cards for years and never request anything in return.

    Regardless, I know enough people who have gladly held out their hands for fees when they have done something with their “gift” to “help” others. Whether they are truly gifted or not is irrelevant–if someone can be helped through such abilities, they should be given freely without regard to reward. It’s sad that some people feel that their efforts should be rewarded.

  • http://lfab-uvm.blogspot.com/ C. L. Hanson

    Wait a minute…

    They’re psychics, but they’re using mass mailings? Instead of target mailing those people whom their psychic powers tell them might be potential clients?

    Still trying to wrap my head around that one…

  • J

    A word about “random number generators”: There aren’t any. None that are strictly computer-based, anyway. It is, in fact, IMPOSSIBLE to have a computer generate you a truly “random” number. You’d think it would be possible, but it is not. A computer can, at least over a limited number of trials, do a good job of faking randomness, but it cannot do so over the long term. This is why reputable state lotteries are still done with the ol’ numbered-balls-in-a-tumbler method.

    In fact, sources of true randomness are hard to come by anywhere. I’ve heard that the CIA’s cryptology people spent most of the past 5 decades trying to find a source to little avail. The CIA operates powerful radio dishes that bounce signals off the inside of the atmosphere, from which they then measure the resulting distortion of the original signal. And they STILL aren’t sure they’re getting a completely random result.

    So, anytime someone casually mentions a computer-based random number generator as being the crux of an experiment or some such, don’t buy it.

  • Tycho the Dog

    Whoa there Hyphenate; pull yourself together.

    Only six senses? I’ve got nine or so, and none of them involve the supernatural. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senses) But then I am a dog.

    And the one about what the unknown parts of the brain do? (http://www.snopes.com/science/stats/10percnt.htm)

    And ‘unexplainable’ things? What about ‘things I can’t explain’. We know how tarot cards and astrology work for example; it’s called the ‘Forer Effect’. (http://skepdic.com/forer.html)

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    In fact, sources of true randomness are hard to come by anywhere… The CIA operates powerful radio dishes that bounce signals off the inside of the atmosphere, from which they then measure the resulting distortion of the original signal. And they STILL aren’t sure they’re getting a completely random result.

    That’s not too surprising, since it’s impossible to mathematically prove that a sequence of digits is truly random (for much the same reason that one can’t prove a universal negative). However, there are quite a few sources of natural randomness that we believe on strong evidentiary grounds to be fundamentally unpredictable. Most of these involve taking advantage of the intrinsically probabilistic phenomena of quantum mechanics. Services like Hotbits, for example, serve up random bitstreams generated by measuring the radioactive decay of atoms. Other hardware random number generators sample thermal or electronic noise in a circuit, also quantum phenomena.

    I don’t know if the PEAR lab used something like this, but if not, their entire experiment would have been astonishingly pointless. You’re absolutely right that the pseudorandom number generators used by computers are completely deterministic. Rerun those experiments with the same seeds, but without people trying to magically will the outcome to be something different, and you’ll get exactly the same results as before.