Via Reuters, a story out of the U.K. that made me very happy indeed: British “psychics” are protesting a new consumer-protection law which they fear will require them to offer actual proof of their alleged powers.
The law currently in force in this area is the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951, which does in fact make it illegal to fraudulently claim to possess psychic or clairvoyant powers. But the key word is “fraudulently” – meaning that any enterprising prosecutor would have to prove that not only that the defendant has no psychic powers, but that they were aware of this and deliberately set out to deceive. This is a high bar to surmount, which is why the Act has hardly ever been used to prosecute psychic claimants. (Oddly enough, Northern Ireland is specifically exempted. I guess fraudulent psychics working there luck out?)
But now, as part of an effort to harmonize consumer-protection laws across the European Union, the Act may be repealed. The new regulations proposed to replace it ban “treating consumers unfairly”, and psychics worry that this language could be used against them, to force them to prove their claims are genuine. Gee, you think?
Organizers [of the petition drive] say that replacing the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 with new consumer protection rules will remove key legal protection for “genuine” mediums.
They think skeptics might bring malicious prosecutions to force spiritualists to prove in court that they can heal people, see into the future or talk to the dead.
Excuse me – “malicious” prosecutions? How on earth would that be malicious? If a psychic is the real thing, surely there can be no harm in asking them to prove this in clear and convincing fashion with objective evidence. If a psychic is phony, and the practitioner is duping the gullible with false claims, why would it be malicious to prosecute them for this? Any other business that uses false claims in its advertising is liable to prosecution. Why should psychics get a special exemption from that ordinary and reasonable standard?
Here’s the answer that gives the game away:
“If I’m giving a healing to someone, I don’t want to have to stand there and say I don’t believe in what I’m doing,” said Carole McEntee-Taylor, a healer who co-founded the Spiritual Workers Association.
…”By repealing the Act, the onus will go round the other way and we will have to prove we are genuine,” McEntee-Taylor told Reuters. “No other religion has to do that.”
No other religion has to do that. Clearly, the psychics see themselves not as businesspeople, but as religious practitioners – and as such, they believe they should be exempt from having to present proof. Because, of course, anything that is “religion” does not need to present any proof for its claims, and it is unfair to ask otherwise. This is exactly what atheists like Sam Harris are speaking of when they refer to the corrosive, dangerous effects of faith, in that it elevates ordinary claims above the necessity of testing and criticism.
But I do agree that it would be unfair to ask psychics to offer proof of their powers while exempting other religions. So, let’s take this even further! Any supernatural belief system that claims to offer tangible benefits – healing, prosperity, discerning the future – should be put to the test and have to prove that it can deliver on its claims, the same way as any other business which sells a product. It’s insane that anyone who makes a specific claim to be able to deliver services in exchange for money can avoid any kind of testing or scrutiny by slapping the label “religion” on his business.
As I wrote in “A Call for Truth in Advertising Laws“, many religious frauds make explicit, specific claims about what they can deliver. Real businesses, as opposed to businesses selling superstition and pseudoscience, never get away with this. No legitimate pharmaceutical company can claim its drugs can cure some illness unless it goes through multiple rounds of double-blind testing to prove this. Food companies can’t claim their products can prevent heart disease unless there are well-designed studies to show it.
Why should psychics and miracle-hawkers be held to a different standard? Why not make faith healers and psychic surgeons go through double-blind studies that track recovery rates? Why not put cold-readers and mediums to the test? Present them with five unknown people, whom they cannot see and who do not give feedback, and ask the psychic to perform a reading for just one – then have the five separately rate that reading’s accuracy to see if it applies well to only one of them. Why not see if clairvoyants can read the symbols on Zener cards and check if they can do any better than the 20% rate chance would suggest?
The possibilities are limitless, and it’s no wonder psychics are terrified. Ask them to actually prove their abilities, as opposed to exploiting the gullible and credulous under poorly controlled conditions, and their whole industry would melt away. Make no mistake, they fear a real test because they know they could not possibly pass. And that makes it all the more imperative that we skeptics push for real tests, to demonstrate that psychic powers are a sham and a delusion, and that their claimants are enriching themselves by shamelessly preying upon and exploiting people who are eager to believe.