Regulate Psychics? Hell, Yes!

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But now, as part of an effort to harmonize consumer-protection laws across the European Union, the Act may be repealed.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.

About Adam Lee

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

  • DB Ellis

    Its about time. I wish our lawmakers in the US would follow their example.

    But I wouldn’t bet on it.

  • Steve Bowen

    homeopathy would be a good target too

  • http://atheistrevolution.blogspot.com/ vjack

    Sounds good to me. I wish they’d do this in the U.S. too, but of course, that might open the door to wider forms of religious fraud so I won’t hold my breath.

  • http://www.blacksunjournal.com BlackSun

    Ebonmuse, I’m in favor of a single simple legal requirement, which preserves liberty and free speech and protects consumers. In the lobby of every church, psychic storefront, etc. A sign that states in block lettering at least 2 inches tall:

    FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY

    Then let them preach and prattle to their heart’s content.

  • 2-D Man

    But I do agree that it would be unfair to ask psychics to offer proof of their powers while exempting other religions.

    I disagree. Psychics claim they can provide a service and charge money for it. Religions claim that something supernatural and good will happen if the participant willfully gives away their money to that religion. These are consumer protection laws. The religious are not purchasing anything. Though, I can’t disagree that everyone should be held responsible for claims made that generate money.

    I am reminded of this xkcd (for anyone who hasn’t read this, you need to mouse-over the image and read the text that comes up).

  • Brit-nontheist

    I was smiling a lot on the day I heard about this. As a Brit I’ve always been glad of the fact that while we have a de iure religious state, it is de facto secular; I’m now even happier that the law is moving forward too!

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I’d be happy with that solution, BlackSun, if the psychics themselves followed suit. But I suspect most of them would respond by giving their customers a wink and a nudge, and saying, “Well, yes, the government makes us put that up there…”

    It’s the same way that quack diet pills and other concoctions end their commercials with a quick disclaimer, “This product is not intended to treat or cure any disease” – when the entire commercial has clearly been intended to advance the opposite point. Too often, merchants of pseudoscience treat those disclaimers as a legal escape hatch that frees them up to make even more extravagant false claims.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Bwahahaha! Oh deary, deary me. That’s priceless. I hope it goes ahead.

    Funny, really, how there’s an instinct to think that it will never work, though. BlackSun’s suggestion about a necessary disclaimer (which would inevitably be taken to be just a formality by some) kind of highlights the way we don’t expect laws to be able to fully deal with this, to be honest.

    Here’s the problem. Laws work because people believe in them. That’s not a “downside of democracy” so much as it is an essential part of every functioning state, no matter who rules it or how. So long as you have people who believe in psychics, there will be people who will find a way to gain access to them in the firm belief that they are getting something real and important thereby. I suppose restricting their advertising might reduce the number of people who are convinced, but, heck — wasn’t it James Randi who said he’d be on a show debunking some procedure and the next day they’d have calls coming in asking where could they find these people?

    It’s cool that we get to watch the psychics scrabble to gain access to the evidence-proof box usually reserved for religion. There really are limits to what such a law could do, though. There will be a loophole — because both psychics and their customers want there to be one.

  • Doug

    If these heretics should lose their ability to earn a living on a scam they should go to a casino and make a million.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Regulate psychics? Heck, they should have seen it coming!

  • http://salemmassblog.blogspot.com/ David Moisan

    In Salem (MA, US), we wrote regulations for psychics. I was appalled. I wished some of those psychics would sit on our boards and preditct, say, our FY 09 budget. Or the plowing budget for next winter.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    It’s cool that we get to watch the psychics scrabble to gain access to the evidence-proof box usually reserved for religion.

    Lynet wins the thread for that comment. :)

    Still, I have to admit, she has a point. Even in the most favorable regulatory scheme I could possibly imagine, I don’t think the purveyors of false hope will go away entirely. As long as there are people who are gullible and eager to believe, there will be psychic pretenders willing to take advantage of them. Capitalism is like evolution in that respect: wherever there’s a niche, we can safely bet, there will be someone to fill it. The real problem is human nature, and until people become more skeptical, the psychics will be there to exploit their credulity.

    However, I don’t think that a more aggressive regulatory system would be entirely pointless. Even if it can’t eliminate the problem altogether, I think it could curb the worst excesses. If psychics knew they could put themselves in legal jeopardy by making explicit claims which they couldn’t deliver on, it would probably cause them to scale back. TV shows and other members of the media, no doubt, would be less willing to give them free airtime and promotion. And people who might otherwise have been taken in might be inspired to give the psychics a more critical look when they realize that these people are afraid to make any definite claims about their abilities. Although this wouldn’t solve the problem altogether, it could certainly make it better.

    I view it as similar to the situation with the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and other government bodies that deal with false advertising. They can’t solve the problem completely, but they can make the situation better than it otherwise would be. By sanctioning the worst offenders, they give other businesses motivation to be more cautious and less willing to make promises they can’t keep.

  • http://www.skepticalmonkey.com Ted Goas

    “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.”

    On one hand I say Hell Yes! Let’s not stop there, let’s apply this to churches since many of them show signs of businesses.

    But on the other hand, if people are stupid enough to believe what a psychic says, why not let them have it. I know it seems like legal conning… But if people are willing to pay for it and the results make them feel better, why not?

    I don’t suspect anyone reading this would fall for a psychic reading. It is just the fact that these people exist that annoys us skeptics?

  • Valhar2000

    Not really, Ted. It pains me to know that psychopaths are preying on innocent people (who may be stupid, yes, but are not necessarily malicious), and that is what really angers me. I don’t think I am alone in thnking that.

  • James B

    Likewise, I am appalled to hear about my friend’s grandmother who excitedly replies to every letter which starts “Congratulations!”…

    I hope stupidity never becomes a crime! :-O

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    Another solution would be to make psychics more officially recognized, then force the psychics to pay exhorbitant licencing fees. And institute a large sales tax on any psychic transaction.

  • Pingback: Skeptical Monkey § Hey Psychics, Did You See This Coming?

  • http://www.skepticalmonkey.com Ted Goas

    It would have been a more compelling protest if, say, they’d marched a week before any information on the new laws was made public, thereby proving their powers.

  • http://www.skepticalmonkey.com Ted Goas

    It would have been a more compelling protest if, say, they’d marched a week before any information on the new laws was made public, thereby proving their powers.

  • Marran

    I know two people who genuinely believe they have spiritual healing abilities. Both of them give healing rituals free of charge for the first session. If you don’t find the session helpful, you don’t go back. Neither individual has been scientifically studied, there is anecdotal evidence, not of miracle cures, but more beleivably, temporary relief from symptoms.

    Faith healing is not something I personally believe in, but it obviously does provide some benefits to people who do believe in it.

    Rather than simply lumping all practitioners into a class of ‘fraudulent psychics’, wouldn’t it be better to do some proper scientific reviews of the very wide range of faith healers/psychics/spiritualists etc. and identify what causes the benefical effects some customers experience?

    I would hypothesise that there are some elements of meditation or self-hypnotism involved, but it would be interesting to see if this could be scientifically tested.

    One difficulty of the legislation is that, as for psychotherapy or counselling, meditation and hypnotism require the client to be receptive and open to the experience. This could mean that even practitioners who do genuinely believe in their own abilities, and have had previous successes, could be sued by clients with whom they were not successful. Without scientific studies having been performed, it would be very difficult for the practitioners to defend themselves in court, as they would be doing so only on the basis of their faith, and the faith of other clients.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    This could mean that even practitioners who do genuinely believe in their own abilities, and have had previous successes, could be sued by clients with whom they were not successful.

    That, Marran, is an excellent reason why people should only practice and sell medical treatments that actually work, regardless of the recipient’s belief in them. All that faith healers are dispensing is a placebo. And placebos do work for some things, but not for everything. What would happen if a person who had a serious illness, one not amenable to mental cures, sought out their service? It has happened, and people have died as a result.

  • Arnold Frampton

    Absolutely appalled at the vindictiveness of Humanists’ comments in this thread. If your arrogant paradigm is so selfish that it cannot allow for the way that many unsophisticated people approach life then it is nothing more than a secular Inquisition with all the evils that entails. You should be VERY careful of any laws to limit choice for all because despite the gingoistic stereotype of fraudulent snake oil salesmen which you all have peppered through your comments most psychics really do believe in what they do and their work is a genuine safety net for many people whom your scientific medical fraternaty has utterly let down. There is an important social purpose to free-style religious expression which you and euro-politicknicks obviously do not understand. It may be easy for you to consign millions of people to suffering just to impose your absolute views knowing, of course, just how utterly right science is about everything (Aids, MRSA, antibiotic-resistance, thalidomide, etc. Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of patients each year who are killed prematurely by ‘scientifically tested’ drugs in the NHS ) but when meeting people who have bought 100% into scientific materialism I always ask them to explain what science means by ‘ether’. It is a question which has existed since platonic times and it is impossible for science to answer. If scientists themselves were asked to step up to the line as psychics are being asked to do they would themselves soon be found wanting and where would the BHA be then? The most valuable thing that a belief in the supernatural has given me is
    the realisation that there is no such thing as certainty and that ‘experts’ of any kind should be shunned as a pestilence. Having worked with the BHA very effectively many years ago on the common ground of persecution of minority beliefs I was stunned to see you people queuing up to tie the noose that will eventually be used to hang yourselves. This law is not a ‘breakthrough’ of any kind and pretending it is shows just how wired the state has got you. – Arnold

  • OMGF

    If your arrogant paradigm is so selfish that it cannot allow for the way that many unsophisticated people approach life then it is nothing more than a secular Inquisition with all the evils that entails.

    Yes, wanting to enact consumer protection laws to protect them from frauds and hacks is so inquisitorial of us. Shame on us.

    …most psychics really do believe in what they do…

    Then let them show that it actually works. If they really believe it, they shouldn’t mind it being subjected to scrutiny.

    …and their work is a genuine safety net for many people whom your scientific medical fraternaty has utterly let down.

    No, actually it isn’t, and that’s the point. Unscrupulous people are preying on their fellow humans with promises of cures or other benefits that they simply can’t deliver.

    There is an important social purpose to free-style religious expression which you and euro-politicknicks obviously do not understand.

    Whatever social purpose there is – and it’s dubious that one actually exists – it is not offset by the fact that people are taking advantage of others through unseemly means.

    It may be easy for you to consign millions of people to suffering just to impose your absolute views…

    You obviously don’t understand the argument here. Who is imposing absolute views, because it’s certainly not us. On the contrary, we are saying that methods should have to be tested and shown efficacious in order to be considered valid.

    Not to mention the hundreds of thousands of patients each year who are killed prematurely by ‘scientifically tested’ drugs in the NHS

    There are stringent and specific protocols and procedures in place in order to regulate drugs because they can be dangerous. I don’t see what is wrong with this and your claims seem overblown. Some evidence would be nice.

    but when meeting people who have bought 100% into scientific materialism I always ask them to explain what science means by ‘ether’.

    Ether was a failed hypothesis that was overturned by the Michaelson-Morley experiment. Far from being a black eye for science, it’s a triumph, because it was the scientific method that increased our undestanding of the world, something that faith has been spectacularly unsuccessful at doing.

    If scientists themselves were asked to step up to the line as psychics are being asked to do they would themselves soon be found wanting and where would the BHA be then?

    Actually, they are. It’s called peer review.

    The most valuable thing that a belief in the supernatural has given me is the realisation that there is no such thing as certainty…

    Are you certain of that?

    …and that ‘experts’ of any kind should be shunned as a pestilence.

    This part is simply sad.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Arnold,

    most psychics really do believe in what they do and their work is a genuine safety net for many people whom your scientific medical fraternaty has utterly let down.

    Their work is a genuine safety net? You’re actually claiming that self-proclaimed psychics offer a REAL service to people, capable of making them better? I’d love to see your evidence for that claim. I’d also like to hear the reasons you believe that someone might be better off going to a psychic than a doctor; you know, if they have a medical condition, pit psychic’s success rates versus doctor success rates and see who comes out on top.

    If you feel they’re genuinely doing a service, then you or anyone else who does, should not be afraid of them being asked for their proof and having it put to the test, as all science is.

  • goyo

    Arnold:

    Absolutely appalled at the vindictiveness of Humanists’ comments in this thread. If your arrogant paradigm is so selfish that it cannot allow for the way that many unsophisticated people approach life then it is nothing more than a secular Inquisition with all the evils that entails.

    The unsophisticated people aren’t the problem. It’s the evil, lying, uncaring, hucksters that are taking advantage of these people, that we have a problem with.
    How could you try and justify the actions of people that intentionally defraud others with the stupidest cons, simply to get their money?
    Sure, they think these people have answers to their questions about their love-lives, and their health. How is defrauding people ever correct?

    You should be VERY careful of any laws to limit choice for all because despite the gingoistic stereotype of fraudulent snake oil salesmen which you all have peppered through your comments most psychics really do believe in what they do and their work is a genuine safety net for many people whom your scientific medical fraternaty has utterly let down

    They may believe in what they do, but they’re liars nonetheless. They know in their heart of hearts that their mumbo-jumbo doesn’t work.
    How has the scientific community let them down?

  • Arnold Frampton

    Cripes you lot make me shiver with apprehension. Even when your point of view is pointed out as intolerant and occasionally harmful you are still prepared to maintain your world-view with self-righteous arrogance of the worst kind blaming everyone except yourselves for the state of the world even though scientists have been controlling it for the past three hundred years! Peer Review a safeguard? Don’t make me laugh! Ye gods, save us from things that go bump in the night and arrogant people who claim to know the ‘right way to live’.

  • http://whyihatejesus.blogspot.com OMGF

    Even when your point of view is pointed out as intolerant and occasionally harmful…

    No one did any such thing.

    …blaming everyone except yourselves for the state of the world even though scientists have been controlling it for the past three hundred years!

    Ah, so we are all scientists, and we’re secretly in control, eh? Who told you about our secret cabal?

    Peer Review a safeguard? Don’t make me laugh!

    It’s a way of vetting good ideas/papers/results from bad. Does it always work? No, but eventually it along with the other methods of science does tend to weed out the bad ideas leaving the good behind. Science is wildly successful, that much you can’t deny – at least not without supreme irony considering that you are having to do it on a computer that uses the internet and electricity, etc.

    Ye gods, save us from things that go bump in the night and arrogant people who claim to know the ‘right way to live’.

    No one here has claimed to know “the ‘right way to live’” as you put it. What was claimed was that psychics (AKA charlatans) should be regulated so that they can not fleece people like you out of your money.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Arnold –

    Aside from the fact that you seem to be arguing that “not examining” is better than examining things, you seem to think that calling us intolerant makes us intolerant.

    Simply asking for evidence of a claim is a reasonable thing to do when money is changing hands. If you don’t believe that, c’mon out here to California, where I’ve got one helluva bridge I’ll be happy to sell you. It’s big and orange and right next to beautiful San Francisco.

    On a more sober note, you seem to need reminding that ad homeniem attacks are the surest sign of a failed argument.

  • Danikajaye

    Arnold,

    My Aunty was heavily involved in the Sufi religion and mysticism and was dying of cancer. She did not believe in western medicine and instead tried alternative therapies- there were a lot of herbs and spiritual ceremonies involved. She borrowed $10,000 off my father in-law to pay for these therapies that were recommended to her through her Sufi friends. There were many different therapies she tried but the worst was when these disgusting “therapists” made one visit to my Aunty’s home and injected her all over her body with some unknown substance (we did find out what it was later and it apparently should NEVER be injected). They then charged her $7000 for this one time visit and left my Aunty screaming in agony and were never to be seen again. After this my Aunty could not cope with the pain and had to be dosed with morphine on a regular basis- she didn’t need this prior to the “treatment”. She died two months later.

    To use your own words she was “utterly let down” by these therapies that offered her false hope. She was “killed prematurely” by drugs that were never scientifically tested that were offered by people who were experts in NOTHING AT ALL. To defend people that prey on the vunerable, the sick, the grieving, the desperate and the dying is abhorrent. We are not talking about complementary therapies here, such as massage for cancer patients to help break up pooling fluid or herbal supplements to help manage irritable bowel. We are talking about malicious, unscrupulous and vile people that deliberately set out to defraud desperate people.

    As for “ARROGANT PEOPLE WHO KNOW THE RIGHT WAY TO LIVE” – I’m tempted to reply : takes one to know one.