On Sally Morgan And The Issues With Testing Psychic Claimants (Are There Any?)

One of the unfortunate side-effects of Twitter is that you can get short, sharp, terse-sounding and inappropriate comments that are intended to be anything but. I’m certain Tim Minchin could talk about that quite easily, for example.

This doesn’t mean that the occasional intentional passive-aggressive statement is completely absent, which (as I’m certain we all know) can also be par for the course with online interactions. They tend to just exacerbate what could be, at its core, a simple misunderstanding or ignorance about the situation at hand. It also can end up dividing people who have a common goal, but different ways of seeing how that goal might be achieved. Might.

I’m a subscriber to Hayley Stevens’ blog Hayley Is A Ghost and I read and enjoyed her most recent entry on “Testing Psychic Claimant Sally Morgan. I enjoyed it because I quite like questioning blog-posts in general. I think skeptics should be willing to reassess and reflect upon their efforts, and I know I’m not alone in this; see the Token Skeptic podcast episode #18 ‘On The Placebo Protest, for example.

It’s one reason why there has been a general enthusiasm and greater emphasis over the years amongst many skeptics for measurable, goal-orientated activist strategies – which has resulted in resources like the Grassroots Skeptics “Skeptical Activism Campaign Manual” and the Daniel Loxton-edited “What Do I Do Next?: Leading Skeptics Discuss 105 Practical Ways to Promote Science and Advance Skepticism” (with that link, you can listen to the Skepticality interview with Daniel as well).

In Hayley Stevens’ blog-post – which, as she admits, has been edited after further discussion with Professor Chris French about how Sally Morgan could work with the test designers to adapt the Million Dollar Challenge (or MDC) – she writes:

I personally don’t care if Sally Morgan does or does not agree to be tested, what I care about is the person paying to go to a show without knowing how to spot a cheat. I honestly believe this is where the biggest difference can be made. By arming people with information we’re not forcing our beliefs or opinions on others, but simply enabling them to think for themselves and if that’s the least we can do, then that’s marvelous.

Stevens, therefore, has a different focus in mind when it comes to dealing with psychic shows – which resulted in the earlier-released Project Barnum. Not, I hasten to say, that doing a Million Dollar Challenge couldn’t be done with educational resources on the side as well, complimenting the media attention that such a challenge could get. But that’s not happening in the case of the Halloween challenge of Sally Morgan.

I also really liked Derren Brown’s blog-entry, ‘Testing Psychics‘ - because he’s essentially saying the same things as Stevens. Particularly these parts:

I imagine Sally will decline the test, and people will draw their own conclusions. I can’t imagine this will make any difference to her fan base or indeed to her…  Most of you, as readers of this blog, will know all of this of course. Others won’t, and will just feel annoyance towards the scientists offering the test (‘Who the hell are you to test our Sally? Leave her alone, it’s nothing to do with you’). So it’s always worth saying why it’s really important to check carefully when these sorts of claims are being made.

 Brown also takes a little time during his blog-post to impart an educational link (very much in the spirit of what Stevens suggests doing):

They most likely are unaware of the self-working technique of Cold Reading which can allow anyone with little sense of morality to get up on stage and carry off a perfectly convincing psychic show. Here’s a page where you can learn how to be a fake psychic yourself – its one of the oldest businesses in the world. Add some benign, trustworthy charisma, a bit of ‘hot’ reading (where you have some information on your punters) and some decent PR,  and you have got yourself a world class show.

This is why it disappoints me that Australian blog-commentator Caroline wrote a few comments on Stevens’ blog-post – and then posted the following on Twitter directly after making some of those comments to Hayley (as noted by Hayley - one of Caroline’s comments on the blog appeared at 3.22pm and she Tweeted this at 3:29pm):

Cazbaah : @SLSingh You’re not damaging your credibility at all. Only a handful of self important pricks with massive egos, seem to have an issue ;).

Ouch. Helpful? No. Insulting? Yes. Is it about Hayley Stevens? Well, Caroline has claimed on Twitter that it’s in fact about Jon Donnis, another commentator who agreed with Hayley:

You have echoed many of the criticisms I have been aiming towards Singh and MSS!

- and then proceeded to insult both Stevens and myself as ‘freaking neurotic women’.

…little wonder I now automatically refer people to read resources like the blog-posts of Barbara Drescher. They are very helpful when it comes to over-enthusiastic but not very-well-informed people on what skepticism actually entails.

I’m not as well-versed, erudite, nor an expert in the field of Psychology like Drescher – but I have composed a (rather lengthy) response as to what I think is wrong with Caroline’s attitude towards both Stevens and Donnis (who, after all, agrees with Stevens).

As for ‘unhelpful’ – yes, I do think it is very unhelpful that Caroline makes these comments, because they are discouraging a meta-approach to skeptical activism. Particularly to Stevens and people like her (e.g: Derren Brown), who take a step back from the challenge and reflect on the likelihood of it being accepted or other strategies being employed – perhaps in conjunction or even as alternatives. They clearly do have issues with the Million Dollar Challenge, or at the very least raise questions about it being as useful as it could be for the general public. What to do?

Well, of course finding oneself drawn into a tit-for-tat Twitter interchange is even less helpful (although I found myself on the verge of doing just that,because it’s the Internet and everyone can be a jerk on the internet, even me) – and funnily enough, its the ‘You’re not being helpful‘ claim that is at the heart of this interchange.

Caroline doesn’t think that (despite admitting that she signed the Project Barnum petition) that Hayley is doing the right thing by questioning the Merseyside Skeptics’ call for Sally Morgan to

“…take an hour out of her lucrative theatre tour to conclusively demonstrate that the abilities she claims to possess are in fact real.”

This is in spite of the fact that it’s entirely possible that (as Derren Brown pithily puts it) Sally has better things to do on HalloweenDo rejections by the likes of Sally Morgan completely negate the point of the Challenge altogether?

If we look at the history of the JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge, it has indeed been withdrawn completely and then reinstated, because of initial concerns that it just wasn’t doing any good at all. As a media stunt, it has existed since 1968 and has attempted to draw the attention and be accepted by general claimants (which was altered in 2007 to be only high-media-profile and academically-backed claimants) and even discontinued on March 6, 2010 in order to free the money for other uses. It then evolved further:

In 2010 D. J. Grothe indicated his further plans to change and expand the Million Dollar Challenge, including making the application process more transparent, producing more live challenges, being more aggressive with the challenge in order to raise awareness about irresponsible pseudoscientific claims made by institutions, and the like.

On March 8, 2011, the JREF announced that qualifications were being altered to open the Challenge to more applicants… The JREF explained that these new rules would give people without media or academic documentation a way to be considered for testing, and would allow the JREF to use online video and social media to reach a wider audience. [Wikipedia]

Even if one isn’t in the USA, there’s a number of groups throughout the world who have their own equivalent ‘challenge’ of varying amounts. Therefore, this is an established, well-orchestrated and long-standing paranormal challenge that has been offered numerous times throughout it’s history… although with high-profile claimants, it hasn’t exactly been taken up with eagerness and even dismissed outright as some kind of a trick or fake by potential claimants and their fans (as Brown points out in his blog-post, attitudes of the ‘Who are you to ask this of our Sally? Leave her alone!’ kind).

When people have taken up the challenge, it’s always been something that is supported by skeptics, although the eventual outcomes (as no one has passed it yet) hasn’t always resulted in acceptance by the claimant - the Anita Ikonen final outcome after being tested at TAM8, for example.

 ***

So, what does Caroline have issues with, apart from persons (people?) who are ‘self important pricks with massive egos’? The following points are from Caroline’s questions on Stevens’ blog:

But if you read Simon’s Blog in full, you would have seen that he did call Sally herself and spoke to her management team via telephone, he did try several times to contact her in a more personal manner and Sally refuses to talk to anyone unless it is via her Lawyer. Therefore, what other way is there to get her attention?

Because at a certain point, it stops becoming ‘get their attention’ and could be regarded as ‘harassment‘.

How many of us have a certain modicum of sympathy for the public figures who end up on the front pages of gossip magazines and headlines, again and again and again? I look again at Brown’s post regarding Leave Our Sally Alone sentiments pervading regardless.

Just because a person is performing as a psychic, doesn’t mean in any way that they are exempt from having the same rights as anybody else – whichincludes the right to not reply or say ‘NO COMMENT’. That is possibly why Sally Morgan has her lawyers involved, which seems a fairly straightforward step to take. She is, after all, a public figure (whether you believe she’s a psychic or not) and it’s fairly standard to have one’s legal representatives take charge in these cases in order to avoid any potential trouble.

Yes, headlines can work in some cases in actually getting a claimant to step up – but they are in the minority of the history of the Million Dollar Challenge. Even Sylvia Browne’s very public 2001 claim on national television that she’d be willing to be tested by James Randi has gone well into the ‘not likely during this lifetime’ realm.

When headline-grabbing does work in terms of raising awareness (although not, I hasten to say, with a resulting Challenge acceptance on the part of Van Praagh!), it can be very entertaining as well. Let’s have a look at the case study provided by the James Randi Educational Foundation in regards to ‘getting the attention’ of another psychic, James Van Praagh.

This is most certainly an example of a funny, interesting and headline-grabbing attention-getter – but it’s also ethical in that it does not disrupt the show, is done outside and not inside the venue, they are obeying the local laws regarding protests… in fact, Daniel Loxton puts it far better than I do -“…agreeing in advance on rules of engagement, and designing that engagement to keep the protester on the moral high ground.”

The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) brought a small horde of costumed ‘zombies,’ carrying signs reading “Van Praaaaaaagh” and “talk to us, we won’t bite.” The zombies shambled up to the building where Van Praagh’s “Spirit Circle” was set to begin, and asked to speak with him. Led by JREF President D.J. Grothe, the groups asks why Van Praagh is dodging questions about whether he’ll accept the Foundation’s million-dollar challenge to prove his claimed abilities. Apparently, Van Praagh won’t even talk to dead people about the JREF’s challenge.

Yes, headline-grabbing, much as the Sally Morgan case has been headline-grabbing – but not acceptance-getting. I do think that what the JREF did was a more creative spin on proposing a challenge, and it got me smiling. Although it doesn’t produce educational resources with this case either, I can’t help but think that yes, there is indeed a value to the MDC, even if it isn’t accepted. Not letting the MDC die out due to lack of publicity can be a skeptical activist’s goal.

What the JREF has done is not harassment. Not by their putting up a clock on their website as to the years that Sylvia Browne has failed to fulfil her acceptance of the challenge, nor by dressing up as zombies outside Van Praagh’s venue.

Does it negate Stevens and Brown saying that more could be done with more of an educational aspect, by producing resources in the case of the Sally Morgan? No. But then, arguably, that wasn’t the goal of this protest. That’s what activism needs to have – clearly defined goals and outcomes that are desired by the participants. Stevens and Brown just demonstrate a different opinion as to what the goal should include.

Caroline continues:

You are the second person who has criticised Simon that I have discussed this with tonight, I see plenty of the criticising going on but no one seems to be able to give any suggestions (besides your PB thing) on what else could be done to expose this woman/cretin.

Firstly - yes, they haveProducing links, resources, promoting education. It’s something that the James Randi Educational Foundation do as well. Of course, the use of the words ‘woman/cretin‘, is another example of ‘not exactly helpful’… Yes, we can be impassioned and we can be personally and financially hurt by psychic claimants.

I don’t know if Caroline is suggesting that the likes of the Merseyside Skeptics and / or Simon Singh should use words like ‘cretin‘ when discussing Sally Morgan, but considering recent history with the use of the words ‘bogus treatments that Caroline might not be aware of’, I’m inclined to think NOT.

Caroline concludes:

Instead of having a bitch about what you think sucks about the challenge, how about writing out a list of other ideas/suggestions of things that could be done to put a stop to Sally Morgan and others like her.

You came up with PB, I am sure you and Jon and others could put your heads together and since you’re such super skeptics, come up with some other plan that would have more of an impact while sending out your skepticism on a fluffy rainbow cloud.

…you want alternative plans? See here – Project Barnum.

…Or in the case of Jon Donnis’ work spanning over six years with the site Bad Psychics that was quoted not only in UK newspapers and TV, but in the media world wide? See evidence of that here.

Or in the case of previously linked to Grassroots Skeptics “Skeptical Activism Campaign Manual” and the Daniel Loxton-edited “What Do I Do Next?: Leading Skeptics Discuss 105 Practical Ways to Promote Science and Advance Skepticism.”

[Here's a fluffy rainbow cloud as well, but I suspect you were being very serious when you wrote that.]

I think that there’s a veritible glut of ideas/suggestions that Caroline could have sought out, rather than making the comments she did on Twitter and Stevens’ blog-post. I hope she’s been educated by this blog-post on a little of the back-history of the MDC, the different ways it has been regarded over the years (even by the people who created it, such as wanting to end it and then re-instating it) – and how voicing a different opinion isn’t necessarily a negative or completely dismissive one.

****

It’s entirely possible that nobody, even Caroline, will read this lengthy blog-post to the end. It’s quite long, I know. :(

But if Caroline does? Ad Hom is short for argumentum ad hominem and it’s often regarded as a logical fallacy. It’s Latin, and means “to the man”. It’s where you attempt to negate the truth of a claim by attacking the person (their characteristics or their beliefs) than actually tackling the argument they’re making. Calling someone a ‘self-important prick with [a] massive ego‘, rather than addressing what they’re saying, is such an example.

Here’s an additional resource that I think you should check out. Because, Caroline, as a newcomer to skepticism, they’re very useful to know.

 

Photo Credit to Susan Gerbic, who contributed it to Wikipedia.

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.


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