Freaky Friday: Psychics on my mind

By Ash Pryce

The news of Psychic Sally’s alleged Hot Reading has spread throughout the skeptical world and many of us have sat back and said “How is this in anyway surprising?” I’m not going to rehash over the Psychic Sally story, if you haven’t come across it then have a quick read here. The story has ignited some debate in the skeptical community and coincided with the launch of Project Barnum – a campaign to raise awareness about the trickery used by psychics and mediums.

There will of course be people who genuinely believe what they are told by mediums, who willingly accept all the vagaries of a reading as something more concrete than they are, and they will have a variety of reasons and defences for doing so. The defences of psychic trickery I find the most difficult to argue against are: “It’s my money, I can spend it how I choose” and “It brings comfort”.

Neither of these rely on challengeable statements of “fact” and certainly we can’t argue with them from an evidence based point of view but what about from a moral, logical or ethical point of view?

 1. “It’s my Money, I can spend it how I like…”

Yes it is your money and if you want to spend it on psychic readings go right ahead.  I can’t stop you.  If you want to spend your money feeding your crack habit, knock yourself out. Most skeptics aren’t bothered about what you spend your money on- as long as we’ve presented the facts in a clear and true way, well, go for it!

If people still continue to buy homeopathy even after being told and informed of just what it is they are buying there is little more we can do.  The evidence has been presented, as far as we know it has been understood, if people still want to buy 30C of Berlin wall to help with their feeling of separation and being alone then let them.  We’re not here to remove people’s choice on how they spend their money (though we are certainly here to put pressure on the government to stop allowing public funds to be squandered).

The problem with the “It’s my money, I can spend it how I like” argument is that it is an attempt to end the conversation without properly addressing any of the evidence presented.  It is a cowardly cop out.  It also suggests that maybe, just maybe, the person has accepted there are gaping holes in their belief and for their own sanity ended the conversation.  It also has no bearing on the existence or not of psychic ability.  That is the most damning refutation to this argument that it isn’t really an argument but an attempt to deflect the criticism and maybe, just maybe save face.

But even more common than this is the following.

 2. “It brings people comfort”

I find this the hardest argument to challenge.

It is certainly true that many people find comfort in psychics, check out any psychics testimonial page and find hundreds of people talking about the contact they’ve had with their loved ones.  But psychics and mediums don’t always bring comfort as the following example attests:

Sylvia Brown, is a famous medium, has a habit of being wrong in her readings- but not wrong as in getting great aunt Doreens name as Maureen.  Wrong in ways that can create not just false hope but false despair.  One such case was that of Shawn Hornbeck.  Shawn was a young child who went missing, his parents went onto the Montel Williams show where Sylvia seems to have rooted herself to the studio floor, to find answers about their missing boy.

Sylvia told them he was dead and that a Hispanic man had kidnapped him.

Now wait for just a moment, just hold that for a second.  Especially those of you who are parents.  Your child is missing and you are told (on national television), in no uncertain terms that your child is dead.

How does that make you feel? Does that bring comfort to you?  Does it bring closer?

Then how do you feel when sometime later the police find your son is a live and, considering the circumstances, well?  What then?  Fortunately, even after being told by Sylvia their son was dead, the Hornbecks continued to have hope and rightfully so.  But I worry about the extra crushing feeling of being told your child is alive when they are not.

What if you are a parent and you are told by Sylvia your missing child is actually alive, the flash of hope you get, the willingness to expert extra time and resources only to find that again Sylvia is wrong and your child is dead.

Syvlia  has committed both of these “mistakes”.  Just because the belief in psychics brings comfort to some, there are many others who are damaged by this same comfort.

Just because something brings comfort doesn’t make it right, and if psychic ability doesn’t exist then these people are preying on you.  Take that in.  Either knowingly or unknowingly these people are exploiting vulnerable people for their own gain.  I as a skeptic don’t need the false comfort of a psychic, if you do I’d seriously consider looking at more evidence based alternatives such as bereavement counselling.

As Mark Twain said

“The fact that a believer is happier than a non believer is no more to the point than that a drunk is happier than a sober person”

In my view our job as Skeptics shouldn’t end with “Psychic ability doesn’t exist”. I reckon we have a duty to help offer alternatives to those who are being taken in by charlatans.  Our job shouldn’t end with “It’s just trickery, sorry your loved one isn’t in the afterlife” we should help people come to terms with the fact their beliefs are wrong and support them where necessary.

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