Freaky Friday: The psychic, the skeptic and the lawsuit

By Ash Pryce

I was reluctant to post this as I am aware I am somewhat in a minority and believe it or not I hate arguing, especially with friends.  Many skeptics I’ve discussed this with seem convinced that there is no way sally can win.  I hope they are right.  I should also add I am not a lawyer nor in any way involved in the case there may be more evidence available I am not aware of. 

I don’t like celebrity psychics, I find them odious. Intentionally or unintentionally they are preying on the bereaved for massive profit and  I can think of few more sickening activities.  Psychics are either genuine (unlikely), con artists (nigh on impossible to prove) or deluded (The Jesus “Liar, Lord or Lunatic” comparison).  As I don’t believe psychic ability exists I am left to consider every psychic as either a con artist or self-deluded.  I would like to think it is the latter, though fear that many are the former.  Some, such as Peter Popoff have even been caught out, Colin Fry was found to have been holding up items in a seance in 1992 that were supposedly being moved by “the spirits” (though he wiggled out of this by claiming his spirit guide had possessed him and was in fact the one messing around with items in the dark) and there are probably countless other examples of famous psychics being caught out in a similar fashion. There are also likely to be thousands of examples of self-deluded psychics who believe they have a gift because they are intuitive cold readers bolstered by confirmation bias when they, purely by luck, land a “hit”.

Last year “Psychic” Sally Morgan was accused of using a  technique similar to that of Popoff by using an earpiece to  feed information from a crew at the back of the room to aid her psychic performance on stage.  Information that had allegedly been gathered before the show had started with the intention of giving her it when needed to convince the audience she was psychic.

This would be an example of Hot Reading and if this is true it is despicable. As its use is indefensible by someone who truly believes they have any powers or gifts as it is in short cheating. Whether a psychic believes themselves to have special powers or not using hot reading when claiming to be channelling information from the other side is fraud.

The specific claim of foul play levelled against Morgan hinges on the statements of two audience members claiming to have overheard crew members behind them saying things that 10 seconds later Sally repeated word for word.  Once this was noticed it is alleged that a member of theatre staff noticed and closed the window that was allowing the crew to be overheard.

Of course Sally and the theatre both proclaimed their innocence, but this didn’t stop others getting involved in the debate.

Merseyside Skeptics challenged her to take part in what would be the first stage of the Million Dollar Challenge in October 2011.  She declined.  She was called out by noted skeptics such as Professor Chris French in the Guardian and people all over the UK and several parts of the world.  Sally then claimed she couldn’t possibly have used the Popoff technique because she doesn’t wear an earpiece and stated:

“”The head-mic I use is only for sound to go out to the audience not the other way around, it is impossible for me to hear through this.””.

To Sally’s dismay a picture of her wearing an earpiece came to light.

Now I don’t for one second believe Morgan is psychic and would not be at all surprised if it did turn out she was wearing the earpiece to receive information in the manner I mention above.  However, she has now decided to sue the Daily Mail for an opinion piece written by magician Paul Zenon.  She is specifically suing for £150,000 damages related to claims that she “was in fact simply repeating instructions from members of her team via a microphone and hidden earpiece”.

My concern, based on the evidence publicly available is that it doesn’t really look too good for the sceptical side.  The evidence against Morgan appears to be two audience members who claim to have heard something and that she lied about using the earpiece.

Many people on stage will use earpieces to receive information from the stage manager such as timing and other important information related to the staging of the show.  It does not automatically follow that the earpiece was used to receive covert information about members of the audience.  Morgan made a mistake by not admitting she used an earpiece but a good lawyer could probably wiggle out of this problem. It could be argued that she feared a heavy bombardment of public and skeptical attacks if she admitted to the earpiece and in a silly attempt to protect her and her family’s peace of mind didn’t admit to using it.  A silly mistake made to protect herself from further harm.  And we can’t prove that isn’t the case.  She lied about not having an earpiece.  So?

As to the two eyewitnesses, this is better.  For a start it relates to the case specifically but even then it doesn’t conclusively prove that what these women think they experienced really happened.  As skeptics we are oh so quick to leap to the “Anecdotes are not data” and “Eyewitness testimony is flawed” when it’s something we are campaigning against.  When people confirm what a psychic says we claim their memory might be faulty, that maybe other factors came into play.  Shame we’re not extending our usual critical thinking skills when it’s something that supports our cause.

The two bits of “evidence” for Sally Morgan using the Peter Popoff method are circumstantial at best.  The best defence I could imagine is the Daily Mail running with the “Fair comment” and opinion argument.  I do hope sally does not win as her followers and other believers in psychic ability may well see it as confirmation that psychic superpowers really exist.  My advice, tempered obviously by my lack of specific legal knowledge and to the information that is publicly available, is that The Daily Mail, Paul Zenon should settle now, settle fast and let’s get this out of the way.

I truly, truly, truly hope I am wrong and that this will go “our” way.  Again I only have the publicly available information to go on and hope that I have missed something but on the state of the information available I worry what will happen if/when Sally get’s her day in court.

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0 Responses to Freaky Friday: The psychic, the skeptic and the lawsuit

  1. IANAL, but the original Daily Mail article appears to be written in a way as to make no outright accusations, just suggestions and questions. Much as I dislike the paper, I too would be surprised if Sally wins her case against it. It was a pretty decent article for them.

  2. Ash Pryce says:

    That’s why I say the best defence is the “Fair comment” one. I’m just wary of the instant jump to a conclusion that she won’t win before it’s even gone to court, as well as the evidence a lot of people are presenting (The earpiece and eyewitnesses.)

  3. Indeed. Also, IANAL cracks me up.

  4. John Stabler says:

    Surely Sally should be looking to sue the people who made the original allegations?
    It would be a strange world where papers were not able to print stories based on on only heresay and had to *shock* research stories and gather evidence.

  5. Ash Pryce says:

    John, I think we need to see the specific words complained of. Also you can be sued simply for repeating the claim. All these things suck, but at present it’s how it is.

    Libele Reform!

  6. Further evidence, if such were needed, of the urgency of reforming the English (I think it’s not quite so bad in Scotland) libel laws.

  7. Dalradian says:

    I would be interested in hearing the evidence of the staff if it ever went to trial, but considering the state of the libel laws to believe there is NO way Sally can win is a bit of a stretch – indeed I suspect the Mail will fold.

    The question of winning or losing the libel case is linked but still separate from the question of what techniques she uses in her shows, which is what I was more interested in from the original Paul Zenon article.

  8. Cuerden says:

    …So,er, what article is she suing over, exactly? You kind of left out the actual exposition of the lawsuit.

  9. Cuerden says:

    Never mind. Shouldn’t read stuff while I have flu. Sorry!

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