That’s Entertainment! Or an Experiment? Or Neither?

I am a Virgo, so not surprisingly I have a slight masochistic streak, which exhibited itself this month when I bought a ticket to see Psychic Sally Morgan live on stage.


I will discuss the content of the show in a moment, but first a diversion via the legal issues that surround psychics and mediums on stage. I am not a legal expert (so I look forward to receiving some expert comments), but it strikes me that Sally’s shows might sit on the edge of a legal minefield.


The Witchcraft Act (1735) was a milestone in state scepticism, as the law acknowledged that magic was impossible. Instead of punishing those who invoked the power of spirits to predict the future or cast spells, as had previously been the case, the new act punished those who pretended to have such powers.


Although this harsh law still applies in Israel (which perhaps explains why Uri Geller spends most of his time outside of his place of birth), it was replaced in Britain in 1951 by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, which essentially allowed psychics to practice, as long they were not being deliberately fraudulent. In other words, real psychics and deluded psychics were safe, and even crooks could get away with it as long as nobody could actually prove the existence of a deception.


Fortunately, we now have the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (2008), which allows psychics and mediums to make claims as long as they can back them up with evidence. A complainant would have to show that an average member of the audience would believe that the performer is contacting the dead, and then the onus is on the performer to prove that he or she does indeed possess this ability.


So, what does this mean for shows based on mediumship? They may be real, in which case the performer would be able to prove his or her powers. However, if the medium is either deluded or fraudulent, or at least is unable to prove that they have genuine powers of mediumship, then this seems like a slam dunk prosecution. The performer has to be able to prove that the show can deliver what is written on the poster.


Is anyone in the UK looking into this approach to challenging shows based on putting audience members in touch with the departed. One hundred complaints to Trading Standards Offices around the country (or perhaps one office in particular) would probably persuade the regulators to look into this. The legislation has been in place for three years and it is about time it got a good airing in relation to psychic shows.


Unfortunately, there is a potential loophole for mediums. Some mediums label their shows as “entertainment” in the small print of the promotion. However, I doubt that this would stand up to scrutiny. Indeed, I think many of the audience members would feel insulted if they were told that their attempt to contact loved ones was being classified as mere entertainment. Hence, I think a challenge is still worth a try.


What’s the harm?


Just because the evidence for psychics is weak to non-existent – some might say not a jot of evidence – does that necessarily mean that skeptics should campaign against shows involving mediumship and pyshics more generally? After all, it’s a free world, isn’t it? What’s the harm?


The short answer is this – take a look at the psychic section of the excellent What’s the harm? website.


The longer answer is based on the Psychic Sally show I watched a couple of weeks ago. At this point I should stress four points.


  1. I am not saying that Sally Morgan is a fraud.
  2. I am saying that I doubt the existence of psychic abilities. This my opinion based on my interpretation of the scientific evidence.
  3. In my opinion the readings that I witnessed were generally haphazard and fairly random. These reviews reflect my experience. The readings that were successful could be explained in three ways: a smidgeon of hot reading, a moderate amount of grade B cold reading or some genuine psychic abilities (or a mixture of these). The cold reading could be conscious or subconscious. Of course, I am sceptical that genuine psychic ability makes any contribution.
  4. Among the, let’s say, 1,000 people who saw the show, I think about ten members of the audience (and their relatives) seemed to receive genuine comfort from the readings they received (e.g., “your mother is content on spirit plane and is very proud of you”).


Of the remaining 990 people, 988 of them received no reading at all for their £25 ticket, and 2 people received readings that I felt were disturbing.


I will not mention the date, location or any names, as the spirit messages touched on sensitive issues, but here are summaries of the two readings that, in my opinion, were potentially harmful.


In the first half, in a pained and distressed voice, Sally linked to a spirit who had committed suicide. She linked the spirit with a woman in the audience. She then proceeded to explain that the deceased man had tried to commit suicide four times. This was news to the woman in the audience. Sally also said that the spirit was “furious at the reason” he had to commit suicide. Not only does the woman in audience have to consider telling her family that their deceased relative is still angry, but she also has to explain that they might have missed three previous attempts at suicide, which could be interpreted as three cries for help that were ignored by his family and friends.


In the second half, Sally spoke to another woman in the audience and revealed that her uncle had drowned many years ago. As far as her family were concerned, the uncle had gone abroad as a boy to live with relatives and had never returned to Britain, but now Sally was filling in the gaps by introducing a tragic event. She had also removed any hope that the relative might still be alive. Again, it is easy to imagine how such a message could cause upset within a family. Indeed, it is quite possible (based on something else that was mentioned by the woman in the audience) that the elderly mother of the deceased boy is still alive. She might now have to cope with this revelation.


Are such messages unusual? Are they rare errors of judgement on Sally’s part?


In fact, I have seen a second Sally Morgan live show this month. My notes on this show are not so detailed, but I can confirm that there were again two messages that (in my opinion) crossed the line from comforting to disturbing. One message concerned a child that was put up for adoption; Sally was confident that this had happened, but the woman who was the target of the message was unaware of the adoption. Will that woman feel that her parents are hiding events from the past? How will this affect her relationship with them? The second message was, again, from a spirit who had committed suicide. It was a painful message that gave details of what had driven the young man to suicide. My suspicion is that this would have upset the family and perhaps prompted them to ask questions about the past based on nothing more than Sally’s intuition … unless she is genuinely psychic.


The impression I get from others who see Sally’s shows is that a spirit who committed suicide is a fairly standard part of the show. (Of course, Sally has no control over which spirits will choose to speak to her.)


I doubt that the receivers of these sorts of messages would have called their experience entertaining. However, to be fair, when I bought my ticket, the Ambassadors Theatre booking agent did not describe the show as entertainment. Instead, she made a point of telling me something along the lines of: “By attending this … you understand that it is a holistic experiment or experience. The medium… could bring about a positive change in your in your life, but changes are your responsibility”


The key word is “experiment”, which potentially provides another get out clause for psychics who might come up against the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations.


Again, I suspect that this sort of caveat would not make much difference if lots of people were to complain. I doubt anyone in a Psychic Sally audience would have considered that they were taking part in an experiment.


Fortunately, the prospect of a real experiment involving Psychic Sally is just a matter of days away. I am continuing to work with Professor Chris French and the Merseyside Skeptics to devise a test/challenge/experiment for Psychic Sally, something that conforms to her normal way of working and which will provide evidence for or against the existence of mediumship skills.


We are trying to make this a genuinely fair and rigorous test. If she passes then it will be great for Sally and science. We will have genuinely found some good evidence that psychic ability exists. Of course, if Sally fails, then we have a supposed psychic who cannot demonstrate any psychic ability. And, moreover, if Sally refuses the test then we will have to make up our own minds.


More details of the test will be announced before the end of the week.

Originally posted on slsingh’s posterous