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

October 24, 2011

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 is 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.


From → Uncategorized

  1. Thom permalink

    Really good article, thanks for entering this murky world, sure you could be spending your time on more important things but hey, people like this must be held accountable. You’re like a superhero or something. REASONMAN to the rescue!

  2. BookishGhoul permalink

    "sure you could be spending your time on more important things". Thom, I disagree. This IS very important. Anyone can call themselves a psychic medium and start up a successful ‘business’ doing this. A lot of people think this is wrong.The people who go to psychics are often vulnerable, grieving and desperate, so they can very easily be exploited. I find it very upsetting hearing about the mothers who go to these shows and are met with their stillborn babies and very young infants, who seem to always pop up on stage, and are able to speak and to walk. Why are the messages always so vague? Why did this particular psychic, Sally Morgan, change her story from not wearing an earpiece to receive any form of communication, to wearing an earpiece now for ‘stage direction’ purposes? Not forgetting that the TV shows of these celeb psychics are all heavily edited and it gives people the impression that the psychics definitely are speaking to the dead. The people who pay to go to these live shows don’t see it as ‘entertainment’, they believe that it’s real and that’s why these big name psychics have so many followers. I wish that there was a law in place to prevent anyone who claims to be psychic, from profiting from it without first proving themselves in a scientific test in a controlled environment. I bet we wouldn’t have this problem then, because there would be NO psychics. Doctors and other professionals in a position of trust have to be registered, so why not psychics?Why has Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh, etc all dodged the JREF $1Million dollar challenge I wonder? What evidence are psychic mediums putting forward other than the anecdotes of their fans?I am so pleased that someone is speaking up about this. If Simon didn’t, then we would have no one bothering, and it would all just carry on for the next 50 years, with another generation being fooled. Thank you, thank you Simon Singh!

  3. Anonymous permalink

    I think Sally does speak to dead people… I just don’t think that they talk back. Some might say this is indicative of a personality disorder or some other kind of mental illness. Others might say it is wishful thinking. Either way, psychics have been asked to prove their powers under certain conditions before and continually fail to deliver. It’s clear to me that people go to psychics and mediums for the same reasons that they still go to church or pray at home.

  4. gingger permalink

    As a minimum, the woman needs to develop some sensitivity and could certainly benefit from some bereavement training!

  5. JonDonnis permalink

    Dont you think it is rather presumptious to design a test for Sally before asking her to take it? Surely its a waste of time until you actually enter into correspondance directly with Sally Morgan.Without having this correspondance already in place, this comes across as no more than another publicity stunt.There are better ways to get through to believers in mediums, and better ways to get psychics to take tests.What Sally Morgan does IS disturbing, it is dangerous, and I believe it is illegal too, but these campaigns and publicity stunts only achieve in furthering the divide between the skeptics and the believers/psychics

  6. Phil J permalink

    It’s good that someone is taking Morgan to task and developing a test to prove her abilities one way or the other. However, developing a test without Morgans input is pointless as, when she fails, she’ll just claim that the test was deliberately stacked against.

  7. JonDonnis permalink

    Exactly my point Phil. This is nothing more than another skeptic publicity stunt

  8. Cazbaah permalink

    I concur with Donna’s point of view.Something needs to be said and done and needs to be continuously pursued to show Mrs Morgan it isn’t just going to go away, like I am sure she is hoping. As for the statement "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. "I can tell you, they definitely do get offended. After bringing this up on Sally Morgans public figure page on Facebook, several "fans" got rather nasty at anyone who would bring up the fact that it is just entertainment, if we dared say it wasn’t real, we were confronted with being told we had no lives, called expletives and in the end, majority of us were blocked from the page. I do hope Mrs Morgan takes you up on your offer of the test but somehow I think she’ll refuse…I know why and I am sure plenty of others do as well but I do not think the fans want to take their blinkers off, no matter what is proven or not.

  9. Chris Hallam permalink

    If what she claims is true, and she is selfless in motive, surely she owes it to the spirit relatives of living sceptics to prove herself in whatever means necessary in order to get their messages across? 😉

  10. Tony permalink

    Good thing churches don’t require an enterance fee or the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations would be swamped

  11. miss_spent permalink

    Was the adoption one in Woking? If not then that story was also told at the Woking show, and the recipient had no idea about an adoption. It did worry me for the same reasons written here

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