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Challenging Psychics is Deadly Serious Business

Oct. 10, 2014 by | Comments (20)

UK-based Sally Morgan, known by her moniker “Psychic Sally,” has become embroiled this week in another dispute with skeptics. Earlier today an undercover video was released showing rather disturbing threats being made against a skeptic from people who apparently work for the psychic performer.

— “Right, so I’m gonna hit you in a minute, I’m gonna knock you out.”
— “I don’t want any trouble.”

The video is below, but first some background is in order. A skeptic named Mark Tilbrook has been handing out leaflets outside Ms. Morgan’s appearances as a form of skeptical activism since earlier this year. These leaflets offer some questions for attendees to consider to make “sure you are not tricked or misled into something that may not be real” along with some hyperlinks to skeptical resources online.

Ms. Morgan’s team took a dim view of this campaigning and have threatened Mr. Tilbrook with legal action, according to his account in The Guardian on Tuesday. He subsequently reached out to the Good Thinking Society, a skeptical UK non-profit run by Simon Singh for help. They are offering him legal assistance, but are also taking Tilbrook’s campaign to the next level, which I will also detail below.

Other skeptical groups have engaged in similar campaigns to Mr. Tilbrook’s many times in the past. For instance the Granite State Skeptics have handed out psychic “bingo cards” outside psychic readings in their area. (I’ve also supported a group doing the same thing at DragonCon in Atlanta).

The aim of all these campaigns is to prime the audiences to techniques and effects that psychics depend upon. These include biases well known to skeptics such as confirmation bias and the Forer Effect or Barnum Effect. Leafleting like this can be an effective form of local skeptic activism.

It is easy to forget the importance of local boots-on-the-ground skeptic activism like this. Conversely, famous debunkings of paranormalists such as James Randi’s undoing of Peter Popoff in 1986, are remembered by most skeptics.

What many skeptics may not realize is Randi’s appearance on the Tonight Show that year was the culmination of a long investigation that involved the help of several local skeptic groups, as the late Robert Steiner recounted in a later article. (Our own Daniel Loxton also covered this story in detail last year in his essay on the purpose of skepticism). This is the important work of investigation and campaigning that skeptics must do, in order to educate the public and get the attention of the press.

Coincidentally, another related skeptic campaign, against American psychic Chip Coffey, took place in California just a few weeks ago. More investigative than educational, “Operation Bumblebee” saw a group of skeptics led by Susan Gerbic and including Sheldon Helms, Jim Preston and others attending a session by the psychic medium. Echoing the 1986 Popoff investigation, several of them adopted false personas and carried prop photos, to see if they could lure Coffey into contacting non-existent dead relatives. They were successful in this. We may post more on this in the future.

Today’s controversy involving Morgan is the latest in a long series. Back in 2011 she was accused by callers to a radio program of using an earpiece during a show in Ireland. Skeptics pointed out that such an earpiece could be of great use to someone wanting to pretend to be psychic—as Randi had discovered of Popoff back in 1986.

This resulted in much coverage in the press and Ms. Morgan eventually disclaiming the use of earpieces. There followed a very interesting post by Simon Singh which correlated the online audience ratings of Morgan’s shows with when she was and was not using an earpiece. The back-of-the-napkin study showed a definite drop in audience satisfaction correlated with the loss of her earpiece.

Back in May of this year, skeptic Myles Power also related a personal account about an interesting failure at one of Morgan’s shows. That involved some unsatisfied audience members as well.

It has not been all skeptic wins against Morgan, however. When magician Paul Zenon wrote about her shows and her use of an earpiece in the Daily Mail, the newspaper was sued. The case was settled for a sum of £125,000—though this was an out-of-court settlement, not an actual libel judgment.

Today’s controversy has flared due to this video, posted on Boing Boing by author Cory Doctorow and apparently recorded from a lapel camera during Mr. Tilbrook’s leafleting earlier this year.

As you can see, two representatives of Morgan’s come out and threaten Tilbrook not only with legal action, but also with physical violence.  They also make a number of anti-gay slurs against him and several other people who have campaigned against Morgan. Quite disgraceful on every level.

This video was posted early this morning (UK time) and a few hours ago Sally Morgan’s official website posted a response titled SME Statement.

Sally Morgan Enterprises would like to apologise for any offence caused by the material. Since April 2014, Mark Tilbrook has targeted Sally Morgan’s live performances; handing out leaflets to audience members. On several occasions theatre staff have had to call the police in order to get him removed.

(Astute readers will note the first sentence is a classic “notpology“). Via Twitter, Tilbrook contacted me to deny the detail about the police. He says, “I have never ‘been removed’ from any show—if they called the police, they haven’t showed up on any occasion.”

The statement goes on:

Due to the continual presence of Mark Tilbrook and John Morgan’s ever-growing concern for Sally, he reacted angrily and out of character.

Sally was not aware of the comments made in this video. She is very upset by the events, does not condone any of the behaviour and can only assume that this was the cause of persistent hounding that lead to this altercation.

It remains to be seen if the legal threats against Tilbrook will come to fruition. Meanwhile I am told by Michael Marshall, Project Director at the Good Thinking Society, that the Guardian article from Tuesday was the third most read item on that site the next day.

Moving forward, the Good Thinking Society is capitalizing on Mr. Tilbrook’s work, and turning it into a month-long campaign for October. Called Psychic Awareness Month, it features a spruced up version of Tilbrook’s leaflet (see above) which will be handed out at many different psychic shows in the UK—not just Morgan’s.

Clearly, challenging the claims of psychics and educating the public about their techniques is a key skeptic task. These grassroots campaigns show that you don’t need to be a celebrity skeptic to accomplish real good. Social media backlash against psychics and effective press coverage can result from very simple grassroots techniques.

But it is very important for skeptics to plan their campaigns carefully and seek help from experts in various fields (legal, conjuring, technology and more) as they go forward. I wish Mr. Tilbrook and the Good Thinking Society good luck with their Psychic Awareness Month campaign.

Tim Farley

Tim Farley is a computer security analyst in Atlanta, Georgia as well as a writer, podcaster and lecturer. He is known for his website What’s the Harm?, which catalogs the real-world consequences of irrational beliefs. He also writes on technology issues for skeptics at his Skeptical Software Tools blog, where he advocates for skeptic online best practices and explores crowdsourcing as a skeptical technique. Read Tim’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

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