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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.

20 responses to “Challenging Psychics is Deadly Serious Business”

  1. Tim Farley says:

    This link only works easily for people in the UK, but here is Mark Tilbrook appearing on the ITV This Morning show with psychic Colin Fry. (Technically adept non-UK users can watch this by using a proxy service in the UK).

    Here is a text summary of what happened in the segment courtesy of the site Skeptical Science.

  2. Tim Farley says:

    Even more updates! Sally Morgan has cancelled all autograph sessions after her show, and yesterday her website mysteriously went offline with no explanation. The site is still displaying a default web server page this morning.

  3. Tim Farley says:

    I spoke about this story last night on the Virtual Skeptics webcast. The part about Sally Morgan starts at 14:25 and lasts about 7 minutes, this link should take you right there:

  4. Tim Farley says:

    Another update! It appears that Sally Morgan’s husband and son-in-law have responded to the above lawyer letter by delivering a personal apology to Mark Tilbrook, he reported it on Twitter yesterday afternoon:

    Mark Tilbrook (@Elbonio)
    A short time ago my solicitor received personal letters of apology from John Morgan and Daren Wiltshear. I want to consider this carefully.
    5:45 PM – 14 Oct 2014

    • Max says:

      Sounds like they’re apologizing for the assault.
      Sally’s libelous statement is still up on her website and Facebook page.

  5. Tim Farley says:

    This story continues to evolve. The video has gotten well over 100,000 views over the weekend and climbing. A number of press outlets in the UK have picked up the story.

    Today the Good Thinking Society published this letter from a lawyer acting on Mark Tilbrook’s behalf, pointing out some elements of Sally Morgan’s statements about the video could be seen as defamatory of Tilbrook.

    It’s pretty long but here are a few key passages:

    We have been instructed by Mr Mark Tilbrook and we understand that you act for Sally Morgan. We write further to the statement placed on Sally Morgan’s website at and facebook page at last Friday, 10 October 2014.

    It appears that the statement is both misleading and inaccurate. We set out the various sections of the statement which do not present an accurate or true version of events and request that the statement be amended accordingly.

    The letter goes on to list four separate sections of the statement that could be seen as misleading, explains why, and includes comments from users on Facebook that shows they are in fact being misled by the statements. The letter then concludes:

    The effect of the above statements is to infer that Mr Tilbrook instigated the vile and threatening abuse he suffered, and that his conduct somehow warranted such behaviour by Mr Morgan.

    We can only hope that Mrs Morgan did not intend for her statement to give rise to such misleading impressions about Mr Tilbrook’s behaviour. We accordingly look forward to Mrs Morgan setting the record straight as soon as possible before this spreads further on the internet. We note that the Independent newspaper has today published an article which quotes Ms Morgan’s accusation of “persistent hounding” by Mr Tilbrook.

    Our client’s rights are fully reserved.

    The referenced Independent newspaper article is here.

  6. Tim Farley says:

    There is additional news about this story. On Monday the official Sally Morgan website posted an announcement about a response to the video titled Psychic Sally sacks her Husband and Son-In-Law. Here is the text:

    13th October 2014: Today Sally Morgan made a firm decision to sack her husband John Morgan and Son in Law Daren Wiltshear after recent video footage shows them using violent and threatening behaviour.

    As of today John Morgan no longer holds his position as Sally’s Personal Manager and Daren Wiltshear no longer holds the position of Tour Manager. Both John and Daren will have nothing more to do with Sally Morgan’s business, including her live shows, which they will no longer be attending.

    Sally Morgan added “I have come from a family background that has always been very accepting, many of my friends are gay and I have always felt happy that I am often referred to as a gay icon through my work. I am utterly ashamed and devastated at the behaviour of my husband John and Son in Law Daren and neither of them will have anything to do with my work, my business and right now I honestly have no idea what is going to happen to my marriage”.

    There will be many more important decisions being made over the course of this week.

  7. Bob Cash says:

    ANYONE claiming to be psychic is in one, or both, of only TWO states.
    1) A CON ARTIST.
    How many of the con artists display the disclaimer, “For entertainment purposes only”?
    In any event, they should not be permitted to influence the feeble-minded or vulnerable people who might believe such nonsense!
    Whilst most of them look and sound incredibly stupid to those with more than two firing synapses, one can only assume these thieves they simply don’t care because they are making so much money,.
    Trying to con others is one thing but, if you are trying to fool yourself, you need urgent help.
    (Incidentally, if YOU are one of the many people who genuinely believe in such garbage, I defend your absolute right to believe in whatever nonsense you chose, no matter how stupid. However, it is highly recommended you seek urgent help immediately.)
    NOW, at last, YOU can actually DO something positive! Click the link above and sign the petition!
    Join the campaign to stop these evil individuals stealing from so many such unfortunate individuals. Email your M.P. and request the issue be raised in parliament to prohibit these thieves from advertising or performing.
    If ALL thieves should be imprisoned, why does the government condone this huge (and growing) group of con artists stealing with impunity? They should also be imprisoned and their vast profits applied to support victims. It’s nothing short of legalised theft!
    The truth is posted everywhere that these con artists should be in PRISON like ANY con artist so isn’t it strange why they never try to sue me if they claim they really possess such a supernatural skill ? !

  8. Max says:

    Is Tilbrook pressing assault charges?

  9. Helena Constantine says:

    Everything in that leaflet is already shown by demonstration is the “psychic” reading Professor Marvel gives Dorothy in the Kansas section at the beginning of the Wizard of Oz. You’d think people would notice eventually.

  10. george says:

    If they’re so convinced of her abilities then why do they feel so threatened?

  11. MikeB says:

    That video was frightening.

    Now imagine what happens when you question someone’s religion….

  12. BobM says:

    I thought British libel laws were altered in the wake of the Singh trial – to make it more difficult for idiots to sue scientists who were proving them wrong?

  13. Joe says:

    Mark Steel Lectures: “Rene Descartes”, the last three minutes: “So his job was done; except that now we’re in danger of reverting back to the twaddle that he tried to get rid of! In 1800, the presidential election in America was fought between candidates who fought about who was best placed to make use of Science and Technology in the new Age of Reason. Now presidential elections are fought between candidates who argue about who spent the most time praying; and everywhere you go, there’s people devoting themselves to crystals and and feng shui, charging people a fortune to go around their house and go, ‘and this bit up here is what call the ceiling area’. Then there’s these loonies that reckon they can cure your diarrhea by waving their hands around your head to realign your aura, and say you’ll never get ear ache if you wear the colour magenta, and go, “Oh, I’ve been reading about the Miguene tribe in the hills of the Ukrane. Do you know they live to be 370 years old, and none of them have ever eaten a thing!” Descartes was a huge step in the quest for reason; for working out why a stone falls or medicine heals, and assuming it’s down to “God’s will” or “positive auras” or “Saturn rising behind Venus”; but he was also first to base a philosophy around subjecting every idea to scrutiny – which is still hard today! … If Descartes was around today, I think the first thing he would say would be, “Look, if you’re convinced that you shouldn’t get up before midday, and somebody tries to persuade you to do otherwise, then don’t. ‘Cause as long as you’ve got your ‘elth, that’s the main thing.”

    So, similarly, if they’re convinced they’re right – which it appears they’re not – they’d just shut up and get on with their show. :)

  14. Joe says:

    Gee, they work for a psychic. You’d think they’d already know how it turns out – that they’re found out as (what did Penn & Teller say you can say without getting sued for using the F-word? Oh yes…) BULLSHIT! :)

  15. Jeffrey says:

    All psychics are frauds. This one should be shut down for harassment at the very least. There is no known evidence anywhere that psychic abilities exist whatsoever. Indeed there is a mound of evidence that they do not exist!

  16. Tim Farley says:

    I checked with someone who helped with the camera, and he related that it is a very low-cost lapel camera on which the clock often resets to zero. They noticed it at the time but didn’t have time to fix it on the video. Other skeptics were present when this happened and can attest to the location and date.

  17. Tim Farley says:

    It is possible that like many camera owners, he neglected to set the clock correctly. But I have reached out to Tilbrook for a comment on that.

  18. Morgan says:

    I noticed the statement at the start of the video indicated this occurred on April 2nd of 2014 but the date and time stamp showed March 15 2012. Which date is correct?

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