Saturday April 19 2008
Paranormal phenomena are on the rise this spring, as any viewer of Street Psychic, Most Haunted Live, The Psychic Detective, Psychic Investigators, Mystic Challenge, and Psychic School would know. In Durham, Easington district council has paid for psychic Suzanne Hadwin to exorcise a poltergeist from the home of one of its tenants, who complained of objects moving, doors slamming, and a dressing gown floating down the stairs.
The family report that the spirit has now gone, and the house has a “lovely atmosphere”: an excellent psychic service at a competitive price (only £60).
But there is a darker side. In February a psychic was called to investigate a reported zombie in underground tunnels at an Eastbourne sewage plant. “It’s not funny going to work and worrying that a zombie might be around the corner,” said one plant worker. It’s even less funny for a consumer to be cynically exploited by a psychic, because everybody knows that although psychics have their merits, they are entirely useless in this situation: to kill a zombie, you must destroy its brain.
How, then, can we police this kind of mis-selling? Next month the Fraudulent Mediums Act will be repealed, and replaced with general consumer legislation, which is to regulate various popular psychic services including predictions for the future, casting good luck spells, managing spooks (but perhaps not zombies) and communicating with the dead. The burden of proof is shifted to the psychic, and they are up in arms, with their union visiting the government yesterday to lobby against the new regulations.
Psychics are popular. They do what they say on the tin. They serve consumers who possibly shouldn’t watch telly after 9pm, but who have chosen to seek out practitioners with a very odd take on evidence. Apparently, special protection will be given to those who may be “particularly vulnerable” on account of their “credulity” (“consumers who may more readily believe specific claims”).
With my tiny brain, I can’t see how anyone is going to rationally police this kind of thing, given that the whole industry is, by definition, based on nonsense, and it’s plainly undesirable to ban things simply because they’re stupid.
Would the psychic who cleared the council house poltergeist be culpable? How about if she had failed? What about the psychic who failed to take out the zombie? Who will decide?
The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has given us a taster of the comedy to come, adjudicating last month in all seriousness on Zara, the “UK’s premier psychic adviser”. It was concerned that statements like “I will cast a spell to grant your wish”, “might be interpreted to mean that her spells would be successful”. Thank God the ASA is there to save us from this underhand marketing practice. I don’t understand why anyone would pay for a spell if they didn’t think it would be successful.
Then the regulator tried to assess Zara’s powers. “We considered that the claim ‘premier psychic adviser’ implied that Zara offered an objectively superior service to all other psychic advisers … because we had seen no comparative evidence to show that Zara offered an objectively superior service to all other psychic advisers, the claim was misleading.”
It’s unclear what kind of evidence might have sufficed for the ASA. If it was a provable phenomenon then perhaps that would genuinely have been mis-selling. Maybe Chris Forster, the BNP’s moustachioed psychic candidate for the London Assembly, could have helped the ASA take a more quantitative approach. His speciality is “remote viewing of people, property or businesses, ie to analyse accurately at a distance”, and he promotes himself as “the only qualified internal auditor and accountant working full-time as a psychic”.
This nonsense is everywhere, and I’m glad of it (although not the BNP part). I am very happy to live in a world where “Alien doctors treated my cystitis” can be a news story in the Hartlepool Mail (“I don’t tell people … I don’t think they believe me. That’s why I’m telling my story to the Mail, to give credibility. I want to get it into concrete evidence”).
If we’re going to be paternalistic about the credulous, you might hope we start with Carol Vorderman’s high interest “loan consolidation” adverts before we get to Cilla Black’s £1.50 a minute Psychic Hotline service. Although I bet they make a great pair.
So I realise that is a slightly unfashionable view, and many of you would like to see quacks and psychics locked up. But I think the answer to bad ideas is better ideas, that people walk into these situations with their eyes open, and that the greater threat are the morons who present themselves as superficially plausible and “sciencey”, while undermining the public understanding of evidence.
Mainly, though, I just think the psychic magic woo people are just too funny to risk banning.
Here is an excellent video from badpsychics.com, my brothers in anality, who have devoted themselves to gathering quality video evidence of fakery in TV psychics shows and more.
Here is a video of Yvette Fielding faking a spirit noise from an episode of Most Haunted at Ordsall Hall. Notice how she blatantly makes an “aaahhhhh” sound when she thinks the camera is not on her.
It’s the way Yvette asks all innocently about the noise afterwards. More here, and it really is a great site.
And who can forget the glorious spectacle of Sanal Edmaraku, president of Rationalist International.
India TV, one of
India‘s major Hindi channels with national outreach, invited Sanal Edamaruku for a discussion on “Tantrik power versus Science”. Pandit Surinder Sharma, who claims to be the tantrik of top politicians and is well known from his TV shows, represented the other side. During the discussion, the tantrik showed a small human shape of wheat flour dough, laid a thread around it like a noose and tightened it. He claimed that he was able to kill any person he wanted within three minutes by using black magic. Sanal challenged him to try and kill him.
The whole episode was televised. The tantrik darts around, all sinister, while Sanal shakes his head and chuckles. At one point he gets a nice head massage. What’s funnier is that this went on for two hours, on national television, after which the host called the experiment to an end. The tantrik said Sanal must be under the protection of a very powerful god, to which he replied: “I am an atheist”.