For years those interested in anomalous phenomena have had to put up with a string of platitudes from self-labeled skeptics, not least among them the phrases "anecdotes are not evidence", and "the plural of anecdote is not data". But it appears that things have changed, because a story overnight suggests that skeptics are now more than willing to accept anecdotes as validating evidence when it comes to mediumship.
Chris French is a well-known skeptic in the United Kingdom, a Professor of psychology at Goldsmiths College at the University of London, and editor-in-chief of the UK magazine The Skeptic. I have a lot of time for Chris, because he's willing to get in and do experiments on anomalistic claims. However, in this case I find it hard to give him a pass mark.
Last week, a number of skeptics on Twitter began discussing a radio call-in show in Ireland in which someone said they had witnessed fakery at a show given by British 'psychic' Sally Morgan (you can listen to audio at YouTube). It remained a relatively low-key news item however, until yesterday when Professor French published an article in the Guardian with the rather definitive title, "Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece)". Here's how he sums up the train of events:
Let me describe what happened so that you can make up your own mind. On Monday 12 September, a caller named Sue phoned the Liveline show on RTÉ Radio 1, an Irish radio station. Sue said that she had attended Morgan's show the previous night at the Grand Canal Theatre in Dublin and had been impressed by the accuracy of the readings she made in the first half of the show.
But then something odd happened. Sue was sitting in the back row on the fourth level of the theatre and there was a small room behind her ("like a projection room") with a window open. Sue and her companions became aware of a man's voice and "everything that the man was saying, the psychic was saying it 10 seconds later."
Sue believes, not unreasonably, that the man was feeding information to Sally through an earpiece attached to her microphone. For example, the voice would say something like "David, pain in the back, passed quickly" and a few seconds later Sally would claim to have the spirit of a "David" on stage who – you'll never guess – suffered from back pain and passed quickly.
A member of staff realised that several people near the back of the theatre were aware of the mystery voice and the window was gently closed. The voice was not heard again.
Sue speculated, again not unreasonably given the history of psychic frauds, that the man was feeding Sally information that had been gathered by engaging members of the audience in conversation in the foyer before the show began. This is a technique widely used by psychic fraudsters, as audience members will naturally discuss with each other who they are hoping to hear from "on the other side", how their loved one died, and so on.
...Sadly, however, history suggests that most of Sally's followers will continue to adore her and pay the high prices demanded to see her in action.
So, on the basis of one person's testimony (given that the following caller on the radio show seemed to 'follow' her lead...e.g. she begins by saying she thought the voice was actually a heckler), and going against the direct testimony of the theatre manager, Chris French has written an article in a national news outlet claiming that Sally Morgan is an outright fraud who uses an ear-piece to receive information.
Now, fair play to him, French has come out on Twitter and said that he did not write the headline, which should be taken on board. However, while he may not make a direct accusation within his article, the tone and framing is rather obvious, just with the addition of legalese/weasel words - see for example his ending sentence "sadly, however". I also note that @TheSkepticMag twitter account happily tweeted the story under it's rather precise headline.
That's not to say that Sally Morgan is innocent - caller Sue may well be on the money with her accusation. Personally, I don't know 'psychic Sally' and her act from a bar of soap, just as much as I don't know "Sue". Given that Sally Morgan has psychic phone lines and the like running from her website, she certainly doesn't endear herself to me on first viewing. But that's not the point I'm trying to make here - which is that skeptics are the first to dismiss anecdotes about reports of anomalous experiences, and yet here embrace it when it validates their belief system, to the extent that they will shout it from the rooftops.
What would have been the correct course of action, given the seriousness of the allegations, is to investigate further. Try to talk to Sue in person, look for corroborating witnesses, and probably crucially, talk to the two people who were said to be in the box behind Sue (given that the theatre manager has already stated that nothing untoward was happening). That would offer a far better basis for allegations or quashing the story than going off the testimony of a caller to a radio show.
So you can be sure that other skeptics were quick to urge caution, right? Wrong, the 'fact' of Sally Morgan's guilt went viral. Phil Plait (138,000 followers): "You'd think a real psychic would know if their methods were about to be exposed." Derren Brown (855,000 followers): "Sally Morgan caught proper cheating. Connecting you with dead loved ones via earpiece." Andy Nyman (20,000 followers): "Sally Morgan isn't Psychic - she's been caught using an earpiece. Another disgusting fake psychic" (followed by a later 'correction'). The JREF (10,000 followers): "Psychic Sally Morgan hears voices from the other side (via a hidden earpiece)". Shameful behaviour from so-called "rationalists" - I'm sure we all hope that each of our own reputations could not be smeared so quickly and easily to millions of people...
Interestingly, the suggestion most heard from skeptics when it was pointed out to them that there was very little supporting evidence for such a big claim? "Well, if she's innocent I guess she can sue." So, apparently, skeptics now think that it's okay to smear anyone, and the innocent can just prove themselves so through litigation. Which, given this kerfuffle over the last few years, is rather ironic...
On the flipside, this case also brings attention to the fact that people claiming mediumistic or psychic powers have no formal qualification system or standards governing them. If Sally is truly psychic, it would be nice to see her hook up with some open-minded scientists and set about showing her abilities under scientific testing, given the emotional impact her 'performances' can have on people:
In the end, if you read the comments to the Guardian article, and news spreading across Twitter, it all comes down to believers vs believers, shouting quotations from their particular gospel and/or at their particular flock. Somewhere in the middle, let's hope a few people with common sense and scientific curiosity remain...