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Psychic: "What we do is entertainment."

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Philly is closing down its psychic shops. Which has led to some interesting confessions from the psychics themselves:

Fortune-telling for profit is a third-degree misdemeanor. The law has been on the books for more than 30 years. Verdi said that he did not know how many shops operated in the city, but that he expected inspectors to close more in the days ahead. Inspectors are not imposing fines, and police are not making arrests, Verdi said, “but they will if these people try to return to work.” Most so-called psychics, he said, “are not little old ladies with kerchiefs on their heads” but clever con artists capable of stealing large sums – even life savings – from grieving or otherwise vulnerable people. The owner of Psychic, a fortune-telling shop at 2041 Walnut St., sat on his steps yesterday and complained bitterly about the police action. He would not give his name or his lawyer’s name. “First of all,” he said, “they’ve got to stop the 129 murders in this city. What we do is entertainment.” [emphasis added]

Now I’m quite sure that this law is unconstitutional, and it should be overturned. It is definitely a violation of protections on freedom of speech–if not religion. Why would I come out in favor of psychics? Because it’s a matter of principle. When evaluating laws and social mores, we all need to test their fairness by what would happen if our opponents were to apply the same standard to us. People have the right to be entertained.

If you close down the psychics, what do you do about the institutionalized religions which do the same thing on a larger scale? Let’s analyze what the psychics are accused of: “clever con artists capable of stealing large sums – even life savings – from grieving or otherwise vulnerable people.” This could describe most religions (especially Mormons, with their tax-return-like annual donation forms). The psychic quoted in the article made the connection: “critics considered that Jesus was a psychic, a fortune-teller, and they crucified him.”

The point is, it’s all entertainment. As soon as a person gets up and starts talking about invisible supernatural forces, or being a spokesman for the “word of god,” they are as much of a fraud as anyone else. They’re playing the same con game–by definition. Which is why they should be taken no more seriously than fortune-tellers. The most the law should do is require an advisory on churches and psychics: “for entertainment purposes only.” Caveat emptor.

Though I may be a staunch critic of religion, I’m first and foremost in the entertainment business. And I will defend all forms of entertainment as protected speech. Including organized religion. It’s up to us rational folk to change the state of affairs through persuasion and education–not by muzzling. If people want to continue to give their time, energy, and money to peddlers of fantasy, does it really matter if they’re sitting in a megachurch, or talking to grandma in the seance room of a storefront psychic?


Comments (18 comments)

tobe38 / April 27th, 2007, 10:14 am / #1

I have to disagree with you on this one. For me, it’s about people making claims that they can’t support with evidence in order to make a profit, which I don’t think anyone should be allowed to do.

If I were to advertise a milkshake that could reduce people’s cholesterol, I’d have to present good evidence to support my claim before it could go on the market. I think the same should apply to the paranormal industry, and religions, if they want to make a profit. I elaborate on this point in my article Psychic TV.

Most believers in psychics, etc, will admit that at least some of them are fraudulent. Well, shouldn’t we weed out the frauds so that the honest ones can make a living without con men impinging on their territory? “No!” is always the answer. Could it be that they are all con men?

Gwen / April 27th, 2007, 11:06 am / #2

Damn right! I agree with you 100%.
You rock!

Doris Tracey / April 27th, 2007, 2:37 pm / #3

Bravo Sean,

This Psychic round up might be a scape-goat for not dealing effectively with the murders,drugs and violence in the city of Philadelphia. Philly is now being called the Wild-Wild West.

Heather Annastasia Siladi / April 27th, 2007, 5:44 pm / #4

I’m with you.

This is similar to the War on Drugs in that they punish the people on the bottom of the totem pole and ignore the people on the top.

If we care about con artists using supernatural nonsense to rip people off, why do we allow Benny Hinn to telecast to millions of victims all over the world?

Also, we can’t use the law to protect people from their own stupidity; first because it doesn’t work, and second because we end up punishing lots of sensible people who aren’t hurting anyone.

BlackSun / April 27th, 2007, 8:37 pm / #5

@Tobe38, That’s why I think they should have to provide a written disclaimer ‘FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY” posted in a prominent position in their place of business. That includes churches.

But let’s take an example. There are two psychic shops. One has a ‘legitimate’ psychic who actually believes they know how to channel spirits (for the sake of the example), the other has an competent actor who also has a psychology degree and knows how to do cold readings. Both of them are very successful at what they do and have plenty of customers. To the customer, it’s transparent. They don’t know what the psychic actually believes, only what the psychic professes to believe. In both cases, the customers are paying for an experience, which in my view means they get their money’s worth, whether the experience is real or not.

Since one cannot ‘prove’ paranormal phenomenon, a ban such as you propose would have to also ban actors selling paranormal experiences as entertainment–and other free speech.

Another way of looking at psychics is a form of cheap therapy. (You get what you pay for.) If people can get help processing their grief, or unburden themselves of problems, maybe they are getting some good out of the deal. Though I doubt it.

Are they all con men? I think the answer would depend on whether you treated the event as an actual seance or psychic reading, or people being entertained by the “experience.” Which is why I think it only makes sense to treat all practitioners of the paranormal (including religious leaders) as entertainers. It’s the only way the phenomenon makes any sense in human terms.

@Gwen, thanks

@Doris, I think you’re right, it is a diversion. Surely the city attorneys don’t think this will hold up in court.

@Heather, exactly. Put the small shop out of business because they don’t have the resources to fight you. I think the ACLU will be all over this one, though.

pboyfloyd / April 27th, 2007, 11:13 pm / #6

I can’t help thinking that some of these psychics should have seen it coming…. hmm? (..too old?)
I liked your comparison of the ‘real’ psychic and the cold reader…. guess the cold reader would be guilty of a thought crime.

Though I like tobe’s attitude…but what about chiropractic, holistic medicine, ‘healing touch’, acupuncture? There’s a lotta ‘grey area’ here.
Hinn and Popoff are so obviously showmen, it is disgusting to watch… but.. you could imagine going the other way and setting up ‘sting’ operations to bust the gullible then forcing them into re-education camps… perhaps Christian re-education camps. Hey, if I thought of it, there’s probably some fundies out there wondering how to accomplish it.

tobe38 / April 28th, 2007, 12:15 am / #7

Blacksun said:

That’s why I think they should have to provide a written disclaimer ‘FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY” posted in a prominent position in their place of business. That includes churches.

I don’t think this works as a disclaimer. Psychics make very clear claims, to be able to contact the dead, predict the future etc. They are making promises that they don’t know they can keep, claims that they can’t support. Saying it’s for entertainment only doesn’t change that.

But let’s take an example. There are two psychic shops. One has a ‘legitimate’ psychic who actually believes they know how to channel spirits (for the sake of the example), the other has an competent actor who also has a psychology degree and knows how to do cold readings. Both of them are very successful at what they do and have plenty of customers. To the customer, it’s transparent. They don’t know what the psychic actually believes, only what the psychic professes to believe. In both cases, the customers are paying for an experience, which in my view means they get their money’s worth, whether the experience is real or not.

A person who genuinely thinks they have paranormal abilities will never get the same results as someone who knows he is cheating. Maybe a better way to put it, is if someone doesn’t know that they are cold reading, they won’t be as good at it as someone who does know they’re cold reading. You may think that they’re paying for an experience, but I think many customers believe they’re getting more than that. A grieving widow doesn’t go to a medium for ‘entertainment’ or ‘an experience’, she goes to communicate with her dearly missed husband, because that is what she’s been promised. Personally, I’m not happy about someone making money from offering that promise without real evidence that they can deliver.

Since one cannot ‘prove’ paranormal phenomenon, a ban such as you propose would have to also ban actors selling paranormal experiences as entertainment–and other free speech.

I don’t propose a ban, only that anyone who wants to advertise themselves with paranormal abilites and make a profitable business out of it, should have to demonstrate their abilities under controlled test conditions. And if their claims are real, then this is perfectly reasonable. They shouldn’t have any trouble demonstrating their abilities in a controlled test. If no-one passes the test, then no-one gets to practice and make a profit.

As for ‘actors selling paranormal experiences’, it would depend on what they were claiming. If they made it clear that they didn’t actually claim to have real powers, then no problem. Otherwise, they would have to back up their claims too.

Another way of looking at psychics is a form of cheap therapy. (You get what you pay for.) If people can get help processing their grief, or unburden themselves of problems, maybe they are getting some good out of the deal. Though I doubt it.

Whether they are getting benefit or not, it doesn’t make it right for anyone to be deceived by unsupported claims. Maybe a medium gives someone comfort by creating an illusion, but who are they to make that decision for that person? They are not paid for an illusion. They claim to be the real thing, and that is what people think they are paying for.

Are they all con men? I think the answer would depend on whether you treated the event as an actual seance or psychic reading, or people being entertained by the “experience.” Which is why I think it only makes sense to treat all practitioners of the paranormal (including religious leaders) as entertainers. It’s the only way the phenomenon makes any sense in human terms.

If they make ‘entertainment’ their only claim, and not just a weak, half hearted disclaimer, then I agree and have no problem. It always comes back to the claim.

I should make it clear that I have absolutely no problem with any psychic, medium, astrologer or whatever else practising, provided that they offer their services for free. If they take just one penny without evidence to support their claims, it is fraud and should be treated as such.

BlackSun / April 28th, 2007, 12:20 am / #8

@Pboyfloyd

I can’t help thinking that some of these psychics should have seen it coming…. hmm?

Ha, ha! That was written about on several other blogs. Funny though.

You’re right about the other ‘health’ practitioners, not to mention things like pay-per-minute sex chat. Talk about false promises! But like you say, there are many forms of entertainment that cross over into gray areas. How do you ban ‘healing touch’ without banning massage, etc.? That’s why I support mandatory disclaimers and the like.

We cannot prevent people from being gullible and this goes for religion, too. Which is why we need to preserve religious freedom but strenuously argue against special treatment or legitimacy for religious messages.

In a free society, we have no choice but to tolerate the hucksters existence. But that does not mean we have to accept their insistence that we give them our respect, or their attempts to dominate the public square.

BlackSun / April 28th, 2007, 12:39 am / #9

@Tobe38

Ha, didn’t see your comment before I posted.

I see your point about testing psychics. But we already know they would fail. Some people don’t care and would still like to go get a reading because it makes them feel better.

Likewise, if we could somehow test preachers and ‘mediums’ to see if they were really talking to Jesus or Ramtha or whomever, we would clearly find out that they were not. But again, people would still be lining up to put money in their collection plates.

James Randi busted multiple so-called faith healers, and it barely put a dent in their ‘ministry.’ In fact, there was a guy who created a deliberate hoax TV show in Australia a few years back where he performed fake ‘healings’ in front of a live audience. Later when he revealed the hoax, there were still people who insisted they had been healed. In fact they were very upset and tried to accuse the guy of lying about the whole thing having been a hoax. Sorry no time to look up the reference–but this happened.

If they make ‘entertainment’ their only claim, and not just a weak, half hearted disclaimer, then I agree and have no problem. It always comes back to the claim.

But part of what makes these frauds work for people is that the perpetrators have to profess a sincere belief (even if they don’t really believe). At what point does the willful suspension of disbelief become the responsibility of the consumer?

If you were in charge, would you revoke religious freedom in a democracy? The freedom of people to give their money to hucksters?

Because I think that’s what it would take to implement the kinds of rigorous testing and evidence requirements you are talking about. How would you deal with people who don’t care about the reality, they just want to believe?

tobe38 / April 28th, 2007, 6:15 am / #10

Blacksun said:

I see your point about testing psychics. But we already know they would fail. Some people don’t care and would still like to go get a reading because it makes them feel better.

You and I may know, at least 99% that all claimants would fail in controlled conditions. We are in a minority, there are literally millions of people who would disagree with us. Maybe if they see that everyone fails they’ll start to take notice of what we’re saying. Wouldn’t this help us to encourage critical thinking? Maybe some people do just go to make them selves feel better, but the psychic can’t know that (ironically). And, like I said, they can always go to a ‘volunteer’ psychic for free.

Likewise, if we could somehow test preachers and ‘mediums’ to see if they were really talking to Jesus or Ramtha or whomever, we would clearly find out that they were not. But again, people would still be lining up to put money in their collection plates.

I think there’s an important difference between a voluntary donation and a fee. I don’t think there’s anything we can do stop people making donations, and I wouldn’t want to – after all it’s their money. But demanding a fee for a dubious service is different. I think the preacher falls into the former, and the psychic into the latter. Donations are ok, as long as it is absolutely clear that it is voluntary, not mandatory and that nothing is received in exchange.

James Randi busted multiple so-called faith healers, and it barely put a dent in their ‘ministry.’ In fact, there was a guy who created a deliberate hoax TV show in Australia a few years back where he performed fake ‘healings’ in front of a live audience. Later when he revealed the hoax, there were still people who insisted they had been healed. In fact they were very upset and tried to accuse the guy of lying about the whole thing having been a hoax. Sorry no time to look up the reference–but this happened.

.

You’re right about all of this, but I think you take a very negative, defeatist attitude. I’m a big fan of Derren Brown, who has done similar work to Randi with similarly modest results. But then, why do we bother with these blogs that we write? I mean, nobody really listens to us, do they? What good are we really doing? James Randi and Derren Brown have helped some people to shed irrationally held beliefs, and their work is invaluable as long as it is helping anyone, just as ours is with our blogs. I think you’re view is like saying, why bother with police? There’s always crime.

But part of what makes these frauds work for people is that the perpetrators have to profess a sincere belief (even if they don’t really believe). At what point does the willful suspension of disbelief become the responsibility of the consumer?

You’re right, it is a dilemma. But I don’t think that the psychic/medium/whatever should get to make the decision on behalf of their customer and make a profit in the process. If they want to work for free, then it pretty much has to be their decision, as you rightly say, by professing their beliefs. I still think that it’s harmful, because people will base major life changing decision on their advice, but as long as money isn’t changing hands, that’s where we have to leave people to it.

If you were in charge, would you revoke religious freedom in a democracy? The freedom of people to give their money to hucksters?

Certainly not. I hold democracy, freedom of religion and freedom of speech at the highest importance. I also believe strongly in people’s right not be ripped off, so I would not allow people to advertise services for money that they cannot demonstrably provide.

Because I think that’s what it would take to implement the kinds of rigorous testing and evidence requirements you are talking about. How would you deal with people who don’t care about the reality, they just want to believe?

They could go to see a volunteer psychic for free, and make a voluntary donation if they wished. It really is an extension of legislation and principles that we already have. In the UK, adverts get pulled off TV or never make it there in the first place all the time, because they can’t provide evidence to support their claims. I’m not talking about paranormal stuff now, things like hair loss treatment and cereals boasting health benefits. The question we should really be asking is, why should paranormal traders be exempt from this legislation? After all, your argument applies to non-paranormal products and services. Maybe people just want to eat a regular cereal and believe that has extra health benefits. Who are we to stop the company advertising a few extra bonuses they can’t support? Personally, I don’t see a difference between the two.

Heather Annastasia Siladi / April 28th, 2007, 9:14 am / #11

Benny Hinn robs families of their life savings through “voluntary donations.”

A fool and his money will soon be parted; you can’t pass enough laws to prevent this. Passing laws to protect stupid people infringes on the rights of everyone else.

We blog, we talk, we write, we argue. All this discussion pushes our society ahead slowly but surley. Laws are restrictive and should be implemented as a last resort for things like protecting people from violence.

A true step forward would be for the law to stop promoting and aiding religious nonsense. Tax-exempt status should be limited to charitble organizations, and should only apply to charitable projects. For instance, a church itself should not have tax-exempt status, but their homeless shelter should.

BlackSun / April 28th, 2007, 9:22 am / #12

@Tobe38,

I really do understand what you’re getting at. And it should be illegal to falsely advertise. So again I think it comes down somewhat to semantics. When they read the word “psychic” on a neon sign, does the customer think of something they might find in a tent at a traveling carnival, or something that could really tell their future?

If someone wanted to act as a psychic, and had all the accouterments, crystal ball, etc, but had this disclaimer up, would you be OK with them charging money?

DISCLAIMER: There has been no evidence to support the practice of fortune-telling. Most psychic phenomena cannot be tested under laboratory conditions. The ones which have been tested, (predicting the roll of dice, reading words on hidden paper or describing hidden objects, predicting outcomes of future events) have failed to do better than random chance would support. Because of physical laws, the element of random chance and free will, science has shown it is not possible to reliably tell the future. There has never been any evidence whatsoever to support the existence of or communication with departed spirits. The services we provide are for entertainment purposes only.

I don’t think I have a defeatist attitude. But I’m trying to come up with a consistent standard that would apply across the board. If you’re going to put the psychics out of business, you really have to shut down the churches too. Because their fraud is on a much larger scale. And though “donations” are voluntary, peer-pressure cannot be discounted as a method of coercion for church members.

One last thought: there are areas of life when the willful suspension of disbelief is important, such as when a person has terminal cancer. A very small percentage of those people recover, and several studies have shown a correlation between a person’s attitude and belief they were going to survive, and eventual recovery. Some have theorized it’s because a persons stress hormones and anxiety levels go down, making it easier for their body to recover.

A similar strategy could be applied when pursuing a particularly difficult task such as starting a business or climbing a mountain. “Psyching yourself up” and convincing yourself you can succeed against really long odds is sometimes an effective strategy. So if a person wanted to pay a psychic to help them “believe” they could do something, it might not be a total waste of money.

BlackSun / April 28th, 2007, 9:54 am / #13

@Heather,

I’m totally with you about the tax-exempt status. Get rid of it! Force rigorous accounting and only exempt activities which pass these three tests:

1) Absolute third-party verified contribution to the public good: (i.e. homeless shelters, soup kitchens, disaster aid, drug-treatment programs, low-income housing construction, etc.)

2) Absolute ironclad no-proselytizing rules for exempt charitable activities. One word about religion automatically revokes the tax-exemption for the whole program. A few high profile examples should serve to put a stop to this.

3) Absolutely no inurement allowed (amassing of private funds or private use by clergy and staffers of elaborate tax exempt resources, such as the $4 million property-tax-exempt mansion that was in the news a few weeks ago).

http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=2007703170416

If an organization conforms to these three rules, I see no reason why they can’t be given the exemption for those activities only. This would be a true test of their charity: Are they really willing to help people out freely? Or is it just a marketing ploy for their meme machine?

tobe38 / April 29th, 2007, 12:28 am / #14

Blacksun,

Likewise, I know what you’re getting at with the disclaimer. If your suggested disclaimer were in really big writing, in a really conspicuous place and not just tucked away in the small print, then I really want to say ‘yes’. But if the psychic is still claiming that they’re the real thing despite that disclaimer, then it still just doesn’t sit right with me. It makes the disclaimer look exactly what it is, a legal formality. They would simply be going through the motions and they may as well stand outside the tent and whenever people read the sign with the disclaimer, point at it, tut, roll their eyes and say, “I know! Damn sceptics. They say we have to have this sign up by law. What the hell do they know?!”. The conflict between the claims and the disclaimer would create an ambiguity that would just confuse any customers, and I have no doubt which side of the line the psychics would try to guide them towards.

I would be ok if the disclaimer included the words, “I don’t claim to have real psychic powers”, but I know that would go against the whole point you’re making about the illusion of belief on the psychic’s part.

It’s a toughy. Maybe there’s no quick solution, but I really don’t feel comfortable with things as they are. We have to respect people’s right to freedom of choice etc, but if we leave people to be victims of their own gullibility and say it’s not our problem, then we cross the line from scepticism to cycnicism.

Heather Annastasia Siladi / April 29th, 2007, 7:07 am / #15

“if we leave people to be victims of their own gullibility and say it’s not our problem, then we cross the line from scepticism to cycnicism. ”

The problem is that it’s impossible to protect people from their own gullibility. It can’t be done. You can’t convince certain people that psychics or preachers are frauds, and you can never pass enough laws to keep people from making those claims. If we really tried to put an end to these scams, we’d have to start putting people in jail, and our jails are already overcrowded from our most recent failure to protect people from themselves, the War on Drugs (and have people stopped buying or selling drugs?).

The only other option is for the government to hold everyone’s money, and dole it out for approved purchases only. We could submit a form for approval when we need to get groceries, buy gas, or take the kids to a movie (of course, they’d want to know how old the kids are and which movie we’re taking them to see).

tobe38 / April 29th, 2007, 9:24 am / #16

@ Heather Annastasia Siladi

Your argument is a false dilemma. We can, and should, do everything we can to make it as difficult as possible for fraudsters and conmen to exploit other people’s gullibility. And it’s not impossible. We have laws about what people can advertise without evidence, and they work with non-paranormal products and services. Why is the paranormal industry unofficially exempt?

I agree that the drugs war has been a joke. But there’s a crucial difference. Drugs should be legal and people should be make aware of the dangers. Drugs should not be legal and sold with claims that can’t be supported. And not all criminal offences have to be punished with jail sentences.

just say no to christ / April 30th, 2007, 10:11 am / #17

This is a very intersting post Sean. I agree a 100% with you and can respect and admire Tobe’s views as well, but you just can’t force people not to be gullible.

You know, when they started the war on drugs 3% of the population was addicted to drugs. We have had a war on drugs for quite some time now and 3% of the population are still addicted to drugs. I think a war on psychics would only waste a lot of time and money like the war on drugs does. We already have prisons over crowded with drug offenders, who really are not that big of a threat to society and sure as hell are not more dangerous than child molesters and rapists who tend to get lighter sentences. I would hate to have to fill up the jails and the court systems that are already over worked with silly psychics. A disclaimer should be in place and science and education pushed to the fullest.

Amy

just say no to christ / April 30th, 2007, 10:15 am / #18

Maybe psychics should have a disclaimer saying that the paranormal has never been proven and should be used for entertainment purposes only?

Just a thought.

Amy

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