‘I’m a believer’: Psychic Sally isn’t in it for the money

By skepticlawyer

[SL: This is my first column for British magazine ‘The Skeptic’; I share ‘Skeptic in the Courtroom’ column-writing duties with Manchester barrister Geoff Whelan, which means my duties aren’t too onerous (two or three times a year) and, I figure, once the magazine has been on the newstands for several months, I’m probably pretty safe to publish my previous column online (a new one, as the editor has just reminded me, is due). 

That said, what I wrote some months ago has weirdly acquired renewed newsworthiness, in part thanks to this piece by Martin Robbins, and related pieces by ‘Aphra Behn‘ and Hayley Stevens. I don’t always agree with those authors, but I do think those of us who consider themselves skeptical or humanist or [insert name here] are going to have to sharpen up our thinking when it comes to the great variety of beliefs not sustainable by recourse to the evidence. This piece is meant to contribute to that process.]

As a general rule, organised skepticism is careful to draw a distinction between psychics and spiritualists of various stripes and the purveyors of organised religion. The former, the rough-and-ready rule of thumb goes, are only in it for the money, while Christians and Muslims and Hindus sincerely believe in the truth of their claims when one encounters them on street corners handing out free copies of the Qu’ran or Bible or Bhagavad Gita.

sally-headshot1However, in the wake of the Daily Mail’s loss—and it is a loss, because the Mail agreed to pay the plaintiff’s costs as well as damages—in the ‘Psychic Sally Morgan’ matter, I submit that we skeptics may have to start taking belief, qua belief, more seriously. This is in part because ‘religion’ isn’t so easy to define any more. In days gone by, we all knew that Judaism was a religion but that people who dressed up like Ancient Romans and killed chickens by firelight on Calton Hill were not religious. Nowadays—with Druidism recognized by the Charity Commission and paganism resurgent—it is difficult to be so sure. Many of the practices that were traditionally legitimate targets for skeptics on the basis that they were scams or quackery are also a part of New Religious Movements worldwide. They’re also not particularly new. If—like I did in order to qualify in Scots law—one studies Roman law, one encounters lively debates among Roman jurists about astrologers, fortune-tellers, and ‘spiritualists’.

Pagan Romans were surprisingly rational: one doesn’t find allegations of witchcraft, for example, or animals being put on trial (a staple, alas, of medieval jurisprudence). Like modern skeptics, Roman lawyers tried to work out when people who made religious claims were a menace, in it to con the poor or ferment revolution, or actually useful to society as a whole. The fact that the jurists disagreed with each other (often quite profoundly) is indicative of a basic reality: when it comes to assessing people’s core beliefs, there are no easy answers.

When the Mail alleged that Morgan used an earpiece, one of the reasons it (and its skeptical supporters) foundered was thanks to the widespread idea that someone like Morgan could not possibly sincerely believe in her own psychic ability. She must, the reasoning goes, be in it to fleece audiences and thereafter laugh all the way to the bank.

Even in various post-mortem analyses of the case I’ve read from fellow skeptics, all I’ve seen by way of retreat is an acknowledgment that Morgan’s counsel were particularly skilful to keep the basis of her claim narrow: rather than forcing the Mail to prove that she wasn’t psychic (proving a negative, and in law, one of the most difficult things to do), they put the paper to the proof on the question of the earpiece. The idea that Morgan found the earpiece allegation particularly galling because she thinks she actually is psychic—in much the same way that the Pope genuinely believes he is the heir to St Peter—doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone.

Of course, it is legitimate and fair to point out that reversing the onus of proof like this, thrusting it onto the defendant—as is the case in the English law of libel and slander and the Scots law of defamation—is fundamentally unfair and should be reformed. However, the alternative commonly proposed—an alteration of English and Scots law so that they more closely align with the relevant law in the United States—is not without its problems. Think, for example, of the relentless and quite demented campaign directed at President Obama over the authenticity of his birth certificate. No one can deny that this has been a real distraction, not only for the President himself but also to his Republican opponents, who surely have better things to do. In England or Scotland, the birth certificate story would have been swiftly put to bed by means of a libel or defamation suit. In the US, the weakness of the protections afforded to an individual’s reputation mean that it rumbles on, zombie-like, poisoning US political debate.

However, the substantive content of the law aside, acknowledging the genuineness of Morgan’s beliefs also puts skeptics—and anyone else faintly interested in the formation of public policy in this area, for that matter—in a difficult position. It means the traditional skeptical distinction between religion and charlatanry disappears in a puff of magic. We are thus confronted with the awful prospect of a serious fight with organised religion, for it often makes related claims from an identical basis of sincere belief. Like the Roman jurists—and their Empire evinced what can only be described as a religious supermarket, with its citizens utterly spoiled for choice—we may be forced to inquire into whether a given religious (or other) belief is harmful or not. We would then have to define ‘harm’ and argue accordingly. A belief’s truth or falsity—the traditional enquiry of skepticism—may be of less import. If it is any consolation, investigating consequences requires lots of empirical evidence, so skeptics would be advantaged on that score.

Famously, the majority of Rome’s jurists and administrators (although by no means all) decided that the ‘New Religion’ of Christianity was harmful. There was evidence supporting their view. There was evidence against their view. This topic—as most people know—is the subject of lively debate among classicists, theologians, lawyers, and historians. If you are gay or an educated woman, I suggest that you may come down on the side of Christianity’s ancient critics. If you are poor and struggle to hold down regular employment, you may come down in favour of Christianity.

And when it comes to a cool assessment of other sincere beliefs and their effects, I won’t pretend for a moment it will be easy.


  1. Posted January 8, 2014 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    Of course, it is legitimate and fair to point out that reversing the onus of proof like this, thrusting it onto the defendant—as is the case in the English law of libel and slander and the Scots law of defamation—is fundamentally unfair and should be reformed.

    Why is it unfair? I you make a claim about someone, a claim that attacks their good character, you should be able to back up that claim. That seems reasonable to me.

  2. kvd
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Reading linked material, as I always do – wtf is “negative godlessness”? Seriously.

    And under a heading of “How to Make Atheism Less Awful” I’d suggest the writer made a (vague) case for the opposition – whoever that might possibly be parsed as.

    Anyways, I’m looking forward to the linked articles:

    Click here to read the rest of the articles in The VICE Guide to Making 2014 Better Than 2013.

    Or, choose from the selection below:

    How to Have Better Sex in 2014

    How to Improve Feminism in 2014

    How to Make Drugs Better in 2014

    I’m assuming a ‘best of the best’ selection – but who knows?


  3. Mel
    Posted January 8, 2014 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    ferment revolution or foment revolution?

  4. Posted January 9, 2014 at 9:50 am | Permalink

    we may be forced to inquire into whether a given religious (or other) belief is harmful or not. We would then have to define ‘harm’ and argue accordingly.

    I assume by “we” you mean sceptics. I’m not sure why sceptics should necessarily concern themselves with harm. Just call it all bullshit and let everyone else determine whether the bullshit is worth tolerating or not.

  5. derrida derider
    Posted January 9, 2014 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Slightly OT, but the distinction between wilful charlatanry and self-delusion is commonly much greyer than this post implies, simply because we all have an amazing inability to distinguish between what it would be personally convenient for the world to be like and what the world actually is like. Intellectual honesty takes real effort.

    There are many, many psychics who when caught in fakery have protested, sincerely, “but I only did that to help people see the truth – that I can speak to the dead! It’s just that I happened not to this particular day.”. And the cardinal in GBS’ “Saint Joan” defines a miracle as “that which increases faith” and therefore considered SUCCESFUL fakery as a true miracle.

  6. JKUU
    Posted January 10, 2014 at 6:57 am | Permalink

    Belief, or the act of “believing,” in an exercise of faith, not rational, evidence-based inquiry. Faith, in turn, is conviction without evidence [aside: Would we want our judicial system to operate this way SL?] — sometimes even in the face of contrary evidence. In some quarters, this quality is perceived as a virtue.

    (Apologies to Jack McDevitt for lifting the last two sentences out of “Odyssey”).

  7. derrida derider
    Posted January 14, 2014 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    In some quarters, [believing without evidence] .. is perceived as a virtue

    Actually a core part of Christian (and probably other religious) doctrine. The story of Doubting Thomas makes it clear that it is deeply impious and unrighteous to ask for such a profane thing as evidence when a member of the elect honours you with the revelation of a divine mystery. And it was Paul who said (almost certainly quoting some Greek pagan writer) “For faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen”.

  8. kvd
    Posted January 15, 2014 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    The story of Doubting Thomas makes it clear that it is deeply impious and unrighteous to ask for such a profane thing as evidence

    No, I thought it just a recognition/celebration of man’s independent intelligence. And, was Thomas punished for his “impious, unrighteous, profane thing”? Can’t find that bit.

  9. Posted January 16, 2014 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    John 20:29

    Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen Me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.

  10. kvd
    Posted January 16, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Your quoted verse desipis does not make clear there was any actual punishment meted out to Thomas, apart from getting stuck with a stupid nickname 😉 And bearing in mind Ezekiel 9:6 Thomas was probably just making ultra-sure of the marks. Given the consequences, I think he was simply being sensible.

  11. Adrien
    Posted January 21, 2014 at 3:17 am | Permalink

    “I assume by “we” you mean sceptics.”

    Or perhaps we ‘the jurists’ in a wider sense? One would hope such would exercise skeptical facilities in their judgements.

    The traditional distinction between religion and charlatanry is that the charlatanry has lasted long enough to become respectable. That’s not as easy as it sounds.

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