It is not uncommon to hear it said that all psychics are frauds. In the UK that is a claim that would need backing up with solid evidence lest you fall foul of a libel lawsuit, but in other countries with libel laws that operate differently, it is quite easy to throw around accusations of deception with little risk of retaliation in any legal sense. It is also clear that it is very easy to find a list of exposed, or admitted, psychics throughout history- the founders of Spiritualism (the religion without which we might not even HAVE psychics today) Margaret and Kate Fox were exposed as charlatans when Margaret confessed. A few decades later Helen Duncan was found guilty of deception twice. Welsh psychic Colin Evans was discovered to have been using less than supernatural methods for his levitations, and we have discovered so much about how certain phenomena work – such as ectoplasm- that we are left with the situation where some psychics are either genuinely gifted or out right frauds with no room for a middle ground of self delusion. It isn’t possible to bring up vast quantities of ectoplasm accidentally, in the same way you might be naturally good at cold reading. To bring up ectoplasm of the type Duncan did you must either be genuinely psychic or a scammer. The same goes for metal bending, it is not possible – with any consistent regularity- to accidentally rub the neck of a spoon causing the head to drop off- you either have to be genuinely psychic or have pre-bent the spoon to weaken the neck. But as I touched upon, you can be a natural cold reader. And this is where the question of whether all psychics are frauds comes in to play.
I don’t think a blanket statement that all psychics are frauds helps anyone. To believers it makes skeptics look arrogant and close-minded. And it is also quite dismissive. And from a skeptical point of view, I don’t think a blanket statement of peoples intention is good either as it means we are dismissing those who genuinely believe they are psychic. Now as a skeptic I do not believe anyone is psychic, but I also do not think all psychics are intentionally deceiving people. And sometimes the instant reaction of “Of course they are a fraud” can backfire catastrophically. We should remember the Sally Morgan vs The Daily Mail debacle as a warning to not go with a knee jerk reaction. When Sally Morgan sued, successfully, the Daily Mail when it suggested she might be using an ear piece to receive pre-acquired information one noted skeptic suggested that “The libel lawyers of the UK have decided in their wisdom that psychic powers are real after all.”
Except, they didn’t. All that was shown was that the Daily Mail couldn’t prove Sally had been cheating in the way they suggested. The hearing was never over whether Sally was genuinely psychic or not- only as to whether she was using one particularly technique. The case also meant that those who believe in psychics had their faith bolstered, as was seen from the out pouring of support on Sallys Facebook page. The lawsuit should have been settled out of court at the earliest opportunity.
The assumption Sally just had to be a fraud is a worrying one, though there are many examples of psychics being exposed as such – including Peter Popoff back in the 1980s who actually did use a covert ear piece- it is not helpful to assume that someone claiming to be a psychic is automatically a fraud. We also end up with some muddy waters when we realise some psychics may genuinely believe they have a gift but still use Cold Reading at times to help them out as a tool. Now this might not be ethical entirely, and may show someone does engage in dishonest tactics at times, but there is still the insistence that one is genuinely still psychic- there was once a great example of just this thing, documented on the now defunct Bad Psychics website. Alas that interview with a well known psychic no longer seems to exist, so feel free not to take my word for it.
But outside of the celebrity psychic who, lets face it, has to be getting hits night after night after night and therefore may be tempted to incorporate something like Cold Reading to ensure their audience isn’t let down, there are countless legions of psychics who will never sell out a 2000 seater auditorium. Just a Google search of psychics in Edinburgh brings up numerous hits including a link to the Edinburgh Psychic College. In the UK as a whole there are hundreds of psychics, potentially thousands- we will never know. I find it difficult to believe all of these are intentionally deceiving. There is a realistic chance that some people may simply be natural cold readers- something I put to an Edinburgh based Psychic during a discussion event I was part of. My suggestion he may be a natural cold reader genuinely stunned him as it wasn’t something he had thought about. There is also the case of Karla McLaren who stated in 2004 “I didn’t understand that I had long used a form of cold reading in my own work! I was never taught cold reading and I never intended to defraud anyone”
Though of course there are no actual figures on the topic, I would not be surprised to find that the majority of those claiming to be psychic are in a similar situation to McLarens. There is also issue around confirmation bias, that we have a habit of remembering the positives in psychic situations and disregard the negative such as an example on the early 1990s show James Randi Psychic Investigator. Randi had a psychic on his show along with a satisfied client who insisted the psychic had given him just half a dozen names, when in fact she had given 37 and he had forgot about the misses even though he had a recording of the reading.
I also do not think it helps any legitimate research into psychic phenomenon to assume all psychics are lying and cheating. Chris French at Goldsmiths College in London may be a skeptic but he also heads up research into psychic occurrences and assists with testing, keeping a truly open mind. Derek Ogilvie was one such subject for Frenchs investigation. Ogilvie claims to be able to psychically read babies minds, skeptics suggest he is simply cold reading the parents. When Ogilvie was put to the test he failed, but what was interesting was how he acted in the test. He had the chance to read babies without the parents there and constantly drew a blank, it was only when he started reading the child minder that he became more animated. His demonstration appeared to the researchers to be classic cold reading- though Ogilvie insists he is genuine and I believe he believes that. He was genuinely emotionally distraught at failing the test but still soldiered on and went head to head with Randi, again failing the test. But I do not believe Ogilvie is a fraud. I do not believe he is psychic, but I do not think he is defrauding anyone intentionally and seems quite a likable person who genuinely believes he has a gift.
And something else worth considering- though scientific investigation is useful, nay essential, I do wonder how useful things like the Million Dollar Challenge actually are. No psychic has ever won the million, but when they fail it just seems to revert to the previous status quo- skeptics continue to be skeptical, and believers continue to believe. Ogilvie, despite not winning the million dollars is still an active and fully employed psychic having just concluded a UK tour- this despite being shown on national television to have failed the tests. The challenge is fun, but outside of that I’m really not sure what good it is doing in a broader sense. I accept this is probably a controversial position. I love Randi, I love the JREF, I just don’t particularly love the Million Dollar Challenge.
In Richard Dawkins’ Enemies of Reason documentary he witnessed a dowsing test organised by French. The participants seemed genuinely mortified when they failed, and though they tried to offer excuses, they seemed to be trying to convince themselves more than anyone else. They truly believed they had an ability.
Although we will always find Peter Popoffs and Helen Duncans, I genuinely do not believe- nor have I ever seen any evidence to suggest so- that all psychics are dishonest. I do not believe any psychic genuinely has a gift, but that doesn’t follow that I think they are wilfully conning people. We may never know the percentage of intentional frauds compared to those who are genuinely convinced of their own ability, but I would not be surprised if the ratio was greatly in favour of the latter. Of course, I don’t know that and the thing to remember is, neither do you.