I thought I would pen a few words about the high-profile test offered to Sally Morgan by Simon Singh, Chris French and the Merseyside Skeptics tomorrow Monday. It looks like Sally has declined to take part, but their offer is open to conduct a fair test or at least discuss the test with her to make sure both they and her are happy with it.
Simon Singh, along with other sceptics, has had concerns about Sally and published them here on his blog. I add, as does he, that I am not saying that Sally is a fake or a fraud. I’d really like to think that she’s not, but reserve all judgement. I don’t know her and have never seen her show, on TV or on stage. Even if I had, my opinion about her would mean very little, and I’m sure she could give a flying doughnut about what I had to say. Really the only worthwhile point is whether claims such as Sally’s stand up to testing, not what I or any other individual with our own inevitable prejudices happens to think.
Until recently, I thought I had never met her, but I have since heard rather excitingly that I may have filmed an unused sequence with Sally once at her home. If I did, it would have been for one of those old Mind Control specials ten or so years ago. I have my team looking into that to see if we ever did and if they can dig it out. Certainly we filmed with one lady psychic at her house, where we each gave each other a reading, so perhaps that was it.
Sally has recently received mixed media attention following a phone call to a radio station made by a lady who had attended her show in Dublin, who said she heard what sounded like verbal cues being given to the medium on stage. Apparently she heard phrases like ‘Dave – bad back’ being whispered from the lighting booth at the back of the auditorium a few seconds before Sally repeated those words on stage, raising the strong suspicion in this woman’s mind that Sally was using an earpiece. If this were true, it would follow that the assistant in the booth had most likely picked up information in the foyer where people were openly discussing what they were hoping to hear that night. The phone call can be heard here and is worth listening to in full. Sally has since denied the insinuations, saying that it was simply lighting technicians chatting, although to me this doesn’t seem to answer the question of why she was delivering lines moments after they were heard coming from the booth.
Frustratingly for Sally, her explanation may of course be fair. To be honest, if I were a fake psychic and wanted to use an earpiece to receive my cues, I wouldn’t put my assistant in the lighting booth where in-house staff would normally work. There would be the advantage of receiving visual cues, but my preference would be to tuck him away safely backstage somewhere. Unless, that is, I was supplying all the crew for the show, in which case it wouldn’t be an issue. Sally may well supply all her crew, I have no idea. (Note: Thanks ‘Chez’, I hear the theatre in question would have indeed required Sally to bring all her own crew) But I have heard from in-house theatre crews who have hosted big-name psychic shows that they were surprised to see the shows follow a fairly tight structure and an oddly similar script every night: therefore another possible explanation could be that the whispering was indeed cheekiness from the lighting technicians who were just pre-empting what they knew was coming next, having seen the show so many times. Who knows. Maybe both they and Sally are genuinely psychic and they should all have their own shows.
Point is, this could be a totally innocent incident which has gotten out of hand. Once you’re aware of the huge amount of fraudulence committed in the name of mediumship, it’s hard not to smirk when someone seems to have been caught out. If you watched ‘Miracles For Sale’, you may remember the ‘healer’ Peter Popoff getting caught out rather splendidly with an earpiece by James Randi: this is astonishing footage. Irrespective of whether to not Sally was using the earpiece, she has made a name for herself and made a lucrative business from the seemingly astonishing business of connecting people with their loved ones, so some scrutiny is important. If a psychic were simply a doctor – and arguably mediums and psychics involve themselves with their clients in a similarly personal and delicate way – then you’d want to know that he or she had passed her medical exams. We even like to check the credentials of a plumber. Surely the bigger and more amazing the claims being made, the more solid the evidence needs to be for them to hold up, and the more important that evidence is.
Sally may be a perfectly innocent victim of unfortunate tar-brushing. If she is a real stage psychic, she finds herself in bad company. Doris Stokes, her antecedent that most immediately springs to mind, has, since herself passing over to the Happy Summerland, been exposed on a number of counts. She would enter a town with her sell-out show to a flurry of mail from desperate people giving her all the information she’d need for a full evening show. She would, I heard, give readings during the day for people, and then invite them to the show in the evening and feed back, from the stage, the information she’d learnt from them during the day. A woman I once knew who had lost her son in a drowning accident was asked to come along to an event given by Stokes and receive a message from the spirit of her child, and was furious to have her tragedy exploited and twisted when the the rosy-cheeked, grandmotherly medium simply trotted out the details of the death as reported in the local newspaper and used this woman as a sure-fire hit after a couple of dud readings. Other mediums, very much alive and well, are watched nightly by in-house stage crews who then delight in passing on their apparent modi operandi when I turn up with my show. One very big name psychic was caught ushering in a couple of stooges through a side entrance – self-evidently, I was told, his mother and a friend of hers – who then became his most enthusiastic audience members during the show.
Hence it would be a very good idea to test a psychic who claims to be real and to not be like all those nasty, manipulative frauds, who prey on the guaranteed paying audiences of vulnerable people who know no better. But who will call for such testing? Not the audiences. Ironically, they’re the last to insist that we check that the medium on stage before them is real, and not self-deluded or lying through her teeth. And why should they? Who would risk denying oneself profound comfort? Instead, to them, their psychic is the real one, those others are the fakes, and they know that because… because they just know it. Because they’ve seen the show and they think the show is the evidence. They most likely are unaware of the self-working technique of Cold Reading which can allow anyone with little sense of morality to get up on stage and carry off a perfectly convincing psychic show. Here’s a page where you can learn how to be a fake psychic yourself – its one of the oldest businesses in the world. Add some benign, trustworthy charisma, a bit of ‘hot’ reading (where you have some information on your punters) and some decent PR, and you have got yourself a world class show. Many people might think you’re a fake, but you will be guaranteed to sell-out theatres across the country with people who will defend you to the grave and goodness me, it’s good business. In fact I sometimes wonder if the main reason why people would rather believe a psychic is genuine might be because the implications of it being a lie – of that person, for reasons of ego and renumeration, happily getting up on stage and trampling over the lives of people who know no better – is so ugly that it’s preferable to give them the benefit of the doubt.
So I hope Sally isn’t like those people. And there’s no way of knowing without a test. For those who say they’ve seen her and have all the proof they need, then that’s great for them, but her show is not the test, it’s the very thing we’d need to test. If the magician David Copperfield went mad and claimed to really be sawing a woman in half, and you wanted to see if he was just using trickery, it would make no sense to say ‘I know he’s real, I’ve seen the show and he really saws that woman in half’. Instead you’d have to take what he does out of a show environment and see if he can still do it when other explanations have been removed. For example, if on stage the woman has to be first placed in a special box or on a special table, can he do it without the box and on any table? If not then maybe it’s something to do with the box or the table. Can he do it with any woman? With any blades? You get the idea. We’d have to put aside our emotions (the ones that want us to believe he’s real or fake regardless of testing) and base our new beliefs on the outcome of the test. Of course in this imaginary scenario where he is claiming to have real magic powers, Copperfield would know he’d never stand up to this sort of examination and would most do anything to decline the test.
You’d think psychics would be very eager to prove they can really do it. There’s a million dollar prize fund to be won by any psychic who can show under reasonable and controlled conditions (which they can decide upon in conjunction with the scientists) that what they do is real. This is money that could be kept or given to charity of course, not to mention the likelihood of also receiving a Nobel prize and the ability to give the world vital new knowledge that would change us forever. Imagine that! If I woke up to find that I could really do it, I’d be a selfish and odd creature to offer it only to TV viewers and theatre audiences. I’d be out there, doing every test I could until the scientific establishment sat up and listened. You’d be forgiven for doubting my sincerity if I said I had better things to do.
Sally Morgan has said she does have better things to do, which may be true, but if she’s real it’s a shame to deny the world the first psychic to have been able to prove herself. Sadly no psychic or medium to this point has ever been able to do so. The test is based on asking her to reproduce the phenomena she produces in her show, but importantly the scientists have invited her to discuss the test if she feels any aspect of it should be changed. Some entertaining correspondence on the subject between her lawyer and Simon Singh can be read here.
I imagine Sally will decline the test, and people will draw their own conclusions. I can’t imagine this will make any difference to her fan base or indeed to her. She may be seen by that minority as somehow gloriously ‘rising above’ the test and the ‘haters’ and the ‘sceptics’. Usually when people say this they mean ‘cynics’ rather than ‘sceptics’ as the former is negative and the latter is neutral. A sceptic reserves judgement until the evidence is in. A sceptic or a scientist should never be a ‘hater’ – he or she just feels that a suitable test is a way of finding truth rather than unreliable anecdote or a stage show where any cheating could be going on. The pre-determined negative views of cynics and ‘haters’, meanwhile, are as blind and irrelevant to the discussion as those of ardent, true-believing fans.
Another term that gets abused is ‘open-minded’. There’s being open-minded and there’s being so open minded that your brain falls out. Ian Rowland, the author of ‘The Full Facts Book of Cold-Reading’ (an excellent guide on faking these skills) gives an example. Suppose you are a chef, cooking soup for two hundred diners. You say to yourself ‘Well, I know if I put arsenic in this soup it’ll kill everyone. But hey! Gotta be open-minded!’ And you go ahead and add the deadly metalloid to the goats’ cheese crostini and float it atop the watercress and mint broth. Are you being open-minded or… just ignoring important information? In life we can only work with the best information we have to go on. We know that poison kills people so we don’t add it to our soups. We know that gravity works so we don’t jump out of windows unless we want to kiss a cruel world goodbye. Likewise when we know that psychic ability can be very easily faked – particularly on stage where the size of the audience can help enormously – it is not ‘open-minded’ to ignore that fact and keep believing without real evidence. Sadly, however, the methods of the fraudsters are not so well-known, which is why I spend some of my time trying to bring them out into the open. It is not being ‘closed-minded’ to want to put these people to the test or be wary of a psychic’s claims. It’s the best use of available knowledge in a world where we know how it can be faked and where vulnerable people are being asked to pay for the promise of something supernatural, with no firm evidence to back it up.
Most of you, as readers of this blog, will know all of this of course. Others won’t, and will just feel annoyance towards the scientists offering the test (‘Who the hell are you to test our Sally? Leave her alone, it’s nothing to do with you’). So it’s always worth saying why it’s really important to check carefully when these sorts of claims are being made. Meanwhile, brace yourselves: Sally may decide to show the world tomorrow that she can really do it, and the course of human knowledge will take a sudden swerve to the left. We can look forward to her and other verified psychics working with governments and scientists and finally, perhaps, these proven individuals can engage with the forces of the departed in order to advance our race, help us find peace amongst ourselves and understand the nature of eternity, rather than merely pass on bland condolences or upsetting revelations from the Other Side.
Or maybe she’ll have better things to do.