The Charlatans

Derren Brown, Ghosts, James Randi, Medium, Psychics, Religion, Sally Morgan, Sceptic, Spirituality

There are a few things that I can be certain will happen in my life at least monthly: I will watch an episode of The Office, I will go on a Radiohead binge, someone will tell me I look like Matt Bellamy, someone will mention that my name is similar to the Terminator protagonist. One of the most frequently occurring events is becoming embroiled in a debate around religion/spirituality/’psychics’.

I am a firm believer in freedom of speech and belief. However, what many fail to acknowledge when it comes to freedom of speech and belief is that it cannot impinge on the well being or freedom of others. I hate religion. That is not to say I hate religious people – the majority of my family are religious, at least to an extent – but I hate religion as a concept, as a practice, its “values” (or lack thereof), its indoctrination, its abhorrence of logic, reason and science. It is not a solid moral ground – it is the opposite of morality. It is the antithesis of progress. I hate it.

To clarify, when I use the term “religion”, I do not mean simply the belief in a higher power, or “faith”; I mean the actual, literal, text-following practice. Admittedly, I do not see how one could believe in a book written by a higher power but not follow it by the word, as if it is written by God it is infallible and, if you do not believe it to be entirely 100% true, then it is fallible, cannot be the word of God, and therefore has no value whatsoever.

However, what aggravates me possibly even more than religion, even more than practically anything else in society, is “the psychic world”. Psychics – either those who can predict the future, read other peoples’ minds, or speak to the dead – are frauds. Those things are scientifically unverifiable and impossible. They do not happen, and the “psychics” know that they do not happen. This is not a case of “let people believe what they want, it’s not harming anyone”. Psychics are extremely cold, harmful charlatans. They prey on the vulnerable for money.

I do not believe in ghosts, I believe in science and quantifiable things (extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence etc. etc.). If you believe in ghosts, so be it; that is not dangerous in and of itself (except as a threat to sense and logic). A belief in psychics is a different matter. Psychics use cold reading (see the wonderful Derren Brown for fantastic expositions of this), Barnum statements and, often, simple earpieces/stooges, or other such fraudulent methods. And, using those things, the best they can ever come up with is “your Grandmother’s mentioning that you have a jacket with a loose button”, or “did your Aunty have a cat called Mittens?” Yes, forget questions about the afterlife, let’s get down to the real issues.

By using such methods, they appeal the gullible who will pay £30-50 for tickets to listen to such bollocks and, more distressingly, the weak. Like “faith healers” targeting the physically incapacitated for their own brand of bullshit, psychics and mediums unceremoniously target the grieving, and exploit them for personal gain. There have been instances of parents spending their entire savings to visit mediums following the tragic loss of a child. These are cases of the morally bankrupt financially bankrupting others. They take the memories that people have of their loved ones and trample all over them, unconcerned about the wellbeing of those that they see, inventing stories about real people who have died, to feed to real grieving family and friends, all for a few quid. These mediums are not harmless, they are fully aware of what they are doing. ‘Psychic Sally’, one of the country’s most popular mediums, has been caught as a fraud, has contacted “dead people” who are still alive in the audience, and asks people to put slips of paper with details of their dead relatives into a glass bowl before each reading. Ooo, I wonder what magic she uses to come up with the readings? Must be psychic, right?

No doubt Psychic Sally can read my mind anyway, so I don’t need to express my thoughts about her. She knowingly lies to the bereaved, charging them extortionate amounts to see her shows, and stomps all over their true memories of their loved ones. Occasionally, I wish religion was true, because there would be a special place in Hell reserved for her and her ilk.

There are great sceptics and debunkers – James Randi is a master of the art, and Derren Brown is phenomenal at providing astonishingly accurate ‘psychic readings’ while informing us that he has no supernatural powers, and that he is simply employing the cold reading tactics used by psychics ( and doing it much better). Derren Brown’s piece where he sends multiple people around the world “psychic readings” which they deem to be incredibly accurate, before revealing they all have identical readings, is fantastic (as is this conversation with Richard Dawkins):

These people deserve the acknowledgement and credit for providing us with scientific measures and progress, trying to move past ridiculous notions of witchcraft and the supernatural. One should remember Occam’s Razor – at no point would my mind go past fraud, lying, guesswork etc. to “the dead are returning to speak to their loved ones about trivial incidents through a middle aged woman on stage”.

And before anyone says “you aren’t being open-minded” – being open-minded is being open to the facts and making an impartial judgement based on reason. Believing everything you see or read is idiocy. One should remember this oft quoted advice: “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out”.