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TWiC #5: Sally Morgan and other frauds

Feb

03

by

“Gimme all your money or I’ll crush your head for Jesus!”

One of the more celebrated debunking instances among skeptics is when James Randi and his cohorts caught the notorious scam artist / phony “faith healer” Peter Popoff red-handed lying to his audiences. For those who don’t know this story, Popoff’s staff would ask the audience as they were arriving to fill out “prayer cards” with their names, contact info, and which ailments they were hoping to cure by showing up. Popoff’s wife would collect them and during the performance, she would read some of the more promising entries and transmit the information to a receiver Popoff had hidden in an earpiece.

We know this now because Randi and his team showed up at one of Popoff’s performances in disguise and with a hidden radio receiver and recorder. They suspected Popoff was using this method of “hot reading” based on how specific the information he would relay to try to convince the audience he was receiving it from God instead of his wife. So for example, when Popoff would say something like, “There’s someone out there from Clearwater, Florida with a serious lung infection” and then someone would say, “Hey, that’s me!” that tipped Randi and other skeptics off to the possibility that Popoff wasn’t just really good at guesswork.

The team eventually found the frequency at which the Popoff team were using to dupe the audience, recorded it, and presented the evidence on Johnny Carson’s TV show. What was so important about this was that it went beyond simply saying that Popoff was wrong in claiming that he had magical healing powers from God. It proved that he was actively lying. Popoff knew he was full of shit. He couldn’t possibly have just fooled himself into thinking he could heal the sick based on confirmation bias or some other psychological bias.

When confronted by Randi, Popoff claimed he was lying about the radio transmissions and that he received his information from someone called God. More and more reporters started following up on it and eventually Popoff confessed. Although Randi tried to bring the matter to the attention of the legal authorities, Popoff was never actually charged with fraud or anything else. All that happened was that he went bankrupt later that year. He went away for a while, and came back starting around the turn of the millenium, this time offering divine debt relief for the poor. God would wipe away their debt if only they would scrape up the little money they had left and give it to Popoff.

*

So now here in 2012 we’ve got our own new Peter Popoff. Her name’s Sally Morgan and she calls herself “Britains [sic] Best-Loved Psychic.”

Your sadistic third grade teacher has come back to steal money from the students she failed to educate

A few variables are different in this case. Morgan is not as adamantly Christian as Popoff. She claims to talk to the dead instead of a deity. And instead of a skeptics’ organization debunking her, it’s a cheap tabloid. But she uses radio transmission to a hidden earpiece all the same. So it’s pretty much the same general situation, but more British. She’s the “psychic” tea and crumpets to Popoff’s holy-rollin’ coffee and a donut.

A reporter for contributor to the usually deplorable Daily Mail wrote an article about how Morgan and other phony psychics use a combination of hot and cold reading techniques to pretend to talk to the dead. The article cites an audience member at one of her Dublin shows as a source, claiming to have heard a person in a room at the back of the venue through the wall saying pretty much everything Morgan said on stage, but about 10 seconds in advance.

So while they didn’t have the intercepted transmissions recorded as Randi did in the Popoff case, the Daily Mail reporter still has some pretty strong evidence. The audience member presumably actually bought a ticket to her Dublin show because they’re a believer in psychic phenomenon. So they’d be primed to ignore evidence like that.

But still it is just one person’s eyewitness testimony, recalled using fallible human memory. We skeptics are supposed to be coldly dismissive of that kind of evidence. But when you put that together with this video which shows that, contrary to Morgan’s claims, she had been using two earpieces instead of one, it starts to look more like she’s just a fraud. After all, if it were only to be used as a one-way microphone, why would she need two different earpieces?

Another problem with Morgan’s act is that she doesn’t seem to want to be tested on it under controlled conditions. Last October, Simon Singh and a group of other science advocates challenged Morgan to do exactly that on Halloween and she rejected the challenge. Speaking via her lawyer’s email account, Morgan told Singh that he “well know that we all have far more important things to do than take part in this or any other ‘test’ at this point.” Yeah, she has more important things to do than shutting up all of her critics forever, like making lots of cash by bilking gullible suckers.

Lots of organizations have similar standing offers to those claiming paranormal powers. Probably the best known one is the JREF’s Million Dollar Challenge. The Independent Investigations Group has a $50,000 paranormal challenge. Offers like these are good ways to separate the conscious frauds like Popoff from the genuinely deluded believers. There’s no good reason to reject these offers if you really believe you have paranormal abilities. Even if one tries to pretend they don’t care about money – and at a £1.53 per minute rate for phone calls, you better believe Sally Morgan cares about money – the reward given to anyone who proves their powers to be real can just be given to charity.

But despite all of this, Morgan isn’t slinking away like Popoff did back in the 80s. She’s on the attack. She’s suing Associated Newspapers for the Daily Mail article. And while here in America she’d be laughed out of the courts like Orly Taitz, the UK’s libel laws are set up in a way as to favor the plaintiffs. In America, it would be up to Morgan to prove the newspaper were maliciously lying about her. She could go to court and prove she really were psychic and then also prove the newspaper knew she were psychic and just lied about it. But in the UK where the law doesn’t line up quite so nicely with a Bayesian way of looking at things, the defendant has the burden of proof. The Daily Mail would have to prove Morgan were the one knowingly lying. And if they can’t do that, they’ll probably lose their case and have to retract the article and pay “damages” to this terrible woman.

I’m going to have to sue her for assaulting my eyes with that shirt.

The problem with a lot of woo claims is that a believer can defend them against any critical analysis because they are, at their root, unfalsifiable. For every test you throw at a proposal someone’s going to come up with a reason for why the test isn’t good enough. You want to see if there really is a dragon in my garage? Sorry, the dragon’s invisible. You want me to guess which card you picked? Sorry, I’ve got “better things to do.” You’ll offer me money to take the test? Sorry, I “don’t care about money.”

This case might test the limits of how much pro-superstition bias the British courts can have while still remaining credible. If none of what I’ve covered here would count as evidence for a phony psychic committing fraud, what would count as evidence? Would anything count? If you had someone publicly and definitively identify living people as “in the spirit world” (i.e. dead) like I did, would that be enough? Even if you had a notarized, signed confession, an unscrupulous fake psychic could say they were possessed by a demon when they signed it or something like that. If you open yourself up to this kind of nonsense without good evidence, then you have no recourse to stop the tidal wave of bullshit that will inevitably follow.

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  • JJ

    bitch

  • c0zmik_n0mad

    That shirt really is an assault on the eyes, damn! It was some minutes before I realized her arm is draped across her chest, it was difficult to discern in that mess. Waldo could be hiding in that shirt and no one would ever find the poor sap!

  • c0zmik_n0mad

    Don’t you call that a shirt! These here are skin illustrations! Whatever you do, don’t stare at that blank spot behind the orange glasses for too long, some say they see their own future in there!

    h/t Ray Bradbury, ‘Illustrated Man’

  • http://skeptichamster.wordpress.com Skeptic Hamster

    The writer of the Mail’s article was the sceptic and magician Paul Zenon rather one of their usual hacks.

  • http://notjarvisrants@blogger.com notjarvis

    1) The UK libel laws are stupid, and in need of serious reform

    2) The evidence of one or two people who remain unidentified as far as I know (This whole story spun out of a call to a radio talk show) would probably struggle to stand up in court, especially when the theatre has come out with denials etc.

    Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe for one second that Sally Morgan is getting messages from the other side, but I don’t think there is bald clear-cut evidence yet as there was in the Popof case.

    Unless new evidence appears I think the Mail may struggle in the courts – their only defence being they didn’t directly say she was lying at any point – just cast aspersions.

    UK Libel law is sad.

  • Martin G

    I’m not a legal expert but, as you correctly say, the only issue that is in question in this lawsuit is that a newspaper made a specific allegation (i.e. a person used audio equipment to assist themselves in a show) and that allegation has to be proven or the case is lost.

    Consumer protection legislation from 2008 simply states that psychic and similar “woo woo” only needs to be advertised with a disclaimer such as “for entertainment purposes only”, which Sally does, so she is not breaking the law in that direction.

    Anything else, such as the onus on the plaintiff to prove that he/she has special powers or he/she is really talking to the dead, is irrelevant and not part of the case. When Sally wins this case, you bet your last penny that the PR to be had (e.g. “I have been taken to court and it is has been shown that I am not a fake”) will simply enhance her reputation as a bone fide psychic.

    With regards to the million dollar and other challenges, public domain information and reasonable estimates suggests that a top clairvoyant in the UK will clear half a million pounds per month (that’s NET!) just by touring.

    Add to that the money from DVDs, books, media appearances, phone lines, personal readings, etc., etc., and nobody who is sane will risk that sort of guaranteed and constant revenue stream against a “paltry” million dollars and almost certain exposure as a fake or deluded individual.

    • http://www.buffalobeast.com/ Josh Bunting

      I totally forgot about this comment, sorry. There are some good points here, but I’d think if people like Morgan and Browne really believed they had psychic powers, the “prize” of shutting up your critics would make it worth. They wouldn’t perceive it as taking a risk unless they were aware on some level that they’re frauds.

      Also, do you know if UK law has similar language about proving innocence “beyond a reasonable doubt?” Because the Daily Mail might have a better chance than you suggest if that’s the case. If they have to make their case beyond any doubt, they’ll probably lose. Morgan would get laughed out of court here in ‘merica though. USA! USA! USA!

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