19 October 2012

Skepticism or Publicity Stunt? Merseyside Skeptics Challenge the Psychics

In recent years the Merseyside Skeptics Society have become known more for their stunts than their skepticism, whether it is homeopathic overdoses, or challenges to psychics, but is this really what skepticism needs, wants or even should be about?

Former UK Skeptics kingpin John Jackson recently commented on such societies as...

"A few of these 'societies' cropped up a few years ago. 'Society' being a euphemism for 'a couple of blokes with a blog'."

It seems that since the early days of BadPsychics when I was heavily involved with skepticism, that these days its all about the latest stunt to self promote which ever group you are in.

Last years stunt was to invited Sally Morgan to be tested at an event, with the full knowledge that she would not turn up.

Well this year a few more people have been roped in, included such heavyweights as science writer Simon Singh, and TV Psychologist Chris French. Two people I happen to like and respect, but who take a very different approach to skepticism than myself.

So what's the stunt for this year? Well basically its the same as last year, but they have publicly announced that they have invited a number of famous psychics to take part.

Heavyweight names such as Derek Acorah and Colin Fry as well as Sally Morgan again.

But here is the problem, neither Derek Acorah or Colin Fry claim they have actually been invited to take part, and not through any official means either.

Chris French claims that Merseyside Skeptics leader Marsh has invited them through the "contact" links on their respective websites.

Since the challenge was announced, as you can imagine I have been contacted by a number of people informing me of the challenge.

So I decided to contact Colin and Derek myself to see if they were taking part, since I am friendly to both of these psychics, I decided to contact them directly, and not through any webmaster.

Neither Colin or Derek say they have been contacted, and that they had only found out about it when others had mentioned to them that their names had been used as part of the publicity.

So the question remains, what's the point of making a challenge and acting all high and mighty about it, when without doubt none of the big names invited will actually turn up, either because they haven't actually been asked, or that the time frame is so short that even if they wanted to they couldn't either. Remember these are busy career psychics with tours booked up in some cases a year ahead of time.

I contacted both Colin and Derek and got replies within an hour! And you can hardly call either of them my biggest fan.

So to clarify, you have a Skeptics Society who have publicised an event and got national media press, despite the fact none of the psychics have truly been invited in an official and recorded manner, just an apparent blind email to their website, which lets be realistic will have got buried in the thousands of fan emails these psychics get daily. So a full knowledge that none of the psychics will turn up.

So what was the point?

Let me tell you, this is all about the skeptics, and nothing to do with skepticism, education, or the testing of psychic claims.

If you create a test, announce a challenge, but you already know the outcome before you have done anything, then it is nothing more than a poor PR stunt.

To quote UK Skeptics Kingpin John Jackson again
"As an adversarial challenge, it's not really scientific research of any worth and as a publicity stunt, it will fall flat because of the no show."

This is not what skepticism should be about, it should not be about a bunch of people sitting about with smug looks on their faces, patting each other on the back. But that is exactly what I believe it has become.

In other news, at the end of this month, I have arranged to meet up with Derek Acorah, whereby I will discuss with him face to face the possibilities of some kind of test with me. I am not a scientist, nor will I pre-advertise any kind of test. I will sit, and talk with him, and see what he would see as an acceptable process.
And if anything comes of it, then I will publish my results so that people can make up their own mind.

You see these psychics already have money, so challenging them to win money is not of interest.

And a bunch of smug skeptics is hardly an attractive offer to someone like Derek Acorah or Colin Fry, in an effort to prove themselves.

It says a lot that Derek and Colin are more willing to not only talk to me, but potentially work with me to figure out an acceptable to all protocol and way to prove their claims.

Yep me, the person who has criticised and exposed both of them more than anyone else on the planet.

I have earned both of their respect by my straight talking, strong but direct and polite manner.

Some skeptics could do well to look, listen and learn from someone like me, afterall I achieve things which others can only dream of.

Of course I could be wrong, and Sally Morgan will turn up at the event, but then with £4 million quid in the bank, I highly doubt it!


Update: 31/10/2012
As expected no famous psychics turned up, we already know that Derek Acorah and Colin Fry were not officially invited to take part despite the claims made by Merseyside Skeptics, Chris French etc.

The 2 psychics that did take part included 1 that has already failed a psychic test with regards to a Preliminary test taken for the JREF Million Dollar Challenge, and another no name psychic that no one I knew had even heard of.

I wont name them on here as I see no reason to give these two failed psychics any more publicity.

Anyway as expected they failed, and now they are saying the test was not a real test of their abilities, they get some good free publicity, can now claim to be victims, and the whole thing was a monumental waste of time that proved absolutely nothing.

Well done guys, you achieved absolutely nothing in the name of science and skepticism, but you did achieve your goal of getting lots of publicity for your brand, your society, lots of publicity for media hungry career skeptics Simon Singh and Chris French, and finally lots of naive skeptics who can now jump on the Merseyside Skeptics bandwagon.

Luckily I was not fooled before hand, and not after.

I just hope that sensible skeptics out there can see what MSS are doing, and the damage they are doing to skepticism and to genuine skeptics by their pathetic publicity stunts.

In other news, all being well I am meeting Derek Acorah face to face, in person this evening. And if you believed the nonsense spouted by some skeptics, this is supposedly a near impossible thing to do!

And keep in mind, I am the worlds first person to have exposed Derek Acorah and Most Haunted, yet even I have no problem in arranging a meet up with him.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately some sceptics believe that all people are interested in are stunts and entertainment so totally agree with your comments.
mersyside sceptics obviously do do some good things but they spoil it with these pr stunts and damage their reputation at the same time

Marv said...

Hi there. I'm an admin for a huge internet community of remote viewers. I have many years' experience remote viewing for a hobby, for fun, and occasionally for clients. A few weeks back I sent the Merseyside Skeptics Society this email:

'Hi there,

Just curious - have the Merseyside skeptics society ever conducted any research into remote viewing? I ask as someone with a decades' experience remote viewing and as the admin for one of the largest RV sites on the internet.

What is your experience, if any, with RV? Would you be interested in setting up an experiment involving some self-professed 'remote viewers'? It would be fun and easy to do, under double blind protocol, merely through email.'

I have yet to receive any form of reply from MMS. Not even a 'go away.'

It seems odd to me that a society such as theirs would turn down the opportunity of working with a set of friendly, willing participants - not just turn down but completely ignore - whilst choosing instead to engage in the fruitless pursuit of celebrities from whom they are unlikely to receive the time of day.

These guys give skeptics a bad name.

For what its worth I would encourage any skeptics out there to give remote viewing some serious attention (ignoring the huge amounts of BS pushed by many 'big name' RVers on the internet). It strikes me that whatever goes on during a successful remote viewing session may well account for any successes achieved by mediums claiming to channel the dead. They aren't actually 'talking' to the dead in any sense, but merely receiving information about that person in the same way that remote viewers gather information about a target that they are attempting to describe (under blind protocol, and with no knowledge of what that target is, obviously).

It is my contention (I've seen viewers do it countless times) that a remote viewing session conducted of someone's dead grandfather and a 'true' medium's reading of the same grandfather would essentially be tantamount to the same thing - the important difference being that the remote viewing session would have been carried out blind (eg all the viewer would have received would be a set of co-ordinate numbers whereas the medium would KNOW what his/her target was, roughly) and thus the RV session could be properly qualified afterwards through feedback.

Some interesting experimentation to be carried out there. Or maybe not. Maybe it's just more fun and lucrative for some skeptics to pursue celebrities like Sally Morgan or set up deeply flawed public knock-downs of RV like Derren Brown did last year.

Anyway, nice blog piece, good to see a skeptic calling MMS up on this latest stunt.

'Those who have spent time remote viewing know that it works, whilst those who have never tried it are certain that it doesn't'.

Jon Donnis said...

Sorry that they ignored your request, but I am not really surprised. Their main motivations are self promotion, so to take on a RV experiment would not be "money" for them, which is why they only go after the big names.

I did a remote viewing experiment on my forum a few years ago, it was unsuccessful.

I dont really have the resources to run such an experiment myself now though, although if perhaps you post on my forum http://moh2005.proboards.com
perhaps we could arrange some informal fun experiments, not to debunk or even prove, but more to help everyone understand the claims, and what you think is possible.

And perhaps if we have some interesting results, I could try and figure out a way to do a proper test.

Let me know what you think.

Marv said...

Hi Jon,

Okay, will do.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this interesting post. For transparency's sake, I must say I'm a fan of 'Skeptics with a K', the MMS podcast, but I have no affiliation with them.

I see your point about publicity stunts, but I was thinking, surely if this sort of media attention directs the mainstream towards rational thinking a bit more, is it such a terrible thing? I agree, scientific experiments must be done properly, but surely a little marketing towards scepticism can't be a bad thing, when there's so much irrational thinking about. What do you think, and how would you go about promoting scepticism? (Not being aggressive, just curious)


Jon Donnis said...

But the media attention in this setting is damaging and misleading, it gives skeptics a bad name and furthers the divide between believers and non believers.

Skepticism should be about bringing the 2 groups together were a discussion and debate can be had which educates both sets of people, and a common goal of transparency within the paranormal industry is achieved.

Publicity stunts only raise the profile of the people or groups behind them, and in this case all of whom will profit from the publicity gained, whether it is more book sales for Simon Singh, more gigs for Chris French, or a higher profile for Marsh and the MSS including their podcasts, and events etc like QED.

I have no problem with people self promoting, if it is clear that is what they are doing.

But to deliberately mislead people, I think is wrong, and in turn damages the "movement" more than help educate people.

Have you seen or heard from one person who felt educated by the test they did? I haven't!

Instead I have received a lot of correspondence from people pissed off. Hell I have even been accused of being involved with MSS when I am clearly not.

I am very much an old school skeptic, truly altruistic and honest about what I am trying to achieve.

And the first rule of Old School is you are always honest even if it is damaging. Never mislead people

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply and I see what you mean.

Psychics (and others) perhaps already feel alienated and attacked by sceptics, and you're right, we need to be inclusive and have healthy debates with people of all beliefs about this sort of thing. Otherwise both 'camps' might end up getting more insular and unwilling to try on new ideas, which would be such a shame.

Speaking as someone who listens to the MSS podcast regularly, I doubt they intended to alienate or mislead anyone - they spoke very respectfully of the people they were working with on the test. But I don't know any of them personally, so obviously don't know for sure.

It's great that science has become more mainstream now, and that us laypersons can all have a go, but I agree, we do need to be mindful of what we do in the name of scepticism. And it's great that even sceptics are pulling up fellow sceptics and challenging them, as you did!

Thanks for getting my brain ticking over!


Jon Donnis said...

Hi Jules.
I am glad you were able to understand my point, many skeptics have just attacked me for daring to criticise other skeptics.

You will never get the likes of Acorah and Fry to work with you if you lie about contacting them.

Look at me, I have exposed both of those names in the past, hell BadPsychics was made off the back of exposing those two, yet because of the way I work, the honesty, the fact I don't compromise myself, I am able to speak freely to both of them, and they are happy to talk with me, only the other week I met with Acorah and his management and discussed various protocols and testing ideas that would in theory be easy for him to pass. (If he was really a medium of course).

That is something that no one in MSS has ever been able to achieve, a simple sit down conversation with such names like that.

The whole society reminds me of myself about 8 years ago, I made the same mistakes, I alienated people, and it took me a long to learn. It is just a shame that MSS think of themselves as beyond criticism and above the rest of us that they refuse to listen or learn from someone like myself who was a successful skeptic back when they were picking their noses in school.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jon,

It's great that you've done so much with psychics. :o)

You said: "It is just a shame that MSS think of themselves as beyond criticism and above the rest of us that they refuse to listen or learn from someone like myself..."

I'm sure you have a lot to contribute. Have you spoken to MSS about this? I don't want to start stirring, but they seem to be able to take constructive feedback from what I've heard.

Maybe a constructive email to them would get your point across? What do you reckon?


Jon Donnis said...

I have tried, trust me I have! The problem is that some of the people involved resent me, and resent the fact that I am not an academic, I am just an average normal bloke. Don't get me wrong Chris French and Simon Singh have both approached in the past for help, especially Simon Singh, in fact some of his articles for the Guardian regarding Sally Morgan were done with my direct help.
So although I may sometimes criticise those two, they are both big enough to come to me for help when they need it.

The problem is very much the people who work within the MSS as opposed to minor celebs they get to join in (like Singh and French)

Groups like MSS look down on me, my site, my form of altruistic skepticism, and generally everything I say.

They hate the fact that I back up what I say, and yes I know sometimes I come across as a big head etc, but the fact remains I know what I am talking about with regards to psychics.

I have the contacts, the knowledge, the history etc that the likes of MSS can never have, and instead of asking me for my input and my help, they call me a liar and are just rude.

I am sure they are all nice people, and personally I have nothing against any of them, the problem is when something becomes more about the person than the message they are supposedly trying to promote, and thats what has happened with them in my opinion.

Its more about getting your face in the paper, than trying to educate people, and that's a huge problem, and again when you mislead people you are simply doing wrong.

I have only once turned down a request for help, and that was for the Mirror journalist Matt Roper who pretty much ripped off a load of material from BadPsychics, reproduced it in The Mirror, and didn't credit me, and had the gaul to call his story an exclusive. Months later he asked for my help for an article on Gordon Smith, I let him know exactly my opinions of him and his methods.

Other than that, if someone asks for help, whether or not I have criticised them in the past, if it is for the greater good, ie. Education, I am happy to help

Anonymous said...

Hi Jon,

Thanks for your reply. I appreciate you taking the time to explain. :o)

I'm now following you on Twitter (I'm @Julieanafarrell), so I'm sure our paths will cross again - looking forward to reading more of your blog.

Have a lovely day! Jules

PaulV said...

...Lol. Well, I invented the internet, those guys at Darpanet just jumped onto the back of my success. The reason you've never heard anything about it is because I'm so honest and don't care about the money. They give programmers a bad name.

So I totally feel for you Jon Donnis. I would spend my time bad mouthing the people who took your brilliant ideas and put them to use to earning lucrative profits in the field of public skepticism outreach.

These guys just don't grasp the authentic reason for skepticism: mental masturbation. They go and sell out by doing demonstrations to spread scientific information to the public. They choose what they do with the aim of attracting media attention so as to have the greatest possible reach of the message involved, without the slightest concern or effort at what you and I know should be the primary function of skepticism: grandiose self-congratulatory cock-stroking!

Those damn sellouts. By the way, you are totally right that the only logical conclusion about them not responding to your email is that they tacitly acknowledge and agree with everything you said. Deductive reasoning my dear Watson, a non-response has only one possible explanation, and you nailed it.

Jon Donnis said...

You see the problem with sarcasm is that when you don't really know what you are talking about the us of it makes you look like a bit of an arse.

Instead if you ask me direct questions instead of trying to be a typical skeptic smart arse, you might actually get a proper response and hows this, you might even learn something from someone who has not only been doing this longer than you, but has also had more of an impact and achieved more than any of your faux heroes at MSS have!

Again you are no more than another academic type knowitall skeptic who thinks they are better than the average man on the street.

You know even though I closed down BadPsychics for 3 years, and only rarely post on this blog, I still get more visitors here than pretty much any non media skeptic site out there. With the exception of Dawkins, Wiseman, Randi etc, I am still the most viewed skeptical site in the UK, and for someone who doesnt pander to the media, and jump at every opportunity to be on TV, and who does not partake in ridiculous PR stunts, that's pretty good don't you think!

Now go back to RationalSkeptics or which pathetic attempt at a skeptical community you came from, and leave true altruistic skepticism to those who know what they are doing.

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