18 November 2015

For Entertainment Purposes Only: Whose Fault Is It When A Psychic Scams Someone?

The New York Times published a story this weekend about Niall Rice, who was taken for $718,000 by two Manhattan psychics, and has recently taken them to court. While it’s likely that one of the psychics will spend a year in jail for fraud, it’s unlikely that Rice will ever get any of that money back.
The story itself is both heartbreaking and confounding. Rice was in a vulnerable position and was convinced by these two “psychics” that terrible things would happen to him, and that he’d never find love again if he didn’t give them piles of money.
It’s easy to blame the victim in cases like these, and it’s hard to imagine yourself in their shoes. It’s easy to think “there’s a sucker born every minute,” and this could never happen to you or I because we’d laugh in the face of anyone asking us for that amount of money. It’s easy to say that it’s Rice’s fault for being dumb enough to give them the money in the first place. I can say with confidence that this is not something I’d ever do–but I’m also a pretty hardcore skeptic who is not in any kind of emotionally vulnerable position. I also don’t have $718,000 to begin with. I’m not who they would target.
In order to convince people that they have magic powers, professional psychics become adept at “cold reading,” which allows them to “read” people and make assumptions about their lives that are more likely to sound true. Thus, they tend to be pretty adept at identifying who is most likely to cough up the most amount of money.
The people that get targeted in these schemes tend to be people who are in extremely vulnerable positions. Rice had just gotten out of rehab and was devastated by a breakup. Many times, these “psychics” contact families of missing children, offering to divulge the child’s whereabouts for a fee (which is the most horrific and evil thing I can imagine a person doing). The elderly are often the ones targeted by mail-order clairvoyance scams promising riches beyond their wildest dreams. The people who talk to “mediums” are often devastated by the loss of someone they love and willing to shell out good money for the illusion of having them back for a moment.
Rice’s story is not unusual. Several psychics have been sued for fraud within the last several years. Some cases have been successful, but only because they were based on financial irregularities that would otherwise be illegal. It’s an industry that’s completely underregulated. Pretty much anyone can claim to see the future and demand loads of cash in exchange for telling people some bullshit. I could do it right now. I could start a business in which I pretend that I’m psychic, and there would be people who would believe me and give me money for that. That’s messed up! I should not be allowed to do that!
There are very few ways in which I will ever disagree with the ACLU, and this is one of them. I don’t believe this is a “freedom of speech”  issue, as much as it is about protecting vulnerable people from predatory scumbags who want to take advantage of them. We protect people from con-artists selling land in Florida and the Brooklyn Bridge, we send people to jail for running Ponzi schemes–there should be some way to protect people from so-called psychics.
To be entirely frank about my own biases here, I think that “psychics” are at best delusional and at worst predatory monsters. I don’t believe anyone has magic powers. I don’t believe they can see into the future, or talk to your Great Aunt Miriam, or cast a spell that will make your ex want to love you again. From the Fox Sisters, to Uri Gellar, to Sylvia Browne–basically every person who has become famous for having paranormal abilities has been outed as a fraud. Why would a random person with a shady storefront be any less of one?
I think the same thing of people like Joel Osteen and Pat Robertson and other preachers who tell people that their lives or their health or their financial situation will improve if they give them money. I think the same thing of people who sell “homeopathic dilutions” that are just sugar pills with literally nothing in them. It’s frustrating to me that people are allowed to take advantage of vulnerable people, just because they say they’re doing magic or are particularly in touch with god or something. I wish all these practices were illegal, and I am eternally furious that they aren’t.
I do think that there are ways to regulate “paranormal services” and protect people from being defrauded as severely as Rice was. The warning “for entertainment purposes only” isn’t enough–it doesn’t protect consumers, it protects the con-artists from being liable when they screw people. If it’s for entertainment purposes only, then these people should not be allowed to guarantee results of any kind. If you are promising results, you should be required toproduce results or give people their money back. I don’t order something on Amazon thinking that “maybe” it will arrive in the mail–either it arrives or I get a refund.
My ideal scenario would be to require psychics and their ilk to prove that they actually are what they claim to be, but that’s unlikely to happen. For 19 years, the James Randi Educational fund offered a large sum of money–eventually a million dollars–to prove that they had some kind of paranormal ability under scientific conditions. Unsurprisingly, no one ever won.
It should, most importantly, be illegal for psychics to contact people directly on their own, especially families with missing children. In situations where it’s found that a psychic or other paranormal worker has purposely reached out to a person in a vulnerable position, or promised a service they did not deliver on (like bringing an ex-lover back), they should have to both return the money they conned out of them, and go to jail.
Unfortunately, most people who are defrauded by psychics (i.e., everyone who has ever seen a psychic, basically) are too embarrassed by the fact that they were taken for a ride to actually sue them. This is why we need some other protections in place to keep this from happening. I don’t know if it would be possible to regulate the amount they’re allowed to charge for their services, but that would be a start.
In conclusion, please do not give your money to anyone who claims they have magic powers. You’re better off flushing it down a toilet, because at least the toilet won’t come after you later claiming that it can get your old boyfriend back if you flush a thousand more.
Written by Robyn Pennacchia @robynelyse

Originally published at www.thefrisky.com and republished here with kind permission of Robyn Pennacchia

16 November 2015

BadPsychics Classic - "Dave Anderson appears on BBC World Service"

Video from the Archive when our very own Dave Anderson appeared on the BBC World News!

Jon Donnis Answers Your Criticisms - "Ghosts do not exist"

Quite often in the comments section of this site, or on my forum, I get criticised for things I have said, and I always try to reply directly to that criticism, as I like to show people the personal touch. I do not fear criticism, and If I am wrong about something then I welcome people to challenge me, question me, and take me up on it. This is what true skepticism is about.

So today I received some criticism, and I wrote a length reply which I would like to share with everyone, since I get asked this quite often, I would like to clarify and really answer the point that the person made.

In the comments section of a review I had written about American Entertainment TV show Ghost Adventures, the following was left...

blah28 March 2015 at 05:28
"You state that due to the Ghost adventure crew starting the investigation with a belief in the supernatural, then they lose credibility: "it instantly means everything they say and do lacks all credibility, even if they are suspicious and bring up some good points." And yet, you then state your own presuppositional bias by stating that you "know that ghost don't exist." 

Using your logic, this means that you lose credibility as well."

Here is my response to that...

You make a fair point, so let me respond and explain.

On one side you have someone having a start point of belief, acceptance and bias.

On the other side (me) you have someone with a starting point of disbelief, non-acceptance and bias against.

So what is the difference?

Well my opinion is an opinion based on facts, based on science, based on hundreds of years of growth and knowledge about how the human body works.

From the moment a human is conceived to the moment the last cell of a dead body degrades, science knows and understands every single moment inbetween, using biology, physics and chemistry, we can chart every moment of every single change as we go from that fertilised egg to the last decomposed human cell.

No religious teacher found that out, no psychic ever discovered any of this, instead thousands of scientists over hundreds of years have.

So lets fast forward slightly to what happens when we die. And again due to science we know what happens when someone dies, the organs tend to shut down first, blood stops flowing around the body and most importantly to the brain, a lack of blood and therefore oxygen starves the brain, and eventually the electrical impulses in the brain stop, when this happens, we are dead, no turning back.

No human has ever come back from being truly dead, although the definition of what constitutes being dead has changed as SCIENCE and medicine have improved, no one has ever come back from true brain death. (You can ignore the story of that Jesus bloke, it was made up by a bunch of naughty Greeks decades after the alleged miracles happened.)

So we know everything that happens when a human is conceived to the point of death.

Now the afterlife. Evolution has meant that the human race struggles with the thoughts of death, due to our self awareness. Throughout human history, it has been shown that we give things supernatural meaning when we do not understand them, whether it is how the sun appears in the sky with the moon, to Earth Quakes, Tsunamis, you name it before SCIENCE explained it, we gave it a supernatural meaning, every single time, the same goes with modern phenomena, we see something move in the corner of our eye, or even if we have a full blown hallucination, we give it supernatural meaning until we truly understand it. Hear a knocking in the night, when no one else is around, must be a ghost right? Not the wooden beams or floor boards creaking as the temperature drops.

I've lived in hot countries where the houses are made of concrete, funnily enough you never seem to get reports of ghosts making noises in the night!

So for me to say that ghosts do not exist, is an opinion based on hundreds of years of proven scientific study, and not a single piece of evidence exists to say that ghost do exist.

So for me to have that position, is surely a fair one, to be skeptical of claims which break the laws of physics should be the starting point of EVERYONE who is investigating a situation where something "unexplained" has been reported.

Remember Unexplained is not the same as unexplainable.

If someone comes along and says that they are going to investigate a pond because someone has claimed that in this pond there exists an invisible creature that not only can travel through time, but cure illnesses while smoking a cigar and singing the theme to The A Team. In any possible situation should you start off with a position of belief? Of course not because the claim is ridiculous. But what if a million people all claim the same thing? All with no evidence, no proof, no theory, just a baseless claim, should you then start off with a position of belief? Still of course not.

You could line up a million people at night, get them all to look at the moon as it is low on the horizon and all of them would say the moon looks bigger! And ALL of them would be wrong. The moon is the same size, and and more importantly the same size in the sky! Yet 1 million people are wrong. And better still it can be proven they are wrong with a simple trick of getting an empty toilet roll, holding it up and looking at the moon through it, suddenly the moon goes back to its normal size. Science can explain the "Moon illusion", as it includes something that is testable, something that is physical and can be examined. And the fact that a million people can all being wrong, proves that we should never trust our own eyes as we can be fooled.

So when I say ghosts do not exist, this is not some throw away comment, this is a comment based on a  scientific understanding of the the universe.

So ask yourself now, if one person says they believe in ghosts and one person says that ghosts do not exist, who really has the most credibility?