This week’s print TIME and the magazine’s website has a story titled “Astrologer Susan Miller On Why You Should Pay Attention to the Lunar Eclipse.” The TIME writer, Laura Stampler, promotes the astrologer as if she was Nate Silver, a reliable, respectable expert in a legitimate field who has something to teach us. Susan Miller is not a reliable, respectable expert. She is an astrologer, meaning that she is as legitimate as a palm reader, a douser, or the Amazing Kreskin. She is a fraud, in a fraudulent field, however ancient or popular. There is no scholarly controversy about this. There is more evidence of the existence of Bigfoot, Nessie, ghosts and flying saucers than there is that astrology is more than pseudo-scientific claptrap. Continue reading
The faithful in Yucaipa, California don’t want psychics in their town. After all, what’s next? Soon you’ll have meetings of people being told wild stories about miracles and virgin births and resurrections, and…oh.
This is one of those situations where the intolerance of religious Americans undermines their own cause, though I know they don’t see it that way.
John Johnson is asking Yucaipa for a home occupation permit so he can continue to provide psychic readings, which he has done without incident for decades. However, it looks like opposition from surrounding neighbors at the public hearing might foil Johnson’s efforts to let his home business pass muster as a nonconforming use in a commercial zone. This makes no sense to him. (It makes no sense to me either.)
“I’ve never hurt any children or gone astray,” he said at the hearing. “I don’t take drugs nor have any tattoos. You people judge me without even knowing me…. I’m a devoted Catholic.”
No, the godly of Yucaipa think you’re evil, John. Here are some of the comments at the meeting: Continue reading
Supposedly professional and reliable broadcast information sources, such as NBC’s Today Show and Dr. Oz, have helped unscrupulous scamsters mislead and sometimes rob the ignorant, hopeful and gullible by treating psychics and fortune-tellers as if they were serious professionals. It is irresponsible and reckless, or perhaps testimony to the low level of education and reasoning ability of television news producers, that so many of these alleged journalists yield to the temptation of booking fake masters of the supernatural during airtime that is otherwise devoted to facts, or some version of them. While CBS’s “The Mentalist” performs a public service by presenting a hero who doesn’t hesitate to declare his former profession a fraud, it is hard-pressed to counter the corrupting effects of previous shows like “Medium,” which enhanced the dubious reputation of one psychic, and “Ghost Whisperer,” as well as cable’s TLC, which made the “Long Island Medium” a reality star.
Chicago’s WGN deserves an ethics razzing for falling into this trap, and providing a forum for a fake psychic to hawk her book in a live on-air segment on its morning show. Luckily, however, the news team persuaded the woman, Char Margolis, to attempt a cold reading of anchor Robin Baumgarten, and when she failed spectacularly, Baumgarten’s co-anchor Larry Potash delivered a deft coup de grace. Well done, WGN news team!
The fact that the segment turned into a wonderful YouTube lesson in how phony these predators are cannot retroactively excuse the unethical decision to have a fake psychic like Margolis on the news in the first place, but if there was ever a perfect example of how a poor ethics can have good results, this is it:
Pointer: Soap Box Rantings
Now that the required joke is out of the way, I can more soberly state that the New York conviction of psychic Sylvia Mitchell for larceny and fraud opens up a welter of ethical, legal and religious issues. Law prof-blogger Ann Althouse is troubled by the result, writing,
“In my book, this is entertainment and unconventional psychological therapy. Let the buyer beware. Who’s dumb enough to actually believe this? Should the government endeavor to protect everyone who succumbs to the temptation to blow a few bucks on a fortune teller?”
Clearly not, and that’s where courts and states generally land in this matter, as in the case I wrote on three years ago, Nefredo v. Montgomery County. There the courts ruled (in Maryland) that it was an infringement of free speech for Maryland to ban what is, for most, just an exercise in supernatural entertainment. But the New York case involved a little bit more than that: Mitchell apparently bilked some clients out of significant amounts, getting $27,000 from one in an “exercise in letting go of money,” $18,000 from another to put in a jar as a way to relieve herself of “negative energy,” and thousands from other clients to purchase “supplies” for various rituals—what does the eye of a newt go for these days?
Admittedly this seems to cross the line from harmless, if stupid, entertainment into preying on the stupid and gullible, but that doesn’t convince Althouse that the conviction, or the prosecution is a legitimate use of government power. She reminds us about the Supreme Court case of U.S. v. Ballard, in which the Court upheld the conviction of a faith healer for fraud. The SCOTUS majority, headed by William O. Douglas, held that if the faith healer didn’t believe in her claimed powers, then she was a fraud, and thus could be prosecuted under the Constitution if she used a claim of false powers to take money from her clients. In a sharp and thought-provoking dissent, Justice Robert Jackson wrote in part… Continue reading
Growing up, I knew Sylvia Browne as one of the more colorful friends of my father, who knew her brother in the army. She visited from Kansas City every year or so, and her claims of psychic powers never came up, perhaps because my father didn’t believe in such things. My first inkling of “Aunt” Sylvia’s other life was when she pulled me aside in the fall of 1966, after hearing me bemoan the low state to which my beloved Boston Red Sox had fallen. They were going to finish the season in last place, the team’s vaunted youth movement was a flop, and I was disconsolate. “Don’t tell anyone I said this, ” she told me, “but the Red Sox will be in the pennant race next year to the very end. It will come down to the last two games.”
This seemed incredible to me, but what the heck: when the 1967 season tickets went on sale that winter, I sent in an order for two seats on the third base side for the next-to-last game of the season, against the Minnesota Twins. Baseball fans will recall that the ’67 season featured the closest race in American League history, with four teams, including the underdog Red Sox, staying essentially tied for months, with the pennant decided in the last two days at Fenway Park. Sure enough, Boston swept the Twins twice to make up a one game deficit and go the World Series. Sylvia called it.
During college and law school, Sylvia Browne fell out of my family’s life, but our paths intersected again when she showed up for a surprise visit at our home while I was studying for the Massachusetts bar exam in 1975. My job with the Mass Defenders had fallen through, and I had received an unexpected job offer from my law school to work for the new Dean. It would mean moving to D.C., which I didn’t want to do, and I was torn. This was the big topic of discussion while Sylvia was having dinner with us; my mother was emphatic that I should turn the offer down. For the second time, Sylvia pulled me aside for an unsolicited consultation. “Go to D.C.,” she said. “Your future wife is waiting for you.” I naturally assumed that she meant my current girl friend from law school, who was still in the District. “Not her,” Sylvia said. “Another. This job will bring you together, for good.”
I did take the job, although Sylvia’s advice played no part in it. Indeed, I forgot about the conversation completely until it came back to me right before I proposed to my wife, now my wife of 33 years, who was a work colleague of mine at the law school. Sylvia was two for two, at least where I was concerned.
Why I only had dealings with Sylvia Browne when the Red Sox were destined to go to the World Series I can’t imagine (Boston played Cincinnati in the 1975 classic), but the next time I heard from her was in 2004, the year they finally won it. She called me in my ProEthics office on November 17 of that year, and she was distraught. She was calling me, it turned out, not to give advice, but to receive it. Continue reading
You don’t see this every day: an inherently dishonest business based on exploiting consumer gullibility and ignorance making its deception clear in publicly released materials.
The Psychic Friends Network, which is allowed to advertise its fake psychic and fortune-telling services by appending a small sentence declaring that it is “for entertainment only,” has been to bankruptcy and back since those halcyon days when it was being pitched on TV by pop star Dionne Warwick. Now it is looking for investors, and forecasting $64 million of net income for fiscal 2015. Hey–a forecast from a self-acclaimed network of psychics is money in the bank, right?
Uh, no. Says the PFN, being careful, candid, and admitting their business is 100% hooey:
Let’s get this straight: The Psychic Friends Network, which induces consumers to pay its “network” employees to tell them what is going to happen in the future, states in its public materials that it has no way of telling what is going to happen in the future. Does this make it an honest scam? Can there be such a thing as an honest scam? Is it ethical to invest in an enterprise that openly admits that its premise is a lie? I don’t think so. Will many people invest in such a business?
I don’t know.
The funny thing is, neither does the Psychic Friends Network.
Here’s all you need to know about “The Ethical Psychic Project” and the website that supposedly advances it. One of the ethical topics covered in the ethical forum section is “Animal Communication”:
“Our animal friends need help, too! Ask one of our Psychic Animal Communicators to connect with your pet, either on the Earthly plane or crossed over!”
Sounds ethical to me! I was surprised not to see other topics of similar ethical weight and credibility, like “Want to win in at the slot machines?” and “Ever wonder what Joe Biden will say next?”
There appears to be nothing whatsoever ethical about the The Ethical Psychic Project, except that a bunch of people who decided they couldn’t make enough money selling phony deeds to imaginary uranium mines thought that the word “ethical” might suck in some marks. Oh, there’s an ethics code on the site, all right. This psychics code is considerably worse than the last one I wrote about, and that won no prizes. This one is funnier, though, because with a little tweaking, it could just as well serve an ethics code for Superman or Green Lantern, or the Good Witch of the North. It contains such self-validating blather as: Continue reading
The Comment of the Day is an interesting one from Melissa Leath, a psychic who is published on the topic of psychic ethics. She is responding to the recent post here about proposed standards for paranormal investigators.
Her measured response forces me to confront my own ambivalence on this issue. I am, as she says, a skeptic; more than a skeptic, really, as I intellectually am committed to the position that all paranormal, psychic and spiritual phenomenon, including those in the realm of religious believe, are imaginary at best and fraudulent at worst. I would have said “unshakably committed, ” but emotionally, I have to confess am not as sure as I would like to be, or should be. Perhaps I watch too many horror movies. I don’t like Ouija boards, and won’t have the damn things in the house. If my kitchen furniture suddenly rearranged itself like it does in “Poltergeist,” or if my ultra-rational son started telling me that an old man in 1940s clothes kept appearing in his room at night and saying that he was going to hurt him, or if I saw dark, inky shadows crawling up the wall like in “The Grudge,” I can say with conviction that I would not be the one insisting that there must be a rational explanation and hanging around waiting for the bed to start raising off the floor. I would be the one out the door and checking into a motel, and from the safety of which insisting that there was a rational explanation, but also secretly fearing that my house had been built over a Native American burial ground.
I realize that this is inconsistent and silly. But I have a good friend who is as normal and sincere as someone can be who is a serious astrologer. And when I see the late Telly Savalas finally tell his personal ghost story in a YouTube clip, after personally watching him refuse to repeat it on TV talk shows for decades because “it was too scary,” I do wonder, even as I rebuke myself for wondering. Knowing that I wonder, however, it is only fair to give Melissa her say.
Here is her “Comment of the Day” on “‘Who Ya Gonna Call?'” Paranormal Ethics, and the Irony of Same.” Continue reading
When Summerlin Hospital had to step in to prevent first-time parents from endangering their infant by using “natural medicine” to treat their sick newborn, it may have been fighting the influence of Dr. Mehmet Oz, Oprah Winfrey’s health-care guru.
The popular “Dr. Oz” is a walking TV and book franchise, a Harvard-educated cardiovascular surgeon who has emerged as the nation’s most persuasive and trusted advocate for unconventional health care, or as Dr. Wallace Sampson, former chairman of the National Council Against Health Fraud, calls it,”faith healing for the masses.” He has testified before a Senate panel to condemn the mainstream medical profession’s failure to embrace “the natural healing power of our bodies,” and its hostility to “hypnotherapists, massage therapists, spiritual healers.” Dr. Oz has, shall we say, an open mind.
In his expose of the popular health talk show host, “Shamblog” writer Steve Salermo wrote in the New York Daily News, Continue reading
I was surprised to find a long dissertation about ethics posted on a website for self-designated psychics. [UPDATE: The link that I originally supplied here no longer works.] The post itself was also full of surprises, such as the revelation that there is a “Tarot Certification Board of America’s Client Bill of Rights,” which declares, among other things, that…
“Tarot readers are not qualified to give medical advice unless they are physicians. Tarot readers are not qualified to give financial advice unless they are qualified financial advisors. Tarot readers are not qualified to give legal advice unless they are attorneys.”
This is all good ethical advice. Notably missing, however, is the statement that “Tarot readers are not qualified to tell individuals what the future holds in store for them since it is impossible to discern this from reading novelty playing cards.” Continue reading