Friday, February 03, 2012

No, skeptics who criticize “psychics” ≠ witch-burning clergy

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Brendan O’Neill
Brendan O’Neill

Of all the dumb comparisons I’ve seen floating around (“New Atheists = Tea Party”, anyone?), I’ve rarely seen any as ridiculously wrong-headed as The Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill declaring that skeptics who criticize so-called “psychics” for preying on the gullible and the bereaved are the same as clergy who used to hunt women and burn them at the stake for witchcraft. Seriously:

Once upon a time, the great and the good, usually men of the cloth, hunted and persecuted women who were believed to have mystical powers. Today, the great and the good, usually men of science, go after women who don’t have mystical powers but who claim to. Decent society once hounded witches; now it hounds pseudo-witches.

So it is with Sally Morgan, otherwise known as “Psychic Sally”, former adviser on supernatural matters to Princess Diana, self-styled communicator with the dead, and now hate-figure-in-chief to the rationalist, sceptical set. Judging from the slurry of ridicule dumped on Morgan by certain writers and activists over the past year, you could be forgiven for thinking she was single-handedly responsible for the spread of stupidity in modern Britain. She “preys” on her “vulnerable audiences”, we are told, talking “a load of crystal balls”, making the “gullible” and “lonely” believe in stuff that isn’t true. Some serious science writers even want to institute annual Sally-bashing get-togethers for clever, scientifically minded people, to which Morgan will be invited, so that she can perform her tricks, but obviously she won’t turn up and then she can be mocked even more! What larks!

“Psychic” Sally Morgan
“Psychic” Sally Morgan

Except that, of course, there wouldn’t be any mocking and larking if Psychic Sally could actually prove that she’s, well, psychic. Or is her cowardly refusal to submit her extraordinary claims of possessing magical powers to actual scientific testing not sufficient grounds for pointing out that she is, in fact, a coward and a fraud? Or are such traits just not deserving of condemnation anymore?

At any rate, O’Neill is pulling the usual tack (intentionally or not) used by any other defender of any other form of mysticism or pseudoscience: “Even if she is full of dross, it’s not like she’s hurting anyone.” And this is where skeptics everywhere feel their temples twitch:

Morgan has now responded to all this haranguing by taking the very foolish decision to sue Associated Newspapers over an article published in The Daily Mail last September, in which she was accused of being a fraud. This will not end well – either for her (God knows what will come out in the libel trial) or for press freedom (England’s libel laws are a pox on liberty) or possibly for both. However, it is worth asking of the fashion for mauling Morgan: why? Why bother? Why are ostensibly intellectual people devoting so much time and energy to having a pop at a woman who claims to be psychic? What’s the point? Aren’t there more important things to worry about and greater threats to rational thinking to tackle?

Firstly, it’s all too amusing to point out how in the midst of trying to defend Psychic Sally from all her mean, pointy-headed critics, he mentions her use of the archetypal crank reaction to criticism: Legal thuggery. The plain and simple fact is that Sally Morgan is a fraud; this is an eminently demonstrable fact that no rational person can deny. And as per usual with her lot, she deals with it not by attempting to refute her critics, but by suing them into silence, thus further indicating how thin-skinned she is. After all, if you can’t beat ’em, then sue ’em to make ’em shut up.

But more to the point is O’Neill’s questioning “why” skeptics continue to hammer Morgan for her nonsense when there’re arguably bigger fish to fry out there. But again, he is missing the point. Rationalists are not attacking Morgan because she comprises some sort of penultimate threat to rational thinking in itself, or because she’s at risk of destroying society as we know it. Hazards don’t have to be great to be nonetheless pernicious and reprehensible, and there are no rules stating that critics must focus solely on whichever issues are the most pressing at the very moment and ignore all the other riffraff scurrying about underneath our radars.

Why do skeptics criticize Psychic Sally? For the very reasons O’Neill allures to previously, albeit in sarcasti-quotes. She provides the cruelest form of false hope to the destitute and the grieving, lying about missing children, or pretending to convey messages from departed loved ones from beyond the grave, and all this using no more than cheap parlor tricks that any sufficiently trained illusionist can debunk in seconds. And this isn’t even mentioning the times where police occasionally find themselves relying on these charlatans, only to inevitably find themselves led astray by bullshit advice that sets their investigations back days or weeks or even longer, further reducing the chances that missing persons can actually be found safely, or that those who grieve can finally obtain closure. And again, all of this is verifiable with about thirty seconds of Googling.

So no, Psychic Sally isn’t about to bring about the end of the world, and she and the rest of her ilk may well be as significant as an ant on your neighbor’s doorstep in the grand scheme of things. But that doesn’t stop her from being a rapacious purveyor of toxic comfort and pretentious nonsense parading around under the cloak of someone who provides genuine help, an idea as sickening to the rational individual as they come. If that’s not enough reason to oppose her and declare her to be a con-artist of the thirty-first degree as openly and loudly as possible, then there simply isn’t any reason why any bullshit-peddler should ever be criticized for the harm they cause, big or small.

But before you think this is over, O’Neill then launches into arguably the most idiotic portion of his screed yet:

The anti-Morgan lobby is motivated by the same impulses as those pointy-hatted witch-hunters of old: first, by a desire to look big and impressive by shouting down an allegedly wicked woman; and second, by a desire to save the little people, who are daft and easily led, from having their minds warped and their lives wrecked by people who believe in things the rest of us don’t believe in. Today, the fashionable secular set seems incapable of asserting itself in any positive way, through explaining what is good about the rationalist outlook, so instead it advertises its virtues in an entirely negative fashion, by posturing against caricatured opponents or cartoon “snake oil salesmen”. And in its patronising depiction of Morgan’s audiences as weak, vulnerable and pathetic, we can glimpse the return of that old idea that it falls to enlightened men and women, those whose brains and souls remain intact, to save the dumb from being led astray by alleged cranks. Only today, the enlightened ones come to save us are scientists rather than priests.

You read that right: All those skeptics who write articles and books and hold tame lectures denouncing the parasitic effects of woo-fueled vultures are doing it for the same reasons that priests and whatnot had for chasing after thousands or millions of women and setting them on fire under pretense that they were married to the Devil. And also, people who actually do know better should just shut up about it like good, quiet little boys and girls while the hoi polloi gets its mind filled with utter horseshit, thus inescapably leading to a society where magical thinking is not only accepted, but welcome and encouraged, to the general detriment of everything that stands for truth and reason.

Fuck you, Brendan O’Neill.

(via The Daily Grail)