What Did the Skeptic Really Say About Sally Morgan

On June 20th, 2013, it was reported that British psychic Sally Morgan and the Daily Mail had come to a settlement agreement over charges that the Daily Mail had committed libel against Sally Morgan.  After a September 2011 performance, attendees to her show went on to tell a radio show that they saw evidence that Morgan was being fed information via a secret ear piece.  This was repeated in a few articles, but it seems only one article was actually involved in the lawsuit.

As read in court, Sally Morgan specifically mentions an article written by Paul Zenon that Morgan says contains an allegation that she cheated the audience. Her lawyer claimed even more:

“It was following a theatre performance in September 2011 in Dublin that an article appeared in the Daily Mail which, in the context of a general attack on psychics as being charlatans, accused Mrs Morgan specifically of having used a hidden earpiece during her performance in order to receive instructions from her team which she then repeated on stage as if she had received them from the spirit world.”

The reaction from skeptics seems to have been contempt for the decision:

Or disappointment in the skeptic:

There have even been a few articles written here and there, outlining why this might have been a skeptic fail. However, everyone seems to be quoting second hand sources,  as the original article is no longer on the Daily Mail website  No one linked to the original, because they couldn’t.   Most of the words like “fraud”, “scam” or “charlatan” do not come from original sources, they come from Sally Morgan’s lawyer.

I did some digging, though, and was able to finally track down the original article. When you the read original, well, it’s a lot less controversial.  You can read the original here  but I’ll bring in some of the critical passages.

First, Zenon does repeat the claims of others that they heard the use of a hidden ear piece to facilitate the performance:

 

A member of the audience claims otherwise, saying that she could hear a man’s voice relaying information, presumably via a microphone and hidden earpiece — such as ‘David, pain in back, passed quickly’ — to the psychic superstar on stage who, 10 seconds later, claimed to be talking to the spirit of David. The voice only stopped when it was heard by a theatre usher, who closed an internal window.

This is not a claim made by Paul Zenon.  This is background information on the what’s been being said about a 2011 Sally Morgan performance.  The people who made the allegation on the radio, were not sued, I’ll point out.

Next, we get a little bit of where Zenon is coming from:

So was Ms Morgan getting a little help from the real world rather than the spirit world? While she insists absolutely not — although it is still illegal in this country to claim to be a medium — having studied stage psychics for years and been one myself in my 20s, I am sceptical.

In no way does Zenon call her a fraud, or accuse of using an ear piece.  He doesn’t make a claim as to how Morgan did her performance.  A lot of the rest of the article is talking about the different ways psychic performances are done.  Communicating with the dead is not one of those reasons. 

The article finishes with this line: 

So if, Heaven forbid, performers like Ms Morgan aren’t actually talking to the dead… then I think the public has a right to know.

Again, no claim is made that Morgan is a “fraud”, “scam”, or “charlatan”.  To be sure, the article is devastating to Morgan’s psychic claims because it clearly demonstrates how her performances match closely the tricks to faking being a psychic.  I can’t see what Zenon did wrong here, from the skeptical point of view.  This is what skeptics do all they time.  They explain the prosaic to show how things don’t have to be extraordinary.  
Whether or not the article is libelous within the UK doesn’t interest me much.  It’s well known that the UK has a terrible libel law problem.  I was concerned with the idea that a skeptic would make definitive claims of fraud, but now that I’ve done some research and found the original sources, I feel a lot better. 

 

In Praise of the Bigfoot Skeptic

While the skeptic movement has been growing the last ten years, there has been a desire by some to push skepticism out into more “social justice” type of work.  Notice I said “work” and not “claims”.  Skepticism, of course, can be used within “social justice” movements and this has been said and accepted for at least the last thirty years.  The skeptic movement, in short hand, is a movement dedicated to critical thinking and examining claims.  It does not inherently point one toward a set of social or political values.  The results of skepticism, though, should inform people and help them develop their own values.  I’m probably butchering something here, but I think the gist comes across.

As any movement, the skeptic movement is made up of actual people (lately this fact seems to get lost) with different opinions, value systems, and experiences.  I have always thought of the skeptic movement as a group of people who want to know more and muddle along as best we can as humans to advance knowledge.  Mistakes are made, lessons are learned, and people grow.  It is hard for people to not take their values and somehow try and shoehorn them into skepticism the movement.  Whether it’s feminism, liberalism, libertarianism, or even my own veganism, some people have a hard time separating them from the skeptic movement.  I speak as a previous offender from a time when I was positive skepticism would lead one to be a vegan.

I have learned and become more interested in learning as much about skepticism as I can, and I’ve let my political (libertarian) views, my views on animals, and even my atheism out of it.  Skepticism helps inform my other views, not the other way around.

Lately, there is an annoying, often insulting meme where some people denigrate others as “Bigfoot Skeptics”.  If this was ten years ago, I would have just assume “Bigfoot Skeptics” were just people who research the Bigfoot phenomena from a skeptical point of view.  These days, though, it’s an epithet used to disparage those whose skeptical pursuits aren’t judged worthy enough by those would like skepticism to take on liberal progressive values.  It’s pretty childish, a total ad hominem, and frankly, a little bit of lazy thinking.

Skepticism should be a big tent, I think we’re ready to handle that.  There are so many things you can apply skepticism to, I doubt skeptical conferences will ever run out of things to present.  There should be plenty of room for “Bigfoot Skeptics”, “UFO Skeptics”, “Homeopathic Skeptics”, “Government Skeptics” (not truthers), etc.  The length of the list is only limited by my lack of imagination.  So, while “Bigfoot Skeptics” are being insulted by some, I wanted to take this as an opportunity to praise and thank the “Bigfoot Skeptics”.

When I was eight years old I wanted to read everything I could about Bigfoot.  I wasn’t old enough to understand minimum wage, abortion rights, or gay marriage, but I could understand Bigfoot, that maybe it was real and a monster, or maybe it was a myth.  Back when I was eight I didn’t have ready access to the skeptical side of Bigfoot, but oh, I wish I did and I’m jealous that eight year olds now have that easy access.  So many kids will be exposed to skepticism through Bigfoot, far more than during my youth when I was stuck with a small local library, no computer system, and finding non-pro-Bigfoot books proved impossible.

So thank you to people like Joe Nickell, Ben Radford, Sharon Hill, Torkel Ødegård, Matt Crowley, Blake Smith, and Darren Naish who I call approvingly call “Bigfoot Skeptics” for their work in investigations, news reporting and promotion of science.  The world is so much better off with their contributions than without them and they and their work deserve total respect.

 

Ralphie

He never sees a hole not to dig
He never stops his breakfast jig
His bark is loud, constant, and deep
He gives us so many memories to keep

His snout slightly grayed and covered in mud
His body, long and lean, a true canine stud
He loves to sleep , curl up and snore
Taking care of him is never a chore

He loves to take walks, and trot along
He’s great on a leash, never does wrong
Just say “Walk” and that tail wags
His nose to the ground, he never lags

He grunts, and snarls, to rule the home
He’s the king of where he roams
Sitting on the top of his sofa throne
Keeping all away from his treasure bone

Then at night, he runs on ahead
In the room, up the ramp, onto bed
He puts his head down for a dream
As quiet and content as he ever seems

He softly barks at dreamland prey
Never catching what he sees every day
We always smile at Ralphie at rest
Of all our dogs, he sleeps the best

– Shane Brady, May 31, 2007