The Indelible Stamp

Is Asking For Evidence From Psychic Sally Really A ‘Modern-Day Witch-Hunt’?


It is according to Brendan O’Neill. In The Telegraph he writes that the “hounding” of Sally Morgan, supernatural adviser and dead-person telephone, is reaching the fever-pitch of the historical witch hunts. “Decent society once hounded witches; now it hounds pseudo-witches,” he asserts. Indeed, “the anti-Morgan lobby is motivated by the same impulses as those of pointy-hatted witch-hunters of old”. What’s interesting is his list compared to what both sides – witch hunters of the past and O’Neill’s of today – wrote or described of their own actions for pursuing their “witches”.

For example, this hardly reads like something a skeptic, like those “hounding” Ms Morgan, would write today:

“All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman. … What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an unescapable [sic] punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil nature, painted with fair colours. … Women are by nature instruments of Satan — they are by nature carnal, a structural defect rooted in the original creation.”

This is straight from the 1486 text, Malleus maleficarum (The Hammer of Witches). One cannot ignore this document when discussing the actual witch-hunts of Europe during this time. Writes Steven Katz, “It was to become the most influential and widely used handbook on witchcraft.” Furthermore:

Its enormous influence was practically guaranteed, owing not only to its authoritative appearance but also to its extremely wide distribution. It was one of the first books to be printed on the recently invented printing press and appeared in no fewer than 20 editions. … The moral backing had been provided for a horrible, endless march of suffering, torture, and human disgrace inflicted on thousands of women.

Others might disagree. For example, Brian Pavlac, professor of history at Kings, writes that there was no single church responsible, nor was it purely motivated by religious ideas. “While Christianity clearly created the framework for the Witch Hunts, no single “Church” was to blame, and many secular governments hunted witches for essentially non-religious reasons.” The reasons for secular complicity is the same as it’s ever been for crushing certain groups of people: “[Secular] princes hunted witches because Church leaders taught them that witches were disturbers of the peace, destructors of property, and killers of animals and people.”

Folter von Frau und Tochter eines Fuhrmanns in Mellingen Hans Ueli (1577)

During these European witch-hunts of the 15th – 17th century, estimates of between 50,000 to 200,000 died – though these numbers are constantly being contested. The reasons for the witch-hunts are complicated but there is little doubt that superstition, fear, misogyny [though men, too, were killed for being witches], ignorance and stupidity were all at play.

How then can we compare this horrible history of killing and torturing innocent people, mandated by popes and princes to the ridicule and criticism – using words, not swords or fire – of Ms Morgan? Furthermore, the witch-hunt was targeting people because the attackers were convinced these people were witches; in Morgan’s case, it’s the exact opposite (using the term ‘witch’ loosely). We know she does not have supernatural powers and skeptics are demanded evidence.

For example, Simon Singh writing in The Guardian, says he spoke to two women who attended one of Ms Morgan’s performances, claiming they overheard someone providing information to Ms Morgan, through electronic communication devices.

The mystery voice … talked about “Stephen”, “pain in back” and “passed quickly”, and … this was repeated [by Ms Morgan]. [The two women] claim several others heard the voice, and the resulting fuss caused an usherette to leave the auditorium and the window was then closed. According to their recollection, the show came to an abrupt end soon after this.

Singh highlights that both independently encountered the strange voice, since they did not attend the show together. Furthermore, both were hoping to hear from dead loves ones, “so at the time they were certainly sympathetic towards the idea of Sally’s purported gift”. Singh then puts forward an important point: “I am certainly not suggesting that we should judge Sally to be a cheat based on the accounts of just two people. Also, like any rationalist, I would be sufficiently open-minded to accept that psychic powers exist if I were to be presented with strong evidence.”

Singh highlights the necessity to test whether she really is psychic, since her constant demonstrations indicate she would pass “with flying colours”. Of course, Ms Morgan’s reactions to questions about her authenticity, like Singh’s and others using evidence from her own audience, have usually been met with, that backward idea of, libel.

Psychic Sally: You won't see her libels coming

Impulses and Assumptions

Presumably, Mr O’Neill would not agree that these are actually similar cases. In the past, “decent society” killed and tortured their witches. What are skeptics and scientists doing that’s comparable?

Mr O’Neill is simply using the idea of large groups targeting an individual as a witch-hunt. Colloquially, this might be fine – if just a little dramatic – but he does actually compare the Morgan “witch-hunt” and, indeed, the “anti-Morgan lobby” with those who killed and tortured innocent people. This might be too strong a view, since he primarily switches between saying the “hounding” is the same, to saying the “impulses” are the same (perhaps both, perhaps he only has evidence for one, I don’t know).

So what are these “impulses” skeptics have with the torturers and murderers of innocent men and women? Says Mr O’Neill:

first … 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.

It is amusing to note Mr O’Neill’s calling out skeptics for “posturing against caricatured opponents”, since I am unaware of whom he is targeting. It cannot be someone like Simon Singh who has done much to raise awareness of the dangers of pseudoscience, fighting against idiotic (and dangerous) lobbies like chiropractors; it cannot be someone like Ben Goldacre, whose wonderful book and blog details the dangers of “bad medicine” to the lives of non-experts (and even experts); and so on. Mr O’Neill does not provide any names. Instead he swings his broad brush made of straw over all manner of “scientists” and “secular set” and “enlightened men and women”, expecting us to believe these creatures exist and aren’t merely easy targets for his castigation.

All those who are making a difference are doing so by constantly asking for evidence: It is Mr O’Neill who is making Ms Morgan into some unique entity that should somehow be excused from the constant scientific process of asking for evidence. Why? She is being asked, because of her own claims and those of her clients. Why should we stop asking for evidence when people make extraordinary claims, like, say communicating with dead people? This is hardly a hounding but a consistent application of the scientific process.

Also the assumption that people can’t look after themselves is obvious: they can’t, which is why people go to those things called doctors. Unless Mr O’Neill is an expert in every area of life, he has to rely on the expertise of others who do – objectively – know more than he does. I would not castigate doctors who claim to know how to treat me – they do know better. That is why we pay and respect the medical establishment (and should target, ridicule and criticise pseudomedicine). I willingly submit to be overruled by scientific experts and welcome it, especially in areas that concern, for example, my health and wellbeing.

Furthermore, it is not true to say that writers are “patronising” Ms Morgan’s audience. Hardly anyone would go “for fun” to see someone like Ms Morgan: it would be those who’ve lost someone that comprise the majority of her audience (if I’m wrong about this, please do let me know). The point being, they are weak and vulnerable, just as any of us would be upon losing a loved one. That’s not a caricature or patronising: it’s the very reason we should be critical of those that claim to help them, since they are not in a position to think critically or realise what’s beneficial to them. We know that attending these kinds of meetings and events can only prolong the grieving process, or have worse consequences.

It’s not clear what Mr O’Neill’s criticism really amounts to. He wants skeptics to focus on other things; he considers this harmless and Ms Morgan not worth their time. Perhaps the most charitable reading of Mr O’Neill will remind us that no matter how much we think we have reason on our side, we are human like the witch-hunters of old; we can become a mob and stupid and frothing at the mouth crazy. Reason doesn’t make us infallible, since it’s merely a tool, not a platform. Demanding evidence is important and we, correctly, should demand it from anyone who makes extraordinary claims that seemingly defy the laws of physics. (Need I mention the money and respect that could be gained by submitting to test and proving, scientifically, one’s powers?) To this extent, it is good to be reminded of our own brutish nature, especially when we think we’re right (even if we really are) and have an easy target, like TV psychic-mediums.

But there’s a broader goal: being consistent in our demands for evidence. That is merely what is occurring here. Mr O’Neill, by caricaturing those from the scientific and “secular” establishment (two different things, by the way), does not offer insight or a reason for us not to demand evidence from Ms Morgan. If she is being treated unfairly (whatever that means in the current context) then we should be concerned and those doing so reprimanded or criticised accordingly; that Mr O’Neill doesn’t provide a single name or example indicates that this is in fact not true, and merely hot air in the face of what should be cold reason, applied consistently.