Psychic’s Advocate

datePosted on 14:32, February 28th, 2010 by Lew

Poneke has another post up about Sensing Murder. Just for the record, I agree with the core argument of the post, and its somewhat famous predecessor. It should come as no shock to most of you that I also agree that the worst bit is that some journalists and current affairs directors treat them as newsworthy — but that’s the newsmakers’ failure, not the psychics’.

But here’s a comment from Falafulu Fisi I think could use a little unpacking:

People earn money for a living by being honest and hard work.
Business men are successful by being brilliant in running their businesses.
Paranormal practitioners (psychics etc,…) earn money via people’s stupidities and gullibility’s. They can become rich of course. Put them into the real world to try and earn an honest living they would be the laziest and incompetent wherever they are.

And in response, this from Klytemnestra:

I would have to disagree somewhat with Falafu Fisi. Excluding those cranks who actually believe they can talk to the dead, these ‘psychics’ are really quite successful business people. Getting rich by exploiting niche markets with false services no one really needs; this is a feat worthy of a degree of respect, even if they are repugnant in every other way.

Contra both of them, I’d argue that their “honest living” isn’t as psychics, or necessarily as providers of false services; it’s as entertainers. After all, those who actually use those “services” are a tiny fraction of those who consume the televised or stage-managed product which results. I also don’t accept Poneke’s suggestion that these consumers necessarily believe they have psychic powers — after all, it doesn’t follow that people who watch vampire movies actually believe in vampires. But even if they did, it ultimately doesn’t matter: taking advantage of peoples’ credulity isn’t wrong in and of itself, and for doing it these folk don’t deserve any more — and in general considerably less — criticism than financial advisers, real estate agents and talk radio hosts. They give a great many people who want such things something to watch of an evening, and something to believe in and make them feel all warm and fuzzy inside. In this regard it’s little different from — say — soap operas or romantic comedies. There’s a fair argument that it’s ghoulish, and perhaps hurtful to the real people involved, but in this regard it’s little different from — say — the cheesier end of TV current affairs or other reality programming.

Even if you don’t personally see any value in it, that’s an honest living, wouldn’t you agree?

L

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29 Responses to “Psychic’s Advocate”

  1. Andrew W on February 28th, 2010 at 16:25

    I go with Tony Andrew’s view that the “psychics” are supplied all the required information before the show is filmed, they then set out to deliberately deceive people by pretending to communicate with the dead. When challenged they’ve denied (lied) charges that they are supplied with information before filming.

    I think you’re stretching it to argue they make an honest living even as entertainers. What they do (if us sceptics are right) qualifies them as fraudsters for pecuniary gain.

  2. David McLoughlin on February 28th, 2010 at 17:55

    What I was arguing was that, nobody today believes a “magician” really has magical powers. We go to magician shows knowing they are just entertainment, and happily pay for that.

    But, I argue, based on observations of shows by “psychics,” is that most if not almost all the people who attend them believe that the entertainer they are seeing actually has non-existent powers of talking to the dead. I mean, who would not want to talk to mum after she passed on?

    These charlatans exploit this human trait.

    That would not matter, if not for the fact that the news media milks this and portrays these charlatans as really having these powers.

    The way the same NZ media gullibly promoted Uri Geller and, far worse, promoted the medical charlatan Milan Brych, as being genuine.

    It is all a long line of media complicity when there should have been media skepticism.

  3. Mike C on February 28th, 2010 at 19:59

    I can’t see little moral difference between psychics and those manufacturers of (for instance) homeopathic and other medical “remedies” whose claims also have no basis. In fact the medical manufacturers may be well be worse.

    As another commenter has said the media have a lot to answer for.

  4. Lew on February 28th, 2010 at 20:18

    Andrew, in what way is what they do different from, say, professional wrestling? You might be about to say that everyone knows WWE is faked and scripted — but that’s irrelevant; it’s a function of the audience, not the production. The fault here is with those who ought to treat it with scepticism, but who fail to do so.

    David, I think it’s useful to draw a distinction between “believe” and “harbour a faint hope but deep down, don’t really buy it”. I suspect the latter more accurately describes the audience being appealed to in the live shows (though anecdotally, “a night out on the wines with the girls” also seems a strong motivator).

    But I agree that our quarrel is largely with the media; though, in their defence, they are hardly incentivised to eschew such materials. And yet plenty of people blame the psychics — but what harm are they themselves actually responsible for? If people believe them, more fool those people. People also believe the weekly investment of $15 in Lotto will yield them a certain fortune over the long term. Part of the trade they make is for that hope, and (for some) the weekly ritual of suspenseful escapism. By one argument, that’s a legitimate trade.

    There are other examples, but the point is that taking advantage of peoples’ credulity is not in and of itself wrong. The Sensing Murder psychics and so on give people something they want, in exchange for — what? Very little, in general. They are simply providing a product for exchange, which is very willingly traded indeed.

    L

  5. Keir on February 28th, 2010 at 22:13

    Andrew, in what way is what they do different from, say, professional wrestling? You might be about to say that everyone knows WWE is faked and scripted — but that’s irrelevant; it’s a function of the audience, not the production. The fault here is with those who ought to treat it with scepticism, but who fail to do so.

    But that’s not right; there isn’t a `production’ and an `audience’ that you can separate out like that.

  6. Ag on February 28th, 2010 at 22:56

    taking advantage of peoples’ credulity isn’t wrong in and of itself.

    Wha?

  7. Lew on February 28th, 2010 at 23:17

    Keir,

    But that’s not right; there isn’t a `production’ and an `audience’ that you can separate out like that.

    Of course there is. Both the WWE and Sensing Murder productions (and magicians, per Poneke’s example) present their product as real; that is, not faked or simply for show. The audience of WWE and the magician show knows it’s faked, but watches it anyway. The audience of Sensing Murder is ambivalent — some do believe, and others just think it makes good TV, and various points in between. The difference is not in the production, it’s in the audience. Because of the apparently greater credulity of the Sensing Murder audience,* people are blaming the psychics. They’re being criticised and called charlatans and so on simply because their production is more effective than others of its type.

    Ag, whether or not it’s wrong depends on the consequences which flow from the advantage being taken. Popular media, marketing and all forms of advertising including much political advertising all rely to a significant extent on the audience’s credulity and willingness to accept your message. In a great many cases, it’s considered a fairish trade — 16 minutes per hour of advertising in exchange for the other 44 minutes of entertainment, for instance.

    I also accept that “wrong” is too general a term. What I mean is that these people shouldn’t be singled out for special censure just for taking people for a ride. Plenty of folks do that every day of the week; if we took that as a yardstick for acceptable behaviour there would hardly be a real estate agent, financial advisor, advertising executive, opinion columnist or priest anywhere in the country.

    L

    * And an audience more credulous than the one which watches WWE must be hard to come by. This is another factor which undoubtedly makes Sensing Murder a hot prospect: advertisers reckon they can get almost anything past these rubes.

  8. Tom Semmens on March 1st, 2010 at 08:26

    You might be about to say that everyone knows WWE is faked and scripted — .

    Say what???

  9. Brent on March 1st, 2010 at 09:57

    I also accept that “wrong” is too general a term. What I mean is that these people shouldn’t be singled out for special censure just for taking people for a ride. Plenty of folks do that every day of the week; if we took that as a yardstick for acceptable behaviour there would hardly be a real estate agent, financial advisor, advertising executive, opinion columnist or priest anywhere in the country.”

    No, they shouldn’t be “singled out“, but they should still be censured. As should any “real estate agent, financial advisor, advertising executive, opinion columnist or priest” who deliberately misleads for pecuniary advantage. Just because a number of people do it, does not stop it from being wrong.

  10. Keir on March 1st, 2010 at 10:06

    Of course there is. Both the WWE and Sensing Murder productions (and magicians, per Poneke’s example) present their product as real; that is, not faked or simply for show. The audience of WWE and the magician show knows it’s faked, but watches it anyway. The audience of Sensing Murder is ambivalent — some do believe, and others just think it makes good TV, and various points in between. The difference is not in the production, it’s in the audience. Because of the apparently greater credulity of the Sensing Murder audience,* people are blaming the psychics. They’re being criticised and called charlatans and so on simply because their production is more effective than others of its type.

    But again, it isn’t like the productions don’t know this about their audiences, so you can’t say that. The actions of the production are contextual.

    And of course WWE doesn’t try to be convincing really. It tries to be entertaining.

  11. Lew on March 1st, 2010 at 10:11

    Just because a number of people do it, does not stop it from being wrong.

    I agree with this, but that isn’t what I’m trying to say, which is: the standard proposed for psychics is much, much stricter than the one to which the rest of society is held.

    Still, how do the Sensing Murder psychics fraudulently extract pecuniary advantage from their gullible viewers? As the business model works, they extract the funding from the broadcaster who knows or ought to know that it’s all faked, and in return gets a very high-rating and popular TV show. That’s how mutual exploitation works in the commercial media. I see nothing in this which makes them any more culpable than the vast majority of other mass-media infotainment. So again: why pick on them?

    L

  12. Lew on March 1st, 2010 at 10:18

    Keir, you don’t think Sensing Murder tries to be entertaining, and WWE doesn’t try to be convincing (within their respective genre conventions)?

    L

  13. Keir on March 1st, 2010 at 10:22

    But the genre convention of WWE is: it’s all bullshit. I mean, you can’t bet on WWE, can you?

  14. Lew on March 1st, 2010 at 10:25

    And the genre convention of reality TV is “lots of this is staged and scripted and manipulated in order to make good TV”. What’s your point?

    L

  15. Ag on March 1st, 2010 at 12:18

    Ag, whether or not it’s wrong depends on the consequences which flow from the advantage being taken.

    No holds barred consequentialism is unsustainable without admitting some pretty horrible things.

    We don’t allow advertisers to lie about medicines, or even advertise them. I’ve seen what happens when you don’t do that. It’s not pretty.

  16. Lew on March 1st, 2010 at 12:58

    Ag, well, I’m not advocating an absolute as much as I am observing that this social phenomenon is very much like others and ought to be judged on a like basis — or an argument made as to why it’s not like those other phenomena.

    L

  17. Keir on March 1st, 2010 at 17:05

    And the genre convention of reality TV is “lots of this is staged and scripted and manipulated in order to make good TV”. What’s your point?

    But fundamentally if it isn’t true it’s breaking the rules. Reality TV shows that edit too heavily get stick. From this we can deduce that the reality audience expects some degree of truth & I think that’s especially true of the fundamental premise of the show.

    I also don’t think Sensing Murder is reality TV.

  18. Tony Andrews on March 1st, 2010 at 19:07

    If it’s possible to earn an honest living from a TV show that’s nothing less than an “orchestrated litany if lies” then please explain what one would have to do to earn a dishonest living.

    The difference between an entertainer and a psychic is that an entertainer doesn’t claim that their fantasy act is actual fact. Entertainers also don’t take advantage of peoples increased vulnerability during times of personal loss and grief or advise people how to live their lives based on lies that are crafted to merely comfort emotions.

  19. Lew on March 1st, 2010 at 19:10

    Keir, now this is a more interesting argument. I think that’s right, but only if the absence of “truth” could be or was externally verified — such as by a disgruntled participant — or that fraud was widely apparent but unrecognised in the show’s diegesis. Sensing Murder gets around both these by virtue of its gimmick being unfalsifiable by definition — what the psychic says goes and the psychic is answerable to nobody. This is presented as being central to the show — the unfalsifiability and uniqueness of the gift is the reason it’s credible. Similar to Dawkins (and others’) argument that, within a religious experience, doubt is taken as proof of the legitimacy of faith itself — the greater the logical doubt, the stronger the faith required to sustain belief.

    As to the matter of editing — this is also unfalsifiable. If what Andrew W says is true, then it’s utterly trivial to script a show which is “believably authentic”; little or no editing required. However, I would expect leaks in that case, so I think it more likely that the SM psychics employ their standard array of cold-reading and other such social engineering skills, and that a small sample of their barrage of answers is then selected by the show’s producers to fit a general narrative frame sketched out in preproduction. Blend and repeat as necessary.

    It’s unlike reality TV in that it leaves out many conventions (most is competitive and verité and driven by conflict between characters and/or environment) but it’s very much like reality TV in that the centrepiece is a test of real peoples’ skills or abilities, rather than those of characters.

    L

  20. Lew on March 1st, 2010 at 19:41

    Tony Andrews, I’ve addressed both these objections above. As to the false distinction between an “entertainer” and a “psychic”, let’s take Poneke’s initial example of a magician — who insists that what he does is magic, even if people don’t believe him. How the audience responds is up to them; if they accept the psychic’s assurances, more fool them, but it doesn’t really change the show. In any case, the audience is in no way made up exclusively of believers (though it’s handy to pretend to in order to construct a “duping people out of their money” argument).

    You still don’t answer the question of how the psychics are duping anyone out of their money; that is undertaken by the network and advertisers, as much for SM as for the evening news.

    L

  21. Tony Andrews on March 1st, 2010 at 20:34

    Tony Andrews, I’ve addressed both these objections above. As to the false distinction between an “entertainer” and a “psychic”, let’s take Poneke’s initial example of a magician — who insists that what he does is magic, even if people don’t believe him. How the audience responds is up to them; if they accept the psychic’s assurances, more fool them, but it doesn’t really change the show. In any case, the audience is in no way made up exclusively of believers (though it’s handy to pretend to in order to construct a “duping people out of their money” argument).

    You still don’t answer the question of how the psychics are duping anyone out of their money; that is undertaken by the network and advertisers, as much for SM as for the evening news.

    I have never met a magician that has claimed they have actual magical powers and I have met many magicians (am one myself to some degree). If you know of any such magicians could you give their names? A magician that doesn’t openly declare they have no actual magical powers is not a magician claiming to have actual magical powers. People that claim to have actual magical powers don’t call themselves magicians as that word is associated with non-paranormal trickery and smoke and mirrors. They call themselves psychics, mediums, astrologers, tarot readers, palmists, etc. They don’t even call their claimed abilities magical, they call them paranormal.

    The psychics don’t dupe anyone out of their money directly on the show. The network and advertisers are well rewarded by the ratings. That the show goes out of it’s way to dishonestly present the psychics as being honest and genuine however is very much an effective and complicate duping of people out of their money off the show. I know many people that have had personal readings and attended road-show meetings that never would have if it weren’t for the show. The psychics couldn’t charge $500 plus for a reading and weren’t advanced booked for five years plus before they became psychic superstars on Sensing Murder.

  22. Lew on March 1st, 2010 at 20:49

    Tony, ok; so the blame lies squarely with TVNZ, right? That’s my initial position. The psychics themselves are just maximising their own utility as any other celebrity does.

    L

  23. Tony Andrews on March 1st, 2010 at 21:23

    Blame for what?

    TVNZ are merely purchasing a show that enjoys a high viewer rating so they can sell advertising around it. As far as I know TVNZ have no part in producing the show and are in no way complicate in the obvious collusion involved in it’s dishonest production and presentation. That TVNZ purchases and screens such a show may be morally and ethically debatable and this may be cause to attribute some blame on them for the show’s existence.

    I don’t blame the psychics for making money from their celebrity. I do blame them however for the dishonest and unscrupulous methods they employ to achieve their celebrity. The psychics profiting from their Sensing Murder fame is like murderers profiting from their infamy by selling book and film rights to their story.

  24. Lew on March 1st, 2010 at 21:50

    Tony, we’re viewing the model from opposite perspectives. As far as I’m concerned, TVNZ buys it and airs it; that makes them ultimately responsible. Without the network, the show doesn’t get made. With demand at the network level, even if this particular bunch of characters didn’t step up, someone else would. Given the network’s role in promoting the psychics’ businesses, they are doubly complicit. But the psychics and Ninox are simply supplying demand; it might be ugly, but that’s their job. Likewise it’s TVNZ’s job to air successful commercial TV. In the context of the current discussion around the commercial pressures of advertising on quality media programming on Radio NZ, this is a particularly damning indictment of the previous government’s failure to enforce the TVNZ charter.

    As for the psychics’ methods, they’re no different in principle to pop stars who lip sync or movie stars who employ body doubles or authors who employ ghost-writers: what you see may not be what you get, and that’s part of the deal.

    I think your efforts to “out” Sensing Murder as a sham — and in particular the reward offered — are excellent; this is how the illusion gets broken down, and (one hopes) sufficient viewer pressure is brought to bear on TVNZ to stop them buying this programme. But while I think they deserve to be shown up as fakes, I don’t accept that the psychics have committed the moral equivalent of profiting from a murder they themselves committed, or anything like it. Credulous fools approached them for help, and they provided what help they could — even if it was just to provide the illusion of hope. It’s ghoulish, but as I said — so is much news and current affairs coverage. It’s exploitative and dishonest — but as I said, so is reality TV and — again — much news and current affairs coverage.

    L

  25. Lew on March 1st, 2010 at 22:17

    I should add to the list of people who ought to know better and not lend this sort of thing their credibility: the NZ Police. This should go without saying, but I thought I’d just add it for the record. Nigel Latta, on the other hand, seems to be in the same class as the psychics.

    L

  26. Ag on March 1st, 2010 at 22:44

    Ag, well, I’m not advocating an absolute as much as I am observing that this social phenomenon is very much like others and ought to be judged on a like basis — or an argument made as to why it’s not like those other phenomena.

    OK. I’ll buy that and develop the argument that our society should be treating a lot of this stuff very differently.

    Psychics are just the modern day equivalents of sorcerers. In other words, they are people who pretend that they have secret and unverifiable powers. We might wonder how people fall for this, but most of us fall for something similar at one time or another (frequently in the case of doctors).

    Psychic powers are generally unverifiable because smart psychics won’t allow themselves to be tested. But the abilities of many legitimate experts are unverifiable to us as individuals as well, even though other experts can verify their legitimacy.

    In other words, psychics take advantage of the fact that all of us have to trust most of the experts most of the time.

    In the case of other experts we employ overseers to make sure that they aren’t telling lies, but nobody does this for psychics and homeopaths, when both are offering advice that may have serious consequences.

    Demand for snake oil is evidence of a market failure. I’d like to see the state regulate them out of existence. Part of the reason for having a government is to employ people to make sure we aren’t being had by charlatans (even if some of those elected to do this are charlatans themselves).

    Anyone who says that individuals should just make up their own minds is ignoring the fact that they can’t exercise informed consent in most cases.

  27. Andrew W on March 2nd, 2010 at 10:14

    If it’s a question of finding someone to blame, I’d foremost blame the “psychics”, they’re the con artists.

    Anyone who says that individuals should just make up their own minds is ignoring the fact that they can’t exercise informed consent in most cases.

    Exactly, it’s like a vendor lying to a buyer and then people blaming the buyer for being deceived.

  28. Tony Andews on March 2nd, 2010 at 11:09

    Why stop at TVNZ? Surely the “ultimate responsibility” lies with the public audience that watches the show. TVNZ wouldn’t buy it if people didn’t watch it any more than Ninox would make it if TVNZ didn‘t buy it. People wouldn’t produce and sell drugs if people didn’t use them either (drug pushers aren‘t responsible?). But then people couldn’t and wouldn’t use drugs if people didn’t produce them.

    It’s all a bit “chicken and egg“ and “passing the buck“. Responsibility for Morals, ethics, honesty, etc wrests equally with all people and you can’t place the blame on governments, police or end users any more than anyone else. The issue isn’t were responsibility wrests, it’s whether individual people are acting responsibly or not. In the issue we’re debating it’s whether the producers of Sensing Murder (Ninox) and their “amazing psychics are conduction their businesses responsibly or not. Clearly they are not.

    Two wrongs don’t make a right and all TV shows/adverts that lie and cheat should be challenged and exposed. I “take on” Sensing murder and it’s psychics because I find it particularly offensive in that they directly take advantage of people that are vulnerable due to personal grief and loss. The show is also a very convincing lie and many people accept it as being true and genuine. I’m trying to offer some degree of alternative and balanced view. I fully realise that I also give the show some free exposure.

    I would love to have the time and resources to produce a TV show that challenged and exposed all dishonest businesses (magnetic underlays, quack medicines, fuel savers, etc.). I imagining a show like “Is It Real” only make it more entertaining.

  29. Grant on March 2nd, 2010 at 14:37

    Not that anyone cares, but my views (at the that time, anyway) are at:

    http://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2009/10/11/tv-psychics-not-in-the-real-world-please/

    A key difference is when they move past fantasy and try involve themselves in real-world events IMHO.

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