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Robert Todd Carroll


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logo.gif (2126 bytes) the Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 68

June 4, 2006

"An undue opinion of our own importance in the scale of creation is at the bottom of all our unwarrantable notions" about fortune-telling. --Charles Mackay

Previous newsletters are archived at skepdic.com/news/ Go there for subscription and feedback information.

In this issue:

What's New in The Skeptic's Dictionary & Skeptic's Refuge

Skeptics Ordered to Play Fair When Ridiculing Psychics

Last November, Mike of the Irish Skeptics posted a note on their website about a radio show ("Today with Pat Kenny") that ridiculed Irish Psychics Live (IPL), a telephone business owned by Tom Higgins who says he uses only "genuine celtic [sic] psychics, the most psychic race in the world."

Here's part of Mike's posting:

Hope you got Pat Kenny's annihilation of Irish Psychics Live [&] Tom Higgins on his radio show this morning. Pat had Valerie Cox ring the hotlines for a look into her future. It cost her €228 and the results, which we got snippets of, were absolutely scandalous. Pat was surprisingly good and nailed Tom Higgins on what he called his sale of 'absolute rubbish', 'spoof', 'nonsense'. It really is worth a listen and Pat deserves congratulations on this one. The 'psychics' were atrocious. One woman answered her mobile in the middle of a customer's call, while another regaled Valerie with his thoughts on Christmas and his holidays. Higgins general approach was one of denial, obfuscation and redirection along with many other bogus defenses of his racket (e.g. you can't have an opinion on this if you haven't tried it). Higgins tried to gain some credibility by saying that at least they had no truck with "rubbish like astrology" before one of Pat's researchers informed Pat that Irish Psychics Live have a dedicated astrology page. Higgins then said that they don't charge for it. In fact he said "I would never charge for astrology".

Higgins is telling the truth about astrology. He is obviously a man of integrity and recognizes rubbish when he sees it. I went to the IPL astrology page and received the following reading for free:

You are feeling at your most creative at the moment. Don't ignore this creativity. Instead tunnel it into a project you have wanted for some time now. Not only will this fulfill your creative ambitions, but your creation may prove to be more of a success than you ever thought possible.

Maybe this isn't rubbish. How did they know that I've been wanting to write about these Irish psychics for some time? Anyway, while it's true that the above rubbish didn't cost me anything and I was advised on the IPL astrology page that their horoscopes are "for entertainment purposes only," I was also advised to call Cassandra [clever name, eh?] for a tarot reading, which call would be neither free nor purely for entertainment. I didn't call Cassandra but I did click on the Free Tarot Reading link where I was shown three cards (for past, present, and future) and walked through a clever graphical program and some scary messages. Then I was warned:

The IRISH PSYCHICS LIVE website can only present the basic meanings of the cards you have selected, the cards may not even refer to you but rather a person or event in your life (past, present or future). For a professional interpretation of how these cards relate to each other and to your particular question you can call ... To talk to one of our professional psychics. Make note of the cards you have drawn and they will guide you through their actual meaning.

In other words, I have to pay to find out what the free cards with their dire warnings might actually mean. I think I already know what they mean. They mean many desperate people will reach for the phone and hope that Cassandra will tell them that the foreboding cards are for some jackass they dislike at work and that the real cards indicate a bright future for the caller. I also see that this little game is likely to bring a very bright future, indeed, for Tom Higgins and his associates.

Not only does Higgins have a desperate and gullible market eager for his product, he also has government regulations on his side. He complained to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission (BCC), where whiners in Ireland can go when they don't like being ridiculed or called panderers of rubbish and nonsense by radio or TV hosts. As I understand it, Pat Kenny's radio show is a talk show but the rules require that he be "fair." Higgins complained to the BCC that "under Section 24(2)(a) of the Broadcasting Act 2001 ... RTE and Pat Kenny failed in their duty to conduct an interview ... in an impartial manner and that Mr. Kenny made defamatory remarks about him and his staff."

The BCC upheld Mr. Higgins's complaint. In its report, the Commission wrote:

The presenter uttered statements throughout the broadcast piece that were an expression of his own opinions. While playing the devil’s advocate is an acceptable interviewing style, the Commission believes that the interviewer in both tone and content persisted with statements and allegations in a partial manner and concludes that the interviewer dealt with the subject matter in an unfair manner.

Interesting. If you can't express your opinion that rubbish is rubbish on your own talk show, what's the point of having a radio program? Also, won't the Irish astrologers now complain that Higgins defamed them and treated them unfairly?

RTE's response to the complaint gave strong support to Pat Kenny's lambasting of IPL:

The item opened with a report from Valerie Cox who informed listeners that she had spent over €200 talking to five so-called psychic readers. Her report included extracts from these readers as they tried to inform Ms. Cox about various aspects of her life. Any reasonable assessment of the report would conclude that the entire psychic-reading exercise is a charade and that the only purpose of Irish Psychics Live is to exploit vulnerable people by prolonging their phone calls and in the process extract the maximum amount of money from the callers.

At the end of the report, Pat Kenny put to Mr. Higgins that his operation was “unadulterated spoof and complete rubbish”. Mr. Kenny based this opinion on Ms. Cox’s report. Mr. Higgins was given the opportunity to defend his company’s performance.

RTE further state that the interview was a robust, spirited affair which covered the issue of the regulator for premium calls requiring that customers have to be informed when the cost of a call exceeds thirty euro. In five phone calls to Irish Psychics Live, all of which cost more than thirty euro, Ms. Cox was not informed that she had exceeded this limit. This was put to Mr. Higgins who offered no reasonable defense for this clear breach of regulations. Mr. Higgins’ complaint has no validity whatsoever. His company was caught out deceiving vulnerable people. He was given an opportunity to defend his company. He failed to do so with any credibility.

The BCC didn't challenge the legitimacy of Pat Kenny's assessment of the evidence gathered against IPL. It upheld the complaint, apparently, because an interviewer is not supposed to express his own (negative?) opinions during an interview. The BCC seems to be advocating neutered journalism, which is beloved by dictators and con men the world over.

Higgins's response to the BCC ruling is charming:

I am delighted with the BCC's decision to uphold my complaint: It was the right decision morally. It vindicates Irish Psychics Live™ and me personally, but, more crucially, it vindicates the genuine well-meaning people who work on our Service, people who were emotionally and socially hurt by RTE and Mr. Kenny's callous demonisation of them.

The programme constituted a gratuitous attack on a vulnerable minority of workers and Mr. Kenny is guilty of a serious breach of the broadcasting regulations. In my opinion his credibility as a balanced interviewer has been severely damaged.

My staff and I are relieved that the BCC recognised the enormity of the injustice perpetrated against us by RTE and I understand that Mr. Kenny will now have to air their decision.*

This is classic. The perpetrators are now the victims. The rational are the unbalanced and the irrational are riding on the moral high road, evading persecutors by force of their good will, yet suffering deeply from being taken to task for their sins and crimes.

The saga continues, however. Before reading the BCC ruling on air, Pat Kenny commented that "to put it at it's kindest, the 'so-called' psychic service . . . was shown to be valueless. There is no neutrality required when vulnerable people are being exploited." To which Higgins responded: "It is absolutely outrageous that RTE and Mr. Kenny should be able to make a mockery of the BCC ruling and complaints procedure in this way."

Higgins says he's going to file another complaint against Kenny for his "defamatory statements" (Tom Lyons, Irish Independent June 2, 2006). Higgins claims he was set up by Kenny. (I wonder how he'd feel had Penn and Teller invited him to be on one of their Bull$hit! programs.)

I must agree with Mr. Higgins that you can't prove all psychic readings are worthless on the basis of five or even five million worthless readings. Also, concern with the value of psychic readings is probably not where the focus should be if one is looking for their most vulnerable spot. In fact, if they didn't have any value (significance or utility), people would pay about as much attention to them as they do to political campaign promises or BCC rulings.

The value of psychic readings, tarot card readings, and even astrological readings comes from the client, however, not from the reader. The client finds meaning and gives significance to the words of the reader. The process is called subjective validation and it is the best friend of skilled and unskilled cold readers alike. Mr. Higgins has another explanation. He thinks that the "universe is full of an unlimited energy that can be tapped into by those select few who can focus and tune themselves to its subtle vibrations and variations. These vibrations can be felt and interpreted by certain 'gifted' individuals."* Now there's a testable hypothesis! I wonder how he knows this is true or if he has any idea what it might mean. What are these vibrations and how does he know anyone feels them? Is this one of the questions asked of all applicants for a job at IPL: Do you feel the vibrations from the unlimited energy and can you interpret them over the telephone?

One of his gifted employees, Samantha Pemberton, filed her own complaint with the BCC against Pat Kenny on behalf of herself and six co-workers. The seven psychics claim they were slandered by Mr. Kenny. According to the BCC, in her complaint:

Ms. Pemberton states that she is proud to be part of a small group of psychics based in Ireland, who work for Irish Psychics Live. She is proud of her job and her psychic abilities which she developed as a child. By describing Irish Psychics Live readings (and therefore the readers) as ‘utterly worthless’ and ‘bogus’ and stating that they ‘exploit vulnerable people’ and other similar remarks, Ms. Pemberton claims Pat Kenny discriminated against her and ridiculed her most deeply held beliefs. They infer that her beliefs and those of the people she works with are not genuinely held and that she and others in the service are ‘charlatans’ who seek to profit by fraudulent means.

Furthermore, Ms. Pemberton believes that although Mr. Higgins, owner of Irish Psychics Live, was in the studio for interview, he was not in any position to represent her, nor her colleagues views, as he is not a psychic.*

Only a psychic may represent a psychic, I guess. In any case, the BCC rejected the slander charge because no specific psychics were named on the program. Psychics were discussed in a general manner only but they were discussed unfairly, said the BCC.

Pemberton further complained that "Pat Kenny’s attack on her and other psychics shows contempt for minority groups such as hers and is a form of racism, if not religious intolerance." Even the BCC didn't grace these absurd comments with a reply. (Is she claiming to be a member of celtus psychicus, a minority sub-species of Celts identified by their inbred tuners to the infinite energy and vibrations of the universe? Is she a member of the Church of the Good Psychic, eligible for tax exemptions and exempt from criticism by the rules of political correctness?)

Despite the absurdity of claiming she's a victim of racism and religious intolerance, it shouldn't be assumed that Pemberton or her co-workers are frauds. They might well believe in their psychic abilities and genuinely think that they are gifted. Some psychics might be deluded or even demented, rather than frauds.  If someone is short and can't measure but has been told all her life that she is tall, why would we be surprised if she thinks she's tall? Likewise, if someone knows nothing about cold reading but is naturally good at it and gets constant feedback about her psychic gift, we shouldn't be surprised if she grows up thinking she's psychic.

On the other hand, maybe Pemberton or one of her co-workers is truly psychic. Then, let her be tested under controlled conditions after she uses her gift to find all the lost children in the world and to warn us of the next terrorist attack. (Or at least find Jimmy Hoffa's remains!) Get her off the phone and her hourly wage and put her to work for the good of humankind instead of for the profit of Ireland's first astronaut. (Higgins was the first to register for Virgin Galactic's flights for space tourists, "space" being defined as something like 90 miles up. Maybe that's where the vibrations of all the deceased pets are congregated and perhaps Mr. Higgins will come back to earth speaking in animal tongues. Is Irish Pet Psychics on the horizon? Cassandra knows, but nobody listens to her.)

I suggest Mr. Higgins write a book to get his sides (I'm sure he has more than one) of the story out there. He could call it The Irish Astronaut and the Seven Psychics. I'll review it for free.

Jesus and The Da Vinci Code

Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code has certainly struck some sort of nerve with millions of people. The next Dan Brown might consider going all the way and write a novel describing how Christianity was a conspiracy to take over the world without there actually being a real, historical person named Jesus. The stage has been set by Luigi Cascioli suing the Catholic Church, demanding that it prove that Jesus of Nazareth actually existed. In his lawsuit, Cascioli claims:

That the figure of Jesus has been fully constructed over a certain John of Gamala, son of Judas from Gamala, known as the Galilean, is irrefutably known by such a great number of proofs as to remove whatever doubts about the falsifications carried out by the compilers of the Gospels. It would suffice that concerning the transformation of the appellation Nazireo, as was usually called John of Gamala as inhabitant of Nazareth , to show in the most absolute manner the impersonation stated.

There is also a website devoted to the denial of the existence of Jesus, though it is not affiliated with Mr. Cascioli. Both have books out for your summer reading: Jesus Never Existed by Kenneth Humphreys and The Fable of Christ by Luigi Cascioli. These books have little chance of becoming very popular, however, because neither claims to be fiction.

This is not the first time the historical Jesus has been challenged. Albert Schweitzer's 1906 account of 18th and 19th century analyses of the historical Jesus is still worth a read.

See also George A. Wells's Did Jesus Exist? and Earl Doherty's The Jesus Puzzle website.

The Aether is Back

One book I won't be buying is Secrets of the Aether. This is not a history of science book, but a new theory from the founders of The Quantum AetherDynamics Institute. This institute was wisely set up as a non-profit but I'm sure there will be a number of donors who will be hooked by the promise of infinite free energy and a theory of everything. In a press release, Jim D. Bourassa admits that even though he was smart enough to come up with the theory that explains everything, he couldn't do the math. So he put an ad on the internet for someone who could and was contacted by David Thomson who told him that not only could he do the math but he'd already done it. An abstract of their "theory" is posted online. Don't look for a paper in a peer-reviewed science journal, however. Their first published paper will appear in Infinite Energy Magazine this fall. Order your copy now. Until then, enjoy their graphic.

CFI Student Leadership Conference

I mentioned in an earlier newsletter that if I had a billion dollars I'd sponsor programs that encourage college students, especially the next generation of journalists, to think critically and skeptically about paranormal, supernatural, and pseudoscientific claims. The Center for Inquiry isn't ready to spend a billion dollars on the project, but this summer they're sponsoring a Student Leadership Conference for their student and community activists from around North America. Over the weekend of July 14-16 at the Center for Inquiry headquarters in Amherst, New York, CFI will host several workshops and lectures aimed at developing skills for working effectively against the rising tide of religious extremism and anti-science. Not all eligible students can afford the trip, so CFI is asking for contributions to use toward travel grants and scholarships. I've sent in my contribution. You can help too. Click here for details.

Summer Camp for Young Inquirers

CFI is still accepting participants for Camp Inquiry, a summer camp for kids from 7-16 years to be held in Holland, New York, from July 12th - 17th, 2006.


In the last newsletter, I wrote that it was illegal to name a child 'Judas' in Germany. My source was Ben Macintyre's article in Times Online. I stand corrected. Here is the text of an e-mail I received on this topic. (This is probably more information than anyone needs, but I brought it up, so I feel I should correct it). Of course, I have no way of knowing whether this e-mail provides correct information, but it sounds good, anyway.

The first name "Judas" is not prohibited in Germany. There is no law governing first names, only established practices that are used by officials in the registry.

The official has guidelines as to which names are permissible:

1. They must not be insulting or expose the child to ridicule, and must indicate the gender of the child.

2. The name must be discernable as a first name. A first name is considered discernable if it exists anywhere on the world as such. That obviously means that any name mentioned in the Bible (or any other book) is permissible.

3. Things, last names, and places are not permissible. The last, places, is debated, since it may conflict with rule 2.

4. A common abbreviation of a name is a permissible name in itself, as long as rule 1 is not violated.

5. It is permissible to add middle names of a different gender (compare: Rainer Maria Rilke).

These rules concern only "official" names that might appear on documents, however. Daily life is a completely different thing.

The first name Judas may be okay because of rule 2 (mentioned before and known in other countries ("Hey, Jude")), but since it could violate rule 1, the official must decide what would be best for the child. Since Germany has a healthy 50% of atheists and agnostics and few people associate "Judas" with "traitor" any more, you might be able to give the name to a child.

Rule 3 would exclude names like Paris (the city), but since the name is already known from mythology (son of Priamos), it might be permissible for a boy. Because of Paris Hilton (poor girl, if you ask me), the name might get past the official for a girl as well.

Thankfully, most parents have enough common sense to adhere to rule 1, so problems rarely arise.

Anecdotes: Parents wanted to call their child "Pumuckl" (short for Nepomuk, a mythological figure, probably a river god), but also the name of a comic character. The official refused the name in spite of rule 4, because of rule 1. The court, however, permitted the name as second name.

A father wanted to call his child "Et Omnes Sancti" as a third name, which the official refused but the courts permitted after consideration of historic evidence for the name.

The name "Momo" refers to a popular children's book. It was not a recognized name anywhere in the world when the first German parents chose it, but the official permitted it because of the positive connotations that go with the literary figure and because it didn't conflict with any other rule.

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