Jun 20 2013

Sally Morgan Libel Suit

This is an interesting story with an unfortunate update.

UK self-proclaimed psychic, Sally Morgan, sued the Daily Mail for libel because they claimed that she used deliberate fraud during some of her performances by receiving messages through an earpiece (Popoff style). The case was recently settled, with Morgan receiving £125,000 to cover damages and legal fees. In a statement the paper said:

Brid Jordan, for Associated Newspapers, told the judge: “The Daily Mail withdraws the suggestion that Mrs Morgan used a secret earpiece at her Dublin show in September 2011 to receive messages from off-stage, thereby cheating her audience, which it accepts is untrue.”

The story may therefore be a cautionary tale for skeptics – don’t overstate criticism or state as factual speculation about motivation or fraud. This is challenging when also wanting to engage in critical analysis of dubious claims without pulling any punches – but that is the line we have to walk.

The backstory here is interesting. The claims of fraud stem partly from a specific show in Dublin in 2011. Sally Morgan is one of the more famous self-professed psychics in the UK (she is less-well known in the US, and is perhaps analogous in fame to Sylvia Browne). She makes a comfortable living doing live shows where she claims to contact the spirit of the dead, selling books and DVDs, and in her TV appearances.

After a typical stage show in Dublin one attendee named Sue claimed on a radio show that she was sitting in the back of the theater and could hear voices coming from a little control room. She claims that the voices in the control room were being repeated 10 seconds later on stage by Morgan – as if they were feeding her information that she was then dispensing as if it were from the spirits.

The Daily Mail was not the only paper to report on this. Psychologist and skeptic Chris French, writing for the Guardian, reported the story as well. He explained that many alleged psychics use cold reading techniques, some unwittingly, to give the appearance of having specific knowledge about their subjects. A subset, however, cheat by using hot reading techniques, including having accomplices chat up the audience before the show fishing for information, or have audience members fill our cards with information (prayer cards, or sign up cards). This information is then somehow fed to the performer on stage.

Sue’s testimony certainly makes it seem as if Morgan was using a hot reading technique. Morgan, of course, denies the allegation, and that was the basis of her libel suit. Others have supported Sue’s testimony, however. There is also video evidence showing Morgan removing what appears to be an earpiece following a performance.

A skeptic might also wonder why Morgan (much like Browne) has refused to participate in a simple test of the powers she claims to demonstrate reliably on stage night after night. Chris French, Simon Singh and the Merseyside skeptics have offered to test Morgan (which would qualify her for the JREF million dollar challenge) in what sounds like a very reasonable protocol. Morgan claims to read pictures on stage, using them to contact the deceased and be told all sorts of information by them. The test that French and colleagues have in mind is simply to give her 10 pictures and 10 names, and she has to match the names to the pictures. If she gets 7/10 then that will be considered a success. Sound pretty simple for someone who claims to divine detailed knowledge of a person from their picture.

Simon Singh, also reporting in the Guardian, tells another curious story about Morgan. Magician Drew McAdam (who unfortunately passed away this year) thought Morgan might be using magician techniques to pull off her performances, so he laid a trap for her. He planted information about a fictional character, Toby Wren from a 1970 BBC drama, Doomwatch, by submitting it to Morgans website and placing letters in the box in the foyer before the show. His wife had a picture of Toby Wren and claimed, in the planted information, that she was in love with him, and that he died in an explosion. Sure enough, Morgan was “told by the spirits” of Toby’s untimely explosive death.

At this point I am not sure why the Daily Mail libel suit turned out the way it did. Perhaps the Daily Mail was not careful in its statements. Perhaps they were just cutting their losses, the libel laws being what they are in England. I am still waiting for the full story to come out (if it will).

It is unfortunately,  however, that a dubious alleged psychic such as Morgan was handed this victory, which she will likely exploit to further her career.

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12 responses so far

12 Responses to “Sally Morgan Libel Suit”

  1. locutusbrgon 20 Jun 2013 at 2:02 pm

    Daily mail getting sued for libel vs a psychic. At first blush sounds like skeptic win win. Then of course works out the worst possible way to promote non-sense.

  2. ConspicuousCarlon 20 Jun 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Tim Minchin managed to say it all with nothing but a silent glance at the audience during his Woody Allen Jesus song:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_SFdUJLebzU

    Sally Morgan has great psychic powers, but she also does an incredible job of impersonating a fraudulent TV psychic. Very good way to hide your ABSOLUTELY REAL PSYCHIC POWERS from the Illuminati, Sally! Your performance might be loaded with signs of fraud, but I know that it is all just plausible deniability so the secret shadow government won’t be afraid of your ABSOLUTELY REAL NON-FAKE PSYCHIC POWERS.

    And don’t accuse me of lying about any of this, or I will sue you for libel.

  3. Sherringtonon 20 Jun 2013 at 10:26 pm

    I assume that Sally Morgan celebrated her victory before the ruling was actually announced.

  4. mythoughtson 21 Jun 2013 at 10:32 am

    I will start with the simple idea that although there is freedom of speech(can vary by country), there isn’t freedom of accusations. You can simply report information unbiased in proper context. This case was hear-say from a otherwise random person named Sue. Hardly the expert witness. In short: poor, careless or even reckless journalism. …enough of that.

    Now the real question and concerns: Does Sally Morgan have “psychic powers” or is she a “fraud.” If that is the question, then we are asking the wrong question. First of all, let us all be honest; if she was on the street corner reading palms for .50€ we likely wouldn’t care. The main problem is she is making a lot of money and that is one of the problems. We do it all the time for anyone that acquires wealth without what seems to be hard work: Athletes, music artist, inheritances etc.

    Here is the crude but real question: Is it possible for a person to have a sensitivity to energy patterns that associate with persons deceased?” In my opinion, the answer is: “Yes.” Does Sally Morgan have that “sensitivity” to a level that she has developed into a highly controlled and highly focused skill that she can implement at her will? “Not likely.” However, that does not mean she does not have a “sensitivity.” In short, I think we all have some level of sensitivity. We just don’t call it “psychic.”

    I want to take a moment to comment on the so call psychic test and how Sally has not submitted. I hope we are smart enough to know that there is very little chance anyone is going to accept Sally is psychic regardless of that test. If she does it once, she will have to do it hundreds, if not thousands, of times before anyone would even begin to entertain the idea.

    Finally, someone who is truly “psychic” for lack of a better title. Life would be a nightmare. As far as I can tell, it seems “spirits” or similar do not conform to the 9-5 work day as well as not honor weekends and holidays. Nor do they seem patient by getting into an organized line and wait for their turn. Also, any government would not be comfortable with someone like that just walking around unmonitored. So if there are people with this ability, they are either: in a psychiatric facility heavily medicated, working for a government (likely against their will) or at home in the corner of their bedroom curled in a ball bloodshot eyes from little if any sleep and all the wonderful things that come with sleep deprivation. A bit dramatic, but I think you see the point.

    After thought: All too often, I think we sell ourselves short. Arguably… The human body is the most amazing organism on this planet–as far as we know. Our abilities are all too often baffling. So the article seems to be biased against anyone having the ability to perform these feats without the proverbial “smoke and mirrors.” When, if fact, there really isn’t anything I’ve read that says definitively that these abilities are absolutely and completely impossible.

  5. Hosson 21 Jun 2013 at 12:30 pm

    mythoughts

    “The main problem is she is making a lot of money and that is one of the problems. We do it all the time for anyone that acquires wealth without what seems to be hard work: Athletes, music artist, inheritances etc.”

    The main problem is that she is spreading irrationality and psuedoscience and is reenforcing the idea in others. It is irrelevant how much money she takes in from her activities. She is high profile and has a lot of influence, which makes the negative influence worse. This is why I have a problem with her.

    “Here is the crude but real question: Is it possible for a person to have a sensitivity to energy patterns that associate with persons deceased?” In my opinion, the answer is: “Yes.””

    What are you talking about? There does not to be any scientific basis for your claim whatsoever. Energy patterns, to me, is a meaningless phrase used to justify hypothesis about human physiology that is contradictory to theories and evidence in multiple scientific fields.

    “In short, I think we all have some level of sensitivity. We just don’t call it “psychic.””

    I don’t think you’re being rational about this. Are you evaluating the non-biased, non-anecdotal, scientific evidence for this, or are you just going with your gut feeling?There are other options of course, but I have a feeling, it’s the latter.

    “I want to take a moment to comment on the so call psychic test and how Sally has not submitted. I hope we are smart enough to know that there is very little chance anyone is going to accept Sally is psychic regardless of that test. If she does it once, she will have to do it hundreds, if not thousands, of times before anyone would even begin to entertain the idea.”

    This is a ridiculous claim. You’re suggesting if presented with undeniable evidence of an effect, that it would be rejected a priori. Some people – sure. People interested in reality – no. Although I believe the likelihood of someone having psychic ability(or sensitivity to “energy patterns”) is pretty damn close to 0% probability, but that in no way would make me deny scientific evidence contradictory to my beliefs.

    “Finally, someone who is truly “psychic” for lack of a better title. Life would be a nightmare. As far as I can tell, it seems “spirits” or similar do not conform to the 9-5 work day as well as not honor weekends and holidays. Nor do they seem patient by getting into an organized line and wait for their turn. Also, any government would not be comfortable with someone like that just walking around unmonitored. So if there are people with this ability, they are either: in a psychiatric facility heavily medicated, working for a government (likely against their will) or at home in the corner of their bedroom curled in a ball bloodshot eyes from little if any sleep and all the wonderful things that come with sleep deprivation. A bit dramatic, but I think you see the point.”

    This too is pretty damn ridiculous. I’m not sure there is a single claim you made that you can back up with a logical argument. It’s all just speculation based on bad logic.

    “After thought: All too often, I think we sell ourselves short. Arguably… The human body is the most amazing organism on this planet–as far as we know. Our abilities are all too often baffling. So the article seems to be biased against anyone having the ability to perform these feats without the proverbial “smoke and mirrors.” When, if fact, there really isn’t anything I’ve read that says definitively that these abilities are absolutely and completely impossible.”

    I don’t think you understand the beauty and wonder unlocked by the greatest achievement of mankind, science. I also don’t think you understand the limits of our species within a scientific context and how machines to help enhance human ability and will continue to do so in the most amazing ways.

    I shall end this with a quote.

    “We wish to find the truth, no matter where it lies. But to find the truth we need imagination and skepticism both. We will not be afraid to speculate, but we will be careful to distinguish speculation from fact.” – Carl Sagan

  6. Ori Vandewalleon 21 Jun 2013 at 12:38 pm

    mythoughts:

    It’s not necessary to prove the psychic powers are impossible. Whether psychic powers exist is a hypothesis that can be tested. To date, the scientific evidence points overwhelmingly to the hypothesis being false.

    This is because of the implausibility of psychic powers and the data. Implausibility does not rule out a hypothesis alone, however. Gravity is a perfect example. There was no known mechanism for Newton’s gravity for hundreds of years, but it was still accepted as true because it was stunningly accurate and predictive. The data supporting Newton’s gravity is tremendously convincing.

    On the other hand, psychic powers are both implausible and lacking empirical support. A number of studies have tried to show the effects of psychic powers, and while a couple of them here and there have shown something that might be more than noise, the vast majority have detected nothing at all. This makes the data weak. Successful theories stand up to replication repeatedly, in many places, under different experimenters, throughout time. Unsuccessful theories show positive results only every once in a while, under poorly controlled conditions.

    The conclusion is that there are no psychic powers as hypothesized. This does not mean science has proven psychic powers to be impossible. It just means there’s no reason to take them into account, because there is no theoretical or empirical support for them.

  7. rezistnzisfutlon 21 Jun 2013 at 7:09 pm

    This ruling in no way confirms Morgan’s so-called psychic abilities. It simply stated that the accusation that she used an earpiece during a performance was not sustainable in court and is considered libel, that’s all. I’m sure that many believers in psychics will run with this report thinking it’s proof, but of course they will be incorrect since the ruling has nothing to do with her alleged “powers”.

    @mythoughts,

    That’s a lot of big claims there with little to back them up. Normally, I’d ask for citations, but I’m going to skip that part and just say that, well, pretty much everything you claim about spirits and psychic powers have little basis in reality and is just a lot of magical and wishful thinking. It’s one thing to believe in these things when they’re unfalsifiable, but its another to make testable claims, which is what psychics often do.

    Furthermore, as Hoss mentioned, skeptics aren’t going to reject something simply out of principle in spite of there being strong empirical and reasonable evidence. The reason skeptics currently reject such claims IS because of the dearth of evidential support. It’s not enough simply to present evidence, as many psychics have done – it’s also necessary to critically evaluate the evidence, and this is where their claims fall flat. Having standards of evidence is one of the most important tools for critical thinkers.

  8. ConspicuousCarlon 22 Jun 2013 at 4:22 am

    mythoughts said,
    Is it possible for a person to have a sensitivity to energy patterns that associate with persons deceased?

    No, the real question is, “what the heck does that even mean?” In more detail,

    What form of energy is it?
    What causes it to remain in the pattern?
    What keeps it associated with a dead person?
    How does it store the memories which were once stored as matter in the brain of the now-decomposing corpse?

  9. tmac57on 22 Jun 2013 at 10:25 am

    Well said Ori, and I would add that not only is it not necessary to prove that psychic powers are impossible,it is not within the power of humans to prove that something cannot happen (the goal posts can be moved to infinity).
    The burden of proof is on the person making the extraordinary claim.

  10. zenoon 22 Jun 2013 at 10:56 am

    It’s worth watching this video of self-proclaimed psychic Morgan being interviewed/giving a ‘reading’ (or whatever she calls it) and then reading Richard Bacon’s account of it in his book: A Series of Unrelated Events.

  11. ConspicuousCarlon 23 Jun 2013 at 6:59 pm

    Bacon certainly did a good job. His own mother, messing with him like that!

    It’s amazing that this is taken seriously. It’s like claiming that you have special anti-gravity magic powers, and to prove it you pull out some apples and start juggling. And any jugglers or juggling fans who call you out on it will get sued. Don’t you dare say it isn’t magic! WAAAAAAHHHHH!

  12. CoolRabon 19 Jul 2013 at 4:51 pm

    As far as the Daily Mail go, they are prone to making statements for which they have little evidence to found a cogent belief. Much like sceptics demand of the pseudoscience practitioners, the UK law of defamation demands that the defamer prove with evidence the claim that damages the defamed. I imagine that other journalists in the guardian etc put their views about the psychic in more measured terms. Laying out fact and making fair comment on the evidence.

    As someone who has researched the law of defamation in great detail I am not someone who holds the popular belief that their are “problems” with the law of defamation. At least not ones which can be solved with the proposed reforms.

    It is arguable that she is a fraud by some means if not the means the Daily Mail posseted, so I for one would have liked to see how she would go about winning her case.

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