Sally Morgan, a fixture on British TV screens for the past couple of years as "Psychic Sally", is having her moment in the doghouse. At a show last month an audience member claimed to have heard a man's voice, apparently in a projection room at the back, speaking words which Morgan herself spoke a few seconds later on stage. Then a staff member realised they might be overheard and closed the window. It sounded very much as if he was feeding information to her earpiece about people she was giving readings to.
The British press dutifully worked itself into a lather. Here's Jan Moir in the Daily Mail:
Do psychics and mediums really contact the dead and then deliver messages to their loved ones left here to mourn on Earth? I think not, Watson.
Not once, not ever, not by luck or skill or happenstance, not delivered on a bolt from the blue by Tinker Bell whistling Dixie, not passed on by a blob of shape-shifting ectoplasm swinging down from heaven on a trapeze.
Who does believe in this sort of stuff? Only the lonely, as Roy Orbison might put it. Not to mention the simple-minded, the vulnerable, the distraught and the recently bereaved. And into this vacuum of raw sadness creep the psychics, ghouls ready to ply their greasy trade.
Sally Morgan says that death is not the end; it is the beginning of a journey. Actually, death is not a horizon, it is a slammed door. And try as we might, we can't get on the other side of that door, unless we die ourselves. Which, of course, we are all going to do, sooner or later.
The dead stay dead. They might live on in our hearts and minds, and in the conversations and memories of those who loved them, but you can't ring them up for a chat. The notion that they pass on advice and messages to their families is a crock.
I can see why sceptics dislike psychics, but I'm not clear why they get so agitated about people believing in an afterlife.
Morgan plans to sue, apparently. That's unusual, and will be interesting - if it actually happens, which I doubt.
However Moir did reveal something quite interesting. She says she before a Morgan show starts, members of the audience are invited to write messages and leave details of their bereaved relatives in the big bowl in the foyer. So she'd only have to skim a few of them to get information before going on stage. Or else someone could feed the information through her earpiece.
That could comfortably explain the one thing about Morgan that I found quite impressive - her ability to produce correct names. Once she has locked onto an audience member, it takes just a few seconds for her to come up with the name of an appropriate deceased relative. I haven't seen anyone else do that so consistently.
On the other hand, to solicit key information so openly is odd behaviour in a performing psychic. It looks so dubious. So why would she do it? Perhaps she's naïve: it never crossed her mind that anyone would find it questionable.
Again, if it's the basis of fraud, it would involve teamwork. Someone has to be observing the audience members, linking them to the scraps of paper they submit, perhaps also listening to conversations, identifying likely targets, and feeding the appropriate information. Most likely it would need more than one person. But that would make her hugely vulnerable to blackmail. To an extent, one would think, that would be hard to sustain in practice. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, someone would blab to the press. True, Morgan must have plenty of cash, with audiences like that, but if she is a faker she surely can't be paying everybody off.
The implication in this story - at least as it was reported - is that the audience usher who heard the man speaking at the back of the theatre closed the window because he was giving the game away. Actually it seems just as likely she closed it because he was disturbing the audience - the show organisers say he was one of two lighting technicians doing their job. But it's hard to see how the fraud could occur without theatre staff becoming aware of it. And one who stumbles on the trick, instead of trying to blackmail Morgan into keeping quiet, might consider it ethically preferable - as well as financially more rewarding - to take the story to one of the Sunday tabloids.
Obviously, the reason I'm picking holes in the prosecution case is because I believe psychic ability is a genuine, if rare, feature of consciousness. I think these sorts of performances would be hard to sustain if they really were based on the methods that sceptics describe.
For instance I noticed Skeptic magazine editor Chris French, in his Guardian article on the subject, casually state: "In a skilled practitioner, cold reading can produce much more impressive results than the rather amateurish readings produced by most psychics."
Well, I would very much like to see some evidence to back that up.