Psychics in the UK are getting hot and bothered about the change of legislation governing what they do. The Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 is being scrapped, and they will in future come under the new Consumer Protection Regulations. Like any other scam artist they can be prosecuted for knowingly selling someone a duff service, and if convicted face heavy fines or two years in prison.
Will it make any difference? To judge by all the hand wringing some people seem to think so. The Spiritual Workers Association complains that it is 'turning spiritualism the religion into a consumer product, which it is not,' and that mediums will be more vulnerable to prosecution.
It's a bit hard to tell from the press reports just what the legal implications are. The law wasn't drafted with psychics in mind, so it's unclear how it will affect them. Their worry is that while the old rules obliged prosecutors to prove bad intent, the burden is now on them to prove they did not deliberately intend to mislead. To be on the safe side, mediums in spiritualist churches have taken to prefacing their readings with little disclaimers that this is 'not science, just an experiment'.
On the other hand the College of Psychic Studies, where mediums offer paid services, thinks that tightening standards is a good idea. The Office of Fair Trading itself says that individual psychics or mediums are not in the firing line - the aim is more to deal with foreign mass mailshot fraudsters extracting large sums of money. It says more than 170,000 consumers fall victim to clairvoyant scams every year, losing around £40 million. One psychic scammer sent messages demanding money saying 'you have to trust me ....BECAUSE YOUR FUTURE AND YOUR HAPPINESS DEPEND ON IT'. Another told people that 'there is, in your home, in the very place where you are living, a zone which has been booby trapped by negative waves' and again demanded cash to sort the problem.
If the law can discriminate between the 'bogus' and the 'genuine' then it's got to be a good idea. It's astonishing how brazen the scammers can be, trying to frighten people by claiming that have psychically seen a person is suffering an illness, and claiming to cure it. Then there are the 'psychic hotlines'. When a bunch of press reporters tried out Cilla Black's new pysychic hotline (£1.50 per minute) they said they were given costly advice on a series of non-existent worries, and at great length to keep them on the line.
But how does the law discriminate between good and bad, when science says they are both equally bogus? And will someone make the effort to find out? Sceptics are full of righteous fury at 'cold readers', and it's not impossible that some up-and-coming Randi could try to make a name for him or herself by pushing for a prosecution. It wouldn't be for some obvious fraudster, which would hardly count as a victory, but with a high-profile medium with a reputation to protect, like Colin Fry or Derek Acorah.
A test case would require institutional backing. Any takers? The British Humanist Association is excited at the prospect of 'real changes' to the current situation where psychics are able to make 'completely unsubstantiated claims' and take money for it. Logically, I suppose, that means they hope that anyone who works as a psychic will soon be liable to prosecution. As Richard Wiseman commented for a BBC report: "Anecdotal evidence on their abilities is impressive, but if you put it under more scientific conditions, their claims tend to crumble. [Now] they will need to be able to justify the claims they are making."
This is just Wiseman in rent-a-quote mode - I don't think he has a specific agenda. But of course the threat is implicit. How do mediums justify the claim that they can speak to the dead, if science does not accept that such a thing is remotely possible? If you go to a medium and she says, 'I've got your dead mum here', and you think, 'oh no you haven't', can you call the police and get her arrested? Who judges the quality of the 'evidence' in legal terms, and by what criteria?
The law does occasionally get involved in psychic and spiritualist controversies, and it's not a pretty sight. One of the earliest cases was when Henry Slade, the nineteenth century medium was taken to court by a sceptical sitter. He conducted a stout defence, but was probably done for from the outset, since the judge considered his claimed feats contracted the 'well-known course of nature', and he had to flee abroad to avoid jail (this tragi-comic tale gets an airing in Chris Carter's Parapsychology and the Skeptics). Another famous court case was the materialising medium Helen Duncan, whose claims were so fantastic she never stood a chance - she actually did do time in prison.
The logical conclusion of a prosecution against a medium is that the claims for psychism and survival of death would themselves be on trial. If there was another Slade or Duncan court case, it would test modern attitudes to these things. Perhaps the defence would call an array of expert witnesses to describe just how much evidence there is, and the prosecution would line up Wiseman, Blackmore, Hyman et al to pick holes in it. We'd then see m'learned friends getting to grips with what is usually considered a philosophical, academic or scientific question. And why not? - this is pretty much what happened with the 2005 Kansas court case over the claims of intelligent design.
I'm intrigued by the idea of this sort of contest, having always thought that evidence for psychism and survival involves matters of logic and is best examined in open debate rather than in purely scientific terms, where all sorts of untested assumptions get in the way. Will it ever happen? Probably not - a law intended to stop people being obviously ripped off could surely not be used to investigate the profoundest metaphysical mysteries. But you never know.