In support of Project Barnum: see psychics coming!

Project BarnumRecently Project Barnum, a group campaigning against psychics, was launched by RI podcast host Hayley Stevens. I totally agree with the aims of the group, and I’ve signed their petition calling for theatres to consider the evidence and think twice before allowing a psychic to perform at their venue.

There’s been some debate in the skeptical community on whether petitioning theatres to stop hosting psychics and mediums is the right thing to do. Deborah Hyde, editor in chief at The Skeptic Magazine, has argued that it’s illiberal to “restrict information or services” and that it’s “a proposal to suppress the distribution of a certain worldview”. I couldn’t disagree more.

On that first point, it’s important to realise that true psychic abilities, especially talking to the dead, are impossible. Therefore, anyone who charges money and gives out what both they and their customer genuinely consider to be messages from dead relatives, is committing fraud, plain and simple. Now I would describe myself as a liberal, that doesn’t mean I support letting anyone do what they want when they want at any time. In my opinion, it’s not illiberal to protect people from fraud.

Secondly, I find the idea of “suppressing the distribution of a certain worldview” to be a bit of an odd point. I’m more used to hearing the term “worldview” from creationist circles, where the phrase “only in your worldview!” is trotted out to dismiss the theory of evolution. I can’t see how it’s justifiable to protect a fraudulent act by describing it as a “worldview”.

Michael Marshall of the Merseyside Skeptics does a great job in spelling out the case against psychics on Deborah Hyde’s blog, and Mike Hall has written an excellent piece, pointing out the parallels between Project Barnum and the 10:23 campaign against homeopathy.

As far as I’m aware, Project Barnum was brought to life following allegations of fraud against Sally Morgan, when someone claimed to see her being fed information through an ear piece during a show in Dublin. Now, I can’t say whether the allegations are true or not, and as a skeptic I’m aware that anecdotal evidence is the worst kind of evidence, and everyone is innocent until proven guilty. I believe that something like Project Barnum is long overdue, but if the Sally Morgan incident is a good catalyst for it, then so be it.

So, what are my issues with psychics? I’m aware that it’s quite a broad church, so for simplicities sake I’ll stick to the supposed ability to communicate with the dead. Now, I’m hoping that this is one of those situations where I don’t have to explain how ridiculous this concept is. Either way, no one has ever demonstrated a genuine ability to talk to the deceased under controlled conditions. If they could, it would turn our understand of nature on it’s head, and the psychic in question could easily walk away with $1 million from James Randi. As it is, we can safely conclude that the ability to talk to the dead is an impossibility of fantastic proportions, and anyone charging money for it is a fraud.

Although psychic abilities are either impossible or incredibly unlikely, it is possible to employ trickery to give the illusion of psychic abilities. I’ve no problems with people like Derren Brown using techniques like cold reading in his stage shows, as he makes it clear that it is a magic trick. I believe that cold reading can almost be an art form, and it can take it’s place in any magic show. It’s only when people claim it as a genuine skill that I have a problem with.

So what is “cold reading”? It’s a series of techniques that can be used to convince someone that the reader knows much more about them they actually do. The following clip of Sally Morgan shows her making a huge and pretty funny basic error, but it also shows a very simple attempt at cold reading:

She starts off with the word “barn”. Although that sounds quite specific, it is in fact ironically the beginning of several “Barnum statements” (statements which at first glance look pretty specific, but under scrutiny  they can apply to many people). A barn would mean something to anyone that has ever worked on a farm, anyone who has ever visited a farm, anyone who has seen a film with a barn in it etc etc. She then tries to cast the net wider by expanding it to the names “Bernard” and “Barnard”. Finally, she tries to get the subject to do the work by taking the form of a distressed puppy and asking “Why would he say that?”. So, in those short seconds she exhibits three techniques of cold reading: a Barnum statement, casting a wide net, and attempting to get the subject to do the work. Classic cold reading that anyone can do with some training.

Joe Power

Joe Power

Of course, I couldn’t write about cold reading without mentioning that great friend of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, the man who pops to the toilet, the man who can’t sense child abductors even if he stands next to them, the man who calls skeptics paedophiles, “Psychic” Joe Power. He’s a medium from Liverpool, who made a total fool of himself on “Derren Brown Investigates”. The show includes a detailed explanation of the techniques of cold reading, and I can highly recommend it to anyone who’s keen to know how psychics commit their fraud. It’s available on 4od.

In conclusion, I’m supporting Project Barnum as I believe something needs to be done about psychics.


  1. Verity

    I would take issue with your statement that “anyone who charges money and gives out what both they and their customer genuinely consider to be messages from dead relatives, is committing fraud, plain and simple”.

    The offence of fraud under the Fraud Act 2006 requires an element of dishonesty in all cases. If someone genuinely has an honest belief that they a psychic passing messages on from the dead, they can’t be committing fraud.

    This isn’t to say that they might not be infringing other laws.

    Psychics (and theatres booking them) must of course comply with the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2007. These regulations include rules prohibiting conduct which misleads the average consumer and thereby causes, or is likely to cause him to take a transactional decision he would not have taken otherwise. But as long as the venue make it clear that the show is for entertainment purposes (and they normally do make that disclaimer) then Trading Standards would normally be satisfied that any consumers who attend the show are not being misled.

    Psychics may be making money in a way that you consider is objectionable, but if they’re not acting unlawfully I would tend to adopt Deborah Morgan’s approach.

    I might sell hideous £100 garden gnomes to other deluded people in the belief that they enhance the beauty of gardens. The gnomes may be hideous and there may be scientific evidence to show that they cause vomiting in 85% of people. You might think that I’m a terrible person for depriving poor Mrs Bloggs of her £100 in exchange for a revolting ornament, and believe that I should discontinue my business, but I’m not committing fraud. Even if Mrs Bloggs became addicted to buying the horrible creatures. Or if she only bought them because they reminded her of her deceased husband Brian.

    If psychics aren’t complying with the regulations, complain to Trading Standards, don’t harass theatres that are acting legally and are just trying to put on shows that deluded people (or people in search of entertainment) want to see.

    • Tom

      Hi Verity, thanks for that, I suppose I find it hard to believe that someone could be a cold reader and be so deluded that they think they have a genuine talent of talking to the dead. However, I’d hardly consider asking theatres to reconsider putting on psychic shows to be “harassment”.

  2. Verity

    A single polite letter may not be harassment, but I thought you were advocating Project Barnum’s concerted campaign involving many people sending a form letter to multiple businesses.

    That sort of behaviour would cause extra administration and annoyance for theatres, many of which are businesses run with few staff and struggling to cope with cuts to Arts funding.

    I’m sorry if that was not what you were advocating.

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