Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Refusing to take the test: TV medium Sally Morgan involves lawyers following Simon Singh's psychic challenge

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Many of you will be aware of the ongoing saga surrounding TV psychic Sally Morgan and the sceptics challenging her to take a test to prove her "abilities", but for those who aren't, it's probably a good idea to begin with some background. In September it was alleged that Morgan had been receiving information from assistants behind the scenes, after a woman who attended her stage show in Dublin reported that she had heard someone in a theatre control room saying things such as "David, pain in the back, passed quickly”. The suggestion was those in the control room had been eavesdropping on pre-show conversations among audience members, before relaying information to Morgan via radio during the show. Morgan strongly denied the allegations, and insisted that the headpiece she wears on stage is simply a microphone, and now a two-way radio as suggested by her critics.

Since the story appeared, speculation about Morgan's methods has continued, prompting science writer Simon Singh, in collaboration with the Merseyside Skeptics and parapsychologist Chris French, to issue a challenge – in the grand tradition of James Randi's "million-dollar challenge" to those claiming supernatural abilities, Morgan was invited to attend an event in Liverpool where she would take a test devised by French, as explained on the Merseyside Skeptics website:
"The test will involve photographs, which are an integral part of Sally’s usual show. Sally will be presented with 10 photos of deceased women and 10 first names. Then she will be asked to connect with the spirit of the person in the photo in order to match the name with the image. Those who have provided the photos will be in the room, but they are not known to Sally and will not be able to provide any clues or information, thus removing the possibility of so-called hot or cold reading."
(If you're interested in reading more about the test, it's explained in further detail here.)

The test was scheduled for yesterday (i.e. Halloween), and French, Singh and an eager audience all attended the event at Liverpool's Adelphi Hotel, but the chair reserved for Morgan remained empty. As you might guess, there was never really a serious likelihood of Morgan showing up, as she had already informed the sceptics, via her lawyer (more on that later), that she would not be attending.

But Morgan did find time to speak out about the issue yesterday in an interview with the Staffs Live website (she was performing her show in Hanley, Staffordshire last night), claiming the burden of proof lies with those who deny that she has the power to commune with the dead
“I don’t have to prove anything. They [the critics] have to prove to me there is no afterlife. I prove every night that there is an afterlife.”
Meanwhile, the story looks like it could become one about lawyers and libel rather than the veracity psychic abilities, with Simon Singh receiving a series of emails from Morgan's solicitor Graham Atkins. In the first email, which Singh published online at the weekend, Atkins writes that Morgan could take legal action over the campaign encouraging her to take the test:
"Sally Morgan has instructed us to take libel proceedings, if necessary, in relation to allegations that she is a cheat. Doing your test or any other test is not part of our plans for this case. You have been involved in a libel case yourself. You well know that we all have far more important things to do than take part in this or any other “test” at this point. She will not attend at Liverpool or at any other time. Maybe you and your friends can prove she is a cheat and/or a fraud instead. I know she isn’t, and I have known Sally a good few years."
A back-and-forth followed between Singh and Atkins, which Singh has published on his site with some (amusing) annotations. It will be interesting to see how this develops – as the British Chiropractic Association discovered last year, taking libel action against Simon Singh in relation to practices with debatable scientific grounding is not the world's most successful legal strategy.

In the meantime, I thought I'd close this post with a quote from Derren Brown, who ended his own comments on the saga last week by pointing out what could happen if Morgan did come forward and proved her abilities:
"Sally may decide to show the world tomorrow that she can really do it, and the course of human knowledge will take a sudden swerve to the left. We can look forward to her and other verified psychics working with governments and scientists and finally, perhaps, these proven individuals can engage with the forces of the departed in order to advance our race, help us find peace amongst ourselves and understand the nature of eternity, rather than merely pass on bland condolences or upsetting revelations from the Other Side."
Exactly. Come on Sally – we don't want to doubt you, but by choosing to restrict the use of your powers to £25-a-pop stage shows and £1.53-per-minute hotlines you're giving us no choice. But take the test, prove yourself, and you can change the world forever!
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