Reason and Superstition on TV
What an interesting week for sceptics on television.
Dawkins takes on a great many things - aside from religion - under that premise that superstition has taken over from reason. I can't really fault him on much. At one point he interviews Derren Brown and learns about Cold Reading - the foundation that most "psychics" use to deliver "readings." I'd have liked to have seen more of this. In the event Dawkins mercilessly took on some low level practitioners at psychic fairs and the likes.
A powerful message nonetheless.
You can currently see episode 1 here.
So it was interesting to see this programme, and then see what ITV is broadcasting just at the moment.
On Wednesday lunchtime, ITV1 broadcast "Have I Been Here Before" presented by Philip Schofield. How low he's fallen.
In the series, a celebrity - this week Doctor Who's John Barrowman - is placed into "hypnotic regression" by the most nasally annoying sounding woman. She then brings out of them the story of a previous life. Barrowman seemed to wilfully tell a tale about a Hungarian clown in the early nineteenth century. After the recorded "regression" an historian is set on the case seeing how accurate the story is and to what it extent is stands up. This is all done relatively loosely, and you certainly get the feeling that nobody wants to make too much of a fool of the celebrity. It should also be noted that Barrowman was quite a willing participant and a believer.
On Wednesday evening ITV1 broadcast "Star Psychic" in which self-professed psychic Sally Morgan does "readings" for celebrities as some kind of supposed "experiment." She starts with Lady Victoria Hervey, well known it-girl. She begins by telling us that she believes there must be more children than Hervey's half-sister. Sadly, Hervey's had two brethren die, but this isn't exactly top secret information. As we're told this by the wonderful psychic, the programme shows us newspaper headlines recording the deaths. And given that Hervey lives her life in the headlines of a certain type of celebrity publication, just about everything else a credulous Hervey hears, could quite easily have come from a cursory examination of magazine and newspaper cuttings.
The rest of the programme sees other "readings" performed on some non-celebrities and other gullible believers - Phil Tuffnell for example.
At one point we're introduced to a magician who we're told can perform this kind of thing as a trick - a clip shoes him bending a spoon, Uri Geller-style. He's then put to the test against Morgan with a stranger. Each has a couple of minutes to find out as much information as possible about this woman. The magician goes first and is pretty feeble. Derren Brown, he isn't. I know very little about Cold Reading (I still have to properly read Ian Rowland's classic on the subject), I'm sure I could have done better. Morgan then launches in and seemingly gets it all right very quickly. But of course our subject is very much a believer herself; a budding actress, she knows what the cameras are looking for. And I'd suggest that holding an "experiment" like that in the street is probably not the most appropriate environment.
We also get a series of "random" readings that Morgan conducts by ringing a central London phonebox and performing there an then, remotely. Except that the implied hidden cameras aren't especially hidden - one is clearly in view at face level. And the two complete strangers include a "healer." Well who'd have thought?
Like any of these programmes, there's been a significant amount of judicious editing to make the so-called psychic look good. All those misses that get very quickly glossed over, get left out, and the recipients, because they're believers, hone in on the "hits".
Most disturbing of all, though, was a sequence in which a member of the public, drawn from those who'd sent in videos, was given a reading, because they'd suffered a personal bereavement. When you've lost a loved one, many people are very vulnerable, and it's the despicable praying on these individuals that I dislike the most. I can truly understand that if I'd lost a parent or sibling, I'd want to know that I'd made my peace with them before the end. But hanging on the words of some phoney who's profiteering (in this instance, perhaps not directly from the member of the public, but certainly from the TV production company who undoubtedly payed her a wage for the series).
But of course Ofcom has very strict codes about how "psychics" and their brethren are presented on television. In high numbers of Sky you can find the likes of "Psychic TV". They all run small print to explain that they're "this is an editorial programme and is for entertainment purposes only". Nonetheless, they're very premium rate services - £1.50 a minute. Ofcom has some strict rules on the issue:
1.10(ii) of the Ofcom Programme Code says:
Demonstrations of predictive practices, whether 'psychic' or otherwise (eg horoscopes, palmistry), are acceptable only when they are presented as entertainment or are the subject of legitimate investigation. They should not include specific advice to particular contributors or viewers about health or medical matters or about personal finance. They should not be included at times when large numbers of children are expected to be watching.
As a result of this, neither programme professes to believe in what they spending 95% of the time trying to tell us is actually true. So Philip Schofield keeps saying that we can make our own minds up about whether John Barrowman really is the reincarnation of a clown. It doesn't stop him drawing parallels with his current life.
And the Star Psychic programme keeps saying that it's up to us to decide for ourselves. But every person in it is a believer, bar one, and he was put into an uneven contest.
Now I'd never stop people believing what they want - it's called tolerance and religious freedom. But when I know that people are using techniques that can mislead and hurt people, it upsets me. And then even more, those programmes are presented as entertainment with tinkly piano music.
I guess that all we can do is watch part two of Richard Dawkins' programme next week, and hope that plenty of other people do to.
Incidentally, The Observer's astrologer - yes, the serious Sunday newspaper that is The Observer, has its own in-house astrologer! - was featured on the first part of the Dawkins programme. He was fairly well turned over by Dawkins, unable to answer the most basic of his questions. He responded in the paper last weekend, and it's hilarious. Seemingly there aren't just 12 types of personality - there are 1,728 of them. Oh well, at least we can all be cateogorised into one of those 1,728 types. And there was me thinking I was an individual with freedom of thought. And if there really are so many types, why do astrological publications and newspapers only publish 12 horoscopes? Go away and read it. And then do yourself a favour, and get over to Bad Science.