We've banned cancer cures from being marketed to vulnerable people—so why do we allow psychics to peddle their services?

It should be illegal to profit from psychic services. Let’s see if they are so committed to ‘comforting’ the bereaved if they’re not making money doing so

September 29, 2017
We protect people from those trying to shill cancer cures. Let's help other vulnerable people, too.
We protect people from those trying to shill cancer cures. Let's help other vulnerable people, too.

We have strict laws in the UK about how we market ‘cures’ for cancer. The 1939 Cancer Act prevents both legitimate pharmaceuticals and snake-oil merchants from directly targeting the public with advertising. It’s a way to protect the desperate and the terrified.

Cases being brought under this act are relatively rare but recent prosecutions include people promoting colloidal silver, protein shakes and “distance healing services.” (Colloidal silver, if you’re interested, is silver particles suspended in liquid and its use was largely discontinued after antibiotics became mainstream medicine.)

I give these examples because I wish there were a similar law to protect the bereaved. They, too, are vulnerable and desperate—and yet across the UK, a network of self-styled psychics regularly charge upwards of £60-£100 for private readings, during which they claim to talk to customers’ dead loved ones or to receive insights from other spirits.

People disagree about whether there are any “genuine” psychics out there. Personally, I do not believe that being an effective psychic means anything more than relying on the stage magic-style sleight of hand plied by mentalists like Derren Brown—a man who states clearly that his performance is a trick. However, I certainly haven’t tested each one.

Yet there are some useful guidelines for staying safe, including a booklet from the Association for Skeptical Enquiry entitled ‘Before You See a Psychic.’ 

It’s a must-read for anyone who is seriously considering paying for a session. It outlines the various tricks used by at least some mediums to encourage their customer to feed them information in response to comments that sound specific but are actually incredibly vague.

For example: “In describing someone dying the medium will often point generally to the chest area and say that's where he/she had 'trouble'. Apart from something wrong with the brain, it's fairly likely that any cause of death will involve the upper torso.”

“The most common causes of death in the UK are heart attack and lung disease. But even if they died of ingrowing toenail the psychic can point out that ultimately their heart stopped beating—hence the chest.”

Even those who do believe that the dead are happy to pop back for a chat, and that some people are able to mystically channel their voices, warn that there are some charlatans out there. In fact, professional psychics themselves often talk about the dangers of fraudsters (which sceptics might argue is a highly effective way of using people’s instinctive rationality against them).

One ‘celebrity’ psychic told the Mail Online: “Be careful when you are in [a] time of grief because you can really get ripped off.”

“A good psychic would send someone to a counsellor—but say you've got someone who wants to speak to a dead person everyday—there are people trying to milk them for money all of the time.”

There you are—direct from the medium’s mouth.

Dead ends

There are difficult moral questions at work here. Many people, from psychics and customers to sceptics who think it’s just a ‘bit of fun,’ will argue that seeing a psychic will provide harmless comfort.

Many customers are repeat visitors and are also fervent champions of the psychic industry. Debating with those customers is, understandably, a dead end. These people believe that they have spoken to a departed loved one; by arguing that they have been tricked you’re suggesting that they have not contacted the departed and that they have been fooled out of their money.

No one wants to hear they have been tricked, even when it’s about a less emotional topic. But being a believer does not mean they are not also victims. And, just as we protect vulnerable people from cancer “cures”, we should protect those who would seek help and advice from the spirit realm when they are feeling particularly distressed and worried.

One woman, for instance, described to me her visit to a psychic following her third miscarriage. She was told her miscarried babies played together. She was told they had been two boys and a girl. She was told that when she misplaces items, it is the babies hiding them. As she spoke, her story made the hairs on my arms stand up in horror.

But did she at least feel better as a result? “No, it broke my heart all over again,” she told me.

“[The psychic said] said ‘one baby..? No, no two..?’ Then she said three. I must have given her a subliminal sign or something to stop probing because she stopped at three.”

And then, presumably to fill up the hour, the psychic then took a look at her marriage—a marriage no doubt already under strain from the pain of losing pregnancies.

“She said ‘Is your husband faithful?’ When I said yes she said ‘Are you completely sure about that?’ but with a very judgemental look on her face. That felt like she was heavily implying something different; she was horrid and it caused us loads of problems.”

Experimental cheesecloths

There did used to be a law in the UK to regulate the behaviour of psychics: the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 prohibited people from claiming to be psychic while attempting to deceive and make money from that deception. It replaced the Witchcraft Act 1735, which made it a crime for anyone to claim they had magical powers.

However, the Fraudulent Mediums Act was not a great law; you had to really catch practitioners out to secure prosecution.

The handful of cases in the last 20 years included one psychic caught using cheesecloth as fake ectoplasm: the case notes report he was “purporting to act as a spiritualistic medium, unlawfully use a certain fraudulent device, namely, a length of cheesecloth”—and yet even he was acquitted.

That act was replaced with new Consumer Protection Regulations—meaning psychics charging for their services or receiving donations are now bound by the same regulations as someone selling hats or GCSE tuition: they have to show they are delivering what they advertise.

However, psychics are not like tutors or milliners, and since the 1951 act, most have simply withdrawn behind the disclaimer of “for entertainment purposes only,” or begun describing what they do as an “experiment.”

But psychics should not be able to call it “for entertainment purposes only” and then tell grieving parents they are communicating with their dead babies. There’s nothing entertaining about that.

Just as it is against the law for cancer patients to be promised undue hope from unproven treatments—whether from big pharma or alternative medicine—we need to protect the bereaved from ghouls who want to use their grief to market their services.

Making it illegal to profit from psychic services would be a good start. Let’s see if they are so committed to ‘comforting’ the bereaved if they’re not making money doing so.