Ethics of Peddling the Paranormal

Is it OK for non-believers to sell the paranormal?

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Alternative Medicine, Paranormal

Skeptoid #04
October 24, 2006
Podcast transcript | Listen | Subscribe
Also available in Japanese

This is where I break ranks with the majority of the skeptical community, and come out, surprisingly, generally in favor of those who peddle the paranormal, in cases where no harm is done.

In our society, people have the right to purchase things they want that are of no benefit, or even harmful. Cigarettes, alcohol, expensive cosmetic products containing questionable ingredients like "extract of oleander" — these are just a few examples. It's a free country, and most people want these things. We've decided, as a nation, that the preferences of a few should not curtail the freedoms of the many. And I believe most skeptics would agree: paranormal services from palm readers to homeopathy stores have every right to exist. I hope my kids don't become customers, but I feel education is a better way to address it than government intervention.

Since we agree that these services have the right to exist, and that people must be free to make their own choices about using them, I personally would have no problem stepping up and selling my own psychic predictions. I would love to be able to perform a good cold reading. My dream is to start a church and become fabulously wealthy, with the world's happiest customers. These customers are people who are already believers, whose minds are not about to be changed by a few skeptics. They are going to buy these services: and if they don't buy them from me, they're going to buy them from the psychic next door. I could do a good job. I could be perfectly convincing and tell them exactly what they hope to hear for their money. In fact, the customer's experience will be identical to that they'd receive from the "real" psychic next door. We agree that customers have the right to spend their money on whatever they want. We agree that a customer is being deceived whenever he buys any supernatural product, no matter who sells it. We agree that no power on earth could convince that customer that he's being deceived. Add it all up, and we have a customer who insists on being deceived, and who has the right to purchase that deception. I believe that it's perfectly acceptable — and perfectly ethical — for me, even as a skeptic, to take advantage and sell the same product.

If you're like most people, you're disagreeing with me. You're probably saying that I'm being dishonest and lying to the customer, while the real psychic (though his powers are no more real than mine) is at least being honest. He's wrong, but he's honest. We're selling the same thing, and both giving the customer a satisfying experience. I see it just like a supermarket manager who allows cigarettes to be sold in his store. He knows they're a bad product, but people want them, and that's the way it is. Yet I never hear my detractors criticize the supermarket manager.

The best argument I've heard against my position is that I'm taking away the customer's dignity, in removing his right to make a choice. I'm being disingenuous, telling him that I'm someone I'm not, when my psychic competitor next door is being honest in claiming psychic powers. The customer chooses to go to a psychic. I'm lying to him, while the psychic next door is not. I understand this argument, and I agree that it's true. But the reason this argument doesn't convince me is that it's irrelevant — the net result is exactly the same. My personal beliefs have no bearing on the transaction (just like the supermarket manager), and focusing on this question is ignoring the elephant in the room: the person wants to buy nonsense. The personal feelings or opinions of the person selling it are simply not part of the equation.

Now, it's time to address the point that's probably foremost on your mind. What about the cases where the pseudoscience being purchased is either harmful, or takes the place of essential medical or psychiatric care? I said at the very beginning: I'm generally in favor of those who peddle the paranormal, in cases where no harm is done. And this is the vast majority of cases. What about the exceptions?

Here's a hypothetical case where the customer really needs medical care: they have treatable cancer, but prefer to pay me for New Age healing by the laying on of hands. I assure you that I am neither completely stupid, nor irresponsible, nor in any particular need of blood money. In this case, I would put on my best New Age hat, and explain to this person in New Age terms that I hope they would understand and accept, that New Age healing can only help when applied alongside conventional cancer treatment. I'm smart enough to realize that if I tell him New Age healing is bunk and he should go to the doctor, he'll write me off as a debunker and not listen, and go instead to the psychic next door. Here is where my New Age services are better — infinitely better — than those of the "real" psychic, who genuinely believes that laying on of hands should be used to the exclusion of real medicine. And people tell me that I'm the one being unethical. The "real" psychic in this case should be imprisoned.

It's the same in cases where the customer needs psychiatric care. Let's say his mother died, and for some reason he has developed real psychological problems, and wants me to contact his dead mother. This is not someone who wants me to predict tomorrow's horse race, this is someone who probably needs help beyond my pretended abilities. In this case, I'd dim the lights, hold as convincing a seance as I could, and tell him that his mother is worried about him and begs him to seek some professional help. If you tell him in this manner, he's likely to actually listen, and the doctor can handle it from there. If you take the usual skeptical path, and explain to him that talking to the dead is bunk and only a real doctor can help him, he won't listen, he'll go to the "real" psychic next door, and his problems will continue. Again, my services are good because they'll actually lead to a professional solution; the "real" psychic's services are bad, because they perpetuate the harm.

I argue that paranormal services are better provided by people who understand their limitations, rather than by those who believe they can do something they can't. In fact, if paranormal services were regulated, this would be the law. Think how much better off believers would be if the paranormal services they received always led them to trained professionals in cases where such is needed.

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However, these cases are in the minority. Most of the time, people who buy paranormal products or services — be it goddess worshipping seminars, homeopathy, acupuncture, or psychic readings — are buying completely harmless services that P.T. Barnum would have been happy to sell. If money is changing hands, and responsible adults are going into it with their eyes open, they receive exactly what they want, and they are completely satisfied with the results, then I would have no problem participating in such a transaction and profiting from it. The customer is happy, the peddler is happy, nobody is hurt, everybody involved is enriched by the transaction. This is their choice. They don't have a problem with it, why should you? It's none of your business.

Brian Dunning

© 2006 Skeptoid Media Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Bok, Sissela. Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life. New York: Vintage Books, 1999. 203-219.

Farley, Tim. "What's the Harm?" What's the Harm? Tim Farley, 18 Jan. 2009. Web. 18 Jan. 2009. <>

Irwin, H. The Psychology of Paranormal Belief: A Researcher's Handbook. Hertfordshire: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2009.

Kelly, Lynne. The Skeptic's Guide to the Paranormal. New York: Thundermouth Press, 2004. 34-35.

Randi, James. The Mask of Nostradamus: The Prophecies of the World's Most Famous Seer. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1993. 140-142.

Smith, Jonathan. Pseudoscience and Extraordinary Claims of the Paranormal. West Sussex, U.K.: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., 2010. 21-46.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Ethics of Peddling the Paranormal." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 24 Oct 2006. Web. 31 Aug 2015. <>


10 most recent comments | Show all 75 comments

The problem I have, Brian, is about honesty. A grocer selling cigarettes is not telling people that they're ok. They're clearly marked as not being such, and people assume the risk based on the warnings and common medical knowledge.

But to knowingly tell a person their horoscope or future when you, yourself don't believe that you have the ability to do so, is lying. And that is a moral question that needs to be addressed.

My mother always told me that whatever I did needed to be honorable. Honor is not a matter of religion, although many religions would hold that it is. But honor demands that you do something you truly believe in. Something that does not require you to participate in a lie.

It goes beyond not doing something that you know will hurt people. It also touches on not harming yourself. Honor matters.

You mentioned a difficult conundrum, however: somebody who has cancer or some other treatable disease or condition that won't seek actual help otherwise, and if left to the people who truly believe that they have powers to cure or predict the future, never will.

That's a hard one, Brian. A very hard one. And in the end, I fear I agree with you. But that is a very specific, and delicate, situation.

As scientists, we're taught to seek for truth. We ought to tell it as well.

Sara, Salt Lake City
January 24, 2013 4:36pm

Macky, I read that who document and the references it contained. Then I notice your comment on the Oct 17 above.

What questions do you have on RCT's?

It wasnt until about 2005 when RCT's could be applied to acupuncture

Moral Dolphin Back in Mud Suit, Greenacres by the sea Oz
June 5, 2013 5:53pm

They are contained in my Oct 17 post, which I think should be read in its entirety, anyway.

Macky, Auckland
June 20, 2013 7:04pm

RCT and acupuncture?

RCT and acupuncture now clearly indicate that acupuncture has no effectiveness over placebo.

Since 2005 when published trials actually included a placebo acceptable to acupuncture practitioners and researchers.
These trials were always carried out by acupuncture practitioners with their pro acupuncture researchers (note journal and funding affiliations)

Its nice someone looked that up.. as we know.. the more tab and on..

The trial data is all there.

I note that someone's responses have been a bit ragged of late.

One could bolster his/her argument by looking up the research of acupuncture.

Its been requested since the LHC rant of early 2012

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
June 21, 2013 2:29am

Since you bring up the LHC again, obviously permanently imbedded in your conciousness, I didn't have to research the LHC for long to provide the evidence for my first concern of engineering failure. As a bonus, there was the human failure of 4 boards to identify the design inadequacy that caused what would have been a serious accident had personnel been standing nearby.

My second concern was a statement of opinion that I hoped that would be proven wrong, that the intention to recreate conditions of the Big Bang were unnatural.
I will now add "assinine" to that opinion.

Apart from the fact that RCT's have a number of criticisms against them, the proof of acupunture's effectiveness does not require me to perform any research at all.
The proof lies in the large number of organisations that endorse the practice, which I've posted here in this thread.

Do you honestly think that with all those organisations' qualified scrutineers' careful assessments of trials and experience where acupuncture has been found to be beneficial, and most notable where it is NOT, that somehow you, Mud, Mag. whatever, Model Dolphin, Henk, whoever you decide on the day to be, are right and they are all wrong ?

If you take this exalted stance, and are obviously so passionate about it, why aren't you making a list of all these organisations and be writing multiple letters pointing out your favored RCT's, and imploring them to stop their woo ?

Macky, Auckland
June 21, 2013 5:11pm

Engineering failure? You were carping on about the end of the world and doing some lousy impersonations of a technician. Mathematically and scientifically inept it has underscored your entire visit to skeptoid comments.

No, you posted that as a cut and paste from a previous (january) rant elsewhere. Corporate me spotted it straight away.

You cant gloss over this.

On acupuncture..

Acupuncture has proven itself beyond doubt to be no more effective than any other quack therapy or the placebos it compares itself to.

Yes, those trials you mention now all draw one consensus amongst the acupuncture community itself..Better not mention them at all, its profoundly embarrasing for the community.

Macky, I love trial data, good or bad.

Do we have any good trial data that exhibits the effectiveness of acupuncture?


The position you adopt as a quack giving medical advice to people only exhibits your self view.

That's the north island "spangled loon of paradise"'..

Have I used similar before? I wonder..

Magnanamous Dinoflagellate, sin city, Oz
July 4, 2013 8:15pm

" You were carping on about the end of the world ..."

Post where I said anything like that Mud.
That's a direct question BTW, so remember your English please.

I've never denied that I cut and pasted a post from another forum. I mentioned at the time it was done for convenience. What's your problem ?

Engineering failure at the LHC has been proven along with incompetence from 4 boards' failure to identify the design inadequacy that led to the engineering failure.

Proven, done and dusted.

You can love trial data all you like Mud. I'm happy for you.

But if you think that I will listen to your opinions re acupuncture over the World Health Organization's, and so many others, that endorse acupuncture for some maladies, then you have a very inflated view of yourself.

I have no consultancy dishing out "medical advice to people" as you put it. There is no "position I adopt" re same.

In fact I encourage the taking of prescribed medicine. I would be a hypocrite if I didn't. My life has been saved by Ventolin, for example.

But when a friend is worried about being prescribed a psychotropic/mood-altering/anti-depressant drug, and asks me to look it up on google, then I advise her not to take it, a view she already had, especially when she went to the doctor for a sore leg in the first place.

You can please yourself what you think about that, under the same circumstances I would do it again.

Macky, Auckland
July 5, 2013 2:13am

@ Macky, are you really dishing out medical advice to friends based on the Internet?

What qualification do you have to do that?

A medical degree?

How do you know what symptoms the friend presented to the doctor? I may go to a doctor with a broken leg, but during the interview process he may well notice that I have issues beyond the leg.

I really can't believe that someone who claims to be 'informed' is giving medical advice to friends based on the internet...that is really troubling.

As for acupuncture, it works as placebo, the studies are out there, it has the same efficacy as a mother kissing a child's bump on the head and going "There, there, I'll kiss it better..." when they fall off their bike.

Letting people believe that it is more than placebo is dangerous, and can and does prevent people from seeking medical advice sooner.

You need to look up someone like Hulda Clark;
a woman who claimed cancer was not the disease mainstream medicine said it was,

a woman who claimed she had cured cancer in over 100 cases,

a woman who got cancer,

a woman who treated her own cancer rather than go to conventional mainstream medicine,

a woman who died from that cancer...

I think non-medical people recommending that people should avoid medical treatment given by a doctor, should be a could cost someone their life...

God, I hope no one has died because of your advice...

Pete, Rhyl, UK
March 23, 2014 12:29pm

Pete, please go back and read exactly what I have said, and particularly what I have NOT said, in many of my posts to Henk and his aliases.

I have NEVER advised anybody to seek "alternative" treatment, whether it be acupuncture whatever, in place of conventional medical therapy.

I would be a hypocrite if I did.

I don't know how things are in the UK, but we have a problem here with GP's prescribing psychotropic drugs for common medical physical problems, such as sore knees for example, and when my friend expressed concern that she had been prescribed thus, along with meds more in keeping with her sore leg, I advised her not to take it if she had any misgivings, which in fact she had.

I have a nephew and niece in-laws who both committed suicide while on these dangerous mood-altering drugs.
A friend I met through my son-in-law found her son hanging up in the garage. A previously happy teenager, his mood and manner changed considerably after beginning to take psychotropic medication.

The label on the side of the box of medication prescribed to my friend that had gone to her doctor
for some relief and diagnosis of pain in her leg, had a warning that if FEELINGS OF WANTING TO COMMIT SUICIDE became apparent, she should immediately contact her doctor.

What the f..k ???

Go to a doctor for a sore leg, and then want to commit suicide because of the meds he prescribes ??

I have no qualms about what I did, and in this (once only time) case, I would not hesitate to do it again.

Macky, Auckland
May 1, 2014 5:16pm

And while we're at it, why should a medical degree automatically guarantee good ethical practice ?

The many highly qualified scientists and doctors that have committed unethical actions on their patients and victims can easily be found in mainstream Net articles, most of them reasonably reliable.

And in addition, what the hell is a GP doing prescribing psychotropic drugs without a proper diagnosis from a psychiatrist ?

Even then, psychiatry is at least only half opinionated consensus without any scientific rigour.
Take a look at this..
And note the criticisms regarding the influence that the psych drug industry has on psychiatric conferences etc.

"the fact that 70% of the task force members have reported direct industry ties---" (DSM-5 task force)

Why then have we these unqualified GP's prescribing drugs that are the realm of psychiatry, not general practice.

More money (commissions) from the drug companies ? Is the "Big Pharma so-called conspiracy" so out of line, after all ?

If anyone on Skeptoid thinks that I should not question a doctor's decision on the basis that I'm "not qualified", that I should just let my friend suffer because "Doctor knows best" then they got another think coming, at least when it comes to psychotropic "medicine".

Macky, Auckland
June 27, 2014 12:40am

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