Ethics of Peddling the Paranormal
Is it OK for non-believers to sell the paranormal?
by Brian Dunning
October 24, 2006
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Also available in Japanese
By Brian Dunning, Skeptoid Podcast
Episode 04, October 24, 2006
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.
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.
© 2006 Skeptoid Media, Inc.
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. <http://whatstheharm.net/>
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, Inc., 24 Oct 2006. Web. 2 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4003>