Ethics of Peddling the Paranormal
by Brian Dunning
Filed under Alternative Medicine, Paranormal
October 24, 2006
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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
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.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Ethics of Peddling the Paranormal." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
24 Oct 2006. Web.
27 Nov 2015. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4003>
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.
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