Today's we're going to re-examine a popular mantra among those who identify as being of a skeptical bent: the idea that anyone knowingly selling a worthless paranormal service is being unethical. It's an area where I've broken ranks with some of my colleagues and had to agree to disagree. And, obviously, we're not talking about cases where harm is done because there's no question that's unethical; but even that leads us into a gray area. So let's dive in and examine the ethics of peddling the paranormal.
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. We've decided as a nation that businesses selling paranormal services — from palm readers to homeopathy stores — have every right to exist. Many might raise convincing arguments that they're violating certain trade laws or defrauding customers, but the fact is that enough voters and lawmakers disagree, and where we are is where we are. Legally, these businesses are not being unethical, so long as they're causing no harm. But of course, "legally unethical" is not the entire spectrum, and still leaves plenty of room for consumers to be harmed.
Since these services legally have the right to exist, and since people are free to make their own choices about using them, customers are going to do so. These customers are believers who are going to buy these services: and if they don't buy them from the first shop, they're going to buy them from the second shop next door. So let's imagine an ethical skeptic who understands this reality, and hopes to come across an opportunity to do some good. He knows cold reading. He 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. This believing customer is going to be deceived, and 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 ethical — perhaps even beneficial — for our Ethical Skeptic to be the one selling that product.
If you're like most people, you're disagreeing with me. You're probably saying that our Ethical Skeptic is 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. They'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. Hate the game, not the player. Fixing the player isn't going to fix the game. In my proposal here, we've at least accomplished one thing: we've made the game a little bit safer, by having one of the options out there be a responsible, ethical skeptic who's never going to give harmful advice, and will sometimes be able to give good advice.
The best argument I've heard against my position is that this takes away the customer's dignity, in removing his right to make a choice. Our Ethical Skeptic is being disingenuous, telling him that he's someone he's not, when the psychic competitor next door is being honest in claiming psychic powers. The customer chooses to go to a psychic. Ethical Skeptic is 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. The personal beliefs of the provider 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. Once the rubber meets the road, the seller's beliefs have no impact on the buyer's experience.
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: This is about cases where no harm is done. And this is the vast majority of cases: Grandma thinks her poodle talks with her dead goldfish. What about the exceptions?
Here's a hypothetical case where the customer really needs medical care: they have treatable cancer, but prefer to pay a psychic for New Age healing by the laying on of hands. Our Ethical Skeptic is neither completely stupid, nor irresponsible, nor in any particular need of blood money. In this case, he puts on his best New Age hat, and explains to this person in New Age terms that they'll understand and accept, that New Age healing can only help when applied alongside conventional cancer treatment. If we tell him New Age healing is bunk and he should go to the doctor, he'll write us off as a debunker and not listen, and go instead to the psychic next door. Here is where our Ethical Skeptic's 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.
It's the same in cases where the customer needs psychiatric care. Let's say his mother died, and for some reason his grief has developed into real mental illness that's impacting his ability to live his life, and he wants to contact his dead mother. This is not someone who wants to predict tomorrow's horse race, this is someone who probably needs help beyond the Ethical Skeptic's abilities. In this case, Ethical Skeptic can dim the lights, hold as convincing a séance as he can, and tell the sufferer 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 a qualified doctor can handle it from there. But 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, the Ethical Skeptic's services are good because they'll actually lead to a professional solution; the "real" psychic's services are bad, because they perpetuate the harm. This customer is not open to any solution that does not confirm his belief in psychics, and you have to understand that reality if you hope to actually help him. Yes, it's a lie to confirm his belief in the paranormal. But it's a white lie that helps.
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. 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 worshiping seminars, homeopathy, acupuncture, or psychic readings — are buying completely harmless services. It's not something I would do, because I want different things from my career. But as long as the paranormal businesses are going to exist whether we like it or not, I hope to see even more Ethical Skeptics entering the business. Less harm would be done, and even if it's only every once in a while, people would be actually helped instead of merely tricked into thinking they were helped.