We Need a Psychic Fraud Law Too
The UK seems to be way ahead of Canada in protecting the public from the deceptive practices of psychics. Not only did the Brits already have a Fraudulent Mediums Act, but they are now replacing it with something that is intended to be more effective. In May, psychics in the UK will fall under Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (CPRs). And why not? A fair and just society should be able to demand that services transacted for financial gain be subject to validation and review. Canada should follow suit.
The UK’s Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 makes it an offence, at least until May, for anyone who:
(b) in purporting to act as a spiritualistic medium or to exercise such powers as aforesaid, uses any fraudulent device
The law requires proof that the psychic act was done for reward in the form of money or goods, but it cannot be applied if the psychic act is “done solely for the purpose of entertainment.”
Apparently, the law has not been enforced very actively. Between 1980 and 1995, only six prosecutions were recorded, of which five resulted in convictions. Many commentators point out that psychics typically avoid prosecution by giving their readings for free under the guise of entertainment but charging a fee for the venue.
The CPRs include rules prohibiting conduct which misleads the average consumer and thereby causes, or is likely to cause him to take a transactional decision he would not have taken otherwise.
Unlike the Act, there is no requirement in the CPRs to prove an “intent to deceive”. This means that where practices are aimed at vulnerable consumers or average members of particular groups, it should be easier to take action against fraudulent mediums than under the Act.
I’m jealous. I don’t recall the Canadian government ever making a rational policy statement like that against pseudoscience.
Apparently, precognition of this policy move eluded the psychics, but they did rally after the fact. The Spiritualist community initiated a counter-petition, which closed on 6 February 2008 with 2,613 e-signatures:
Fortune-tellers, mediums and spiritual healers in the UK seem to declare themselves a religion when it suits them. Indeed, the UK’s 2001 census showed Spiritualism to be the nation’s eighth largest religion with over 32,000 adherents, but this number is hardly significant when compared with the over 390,000 people who declared themselves Jedi Knights as a faith.
Pretence aside, the Spiritualists’ petition had no evident impact. The CPRs are expected to go into force by the end of May in place of the Fraudulent Mediums Act.
On Friday (18 April 2008), Reuters reported that a group of psychics protested outside 10 Downing Street, this time let down by clairvoyance, which should have alerted them to the fact that the PM was in the US and not home.
In the article, the co-founder of the Spiritual Workers Association is quoted as saying:
To which the chief executive of the British Humanist Association quite rightly responds:
Absolutely right. If you run a business, then you should expect to be held liable for truth in advertising, proof of claims and warranty of effectiveness. The money is given as a transaction, not a religious contribution. The Catholic church may rake in a lot of money through donations, but they have not transacted indulgences since before the Reformation.
For a great take on this issue, I recommend Daniel Finkelstein’s editorial, “All that clairvoyant stuff – I don’ t see it myself.” He revisits the common critique that, if fortune tellers are really legit, then why are they grubbing for money at local psychic fairs instead of getting rich with their powers. He resists the notion, however, that psychics should be prosecuted, feeling that public sympathy would turn against the effort and that suckers have only themselves to blame. Perhaps, but following that logic argues against all fraud laws.
Unfortunately, there are those in society who are vulnerable to psychic predation. Age, mental deficiency, cultural background and emotional fragility can make people susceptible. A case in point is the families of missing children. As Kelly Jolkowski points out on her Project Jason website:
The UK has found a possible response to this type of victimization. So what is Canada doing about it?