Hayley is a Ghost

Criticisms of Project Barnum

Posted on: November 3, 2011

Today the ‘Strange Quarks’ podcast released an episode in which Project Barnum was discussed and criticised. I wanted to address the points raised in the podcast.

1 – Simon Singh doesn’t lead Project Barnum as claimed in the podcast by Martin Robbins. I do.

Simon helped to form the idea of the petition, but everything else has been me with the help of people like Tannice Pendegrass, Keir Lidde, Simon Clare and a few others. That is all over the Project Barnum website and isn’t hard to find…

2 – Deobrah Hyde split Project Barnum (PB) into two ‘halves’. One half being where PB aims to spread information and inform people on how one might be tricked and how con artists use certain tricks to appear psychic which helps people make their own choices. The other half being where we “try and influence theatre overheads to a degree where they would not put on shows” which she thinks is aiming at “the distribution of a certain world view.”

The petition was a small part of what PB is about and not ‘half’ of what we do. The petition was asking theatres to reconsider hosting shows that are, by their very nature, misleading and upsetting to many. It wasn’t trying to censor people, it was simply asking “is this appropriate?”

The petition led to us being able to understand the extent to which theatres use ‘entertainment only’ disclaimers which, after a little research on our part, we have been able to advise people don’t mean very much at all (e.g. just because a psychic claims to be for entertainment purposes only doesn’t mean you can’t ask for your money back if you think you’ve been misled by them – learn more here.)

No psychic shows were cancelled, and we didn’t think they would be, we were really using that petition to demonstrate how strongly people felt about the subject, and also to discover the extent to which theatres hide behind useless, misleading ‘entertainment purposes’ disclaimers.

3 – Martin Robbins says he has a problem with the way in which the term “fraud” has been banded around. I don’t know if this was in regard to PB, or whether it was a general observation – but I will just point out that PB has always clearly stated on the website and elsewhere that we’re not interested in accusing people of fraud or cheating -we’re interested in helping people work out for themselves if they’re being misled or not.

PB has never used the term ‘fraud’ in relation to anyone. We list some examples on the site of mediums and psychics who have been documented as cheating in certain examples (with evidence to back those examples up), or accused of cheating in case of Sally Morgan.

It is concerning that basic information about Project Barnum, that is easily accessible, was not researched before the episode was aired.

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6 Responses to "Criticisms of Project Barnum"

It’s a real shame that what is a useful resource for both skeptics and interested believers has been getting so much flak recently. I have heard terms like ‘illiberal’, ‘censorious’ and ‘controversial’ bandied around as much as I’ve heard *some* skeptics bandy ‘fraud’ around.

Fraud is a specific, legally defined term: ‘an intentional deception made for personal gain or to damage another individual’ – something that requires proof. I’m sure many of us will have been guilty of accusing someone in our lives of being deceptive without any proof at some point in our lives but fraud is a big concept that requires evidence.

There will always be schisms in any group – whether it’s the debate over calling Mabus mentally ill and commenting on his state of mind or the well-known ‘elevator-gate’ debacle that ran and ran (and, I believe, is probably still raging). Project Barnum will, I believe, weather the storm and come out stronger for the criticism; whether that be constructive, accurate or misguided.

I personally feel hugely inspired by the true aims of Project Barnum: education and campaigning for people’s rights not to be mislead. After all, we ask for proof that miracle cleaning solutions actually get the chocolate off our pristine white shirts – why not ask for evidence that our dearly departed really are relaying messages back?

I’m liking Project Barnum myself, it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I love the idea of putting psychology into action. We covered the techniques used for cold reading and horoscopes in my the first year of my psychology degree. That was the first year that I experienced the bafflement and frustration that excellent research that would be of interest and helpfulness to people was merely subsumed into the ‘body of knowledge’ and psychologists would be on the never ending treadmill of providing innovative research to enable to stay in their career.

I know JREF have worked for many years in directly challenging people, some of whom are making a career out of exploiting human vulnerabilities and that’s great. There doesn’t seem to have been much skeptical work done on reaching out to the people who have found themselves on the receiving end of any psychic shtick. Now that this is prime filler on so many cable channels (I love the irony that a lot appears on the Living Channel), the reach of the business has expanded. Why not expand the reach of the tools of discrimination, the interesting research and have a crack at support?

Any project that is taking a different tack and venturing into the unknown is going to learn and grow by encountering problems and sticking points, finding out what works and what doesn’t. I liked the 10:23 campaign for the same reason, standing out on the street talking to the public and getting some learning across despite the deluge of information and misinformation that overwhelms people on a daily basis. That’s what I hope will happen through Project Barnum and I hope critics will help in the dissemination of the idea of critical thinking.

Completely fed up with the ‘Sally’ debacle. Skeptics sniping and fighting over the ‘best approach’ has pretty much resulted in a number of emails from scientists saying ‘You skeptics realise this doesn’t make any difference to the situation at hand?’ I can’t even comment on the ‘phone number’ on Twitter thing.

Good news on the horizon – the interview I did with you, Hayley, should be on the CSICOP website soon enough! 🙂 Thanks again and hope it helps clear up some of the misconceptions.

I do wonder if using the Sally Morgan debacle to launch Project Barnum was the brightest idea :/
However, I do know that when it’s all died down, Project Barnum will still be there going from strength to strength.

They were very positive about the information aspect of your work.
I think it is a little pedantic to complain they referred to the two “halves” rather than “aspects”, but I also think they did miss the point about writing to theatres, so it all evens out
I don’t think they did link Project Barnum to the “Sally is a Fraud” claims, and I was listening closely for that, as I know how much you have argued against people making them. That said, they didn’t say PB advises people not to make such claims, so anyone unfamiliar with your work would likely make the assumption

PB is already a useful educational resource and I hope the initiative becomes a great success. Objectively giving curious visitors the facts about the psychic/medium business is an important approach – and I say that as someone who can be at times impatient and forthright when it comes to supernatural claims.

A good example is the bursting of the myth that ‘for entertainment purposes’ disclaimers allow stage psychics and mediums to circumvent trading laws protections, and this deserves more coverage so as many people as possible can know their rights.

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Hayley is a ghost

Hayley Stevens is an advocate for science-based research into seemingly paranormal experiences and occurrences. With a background in the pseudo-scientific research into ghosts, Hayley offers a unique insight into the strange world of ghost hunting through her experience.

She describes herself as 'a ghost hunter who doesn't hunt for ghosts' and this is her personal blog where she writes about ghosts, people, and other interesting things. Read more here.

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