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You Should Have Seen This One Coming – Protesting With Good Thinking At UK Psychic Events

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

October 17, 2014

In March of this year, the UK charity Good Thinking was contacted by Mark Tilbrook. Mark is a skeptical activist who had been planning to hand out leaflets to people on their way to attend a range of psychic shows.

Both during and after the events, Mark had to deal with the threat of undue legal action and verbal/physical intimidation. In response, Good Thinking has organized Psychic Awareness Month.

Throughout the month of October, Good Thinking will be supporting Mark and working with skeptical groups around the country to have Mark’s leaflet handed out at psychic shows as he intended—including shows by Sally Morgan, Colin Fry, and Derek Acorah. The right to offer fair criticism and comment is a hard-fought freedom, and one they feel should be exercised.

For this interview, I spoke to Michael Marshall.


Michael Marshall: The Good Thinking Society is a charity that was set up by Simon Singh, who I’m sure your listeners are very familiar with. I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I work full‑time for this charity, seeing what we can do in the skeptical world.

Really, one of the first things that came to us when I joined the Good Thinking Society back in March was there was a chap called Mark Tilbrook who had created this leaflet that was very reasonably, very calmly explaining the kinds of things that some people could do if they wanted to appear psychic.

His idea was to go along to psychic shows and to just very politely hand those to the audience. Really, not to try and force his views on them but just to say, “This psychic is going to tell you that they’re talking to the dead. Here’s the other view—which says that some people who say they’re talking to the dead may be using these techniques. If you spot some of these techniques, maybe you’ll have cause to question, but it’s best to just have all the information.”

That was his plan—he went to Sally Morgan’s show first in Manchester, because he’s from Manchester and Sally Morgan is the biggest psychic in the UK and she does far, far more shows than anyone else.

When he was there, Sally Morgan’s husband, who’s her manager, came out and got pretty aggressive with him. He was saying some quite strong, quite stern stuff. He was making physical threats. He was even getting as close to be almost pushing him around, and Mark was quite intimidated by this.

But he felt that, just because he was there, very politely asking questions, that he had a right to free speech. His right to free speech shouldn’t be attempted to be silenced by using those kinds of tactics, he decided to go to more shows.

In fact, he went to one in London and had, again, an even more intimidating experience. He came to us with this idea that he’d been having, and we’d been chatting to him about how best to do that in a way that, first of all, he was even personally safe—because he was genuinely worried that he’d be hurt.

The threat of violence, saying that, “One day you’ll be lifted and you’ll just disappear, and you’re going to be knocked out, and thrown under a train,” and all sorts of things have been said to him in the times that he’s been leafleting. That was back in March, and we were about to really help Mark tell his story back then, and that’s when the legal letters arrived from Sally’s lawyers.

They were saying that she was about to start suing him for libel, even though, as far as we could tell, the leaflets seemed very reasonable. They didn’t mention Sally by name. It wasn’t making any allegations about anyone, how it was libelous was curious to us, and to the lawyers that we had helping us out.

But they were also saying that he was harassing Sally by turning up to three of her shows in the space of a month, that he’d caused untold emotional distress to her and her family. Of course, we knew that he hadn’t spoken to her, and the only times he spoke to her family is when her family came out to threaten him.

We’ve helped him steer through that legally choppy waters, and it really led us to a point where, in October, we felt the way that Mark has had to very determinedly and very admirably defend his free speech over the last six months, is something that’s concerning.

You shouldn’t be able to use tactics, as far as we could see, that would have the effect of silencing someone who’s criticizing you. Mark’s determination through all of this, his willingness to stand by his beliefs and stand by the point he was making, we feel quite fairly, has been really admirable.

We thought the best thing would be to show that there is a network of skeptical communities out there; there are many people who feel very strongly about free speech and the right to offer fair comment, so that we’d have Mark’s leaflets handed out at every single psychic show we could get to, from the biggest psychics in the country, all throughout October.

We’re aiming for about 20‑30 shows that we should have lined up. I think we’ve already done seven by this point. This is what our Psychic Awareness Week is. Really, what we’re trying to do is make audiences aware of the things that some people could do if they wanted to appear psychic, and really nothing more than that.

If it shows the biggest psychics out there that there is this vibrant and active skeptical community, who are watching and really assessing as to whether something appears to be psychic or whether there’s something else going on there, then, that’s also very useful. But really, I think this is a free speech issue. You can’t use legal means to silence someone who’s just saying stuff you don’t like.

Kylie Sturgess: What’s been the response to the month? Are people signing on to help hand out flyers?

Michael: Yeah, the response has been very positive, really! Before we started the month, we were very careful that the event that we wanted to find people for, we found people first. Because what I didn’t want this to be is a picket, because that’s the last thing that we’d want.

This isn’t about having fifty skeptics turning up, standing outside of a psychic show with placards. This isn’t the kind of thing that you see outside of abortion clinics, that kind of thing. The idea really was for just two or three people. Just enough to hand out leaflets to the audience, and just very, very politely, very genuinely, put our side of that controversy across.

We already have everyone that we want for the majority of our shows, and if not we’re now really starting to fill those, we’re not really looking for people to pile in and make it something of a free‑for‑all.

But the response in terms of the support and sharing Mark’s story and sharing words of support has been really encouraging, because over the last six months even I personally, peripherally involved in helping Mark, have had some worrying times.

I thought, “This might not go the way of free speech here. This seems like it could go quite badly, just for standing up for what you believe.” For Mark himself, I think the bravery and the determination he’s shown when he probably has had chances to capitulate and back down and apologize and pay the damages that Sally was demanding, and he stood up against that.

I think that the messages of support he’s been getting really are making him see that that was the right decision, and it’s really helping him through what’s been a difficult six months.

The response we’ve had from people attending the shows has actually been the most interesting, because it would be very easy to think that we’re lecturing people and we’re treating them as too daft to be able to make up their own minds, and that’s not what we’re doing in the slightest.

The people who have been going to the shows have been really interested, because our leaflet is saying, “Here are some ways of spotting a genuine psychic. If someone is genuinely psychic, here are some things that they probably wouldn’t do, and if someone is doing these things maybe you need to ask questions about whether they’re genuine.”

There are a lot of people who just haven’t had access to that information. They’re asking us about the stuff that’s on the leaflets. They’re talking about it, they’re taking it, they’re really spending time reading it.

We’ve even had people, after the show, emailing us to say, “Your leaflet was really useful, because I could see these questions I haven’t thought of and when I saw the show through the lens of your questions, I had my own doubts, and I may not have had those doubts.”

The responses we have had from audiences have been really interesting, and everyone who’s come along to the audiences who have taken our leaflets, they’ve been very nice. We’ve had nice conversations. There are some people who don’t want to read our leaflets, and they’ve given it back to us, and that’s all ended very politely, too.

It is really just all about polite, reasonable engagement with people who we don’t necessarily agree with, or haven’t quite made up their minds, just to give them all access to the opportunity to see what information is out there, really.

Kylie: That sounds like good news all round really, doesn’t it?

Michael: I think so! Like I said, the response has been really, I’d say overwhelmingly positive, from audiences, from fellow skeptics, from skeptics in the pub groups in the UK who’ve really helped us put this together, as well.

I can’t be all round the country! Mark is spending a lot of time traveling this country, but he can’t be everywhere. But there are grass‑roots skeptical groups really interested in taking part in this and helping be there for the Colin Fry show here and the Derek Acorah show over there and the Sally Morgan show here and there, too.

The fact that we are an active, consistent network is a really encouraging sign from this I think.

Kylie: Of course, there’s many different ways that skeptics can question psychic claimants. You mentioned one method that people have tried, which is picketing. What are some important things that you think people should keep in mind?

Michael: I think first of all, the most important thing to bear in mind is that the people attending these shows want to be there.

They’re either there, because they think it’s a bit of fun—and if they go in there thinking it’s a bit of fun, fine. I’ve been to psychic shows for entertainment purposes.

I frequently go to psychic shows, and I’m very happy that I make the decision to go, and if there are people like that, that’s absolutely fine.

There are other people who are going there, because they’re vulnerable. They may have lost someone, they may be grieving, they may be upset. If you go to a psychic show—and I’m sure you’ve been, yourself—you do really see people. This isn’t just entertainment to a lot of people. They really do get very upset. These are messages from their loved ones, and if they’re not true, that’s really problematic for me.

But I think the main thing to bear in mind as a skeptic who’s going to do something like this is, be polite to the audience. Be considerate and respectful to the audience.

They’re not idiots. They’re not gullible. They’re not fools who’re being duped and conned. They’re human beings, and they’re there for a reason, and I think you have to really bear the plethora of their reasons and the range of their reasons in mind, and treat them with the respect that you would want to get back.

The other thing to bear in mind is, while we can question whether there are people who are talking to the dead, we can highlight the methods that could be used to appear to be talking to the dead, we can’t know what somebody’s thinking. We aren’t psychic.

No one’s psychic, going around saying that this person’s a fraud or this person’s a con man or a cheat, that’s too far, because you don’t know that they don’t believe what they’re doing.

It’s very, very easy and very, very possible for someone to be accidentally applying techniques like cold reading that they don’t even realize they’ve learnt. It’s very possible for people to just be wrong, to be self‑deluded, to be mistaken, to be getting lucky on some stuff.

Kylie: There have been some famous skeptics [Ray Hyman] who even started off that way, thinking that what they had was a genuine power and then they started testing themselves and realized that there was an alternative explanation.

Michael: Yeah, absolutely, and I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who purport to have psychic abilities who really do believe it.

In fact, I’ve interviewed many people like that on my podcast, Be Reasonable—you do have to bear in mind that you can never know what the person who says they’re psychic’s thinking. Also, in a way, that’s not important. What is important is spreading the information that’s out there.

Whether the psychic really believes it, whether they’re deluded, whether they’re a fraud, really that’s a secondary point. It’s not a point that you can really get into ‑ from a legal standpoint, but also, from a moral and ethical standpoint.

Unless you can prove somebody knew they’re cheating, you can’t show that they’re a cheat. You can only show that they’re wrong. I think highlighting that they’re wrong is often enough. I think that’s something to be really careful, and it’s an important distinction to make as skeptic, that we don’t go wading in there, making accusations that we can’t back up, because we’re all about evidence.

We’re not here to make personal pronouncements on people who believe in things or who buy tickets to things. This is just about access to information, and that should be done in the most polite and gentle and respectful way possible, I think.

Resources and more information about Psychic Awareness Month is available at http://goodthinkingsociety.org/projects/psychic-awareness-month/

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.