Should psychics be allowed to advertise?

Okay, I’m going to play Andy Rooney.

You know what really bothers me?  Psychics. My peregrinations on the Web led me to a UK site where pet psychics claim to help you tune into the “morphogenic field” of your dog or cat:

And while they say they “don’t promise miracles,” in fact they do, for they will put you in touch with the late Fluffy:

If you are looking for proof of life after death you may want to first ask our operator for advice about which psychic medium to choose. A medium usually connects with the spirit of a family member and they in turn may give you some proofs that the animal you’ve lost has survived death.

This ticked me off, because I’m an animal lover and can well imagine that some non-atheist, grieving over their dead pet, may decide that Mittens is still alive over the Rainbow Bridge.  And people like the psychics at this site make money from fleecing those gullible individuals.

This stuff isn’t limited to the UK. With a bit of Googling, you can find many similar scams in the U.S.  Here’s American “pet psychic” Laura Stinchfield, who claims to put owners in touch with their dead animals:

Can you talk to deceased animals?

Yes. I find this to be of great value to people who are suffering over the death of their animal. Talking to your animal is a wonderful way to aid in closure. Once our animals have passed they meet their old friends in heaven, their suffering is gone and replaced with bliss, they are given a job, and they are able to watch over us and protect us. They can give us amazing insight. It is only us that suffer when they leave us in body.

Occasionally, an animal may be stuck and need help in transitioning into heaven. If that is so, I can help with that transition. When I say “stuck” I meaning the animals may not have crossed over. This can happen if an animal dies suddenly (hit by a car or killed by a coyote) and they don’t know that their [sic] are not in their body anymore. It can also happen if their people are grieving and holding on to them so tightly that the animal feels frightened to cross over and wants to stay. They do not understand that they need to cross over and then come back to watch over their people.

I like to give the animals three days after death to transition before I do a session with them.

Holy crap! More fleecing.  More sad people, lighter in the wallet.

But there are many more psychics who deal with problems about love, money, and dead human friends and lovers.  You can find many of these at the American Psychic Directory. Now some of these folks may just claim to offer “spiritual guidance,” which is, I guess, ok, and some of these who do “readings” are really giving advice based on their take of the client’s psychology.  But some of these psychics also claim that they can put you in touch with dead relatives.  Here’s Erin Pavlina:

If a deceased friend or relative is going to come through during a reading they are almost always hovering around me 5-10 minutes before a reading, and I just know we are going to have contact with a deceased relative or friend.  In those cases, I am usually instructed to start with their message because it is usually important and/or urgent.

If you want to connect with someone specific on the other side, I will attempt to make contact.  I have found that sometimes they will come through and sometimes they won’t.  If they don’t come through, don’t panic.  It doesn’t mean they are not there, it just means I cannot connect with them.  It’s like ringing someone’s phone and they don’t answer.  They are there, just screening their calls. ;)

Now I know what you’re saying: let these stupid people get fleeced—it’s just natural selection!  A fool and his money are soon parted.  But what about all those people who are promised spiritual cures or bogus medical cures for real diseases, pay a lot of money, and die? (You may have seen the 60 Minutes piece two weeks ago on bogus stem-cell therapy for cancer.)  What this has in common with psychics who promise contact with the dead, glimpses into the future, and the like, is that all of these practices are based on lies—lies totally unsupported by evidence.  The promises of bogus “cures,” however, are illegal: the stem-cell quacks will be arrested.

And all of these, including psychics, violate the advertising rules of the Federal Trade Commission, to wit:

Under the Federal Trade Commission Act:

  • Advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive;
  • Advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims; and
  • Advertisements cannot be unfair.

Additional laws apply to ads for specialized products like consumer leases, credit, 900 telephone numbers, and products sold through mail order or telephone sales. And every state has consumer protection laws that govern ads running in that state.

What makes an advertisement deceptive?

According to the FTC’s Deception Policy Statement, an ad is deceptive if it contains a statement – or omits information – that:

  • Is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances; and
  • Is “material” – that is, important to a consumer’s decision to buy or use the product.

Promises of psychics contravene these rules.  They are deceptive, there is no evidence for them, and they mislead consumers.  Why are they still in business?

And for that matter, why does the government still let homeopaths practice when it regularly cracks down on other bogus medical therapies?  The claims of homeopaths are also deceptive, unsupported by evidence, and misleading to consumers.  They would appear to violate the FTC’s regulations.

If advertisers make claims, they should be able to back them up.  If not, they should be driven out of business—especially those who profit from human suffering.

(I won’t say anything about churches, but only because, with the exception of tithing, they don’t demand payment.)

Fig. 1.  The late and beloved Theodore B. Coyne. I shall see him no more.

28 Comments

  1. NewEnglandBob
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    There are hundreds or thousands of these snake oil sales people who should be closed down. I would guess that neither the US federal or state governments have the manpower to do it. The legislative bodies need to mandate and fund this kind of cleanup but the politicians don’t see votes for themselves for proposing the legislation, so they don’t bother.

  2. Stan Pak
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 10:57 am | Permalink

    It is possible to file a complaint at FTC. FTC may choose to not investigate the case, however, if they received flood of complaints sent by PZ’s “hordes” maybe it would work and force FTC to look at these cases. In the process at least some of most prominent psychics could feel some chill on their necks.

    That would be interesting experiment to test efficiency of FTC in that matter.

  3. Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    I’m with ya 100%. The “For entertainment purposes only” disclaimer should be no excuse.

    If I set up a Ponzi scheme, and let the clients know that it is “for entertainment purposes only”, it’s still fucking fraud.

    • artikcat
      Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      Not if you were entertained.

  4. Florian M
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    I guess so long as lawyers and pharmaceutical companies can advertise, it would seem hard to build a case against psychics….

    • artikcat
      Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

      Shouldnt this be left to the invisible hand of the market(s)?

      • NewEnglandBob
        Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink

        No, The “invisible hand” does not work well by itself in many situations.

        • artikcat
          Posted May 6, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

          Obviously it doesnt. But between a psychic and regulation/censorship one chooses what? Somehow, Lipitor, Dr Jarvik and Pfizer moved to the side, not by regulation but by sheer vociferant strident “public opinion”: well, kinda. An he wasnt even a psychic, I mean Dr Jarvik.

  5. Kevin
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    Barnum was wrong. Suckers are WAY more common than 1 a minute.

  6. piero
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    I’m with Florian. 99.9% of all advertisements are lies. Let fools and their money be parted, the sooner the better; I don’t think it’s the government’s job to protect people from their own stupidity.

    I would, however, favour legislation to protect children from their parents’ stupidity.

    • whyevolutionistrue
      Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:41 am | Permalink

      So quacks should be able to freely advertise psychic healing, or herbal-based cancer cures, or stem-cell therapy? Why have ANY regulation about that stuff?

      • artikcat
        Posted May 6, 2010 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

        As I said above “Somehow, Lipitor, Dr Jarvik and Pfizer moved to the side, not by regulation but by sheer vociferant strident “public opinion”: well, kinda. An he wasnt even a psychic, I mean Dr Jarvik”

      • piero
        Posted May 6, 2010 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

        Well, advertising is allowed for a whole range of stuff that doesn’t work. Bactericidal soap, for instance. Or some forms of chemotherapy for some types of cancer. Or anti-virus software.
        Quacks should be dealt with through consumer-protection legislation, just like every other business.

  7. Zoea
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    Atheists to Care for Pets Left Behind by the Rapture: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2010/05/atheists-to-care-for-pets-left-behind-by-the-rapture.html

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted May 6, 2010 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      How is this related? The site who takes money for people who believe in the rapture is quite up front about not believing it and says so in its contract, on its web site, in every newscast that interviews him, etc.

      • Zoea
        Posted May 6, 2010 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, Sir, I stand corrected. I think you have cleared the matter up.

  8. Yakaru
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Classic case last where a well known UK psychic involved himself in a search for a missing girl. He spoke to the mother and made a few vague predictions. Then it turned out that the mother and step father had themselves “abducted” girl (and drugged and bound her), hoping to eventually “find” her and claim a reward.

    The psychic, despite interviewing the actual abducter without realising it, still claimed it a success.

    Skeptico did a good post on it last year
    http://skeptico.blogs.com/skeptico/2009/01/psychic-joe-power-wrong-about-shannon_matthews.html

  9. Kirth Gersen
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Penn and Teller beat you to this on their show — their main beef was with psychics milking the bereaved with promises of communication with deceased relatives.

  10. Thanny
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    You need to have a chat with James Randi, Jerry. He’s been fighting against this stuff for decades.

    • Kirth Gersen
      Posted May 6, 2010 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      Love that guy! And of course he’s the idol of (and something of a role model for) Penn and Teller as well.

      • Microraptor
        Posted May 6, 2010 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

        Also, he’s got an awesome beard.

  11. Luke Vogel
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m truly sorry to hear of the loss of your cat, Theodore B. Coyne. Thanks for sharing the picture.

  12. Posted May 6, 2010 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Great write up!
    I have a few people within my family who go for this stuff (note all have experienced a tragic death close to them). One of which, I was discussing my work – eddy flux (CO2, water vapor and energy balance relating to climate) and he started on how he knew that what I was studying was complete crap.
    He urged me to believe that he wasn’t easily bought in by things; that he was himself focused on finding proof before believing anything – and a spiritual church convinced him of life after death (which is a conflicting statement in itself). He went on to say the passive smoke does no harm and Monckton is the authority on climate change……… I noted that all three claims gave him peace (the first gave him comfort about a lost one, the second due to a lot of smoking within the family – around kids as well – and the third; that we’re not in fact doing any harm to ecosystems and climate). It’s hard to argue with faith because logic doesn’t often appeal to that part of the brain.
    C’est la vie.

  13. Posted May 6, 2010 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Sorry to hear about Theodore B. Coyne. Losing a feline family member is heartbreaking.

  14. Michael Kingsford Gray
    Posted May 6, 2010 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    Education in skeptical thinking at schools would go a long way to addressing this problem.

  15. s.k.graham
    Posted May 7, 2010 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    Oops. Jerry, it looks like the psychics have a loophole:

    # Is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances;

    The definition only applies if the customers are acting “reasonably”, but anyone taking a psychic’s ad seriously is not acting reasonably, so the ads are not “deceptive” according to the policy.

    I’m only half-joking. 🙂

  16. Posted May 8, 2010 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    We should also go after faith healers with their false cures. as a civil matter.They can cause others harm when they tell them to forgo medical care: that should be a criminal matter.

  17. William McFallon
    Posted October 25, 2010 at 6:00 pm | Permalink

    There is a fine line between advertising and misleading statements. Several examples of this can be found on the website of Lynne Boutross who claims to be a spiritual teacher and advisor born with the gift of clairvoyance who can provide her clients with clarity in the areas of relationships, nutrition, communication, and intuition. She was investigated by the State of Washington in 2009 for providing services in these areas, which, under Washington law required a license. She charges $200 an hour and is not licensed by any state agency. She received a Masters degree and Ph. D in the course of one year from a non nationally accredited school in Alabama known as the American Institute of Holistic Theology. She touts herself as being a nationally recognized leader in the above fields and lists accomplishments which occurred in her past. No problem with that, but, her website is designed to make you think that these are current ongoing events which is less than honest. Her television appearances occurred many years ago and her lectures with people far more recognized than herself are also events from the past and not current. Is this fair advertising? NOT! People have a right to know about your credentials and what your current acccomplishments are. This kind of marketing should be regulated. The consumer has a right to full disclosure of a person’s services. If her marketing tactics were on the up and up, the State of Washington would have not engaged in its investigation which resulted in Boutross leaving the State and moving back to California where she continues to ply her trade. No licenses, $200 an hour, no guarantees of success…is this how you want to spend your money? I don’t think so…..


One Trackback/Pingback

  1. […] Should psychics be allowed to advertise? […]

%d bloggers like this: