Scott Hardie | July 6, 2005
As far as I'm concerned, the most interesting news to come out of the Deep Impact experiment is a lawsuit by a Russian woman who claims it has ruined her horoscope. (link) Evidently it has already inspired her to act immorally, as she is seeking the ludicrous sum of $300 million in damages. Oh, what I wouldn't give to be an attorney in that case and demand empirical evidence in court not just that astrology is real, but that her astrological fortune is now irreparably damaged. A seventh-grader with a science textbook could rip her case apart. I don't know what the American government was thinking by investing 300 million dollars in this mission – what, were there terrorists on the comet? – but at least they can come to court with verifiable proof of Deep Impact's effects. Can she?

(Sorry, astrology believers.)

Michael Paul Cote | July 6, 2005
I heard that she contacted Madame Cleo and was told that she had a good chance of success.

Scott Hardie | July 7, 2005
I remember discussing last year (link) why professional psychics were not charged with fraud. (Maybe Steve Dunn could contribute now that we have him around as our resident legal expert.) In those cases, the psychics stay away from the law, and the law leaves them alone. But this Russian astrologer is actually attempting to build a lawsuit around her claims; how does she expect to prove them in court? Then again, I caught a few minutes of several ridiculous cases on Judge Mathis over lunch, so maybe I shouldn't wonder how foolishly unfounded lawsuits are even brought up in the first place.

Steve Dunn | July 7, 2005
Sorry man - can't help you there. At least not much!

The basic elements of fraud are...

1) a false statement, that is
2) known by the speaker to be false, which is
3) intended by the speaker to be relied upon, and
4) actually is relied upon, and
5) the reliance is reasonable, and
6) all this results in damage to the victim

That's very rough, but it's essentially correct. Volumes have been written about each of those elements, but for the hypothetical lawsuit against the psychic, I think you'd have a very hard time showing that: 1) the statement was known to be false, or 2) that any reliance was reasonable.

First, it's hard to prove someone is not a psychic. It's even harder to prove someone who claims to be a psychic KNOWS that he/she is not in fact a psychic. I know this sounds ridiculous, but fraud is actually a very tough claim to prove.

I see "reasonable reliance" as the main problem. Basically, you can't just rely on anything anyone tells you and expect to have a fraud claim available if it doesn't work out. Your reliance must be reasonable. It IS reasonable to rely on the person selling you a house not to lie about whether there's an underground oil tank on the property. It is NOT reasonable to rely on a four year-old telling you the same information. I think a court would likely find it's not reasonable to rely on the advice of a psychic.

Sorry this is so rushed and disorganized - your question actually touches on a lot of interesting thing. I just don't have time. I'm also about to go to Europe for two weeks so I probably won't even get to it... sorry!

Scott Hardie | July 7, 2005
Quite all right. I'd love to read more when you get back if you still feel like writing it.

Maybe it's only because I don't believe in psychic readings anyway, but I just can't accept that any of the major professional psychics actually believe they have supernatural powers. Someone who genuinely believes in her psychic powers is going to tell a client "I don't know" when they draw a total blank. Someone who is putting on an act is never going to admit to drawing a total blank, especially when there's a national audience involved. To have gotten as successful as they are, I can only believe that the majors have gotten very good at cold readings and self-promotion, while someone employing what they believe are real psychic abilities is still working the 9-5 fortune-telling house on the corner.

As if Sylvia Browne charging $750 for a personal consultation was not damaging enough: What if someone acted on a psychic's specific suggestion and was severely injured or killed? Would that count as damage to the victim? If not fraud, what else might that be called?

Kris Weberg | July 7, 2005
I'm a skeptic myself, but I think you underestimate the human capacity for self-deception. If you want to believe you're a psychic badly enough, you'll tend to ignore contrary evidence, even to the point of employing blind guesswork rather than "actual" psychic intuitition and teling yourself that your "powers" will eliminate the random chance behind even a "blind" guess. Heck, it even happens to full-on con men; Charles Ponzi, inventor of the confidence game that bears his surname, was caught out largely because he didn't quite know when to quit -- he bought his own hype.

It's also possible that this is something like the "pious fraud" effect; you think you're psychic; you think it's important, therefore, that people believe; so you refuse to do things like admit a lack of knowledge because it might dissaude people from believing in psychic powers. Certainly there are faith healers who've done that sort of thing, knowlingly faking "healing power" because they do believe in the Holy Spirit or Kabbalah or crystal harmonic energy or whatnot, and believe that their own minor deception is worth the moral cost if it wins a convert to the larger truth or belief system.

But I tend to agree with Steve, in the end; we don't really have the ability to tell a pious fraud or just a sloppy, self-deceiving thinker from a more cognitively gifted huckster, there's plenty of reasonable doubt.

Heck, you'd have to be psychic to know.

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