You Knew I Was Going To Write About This

Folks in the government seem to believe that government service is magic and transformative. They tend to view the citizenry they rule as made up of imbeciles and rubes who can't be trusted to think for themselves. Yet even though they themselves are uplifted from that same crowd of rubes, they think that their governmental position qualifies them to sort out what folks should be buying and doing and saying from what they shouldn't. Is the electoral process mystical? Does cronyism imbue its beneficiaries with some dark art? Does civil service stamp a lightening-bolt scar on your forehead? I can't say. When I was with the government, my feelings of superiority were premised on callow youth and sheltered upbringing, not upon my government salary. I must be a born muggle.

So if government actors so clearly believe in magic, why are they so hostile to it? That's what Rachel J. Adams, doing business as "Readings By Faith," wanted to know. Court documents describe Rachel thus:

Plaintiff claims that she was born with the ability to “understand and appreciate Tarot cards1, telling of futures, psychic abilities and palmistry.” She practices card reading, fortune telling, telling of futures, and palmistry in Alexandria.

I left out the footnote, in which Magistrate Judge James Kirk (James D. Kirk, sorry) dryly notes "Palmistry is the art or practice of reading a person’s character or future from the markings on his palms" — as in "this person is letting me read his palm, which tells me he is of a character to give me money."

Anyway, the City of Alexandria takes a dim view of people like Rachel, and has outlawed her profession in its Code of Ordinances, §15-127:

It shall be unlawful for any person to engage in the business or practice of palmistry, card reading, astrology, fortune-telling, phrenology, mediums or activities of a similar nature within the city, regardless of whether a fee is charged directly or indirectly, or whether the services are rendered without a charge.

Rachel Adams thought this was unfair. So she sued in the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana, asserting that the Alexandria City Code violated her First Amendment rights to read palms and tell futures and thus-and-such. Last week, she won.

Magistrate Judge Kirk agreed that the ban violated her First Amendment rights, finding that the ordinance was not a mere commercial regulation but a content-based limitation on a class of speech. Magistrate Kirk's recommendations show a level of skepticism about the role of government and the wisdom of its actors suggesting that he's not a magical thinker:

Based on its own clairvoyance, the City has decreed in brief that it is impossible to predict the future, and contends the business of fortune-telling is a fraud and is inherently deceptive. Ignoring the possibility that, for many people, engaging a fortune-teller could be just for fun–a novelty and a form of entertainment like casino gambling or trying to throw the softball through the rings to win the big bear on the top shelf at the fair6–the City argues that prohibiting fortune-telling is necessary in order to prevent fraud and misleading the public. It suggests, without evidence, that the nature of plaintiff’s business creates the incentive to give false information to her clients “in the form of brighter futures than they might have in reality7.” Of course, a theoretical incentive to cheat could be said of almost every, if not every, for-profit business.

The City suggests that “fortune-tellers have no demonstrable facts upon which to base their predictions.” But, as alluded to by Judge Melançon, neither did Columbus, (at least according to his detractors at the time) when he was adamant that the world was round, when many believed the world was, in fact, flat. Had a group of all-knowing elders passed an ordinance then proscribing his beliefs, perhaps we would all still be afraid to take a step for fear of stepping off the precipice and falling to infinity.

The danger of the government deciding what is true and not true, real and unreal, should be obvious. For example, some might say that a belief in God or in a particular religion, for example, or in the “Book of Revelations”8 is not supported by demonstrable facts. Books that repeat the predictions of Nostradamus and the daily newspaper horoscope could be banned under the City’s reasoning.

If there is to be progress for mankind, men and women must be allowed to dream, imagine, and be visionaries for the future even if there are then no “demonstrable facts” to support their fantasies. And they should be able to share their dreams, imaginations and visions with others free of government interference. While some of those who sometimes predict the future can be said to base their prognostications on education, training and experience–doctors and insurance companies estimating how long someone might live, auto mechanics opining as to how long your brakes will last, even lawyers predicting a jury’s likely verdict– there should be no government prohibition of those with fewer facts, gazing into the future and voicing their beliefs as well. To apply the ordinance literally would outlaw every “amateur psychiatrist, parlor sage and barstool philosopher9” in Alexandria who dares to suggest to another what the future may hold.

My use of allegory and analogy is intended to demonstrate why we cannot afford to allow government to squelch free thought and speech without a compelling interest, and why even a fortune-teller’s speech must be protected. For a government to believe that it knows all that is true and real, no matter how obvious it thinks it is, is arrogance, pure and simple. Our Constitution protects us from such government oppression.

I like the cut of this Kirk fellow's jib.

In so ruling, Magistrate Judge Kirk rejected the City of Alexandria's breathtakingly broad rationale for censorship:

When she tells clients that she can predict future events she is engaging in inherently deceptive speech. It is unreasonable for her to insist that she might know what the future holds. The City of Alexandria has the right to enact ordinances prohibiting misleading or deceptive statements. By its very nature a prediction of the future is misleading or deceptive.

United States District Judge Dee D. Drell approved Magistrate Judge Kirk's recommendations and entered judgment, pausing only long enough to expand Kirk's discussion of the history of tarot cards and to note dryly that fortune-telling proliferates in New Orleans "apparently without incident."

Just as well. It's all well and good for government actors to believe they are magic. But imagine the chaos that would ensue if they could deny us a little magic in our lives — the magic of self-deception. Could Ed Hardy sell t-shirts if it couldn't convey the provably false notion that wearing one will make you seem cool, rather than making you seem like a risible touchhole? Could alcohol distillers sell their wares without suggesting that drinking will make you more attractive to potential mates, rather than admitting it merely makes everyone involved in mating cease to give a shit? Could cars be sold at all? Would it even be possible to refer to the Fall network television lineup?

Some things, like the truth, were simply not meant to be known by man.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. says

    Is this opening the door (Pandora's Box) for The City of Alexandria to become the Las Vegas of fortune telling? I can see garish, neon-lit psychic studios lining the new "Tarot Strip" with their blinking Ouija Board signs now.

  2. Christopher says

    Kirk makes a very valid point here, I appreciate Judges that can both deliver wise rulings, and also deliver an effective "are you serious right now?"

  3. Dan says

    How long have you been looking for a way to get in a dig at Ed Hardy shirts? And, what, no mention of the equally douchetastic Affliction shirts?

  4. Nicholas Weaver says

    I think part of the city's problem was the "or whether the services are rendered without a charge" part. Fortune telling for profit, just like claiming you can Speak to the Dead[1] is either explicitly entertainment or fraudulent. And I would support a law that required tobacco style "warning labels" on such fraudulent services.

    But fortune telling for free is so clearly constitutionally protected that including it in the ordinance was simply ridiculous.

    And, as an aside: Columbus was dead wrong: It was not the "flat earthers", but rather Columbus was insisting that the Earth was much smaller. But from the days of Ptolemy, man knew how to measure the diameter of the Earth with reasonable position, and therefore everyone else knew that Columbus was full of shit: if Columbus hadn't gotten lucky and hit a continent, he would have died long before reaching the far east.

    [1] AKA, the Biggest Douche in the Universe routine.

  5. says

    Even though I'm trained as an engineer and scientist, I still find value in various forms of fortune-telling. Not as a means of telling the future per se, but as a sort of meditation aid to focus my mind on a personal or life problem that I've otherwise been unable to puzzle out. The ritual of drawing tarot cards (or casting runes, or reading a palm, or whatever method you use) helps put your mind in a more focused state, removing clutter from your brain (at least temporarily), and sharpening your ability to analyze the situation in question. Does it actually tell the future? No. What it does do is cause certain mental processes to work that might not have otherwise, or that were drowned out by the rest of the mental cacophony which usually pervades in one's head. It's been very helpful to me in that respect, as my brain normally runs at about 50 miles a minute in 50 different directions.

  6. says

    I fail to see how forbidding fortunetelling doesn't violate Constitutional freedom of religion.

  7. ZK says

    Aren't you supposed to be part of some wide-ranging conspiracy by an internet community of Skeptics? In that context, this post is certainly a surprise.

    Personally, while I totally buy the First Amendment argument here, I'm not at all angry about Alexandria's original action. I think it's undisputed that the vast majority of fortune tellers, physics, and the like are, in fact, fraudulent. The motivation to protect citizens from this fraud, as motivations for unconstitutional laws go, isn't so bad compared to some others we've seen.

  8. Kevin Horner says

    Will there now be angry Evangelical groups calling for these judges to be censured (and censored) in some way? After all, not only are they allowing eeeevil devil worship but have called for the banning of organized religion?
    (Note: I realize that this is not what they have done, I'm just wondering how long it took for someone to get offended and say that they did.)

  9. says

    I agree with the judge's ruling — that people should be able to tell fortunes if they like. M is right on.

    At the same time, I'm curious if you see any implications for the creationist/evolution fight in public schools. In particular, I was struck by this sentence: "The danger of the government deciding what is true and not true, real and unreal, should be obvious." This seems to me a sentence that perfectly suits the wedge strategy.


  10. Brian says

    Someone should inform the judge that most people knew the world was round in 1492. What they doubted was that he could reach India going west. Techinically, they were right; he and his crew would have starved if the Americas hadn't been in the middle there.

  11. says

    @ZK Strangely if you are of a religious persuasion (any religion) you already believe in psychic ability, fortune telling and mystics.

    If you are not of a religious persuasion you most likely have heard or partaken or even place faith in things like the stock market, insurance companies, STATISTICS, Data Mining, quantum physics or any of a numerous array of "possibility though not certain" entities. Oh and lets not forget psychology, group/social dynamics and more so the statistical anomalies and maybe's of that 'science' they like to call psychiatry.

    Why should they be allowed and not the ooooo scary and fraudulant (in your opinion) "fortune tellers, physics, and the like"

    Lets be equitable and place them all in same basket and ban them all. Or is there different types and levels of fraud that 'you' will put up with but not others?

  12. Stumptown Geek says

    The Columbus anecdote is incorrect. It was widely accepted at the time that the Earth was round. There had been experiments supporting that claim for almost 2000 years. The diameter of the Earth was also known within a percent or so. What Columbus did was claim that, contrary to the available evidence, the diameter of the Earth was significantly smaller and that as a consequence the distance Asia was to the west of Spain was much smaller than generally accepted and within the range of existing sailing ability.

    Columbus was wrong and if it hadn't been for the unexpected land masses in the way his "discovery" that the conventional knowledge was indeed correct would have by starving to death in the open seas.

  13. koberulz says

    But, as alluded to by Judge Melançon, neither did Columbus, (at least according to his detractors at the time) when he was adamant that the world was round, when many believed the world was, in fact, flat.

    This is utterly false; the world was known to have been round *centuries* before Columbus. The Ancient Greeks knew not only that the world was round, but also calculated its circumference. And they were right. Columbus, who thought the earth was significantly smaller, was completely wrong and would have died had it not been for America being there to save his ass.

  14. Chris R. says

    So who on the city council of Alexandria was promised ponies and didn't receive them?

  15. says

    What I like is that he uses casino gambling as an equivalent "expecting to get your money's worth" example.

    Indeed, I hope he has a descendant in the future who goes far and rises in rank. :)

  16. says

    ….neither did Columbus, (at least according to his detractors at the time) when he was adamant that the world was round, when many believed the world was, in fact, flat.

    Brian and Stumptown Geek and koberulz speak truth. Will this urban legend alleging medieval topological folly never die?

  17. ZK says

    @G Thompson,

    I'm not sure what, in my post, you're actually responding to.

    Are you claiming that the vast majority of psychics, mystics, etc, are, in fact, real? I'm pretty sure insurance companies and the stock market do sell insurance or access to corporate shares, whereas most psychics don't seem to sell actual supernatural powers.

    I'm not sure why you think I'd like to ban the profession, anyway, since I don't think I took that position in my post.

  18. RogBoy says

    Thank you for introducing me to the notion of Ed Hardy shirts. I think I'm going to get the one with the "winged dragon" decal.

  19. Wil says

    A very long time ago, I was walking through the vendor's room at a local game convention when a psychic that a table there said something to me like, "You have a purpose and follow your own path, you are confident, yet you seek something." I took the bait, sat down and said, "You're very observant. I recently was discharged from the Marines, so I have purpose to my walk. My hair is purple, so it's obvious that I am different. And I'm focused on looking for a booth so I can be a part of a demonstration. Anybody that is an observer of human nature could have figured that out." I let her read my future anyway, even though I had let her know that I had some idea about how she used generalities to make it seem like she had some insight into me. She still did her whole schtick, I paid her the $5 or whatever, and I went on my way.

    Even skeptics have to see that people have the right to believe what they want. Just as the skeptics have the right to reveal the spoon benders and faith healers as frauds. That's a freedom which is guaranteed. It's the frauds that actively hurt people that some place like Alexandria need to worry about, and then only actual cases of harm. Someone who goes to a fortuneteller is paying them to get a fortune – whether the client believes it will come true or not is out of control of the fortuneteller.

    As for this opening a can of worms about Creationism in schools – I don't think there's any comparison there. For one, Creationism has not a shred of scientific proof, so it's a no-brainer that it not be allowed in science classes. Second, if you teach Creationism as science you by extension need to teach other religions' creation stories – and from there where do you stop? I don't think that it's the government dictating what is true or not so much as an agreement that science is not theology.

  20. says

    Ed Hardy is to tattoo culture as 'Twilight' is to Brahm Stoker. I wouldn't be caught dead in anything Ed Hardy, although I did try out one of his perfumes because that's my job.

  21. TomB says

    Someone should inform the judge that most people knew the world was round in 1492. What they doubted was that he could reach India going west.

    "Forget it, he's rolling…."

  22. says

    For one, Creationism has not a shred of scientific proof… Second, if you teach Creationism as science you by extension need to teach other religions' creation stories… I don't think that it's the government dictating what is true or not so much as an agreement that science is not theology…

    Good points all, but when a government official says the government shouldn't be in the position of deciding facts, it makes me wary of a kind of postmodernist relativism that opens space for wedge-type arguments.

  23. Connie says

    @Egd – They run you out of Ankh Morpork?

    On topic — I read Tarot and sometimes the cards say interesting things in context to a situation. Whether that is my own interpretation or sheer random luck of the draw, it's silly to utterly ban all versions of fortune telling. Nobody MAKES you go to a fortune teller.

  24. plutosdad says

    See you can only predict the future if you are wearing a business suit and call yourself a consultant, or manager. Then predict away and if your predictions don't come true oh well, you already got paid. That is perfectly fine.

    I am certainly against fortune tellers, but you could be against all religion for the same exact reason. And I don't see them banning religion, nor do I think that would be very productive. Maybe instead try working on the school system to teach people WHY fortune tellers are frauds or just for fun, and HOW to determine thus and protect themselves.

  25. Grifter says

    I'm curious whether they would be allowed to force fortune tellers to state their methods and license them with a test (Fortune telling- – "Spiritous Vapors Methodology– 0 on "better than flipping a coin" scale).

    They should be able to sell what they want, but fortune tellers are being fraudulent if they say they can predict the future despite evidence that they are no better than chance. It's misleading on the same scale selling homeopathic "remedies" alongside medicine that actually does anything, without explaining what homeopathic means to the buyer.

  26. Matthew Cline says

    It shall be unlawful for any person to engage in the business or practice of palmistry, card reading, astrology, fortune-telling, phrenology, mediums or activities of a similar nature within the city,

    Why is phrenology in that list? I mean, it's completely bunk, but it has nothing to do with predicting the future, nor is it supernatural/paranormal.

  27. Nate says

    I think in the UK all these kinds of things have to say they're for 'entertainment purposes only', a disclaimer, if you will. Even if you go to 'an evening of Clairvoyance' at a Spiritualist Church, which I've done in the past…shush, I was curious, (where they, of course, believe in such things as part of their faith) they still have to issue the disclaimer at the beginning. Seems like the right kind of compromise to me.

    The City of Alexandria definitely shot themselves in the foot by including those done for no payment (you can't say it's about protection from fraud if no one's paid money and thus can't be ripped off).

  28. Miranda says

    Just a few thoughts –

    Nicholas – What type of warning labels do you think should be applied? That the fortune teller really can't tell the future? Says who? I don't believe in them, but I don't think it has been (or can be) proven to be false. Even if the predictions don't come true, what kind of timeline would you use? The prediction didn't come true in a year? Five years? Ten?

    If other citizens believe in it, then it's their decision to spend their money on the service.

    As to others up-thread who say these regulations protect against fraud, besides the problem of proving that the future can't be told, is it fraudulent for a person who truly believes he or she can see the future to say so? The government would have to prove intent to defraud.

    I wonder, if one digs deep enough, if this regulation holds up to being about protecting the public form fraud. I think it might have begun by people whose religions prohibit fortune telling and the other listed activities. So the ordinance would violate the First Amendment's free speech and Establishment Clauses.

  29. Mike K says

    Isn't skilled fortune telling slightly better than chance anyway? It's not like they just pick a future out of a box, it's based, in part, on observations of the person. Don't many large newspapers also print horoscopes which would be illegal under such a law?

  30. says

    @Connie: I'm an atheist and a skeptic, but I also use tarot (as a form of meditation). It seems the world is very black and white for the City of Alexandria.

  31. Adrian Ratnapala says

    James D. Kirk and Dee D. Drell. I would salute y'all. But your Namers already have.

  32. Marius says

    First time commenter, please be gentle! (Like many, I started reading this awesome blog during the Carreon circus.)

    I am what you could call a "hard-core" skeptic, I do not believe in ANY forms of clairvoyance / fortune telling / magical unicorn-ponies. Thus I was surprised to find myself siding with the fortune teller. I thought I would NEVER agree with them going around and (IMO) duping people (or possibly themselves).

    In my perfect world NO-ONE would ever go to fortune tellers, but it would be because they know it to be impossible and fake and not because of a ordinance or a law.

    I think that if someone wants to waste their time telling fortunes or going to fortune tellers, it's their time and business. I would like it if no-one believed in fortune telling, but the choice must be made by the people, not the authorities.

    It almost feels like mind-police to me. Believing in things like this is a choice and an opinion, no one should be allowed to make laws around that.

  33. Tansey says

    First time commenter here (but have been reading the site for a long time). I don't really have any comment on the legal aspects of this, except to say that banning these practices is wrong. Yes, there are many, MANY so called "psychics" that are frauds, but IMO its up to the people going to them to do their homework to determine if the psychic they're going to has a history of scamming or not. As far as the actual practice of psychics and all that, I used to be the biggest skeptic ever until an experience of my own. So, whether you believe in all of it or not, don't laugh it off entirely :)

  34. egd says

    Aren't lies protected anyway a la US v. Alvarez?

    Only if you lie for non-fraudulent purposes. If you don't have anything to gain you can lie all you want.

    As Nate pointed out, by including activities done for free the city killed its case. If the law were limited to prohibiting commercial fortune telling it would certainly pass constitutional muster.

  35. D says

    To those who might consider that the ordinance had any merit, I'd remind them of the old saw about meaningful freedom including the right to make mistakes.

    It could be empirically proven, for example, that 75 percent of my decisions (I'm being generous) are stupid, but they're my stupid decisions, dagnabbit.

  36. Kelly says

    Good on the judge! I too am curious as to how this wasn't a violation of religious freedom.

  37. Z says

    Footnote 7 is adorable: "The City’s concern that it must protect its citizens from being more hopeful than they should be
    is perplexing."

  38. Malc says

    This seems like a classic case of a city letting ideology get in the way of common sense. The obvious course of action for them _should_ have been to simply require all commercial woo-woo merchants to… get a license, available at city hall for only $X per year!

    Unless, of course, the city is one of those with a budget surplus?

  39. JLA Girl says

    Devoted reader, occasional commentator here. I love the gentle dig at the lack of proof that organized religion(s) face (and please forgive my crappy cut/paste skills!):

    The danger of the government deciding what is true and not true, real and unreal, should be obvious. For example, some might say that a belief in God or in a particular religion, for example, or in the “Book of Revelations”8 is not supported by demonstrable facts.

    I think that the City should next try banning churches. That's at least as much a crap shoot as reading Tarot cards.

  40. James Pollock says

    It isn't that Creationism shouldn't be taught in science class because it isn't factual. Rather, Creationism shouldn't be taught in science class because it isn't science, and insisting that it is merely displays a fundamental lack of understanding in how science works.

  41. David Schwartz says

    I wonder where the line is drawn. What about "cursed money" scams where the fortune teller tells the victim that they are cursed and that they must pay the fortune teller large amounts of money to have those curses removed? Is there a principled way to distinguish this from the televangelist who promises that god will reward you for donating to the televangelist's ministry?

  42. says

    Are Ponzi pyramid selling schemes legal in the US? I ask because it strikes me that this is pretty comparable, and your arguments to defend the legality of what I see as a predatory and inherently manipulative industry could equally be used to defend that. Sure, any individual signing up to such a scheme probably believes it; most individuals involved are honest in saying they believe it when they recruit people further into the scheme; and these people involved in it, in the belief that it is a sustainable model, are indulging in "the magic of self-deception." This does not mean that the system as a whole is not manipulative and extortionate and should be prohibited.

    Specifically with regard to supposed fortune-telling, clairvoyance and associated ideas, I don't see any freedom of speech problem with people being allowed to say they can do these things, but being prohibited from making money out of doing so. That seems to me the reasonable position. You can fantasize as much as you like, but as soon as you charge people for having in on your fantasies what you are doing is morally little different to participating in a Ponzi scheme. Whether the proposed pay-off is mystically-gained knowledge or financial return, both systems take money off the unfortunate and the gullible with minimal chance of offering the return they promise, and then rope those very people in as salesmen to the next generation. As such the state should prohibit them.

    Your final comments illustrate to me exactly the difference between ordinary salesmanship and this. Alcohol manufacturers may hint about the secondary effects of alcohol, but the primary effects—that it makes you drunk—are undeniable. Similarly there are several decade's worth of evidence that the Fall programming (Autumn where I am, you got me all excited there: I thought for a moment you had a channel devoted to English post-punk music) will transpire, even if not in exactly the predicted forms. And as for cars: I believe you have laws against selling "lemons," which clearly illustrate the understanding that the law is capable of stepping in and drawing a line between reasonable expectations and falsehood, whether knowingly perpetrated or not.

    As far as I can see, until there is a substantial body of evidence that the various necromancies on offer have the slightest shred of a likelihood of working, then they should be lined up with Ponzi schemes and the like and prohibited.

    Some things, like the truth, were simply not meant to be known by man.

    With this I disagree extremely strongly. It also seems to me an extraordinary claim from someone involved in the legal profession. Why, exactly, do we conduct court cases and trials for if not in the belief that—whilst undeniably imperfect—our systems for getting at the truth are successful far more times than they fail? If your position were true, what reason would we have to run these expensive systems instead of submitting to Borges's Babylonian lottery? How would any knowledge have advanced ever?

  43. says

    Stuart Brown: I generally agree with your post, but want to pick one nit. You wrote:

    Are Ponzi pyramid selling schemes legal in the US? I ask because it strikes me that this is pretty comparable, and your arguments to defend the legality of what I see as a predatory and inherently manipulative industry could equally be used to defend that.

    I'm pretty sure pyramid selling isn't illegal per se, as long as there's some product actually being sold. A Ponzi scheme refers to a specific kind of investment scam in which early investors are paid with investment money from later investors, a fact hidden from everyone with false claims about profit being made in some other way. While you CAN have a pyramid scheme built on a Ponzi premise, they aren't the same thing. If memory serves, I believe that before Charles Ponzi, these financial scams used to be called "Peter and Paul fraud," named after a famous incident when the Church of England took money from St. Peter's to fund reconstruction at St. Paul's.

  44. Todd Erickson says

    @stuart brown, regarding your response to "Some things, like the truth, were simply not meant to be known by man."…the comment is being sarcastic.

  45. says

    Thanks for that Brendan. I was trying to write USishingly: to be honest, "Ponzi" is not, I think, used in the UK prior to Madoff and I'm certainly not entirely clear on its exact meaning. I certainly meant to refer to what I would call pyramid schemes: that is, potentially purely financial schemes where person A buys in for amount X, then has to recruit Y number of further buyer-inners(!), and starts receiving a proportion of their buy-in. The point being that any individual involved is quite likely to believe in it, and to be being honest when they attempt to recruit you into it; but the return is ultimately pie-in-the-sky.

    Actually this is taking a generous view of psychics and mediums: as far as I'm concerned the majority of them very probably know exactly what they're doing, and are nothing more than deeply cynical fraudsters preying on the hopes of desperate and bereaved people. But even if they are largely honest in their belief that they can talk to non-existent entities (about where the teapot is buried but not one of them has ever got told, e.g., tomorrow's lottery numbers) this is to me irrelevant.

  46. says

    Very good, Stuart. In that case, I'd say Pyramid schemes take advantage of the gullible, but oughtn't be illegal. I'll leave it to the better educated here to comment on whether they really ARE or not.

    BTW – the story of Charles Ponzi and his famous scheme is fascinating. Mitchell Zuckoff's book, Ponzi's Scheme is a thorough and entertaining read about the man.

  47. says

    Thanks for the reference Brendan, I shall look into the Zuckoff book. Personally I think that schemes that are predicated upon exploitation of gullibility should be prohibited. Part of a government's responsibility (imho) is to protect the less fortunate; and whilst some people may be, as it were, corrigibly gullible, others are simply, through no fault of their own, a bit simple. Any system where the handover of money is such that (a) the payer must pay to participate and (b) any reasonably informed rational person would not participate, I think should be prohibited. This is a rather more European view than American I suppose. (It would, however, have the added benefit of getting rid of Scientology without impacting upon genuine fundraising by genuine religions.)

  48. Mike K says

    Stuart, just to point out a few flaws in that idea, I (a reasonably informed rational person) was just thinking about paying for a past life reading. I know that, rationally, there is nothing to it, but I choose to hope and figure it'll at least be entertaining. The other thing is that it would interfere with religious fundraising. Unless a reasonable person would truly believe the tenets of the religion, why would that person donate money to the group when they could more directly donate it to any of the thousands of charities that the religious group might have helped after taking money out for their own uses?

  49. Ae Viescas says

    "Folks in the government seem to believe that government service is magic and transformative."

    Funny; everyone I know in government believes that government service crushes your soul. By which I mean, like, five people, but still.

  50. Analee says

    Does this mean the cops who finally busted Madame Marie for telling fortunes better than they do were wrong?

  51. says

    Hi Mike,

    I think that it's a matter of what is being sold, and clarity around that. A stage hypnotist, for instance, relies upon people being in an easily suggestible state precisely due to their unrealistic expectations. Magicians deceive for a living (except Penn and Teller, of course). Label yourself as a entertainer, and I am happy. So call yourself "Mystic Mathilda," put a sign outside your circus stall saying "Palm readings and clairvoyancy." Fine. As long as it also says "For entertainment," or similar.

    Regarding your point about religious fundraising, I disagree. I specifically stated that what concerned me where the institutions where handing over your money was a condition of inclusion. I don't want to stop people giving money to things they believe in. People should be free to believe what they like, and to organize themselves into believer's groups, and to share and raise money within those groups.

    But I do want to stop people or groups who (a) seriously claim some esoteric or spiritual knowledge or abilities but (b) require money before you are granted access to them. It is the requiring that worries me, not the asking.

    So fundraising would not be excluded—no-one is obliged to send their cheque to Billy Graham to stay a Christian—but institutions such as Scientology would, which can only be a good thing.

    I cannot deny that I think that some of the limits to free speech should occur around religious claims, and that as a non-believer in any of the claims, I appreciate it is easier for me to take this stance than it may be for believers. But it is my genuinely held belief, and I won't charge you for hearing it either!

  52. Ben says

    It seems important to me to remember the limits of rationalism and empiricism. Hume once wrote something about our 'faculties breaking down when you enter fairy land'.

    Whenever someone manages to frustrate me with dogma, I remind myself that they are, empirically, guided just as much by their senses of what is true as I am.

    If I had been exposed to precisely the same stimulus, with precisely the same initial state – I would be them.

    So it is simpler (for all concerned) to attempt to guide the discussion away from "What is absolutely, undeniably real" to "what is useful to us now".

    After all, it could be solipsism that is the only reality. It's just not pragmatic.

  53. Mike K says

    Stuart, I think your latest post demonstrates one of the biggest problems with trying to legislate against activities you're against philosophically. It's entirely too easy to go too broad and make activities that aren't objectionable illegal. That's why most laws are very precise about what is meant to be illegal and some people that violate the spirit of the law get off because they didn't violate the letter of the law.

    Keeping with your new wording excluding anything that says it's entertainment, I wonder if government would count as something that should be illegal. I have no evidence that government is better than the absence of government and therefore very little basis to conclude that it's better than nothing and there is a requirement to pay to receive its benefits. I suppose we could label government as entertainment, but that would imply that we have the choice to abstain from it.

    Another problem with banning all the things that the city banned, is that a skilled practitioner can pick up on behavioral and physical cues and offer advice that is genuinely helpful to the client, even if the practitioner claims but doesn't use mystical means of helping them. Some people might not even realize that they are picking up on such cues and associate those insights to mystical forces. Also, it depends on what kind of action is being sought from a fortune teller. If I can't make up my mind between two jobs, it is extremely helpful (and probably cheaper) to ask a fortune teller to pick the one that will be better.

    Would that law as written make fortune cookies illegal in the city?

  54. Grifter says

    I don't think that anyone disagrees the law was too broad, Mike, but at the same time, every fortune teller ever tested was a fraud as much as snake oil, placebo effect or not, and preventing fraud is in the government's bailiwick; it's not unreasonable to expect purchased things to be what they explicitly guarantee themselves to be.

  55. Mike K says

    I agree that is part of the duty of government. I disagree with both the city's and Stuart's proposed methods. Both would ban the action without considering the possibility of exceptions. Actually, the act of banning those particular actions would be at best a waste of time/money since fraud is already illegal. I mean there are plenty of things I consider fraudulent and that are being largely ignored by government. For one I'd like to see the makers of 'non-lethal' weapons refer to these weapons differently since calling them non-lethal is demonstrably false (and I'd like to see law enforcement treat them as potentially lethal weapons when police use them rather than just when civilians use them). That doesn't mean I think those weapons should be illegal even if they are being marketed in a deceptive way currently. Just like I don't think any spiritual, mystical, or paranormal activity should be illegal just because some people may be fraudulent in their marketing of it.

  56. Grifter says


    Stuart seemed, in his last post, to suggest that a disclaimer would be the appropriate solution…you disagree?

  57. Mike K says

    I'm less sure on that part. To me that would be similar to requiring a priest to tell people that his services are for entertainment purposes only before starting. It destroys the message of people that truly believe. Something more along the lines of "By law I'm required to tell you that there's no evidence my services reveal the truth" which could at least be followed with "but here's several people that think I did an excellent job" would be better.

    It'd still only be acceptable if it was a requirement across the board. So you'd see it in the offices of psychologists, stock brokers, priests if they charged for any service (like baptism, confession, or any other rites), etc. Heck churches should probably have that disclaimer even if they don't charge since priests tend to imply that people are going to hell if they don't donate their time and money. There would need to be a defined level of proof required and organizations couldn't be exempted without meeting that requirement.

    disclaimer: this post may be more scattered than normal due to extra distractions

  58. Mike K says

    Even if you did go with a disclaimer requirement, that still doesn't get around the redundancy of making a particular type of fraud illegal if all fraud is already illegal.

  59. Grifter says


    But Phrenology, astrology, fortune-telling, etc., have a crucial difference from regular ol' "religion": They state that things will happen in the here and now.

    Religion says "this is what happens when you die", and regardless of any of our opinions on the matter, it is impossible to prove wrong, only to point out an absence of evidence. Fortune telling, by contrast, says "this will happen to you next week". If "this" doesn't happen next week, then the fortune teller is wrong, and provably so.

  60. Grifter says


    “The bullet casing is like three feet away from the body.”

    Bullets are ejected from guns. Basically, the bullet casing being several feet (unless you have a magic photo ruler, you don't know how far away it was) away means nothing. More on that farther down, where you address it again.

    “The dog could have been right there. The police aren't even talking about it, for all we know the dog took a bite and the officer waved it off because they just don't want make the family suffer more after their kid and dog we both killed.”

    “You're making entirely unverifiable facts about something to which the only witnesses aren't talking. “

    Who's making up unverifiable facts? The article says charging. With no mention of a bite, thinking “but it might have happened!” is poor argument.

    “Anything could have been happening at that distance. There could have even been a brief scuffle”

    But there wasn't. The dog was charging per the article, no mention of an attack. So lots of things could be, but aren't.

    “Or the officer could have just barely escaped the first bite attempt.”

    Incredibly unlikely based on the choice of words by the reports.

    “All we know for sure is that the dog is dead and that it was VERY close to the officer at that moment,”

    Nope, we don't know that.

    “If someone pulls a weapon they can open fire right then and there.”

    No, they can't, not on someone else's property when they have no right to be there (no enforcement action) And even if they could, they shouldn't unless there's no other choice.

    “The dog was right there. The dog couldn't have been any closer without actually being attached to the officer himself.”

    Please stop repeating yourself on this. You are wrong when you assert this as a fact (although it is a possibility). I will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you know nothing about guns or ejection patterns.

    “I don't know where you get this image of a dog in the distance being shot.” – got it from “the dog was charging around the corner”, Y'know, as opposed to “the dog was lunging at the officer”.

    Words mean things.

    “The dog is just a few feet from the road and the bullet casing too. Considering that bullet casings fly to the side (not straight down or backwards), this was almost point blank if not actually point blank.”

    Ah, you think you do know about these things. That explains your vehemence. Unfortunately, you are wrong. For reference: THIS.

    “As for Fight or Flight, you aren't supposed to run from a dog, that will only make things worse.”

    Unless you can completely escape the dog by, say, entering your police cruiser.

    “You should read up on techniques on how to respond to potentially dangerous dogs. First step = stand your ground”

    And shoot a dog that hasn't lunged at you (as evidenced by the news report not mentioning it)? No? Then we once more have a moot point.

    “Officers are specifically trained to fight because we as a society need them to. Beyond that, some people have a natural fight response. How is your natural fight response different from an animal's natural desire to protect its master?”

    Again: the officer didn't need to fight. He had no business there that was crucial. If one of the homeowners had opened the door of their own house, illogically blaming the cop for the death, pointed a gun at the cop and said “get off my property right now!”, the officer would have been in the wrong to shoot.

    “And yes, intention makes a large difference when making lofty claims about someone like they're a bad person.”

    So drunk drivers are A-ok people by your logic even if they kill people because they didn't intend to? That is your argument as I understand it.

    “As for whether or not lethal force should have been used, if he had no better alternative then he has to do what he needs to in order to keep himself safe. I believe he chose the wrong action and he needs to undergo better training because of it, but we also don't know the exact parameters of the situation given the possible scenarios I've already mentioned.”

    Also, the dog could have been a robot! Or T-K9000! Let's continue to speculate wild theories to defend someone who used lethal force rather than using the facts at hand.

    “How does the nature of my fight response change based on how much damage it does?”

    If you don't understand that there is a difference between lethal and non-lethal force, then you are someone who should not own a gun.

    If that same blow had caused something to snap and he died, would that have then changed the morality of my actions in some way or would it then just be a tragic event?

    Well, since punches almost never kill, that would be “bad luck”, something not forseen. Do you think the officer was under the impression bullets don't kill?

    “What if I'd had a knife at the time already in my hand and used it? He was holding a weapon himself though I didn't know it was fake at the time. By all accounts I thought I was in danger and reacted preservingly.”

    You are not a police officer. While I would think you were in the wrong, it is not your job to act rationally in the face of danger. That is exactly what a police officer's job is.

    “A man charging you with a knife is attacking you.”

    – So now intent doesn't matter?

    If I hold a knife in my hand outward, and announce loudly, “I'm going to be running in a straight line to see how easy it is to hold a knife like this”, I'm not attacking anyone.

    “The definitions of "attack" do not include a necessary range of proximity.”

    I think you really don't understand my point, which was you cannot effectively attack anyone at a range greater than your weapon is. If you want to still call that an “attack”, I don't care about the sophistry of it, the point is that an attack which literally cannot succeed (no matter how tightly a dog clamps its jaws from a distance, it can't bite from a distance) is no attack at all. The dog was advancing, sure, and might have attacked once actually within biting range, but it literally could not commit any aggressive action against any person from a distance.

    “ It only means to stake aggressive action against.”

    If your weapon cannot harm the person, there is no way to take an “aggressive action against”.

    “I fail to see how a physical act of aggression could be anything other than active.”

    Let's say I run towards you because it looks like you're braking into a neighbor's house “Hey, what the hell are you doing?!” I shout. I'm running and behaving aggressive, but is that an attack? And is there any fundamental provable difference between that and what the dog was doing (assuming for the sake of argument its demeanor was growly)?

    Attacks are when you do an action intended to commit harm. Example: Running toward someone cannot harm them. Tackling them can. You haven't actually attacked the person until you tackle them. That is what I meant by "actively attacking".

  61. Grifter says

    Crap. I pasted that last comment in here because I'm an idiot. It was meant to go in the "screwtape wept" one. Sorry everybody, I am dumb! (Patrick, Ken, etc., if you deleted that and this, I would be very grateful. Or maybe replace it with "all this paste has gone to my head", so at least it's a SHORTER nonsensical post)

  62. Cephas Australoscepticus says

    Fascinating article, and fascinating comments. Who knew so many rationalists/sceptics used Tarot? (Me too, and for the same strange reasons!)

    I do think palmistry, horoscopes, and clairvoyancy should not have any possible or potential value equated with their actual value, which is what seems to be being argued here. Just because a reading might, just possibly, in a one-in-a-billion chance, happen to somewhat seem applicable to a customer's situation, that doesn't mean we should treat it as anything other than fraud, surely?

    If other businesses have to prove that the product or service they sell isn't a dud (whether by routine investigations by food handling authorities, guarantees of serviceability by manufacturers, etc), why don't these fraudulent practitioners (and let's face it, they're 99% BS wrapped in 1% of mumbo-jumbo) have to announce their "rates of success" too? At least they'd be playing on a level playing field.

    By saying "oh, who cares, it's just some harmless fun", I think we ignore the damage these frauds do to the customers who either get bad advice, or make a bad decision, even if the advice seemed positive or fun or reasonable? After all, who do you go back to when you don't meet the man/woman/sheep of your dreams? What's the refund policy? Who makes the guarantee? You want to make money, at least be honest about what your customers are likely to get, and how to address failures!

  63. says

    Sorry for the delay in replying Mike: however it has the fortunate consequence that a number of other commentators have put my points better than I was managing to. But to put my view on a couple of specifics:

    Regarding government: to get into that would involve us first agreeing on an underlying theory of governance, which could probably occupy rather a lot of space and take this thread heavily OT. I disagree with the idea that we pay the government for services (I see them more as the consensual administrators of a mutually-owned the kitty, but that's my Old Europeness talking there); but more to the point is whether they produce what they say they will, and what we can do if they don't. In Western democracies we have the equivalent of lemon laws: if they don't perform as promised we can replace them with a substitute (who, sadly, will also not do as promised; but that's a different matter).

    On the other hand, I partially agree with you that my proposals would be at least in danger of affecting 'genuine' religion. Here we get into tricky area, where my personal views are not as such as would be accepted by wider society. On the issue of making unsupportable claims with no redress then, well, if it walks like a duck and it quacks like a duck then it's a duck. So personally on the moral issues of insupportability of claims I do not differentiate between conventional religion and spiritualists/mediums/etc. But clearly society as a whole does not reflect my views, which is why I reiterate again the fact that money required for participation is the crucial differentiating factor. The priest does not need to issue a disclaimer because when the tray is passed round nobody is obliged to put anything in it. There are no charges for entry to services, or a bill for receiving the eucharist. A few institutions — I already highlighted Scientology — which are currently legal would fall foul of this. But then, a few internet searches will reveal the levels of abuse that occur within that benighted organisation.*

    I actually agree that (pay-for-readings) mediums should be subsumed within frauds. In fact, it astonishes me that they aren't. I presume the council for the defense would cite the (purported) sincerity of their belief in their own abilities, which was the source of my original comment about pyramid schemes and prohibiting the system itself because individuals within it may be honest, but the overall system is fraudulent and corrupt.

    Cephas Australoscepticus's last para is especially pertinent to me. I don't accept at all the "harmless fun" defense. I mean there's my personal views on the public sanctioning of idiotic BS and the overall negative effects of such woo in public discourse,** but I accept I that that is not a matter for legislation. But individuals — often recently bereaved and (in my view by definition) not endowed with great faculties of judgment — make decisions due to, and are psychologically affected by, mediums and the like. And in the worst cases, as per Scientology above, it sets up a power relationship easily open to extreme abuse. I believe part of the function of the law is to protect people from such things, and so still stick by my prohibitory stance!

    [*] I mentioned Scientology yesterday and today the following, highly convenient for me, report pops up: Hey, I must be psychic!
    [**] There's a interesting book by Theodor Adorno called The Stars Down To Earth which is worth, at least, browsing. Unfortunately he was a man of his time, and so it is couched in Freudian terminology (and may carry a few too many leftist assumptions for US readers), but his central thesis is still quite supportable: that astrology columns are a tool of mass manipulation, which contribute to maintaining the quiescence of the working classes by simultaneously assuring them that things will improve (at least, if you have the right sign), whilst encouraging a fatalistic acceptance that there is nothing you can do about it.

  64. says

    @Cephas Australoscepticus: Fortune-telling isn't like, say, food manufacturing, where the average customer can't be expected to understand the intricacies or know the risks and thus needs to be protected from pitfalls in the system. In my experience, the people who consult fortune-tellers/Santería advisors/et. al. do so because they're knowledgeable about the art and have trust in it due to that despite the risks, and will in fact defend the process vigorously with well-thought-out, if frequently fallacious, rationalizations. They recognize that it's unaccountable.

  65. David Schwartz says

    Stuart Brown: I know of synagogues that limit some holy day services to members only and, of course, they charge for membership. In your view, are they practicing fraud?

    There's another problem too — how do you distinguish palmistry from psychological counseling? At least, how do you do so without establishing the falsity of the palmist's religious beliefs in court, which we can't do in the United States.

  66. Grifter says


    While that may be your experience, as Stuart Brown pointed out, there are many who are not aware of the true nature of fortune-telling.

    @David Schwartz:
    While some may argue that all religions practice fraud, fortunetelling has supposed real-world applications. While some synagogues may limit services to paying members, they tell of the afterlife, which we can't prove they're wrong on. A palm reader by contrast can be proven wrong; that isn't a bad reflection on their undoubtedly sincere beliefs, but a provable, testable measure of the service they are offering.

  67. says

    @David Schwartz — To be honest, if there are any places of worship which require payment of money to participate, that does fall within the remit of my suggested system (as noted repeatedly, in doing so I am not calling the individuals involved knowing fraudsters). Also, I have no idea whether religions receive the same kind of tax breaks in the US that they do here in the UK; but I would certainly be very concerned about any organization which received charitable status whilst limiting the benefitees of its services (in both senses, here) to paying individuals. I am not very sympathetic to religion, it is true, but I rather feel that if an institution is not making its services freely available to the population at large, then it is not supplying a good to society (accepting for the sake of argument that religious services ARE a good to society!), so why should society support it?

    On the other point, @Grifter's response to you is roughly my view: there is a clear testable difference between fortune-telling and religion. (Personally, once we've dealt with the provably false institutions of fortune telling, I would turn my guns on the unprovable and statistically implausible claims of religions, but that's another battle for another day a long ways off.)

    @M: Again, as per @Grifter. That some people knowingly and willingly fool themselves does not mean that we should not protect the unwillingly unknowingly fooled.

  68. says

    My point being that I don't believe the unwillingly, unknowingly fooled exist (no offense @Stuart Brown).

  69. says

    Hi M — no offense taken, as long as you don't take offense when I say that I totally disagree! Are you really saying that there is no-one who is so gullible and naive that they take a medium or psychic's claims at face value? I fear your view of human nature is astronomically more generous than mine!

  70. Grifter says


    Were you not a US public school attendee? I can assure you, that there are many people who legitimately do not have the critical thinking skills to understand that "Hey, wait, this makes no sense", and buy it (in the case of phone psychics) because "the people on the TV said they were knew stuff!"

  71. says

    @Grifter: I was, and I still don't believe that anyone that dumb exists. I do believe that there are people who value intelligence less than I do and will play dumb when confronted with such situations. That is to say, they think pretending that they're really stupid enough to take a psychic at face value and sobbing about their lost assets is more flattering than admitting that they were emotionally desperate, for example.

    That being said, I put really, really stupid people in the same category as God and ghosts – they may well exist, I just haven't had sufficient proof yet.

  72. says

    @Stuart Brown: I respect everyone and anyone's right to disagree with me. I didn't when I was younger, and with my contentious personality, it made the Internet a very hot and prickly place for me. ;)

  73. Grifter says


    Never underestimate the power of stupid people. That was one of the first things that came up with "stupid people news report" on the googles, but there's plenty more. And the point is that the claims of fortunetellers, taken without "common sense", are clearly fraudulent, you're just defending it on the grounds that "well, everyone knows its fraudulent". That may be true with many, but on the flip side, there are plenty of desperate and/or stupid people out there. I don't think we should let businesses be fraudulent just because most reasonable people know they're fraudulent.

  74. says

    Yes, you understand my point exactly (which is extremely refreshing): I don't see an intent to deceive if all parties realize it's bullshit. Yon dictionary refers to 'fraud' as deceit for the purpose of unfair advantage; it can't very well be deceit if no one is being deceived.

    That link is a great argument in favor of spectacularly stupid people existing, though I know some remarkably intelligent people who turn into brain-damaged Neanderthals where alcohol is involved.

  75. mhm5 says

    WRT religions being exempt from fraud claims because they only tell about the afterlife, you must not have any experience with any of the multitude of Christian sects that often preach that if you pray to God, good things will happen in this world, not just good things in the next one. These claims cannot be supported (because people pray and bad things still happen) and would not stand your test. Even though the vast majority of them do not require payment for salvation rendered, they are using their claims to gain advantage.

    Psychotherapy would also fall afoul of this, require the rating system mentioned by one commenter. Is one failure just a -1, or is it worse if the person offs themselves or someone else? Some feel that they are complete frauds. They practice the same sort of techniques- observe the customer, use their knowledge of human nature (or the mystical world, whatever), tell them what they want to hear so you can get repeat business or what you, as a professional, think will help them in their journey through life.

    I think the vast majority of mystic types actually believe they are for real, so that would mean there is no intent to defraud. If they are as skilled in reading people as psychotherapists, they ought to have a pretty similar hit rate.

    Now licensing with reasonable business license fees is perfectly reasonable.