Some thoughts on Project Barnum


Project Barnum has caused a bit of a stir within the skeptical community in recent days.

Detractors claim that Project Barnum is illiberal and seeks to censor those they disagree with.  Supporters say that it is about consumer protection, preventing the unscrupulous (or even merely misguided) from making money by telling people they can do things that they can’t.

Parallels have been drawn, by both sides, with the 10:23 Campaign.  Critics of 10:23 similarly claimed the campaign was illiberal, and supporters claimed that it was about consumer protection, preventing the unscrupulous (or even merely misguided) from making money by telling people their pills can do things that they can’t.

The aims of 10:23 have evolved since the campaign was first launched.  Then and now, the campaign sought to raise public awareness about homeopathy, what it is, how we know it doesn’t work, and why people should care.  But during its initial phase, 10:23 also asked Boots the Chemist to stop selling homeopathic products because, as best anyone can tell, they cannot do what they claim.

Responding to the campaign, Boots justified the sale of homeopathy by pointing out that the NHS also offers homeopathy, and by claiming that they were offering ‘patient choice’.  For these reasons, and others, the focus of the campaign shifted to these two areas.

I do not believe that encouraging Boots to stop selling homeopathy is illiberal.  Boots is not obliged to sell every pill and potion in the world, and if I were to turn up at Boots head office with Mike’s Marvellous Medicine™, the company would have every right to tell me to sling my hook.  Would that be illiberal?  I think we would be hard-pressed to argue that it would.

Indeed, the recent Theo Paphitis-fronted BBC series Britain’s Next Big Thing featured entrepreneurs attempting to hawk their wares, X Factor-style, to Boots’ buying department.  Was Boots being illiberal in rejecting the products pitched to them?  Should we lambast them for denying access to those products?

Of course not.

As a commercial enterprise, Boots is entitled to stock any product it chooses, for any arbitrary reason.  If they decide tomorrow to take up selling used cars, they could.  Nor are they being illiberal by refusing to sell used cars.  Currently, for whatever reason, Boots has decided it wants to sell homeopathy.  I would argue, as did the 10:23 Campaign, that they are wrong to do that.  I don’t mean legally wrong, of course.  They have the right to sell any product for any reason.  But I believe that a company like Boots should put patients first, and stock only those products for which there is rigorous evidence.  This is not currently Boots policy, but 10:23 would like it to be.  And so they attempted to persuade Boots to change its mind.

Clearly, Boots were not persuaded and they continue to stock homeopathy.  But what if we had succeeded?  What if the top brass at Boots had looked at 10:23 and thought, “you know, they’re right, we shouldn’t sell this stuff if it doesn’t work”.  Would that have been illiberal?  Would it have been any more illiberal than Boots rejecting products pitched on Britain’s Next Big Thing, or not selling used cars?

Boots are still entitled to stock any product they choose.  And 10:23 is entitled to think they’re wrong to stock homeopathy and to attempt to persuade them of that.

This is not illiberal.  This is free speech.

And so we come to Project Barnum.  Like the 10:23 Campaign, Project Barnum seeks to raise awareness.  In this case, awareness of how psychic frauds operate, what magic tricks they use, and how to spot them.  Like 10:23, Project Barnum is encouraging vendors to stop selling these products.  It is asking theatre owners to stop booking self-described psychic acts because, as best anyone can tell, they cannot do what they claim.

Like Boots, theatre owners are not obliged to book every act on the circuit.  If I were to turn up at the MEN Arena with Mike’s Marvellous Stand-Up Act™, the company would have every right to sling my hook.  If they decide tomorrow to book the South Dorset Primary School Nativity, they could.  They are not being illiberal by refusing to book South Dorset Primary School Nativity.

Currently, for whatever reason, theatres are booking psychic acts.  I would argue, as does Project Barnum, that they are wrong to do that.  Not legally wrong, of course, they have the right to book any act for any reason.  But I believe that theatres should refuse to book acts which defraud their audience.  This is not currently theatre policy, but Project Barnum would like it to be.  And so they are attempting to change some minds.

If the top brass at a major theatre chain looks at Project Barnum and thinks, “you know, they’re right, we shouldn’t book performers who defraud our audiences”, would that be illiberal?  Would it be any more illiberal than the same theatre rejecting the South Dorset Primary School Nativity?

Theatres are still entitled to book any act they choose.  Project Barnum is entitled to think they’re wrong to book psychics and to attempt to persuade them of that.

This is not illiberal.  This is free speech.


In the interests of transparency, I would like to declare the following conflicts of interest.  I am one of the founders and coordinators of the 10:23 Campaign.  I have a tangential relationship with Project Barnum, who have sought (and were given) my advice on their campaign.  I also consider those currently coordinating Project Barnum to be friends.

  1. #1 by skeptikitty on September 29, 2011 - 11:17

    I saw all this brewing yesterday, oh my goodness what a lot of internet drama over nothing. As I see it if you believe it to be illiberal don’t sign the petition, that is your right… Noone is being forced into signing and similarly no theatre is obligated to take any notice of the petition.
    My personal stance is that while I commend the effort and have signed, I think it is unlikely that any theatre will stop putting on these shows because they generate large volumes of revenue at a relatively low running cost.

  2. #2 by lisacx on September 29, 2011 - 18:15

    I got sucked into training to be medium and I know at the time I wouldn’t have listened to anything against it. But when things went horribly wrong, I’d have liked somewhere to go for information and support. Psychics are big business, they use the disclaimer ‘for entertainment purposes only’ and so if anyone ends up hurt, defrauded or at loggerheads with friends and family during the pain of a bereavement, there is no recourse or support unless someone has clearly violated the law. I think Project Barnum is just helping to level the playing field, a bit – and I think it’s a good thing that something is there when people want or need them.

  3. #3 by jojojrshabadoo on September 30, 2011 - 10:45

    I’m not sure.

    I don’t think the analogy with Boots works. Boots is a chemist and as such is trusted by the public to provide effective, tested products. The function of theatres is to provide entertainment, and they state as much when putting on psychic shows. Perhaps the disclaimers should be clearer, but the theatres are making no false claims. It’s the equivalent of Boots displaying a “for placebo purposes only” label on their homeopathic products. Which they don’t.

    On the other hand, the psychics themselves do continue to make false claims and this is almost impossible to regulate, especially where these claims are being made to people who already support them. Even so, if we want to protect people, education seems like a better way than trying to remove anything that might mislead. That seems like a patronising approach and one that takes away the opportunity for people to be persuaded by good arguments and reason.

    10:23 and the mass overdose were about awareness-raising, which is why I supported it (I’m also not one to turn down free sweets). Project Barnum as a whole is doing the same thing, but the petition feels less positive and the arguments so far don’t convince me that it is the right way to go.

    Skeptikitty- you’re right, no-one is being forced into signing anything, but there’s nothing dramatic or wrong about offering a counter argument. Surely this should go without saying in the skeptical community.

  4. #4 by Michael Kingsford Gray on October 3, 2011 - 02:59

    Congratulions!
    I fail to understand those who support harmful lying & outright fraud to the under-educated in the name of freedom to take peoples’ money by any means.
    Follow that illogic one further step, and they’d be complaining about the police arresting muggers!
    For these complete “psychic” frauds are merely muggers using a different technique.

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