May 2002 -- Miss Cleo is in big trouble. In her TV commercials, she offers to tell her callers' fortunes, to divine their problems, and to advise them on solutions through free tarot-card readings. Both Florida's attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission have charged her and her Psychic Readers Network with fraud.
Some charges concern her promise of a "free" reading. Apparently her psychic helpers who answer the phones fail to tell unwary callers when their free time is up and when the meter starts running at almost $5 per minute. She is also accused of using heavy-handed tactics to collect those bills.
Further, she's accused of lying about being a genuine Jamaican shaman. Despite her Caribbean accent, the name on her birth certificate is Youree Dell Harris, and she was born in Los Angeles, apparently to American parents.
There are two questions to be decided concerning Miss Cleo. One is whether she is guilty of violating laws against fraud and deception. The other is whether the six million people who allegedly use her services are guilty of such gullibility and self-deception that they are getting what they deserve.
The concerns about phone fraud are legitimate. But other questions are more dubious—for the ironic reason that Miss Cleo's enterprise is such a complete and demonstrable fake. It is not even an open question to ask whether Miss C or her minions can tell the fortunes of callers by reading tarot cards. There is zero, zilch, no evidence that such a thing is possible.
If it were possible, Miss C might enrich herself by meeting the challenge of the James Randi Educational Foundation, one of her Florida neighbors, which offers a $1 million prize to anyone who can demonstrate, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult powers.
So are the people who call Miss Cleo really so stupid as to think that pictures and numbers on randomized pieces of paper can predict their fortunes? The key word here is "think," which is what they don't do.
Some sad and lonely people no doubt call simply because they want someone to talk to. Maybe they figure that they can't afford a $300-an-hour top psychiatrist, so they'll talk to a psychic instead, though they may end up with a $300 tab anyway and with their neuroses still intact. But the problems for most callers go far deeper than a large phone bill.
To begin with, those who consult psychics lack honesty. They have not openly asked, "What is the best way to deal with my personal problems?" They have not discovered through calm and rational reflection that calling a witch doctor they saw on TV at 2:00 a.m. would be the best way to deal with their difficulties. Card-shark Cleo's callers do not make an intellectual mistake concerning the effectiveness of her services. They engage in self-deception. They evade reality. They are like alcoholics trying to cure a hangover with whiskey.
Lacking honesty, such individuals also lack courage. They are afraid to face potentially painful truths about themselves, which is the prerequisite to dealing successfully with their difficulties. Lacking moral fortitude, they are too weak for the difficult task of self-analysis and self-correction. Many of the character flaws that caused their problems to begin with cause them to call psychics as the easy (but unsuccessful) way out.
What Should Be Done?
Whether Miss Cleo misrepresents herself as a Jamaican shaman is, in a fundamental sense, irrelevant. For the real significance of Cleo's case is not her misdeeds. It is the fact that, in a society producing ever-greater technological achievements (such as an information revolution and the promise of eliminating diseases through genetic engineering), there are still millions of individuals who use psychics, palm readers, astrologers, and so forth in the same way that a drug addict uses cocaine.
But the remedy for this sad fact is not to be found in the law. Miss Cleo and those like her should be morally condemned, but governments must be wary of trying to ban their activities if no clear fraud is found. Individuals should be allowed to voice their beliefs and claims, whether they assert the power to foresee the future or to alter the substance of bread and wine. Those appalled by Miss Cleo's exploitation of irrational individuals should focus their efforts on creating a society that values reason, not on creating a society that shelters the irrational from their folly.
Edward L. Hudgins is the Washington director for The Society (www.atlassociety.org). The Atlas Society is a national not-for-profit think tank promoting the values of reason, individualism, freedom and achievement in American culture.
This article was originally published in the May 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, the Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.