March 2002 -- Miss Cleo is in big trouble. In her TV commercials, in her Caribbean accent, she offers to tell her callers’ fortunes, to divine their problems, and advise them on solutions through free tarot card readings. Florida’s attorney general and the Federal Trade Commission both 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 $5.00 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. The name on her birth certificate is Youree Dell Harris and she was born in Los Angeles to apparently 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 governments’ concerns about phone fraud are legitimate. But other questions are more problematic for the ironic reason that Miss Cleo’s entire enterprise is such a complete and demonstrable fraud. It is not even an open question to ask whether Miss C or her minions can actually tell the fortune 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 show, 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 actually tell 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 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 did not discover through calm and rational reflection that calling a witch doctor they saw on TV at 2:00am 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 courage, such individuals are afraid to face potentially painful truths about themselves, which is the prerequisite to successfully dealing with their difficulties. Lacking moral fortitude, they’re too weak for the difficult task of self-analysis and self-correction. Many of the character flaws that caused their problems to begin with caused them to call psychics as the easy (but unsuccessful) way out.
Whether Miss Cleo misrepresents herself as a Jamaican Shaman is, in a fundamental sense, irrelevant. The real significance of Cleo’s case is not so much her misdeeds. Rather, it is the fact that in a society that produces ever-great technological achievements, for example, a computer and information revolution and the promise of eliminating diseases through genetic engineering, there are still millions of individuals who, wasting their human potential, use psychics, palm readers, astrologers and the like the way a drug addict uses cocaine.
But while Miss Cleo and those like her are to be morally condemned, governments must be wary of trying to ban their activities when no clear material fraud, like misrepresenting phone bills, is involved. Individuals should be allowed to voice religious and other ideas, no matter how unsubstantiated. Those who are appalled by Miss Cleo’s exploitation of those who do not choose to exercise the virtue of rationality should strive to create a culture that values reason, since no thinking person would ever use the services of a psychic.
This article was originally published in the March 2002 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.