A different kind of thing

Oh, please.

From this week, astrologers, palm-readers, mediums and the like must display a kind of rationalist health warning. Wherever they sell their services, new consumer protection regulations require that they declare “for entertainment only”, because not “experimentally proven”…[I]t is tempting to raise a scientistic cheer. At last the quacks have been foiled, their bluff called! Until, that is, one asks what else in the marketplace of goods and services could pass a similar test.

Well nothing could, because ‘proven’ is the wrong word, which is not Mark Vernon’s fault if that’s really what the regulations themselves say and not just some journalist’s sloppy paraphrase. But the things that astrologers and mediums do or rather claim to do are not backed up by evidence, and there’s really nothing particularly silly about expecting people who sell services for money to provide evidence for claims they make about those services, and if they can’t, to warn consumers that they’re not actually, literally, offering the services – they’re just pretending to by way of entertainment.

And Mark Vernon is, perhaps, pretending to think that lots of things are on the same kind of footing as astrology and mediuming.

Consider a housing development that bills itself as a provider of “beautiful homes”?…Science has developed no Geiger counter for aesthetic measurements, a device whose clicks become a purr as it draws close to good taste…So it is actually quite tough, and often impossible, experimentally to verify many of the things that we take for granted in life.

Yes yes yes, but claiming these houses are beautiful is a different kind of thing from claiming to be able to talk to a consumer’s dead child. Thinking or assuming or pretending to think or assume that everyone thinks a particular kind of house is beautiful is a different kind of thing from thinking a medium can talk to dead people. The first is not all that outlandish, especially since tastes in beauty are largely social and manufactured, so what developers say helps to shape taste in houses over the years. The second is very outlandish indeed. So…Vernon’s comparison is just kind of…beside the point.

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