19 April 2008

In defence of lying scumbags

Apparently (via Mr Eugenides) The EU's new Unfair Commercial Practices directive will mean that psychics will have to prove they do not mislead their customers.

Now I'm more sure that psychics do mislead their customers than I am of almost anything, and we would all be better off if they stopped. They might not all be lying scumbags: possibly some of them are just nuts.

But I'm not sure that making every failed prophecy into a legal action will be an improvement. The problem in dealing with psychics, as with homeopaths, Christians, dowsers, mediums and the rest, is not that they are not obviously wrong (they are), but that many of the "legitimate" alternatives aren't provably better. If we start demanding proofs, we'll take out the pychics alright, but what about the equity research analysts? Homeopathy is crap, but how much respectable medicine has not been proved to be better? You can argue that we would be better without all these questionable experts and advisers, but I'd rather make up my own mind than have the choices regulated by the law.

Actually, the two examples I chose: equity research and medicine, are very regulated. Perhaps there are better examples. But even these aren't actually required to be accurate. Equity researchers have to show they're not being bribed to make particular recommendations, and doctors have to show that they're consistent with other doctors, but neither actually have to show that their predictions come true. The required standard for astrologers might turn out to be similar, but if the result of all this legislation is that they just have to put a line of small print at the bottom saying the mystical power of the stars can go down as well as up, I don't think it's really worth while.

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