The Sciences

Fraudom of speech

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitMay 4, 2010 4:00 PM


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In Scottsbluff, Nebraska, there's a local ordinance forbidding fortune telling. However, the ACLU has sent a letter to the mayor letting him know they think the law is unconstitutional. Interesting. I'm of several minds on this one. 1) I'm a big fan of the ACLU. Despite the sometimes slack-brained protestations of the far-right fear-mongers, the ACLU is a non-partisan defender of the Constitution, that pesky document that the President and all members of Congress swear to uphold. In an ideal world, we wouldn't need the ACLU, but we live in a far from ideal world. 2) The ordinance in Nebraska may have religious roots; the Bible is clear about fortune telling (despite a large chunk of the Bible being devoted to prophecies and divination). 3) If the ordinance is religiously-based, then the ACLU may have a point. If they want to couch it as a freedom of speech issue, they again may have a point. However... 4) My thinking is that fortune telling, clairvoyance, and divination should be treated as any other marketable ability. Anyone advertising such abilities needs to be able to back up their claims. If they can't, then it's not really so much a free speech issue as it is one of fraud, or at least false or misleading advertising. And since we know after countless tests that they don't work, there's not much of a chance this will be a free speech issue. 5) I know that some loathsome people who claim to speak to the dead hide behind weasel words, saying this is for "entertainment purposes only", but I have also heard them say what they do is real despite that. So, how to handle this? I've always thought that there should be some aspect of the FTC that investigates paranormal purveyors of any stripe. They can be tested -- now, who would do that I wonder -- and if they come up short, they pay a hefty fine, enough to make them think twice about bilking the public. I do very much support the idea of caveat emptor, but we also need laws against defrauding people. People in this country spend billions of dollars on such nonsense, and I bet a lot of 'em complain about their taxes being too high. There are no winners here... but I would dearly love to see a big take-down of such things like this. The fines raised alone would probably fund the JREF for a century.

Have you checked the Alamo's basement?

Tip o' the crystal ball to Jack Dunn.

Picture from benleto's Flickr Photostream, used under creative commons license.

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