300px-Chance go to jail

The legal system is not the way to teach people to think rationally. Legalism is a way of thinking that often relies on carefully constructed logic, but should never be mistaken for reality – or for that matter, with right and wrong. The legal system isn’t a moral system, and if your only defense of questionable behavior is that you didn’t break the law – or weren’t convicted of a crime – there’s a strong chance you’re living a less than moral life. As a prosecutor friend of mine likes to say, the law is a blunt instrument – not a scalpel.

The skeptical movement is concerned first and foremost with promoting a scientific worldview, and providing and teaching critical thinking tools and techniques of rational inquiry. As I often say, we are consumer advocates for the scientific method.

But all that said, sometimes the costs of pseudoscience do run afoul of the legal system, and when that happens, two useful outcomes may result. One is that criminal offenses demonstrate the true harm of pseudoscientific belief and non-scientific thinking.

The other is that bad people sometimes go to jail.

In April of this year, James McCormick was convicted in the United Kingdom of selling thousands of phony bomb detection devices to military purchasers who put the useless gadgets to use in Iraq and elsewhere. This week, on November 12th, McCormick’s ten-year sentence was upheld by a UK appeals court. When previously imposing the maximum sentence, Judge Richard Hone had stated, “I am wholly satisfied that your fraudulent conduct in selling so many useless devices for simply enormous profit promoted a false sense of security and in all probability materially contributed to causing death and injury to innocent individuals,” according to a story in the UK “Western Daily Press.”

McCormick has blood on his hands and no matter how many years he spends in prison he will never be washed clean of it.

Meanwhile, in Florida, on November 4th, three more members of the Marks family, who had previously pleaded guilty to various charges associated with psychic fraud in the recent Rose Marks case, received sentences for their crimes. Donnie Eli, Marks’s son-in-law, was sentenced to two years’ probation for money laundering, handling funds from the family scams. Rose Marks’s younger sister, Victoria Eli, was sentenced to four months in federal prison, plus additional house arrest and probation, and must also repay more than $100,000. According to a story in the “Sun Sentinel,” Victoria, in pleading guilty, “admitted she defrauded $190,000 from a woman, counseling her young son for alcohol addiction after his stepfather killed himself.”

Rose’s only daughter, Rosie, was given some generous consideration by the court, perhaps because, according to the same story, “prosecutors could only prove she took $57,500 over 12 years from one victim…”

We don’t have to be psychic to know where some of the Marks family will be spending time in the near future.

And finally, yet another Florida psychic, one Stephanie Thompson, also known as Stephanie Lee, was charged with grand theft and organized fraud this week in Boca Raton. This was yet another case of the standard ruse of charging for removing a curse on the victim, for which Thompson managed to extract $109,000 from her frightened victim over the ensuing weeks.

Ms. Thompson then lost the money gambling. This might offer a clue – to herself or others – as to the strength of her psychic abilities. Let’s hope she’s suitably sentenced if convicted.

The client’s initial psychic reading, by the way, cost $200.

Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.