Divinatory Ethics: A Response to John Oliver

Have you had a chance to watch John Oliver’s recent episode on television psychics? If not, now’s your chance! Here’s the YouTube link to it.

I’m including the link because you SHOULD watch (and you should watch John Oliver in general because he is usually astute as well as funny). And he is 100% correct in much of what he says here. There are psychics who prey on people who are grieving. I don’t know whether these people are fake or authentic. But the practices we see the psychics featured by Oliver engaging in, I must say, don’t look very advisable, to me. I almost never watch television, I don’t follow television psychics, and I hate the very word psychic,* but if we’re going to use that word, then I would say that everyone is psychic, including John Oliver. So, I don’t see the immediate issue here as divination per se or as the authenticity of these diviners–what I see is a huge ethical problem.

But before we can thoroughly discuss the ethics of readings, we should consider the underlying question of whether psychic readings, or what I prefer to call divinatory readings, are real, helpful, or worthwhile, or anything other than a bunch of nonsense.

I adore John Oliver, but he totally skipped this part, and I understand why: he thinks it’s obvious. It might be obvious if we had ever at any point established what the standard is, or what is being claimed. Oliver says that this is not a science. Well, duh. I already know that divination is not science, because I also do science writing and editing (my day job, which I am very good at, and please feel free to go delve into my resume on LinkedIn or look up my books on Amazon), and I know that when I am divining, my words do not fall into the category of science–they fall squarely within an entirely other category: religion. (And there’s a clue right there in the word divination.)

Many people (possibly including Oliver, but I won’t speak for him) don’t realize this, but historically, science and religion have been joined at the hip. Only in modern times have their pathways diverged. Even today, lots of scientists are religious, yet they don’t seem to think practicing a religion makes them bad scientists, probably because they don’t consult religion when doing science, except, of course, for those times when they do. (Is it ethical to…? is a question scientists sometimes turn to religion to answer.) Fewer scientists (51%, according to the Pew Research Center) than members of the general public (83% according to the same source) practice a religion, but even so, that’s still a lot of scientists who believe in some sort of deity. It’s also not unusual for deeply religious people to care just as deeply about science as they do their religion: The Dalai Lama, for example, is an active proponent of science, yet obviously also practices a religion.

Moreover, the single practice that is most widely recommended for the development of one’s divinatory abilities is also a practice that has been widely studied by science and found, medically at least, to be very worthwhile. I’m referring, of course, to meditation. 

My point so far is only this: Science and religion are different subjects, but they can and sometimes do agree, people can do both, and in general, humanity has found value in both. Let’s delve into that value:

Science grounds us. It asks us: What do you know for sure? What can you measure here? What can you document? What evidence is there? What can you independently verify? And in asking these questions, it basically tries to keep us honest. (Scientists can also be biased; that’s why journal articles include funding and conflict of interest disclosures, but even those disclosures can’t reveal every single possible bias that a researcher could have. Still, the point is that science as a discipline aims for honesty and integrity. Hmm, where did it get that moral compass? Interesting.)

Religion, on the other hand, aligns us. It asks us: Who are you, and who do you want to be, in this world? What do you value? What do you believe? And yes, religion even goes so far as to say: Your values matter. Your faith matters. When you align yourself with who you truly are, and with what you truly value, then you place yourself on a path that should take you in the direction of that alignment.

So, religion and science offer us different things. (Put in tarot terms: pentacles are science, wands are religion, and both use swords and cups, but I digress.)

Divination is not part of science. It’s part of religion. Does that give diviners or television psychics a free pass? Absolutely NOT. So here comes the ethics: Diviners MUST adhere to a strict ethical standard. So must scientists, by the way. Because if we don’t adhere to strict ethical standards, we risk doing harm by giving someone the wrong impression, making them believe things that are not true. Scientists, by the way, face the exact same risk, of giving someone wrong information, if they don’t adhere to ethical standards of academic integrity. We also risk causing emotional harm, such as the harm we see when Oliver shows us a psychic who tells a grieving mother that her child is dead (her child had been kidnapped and saw her mother being told this on t.v.). This is something that any diviner should carefully consider.

It’s also something that doctors, for example, must consider: Sometimes doctors think a patient is going to die and must consider what to say to the patient and how to say it, and those words can cause harm. But a doctor saying such a thing can ground that information by focusing not on what we think we know (that the patient will die soon) but on what we do know: the results of the tests were X, and statistically speaking, the majority of patients who have this test result end up dying shortly thereafter (for example). By offering a statistical analysis, the doctor not only provides hope (assuming that a small percentage of people do manage to survive the condition in question), but also speaks more truthfully, because the truth is, the doctor does not know for sure if the patient in question will survive. I’m sure that Oliver would say, “and the diviner doesn’t know either!” And the thing is, that’s true. That’s actually my point. When we’re talking to people about matters of life and death, no matter who we are, we need to engage our ethics. And we do that by explaining what we know, what we don’t know, what we think and why we think it, and by acknowledging that WE DON’T KNOW. 

As far as I can tell, the television psychics shown on Oliver’s show have no ethical compass whatsoever. They just say stuff. And I find that to be utterly irresponsible. It’s a way of working that lacks a moral compass, and it lacks a tether to the ground, the ground being, the things we actually know are fucking true.

For me, as a diviner, keeping that tether to the ground is important. Here’s how I do it, and it’s what I saw absolutely zero of Oliver’s psychics doing:

  • I don’t charge for a result; I charge for my time. My time is quantifiable. If we talked for an hour, we talked for an hour. How do we know? We check the clock. We measure the time.
  • I include meditation, even if it’s just a short “let’s both take one deep belly breath” meditation. (It might not be obvious to you that meditation is grounding. It is.)
  • I tell my clients that I’m not always right. I have a hard time getting them to grasp that I’m not always right, so I repeat that a lot: I can be wrong. I am fallible. This process is not a phone line to God (I don’t even believe in God, although I do believe in a diverse pantheon of deities, but that’s very different from believing in a monotheistic God). This is me using tools that are religious, not scientific. This is me being quiet and listening hard and paying attention as well as I can. I can promise you that I will try my best. I cannot promise you that I will be right.
  • I tell my clients they don’t need me to do this work. They can do it themselves.
  • I never tell my clients, “this is so,” “that is so,” or “your departed loved one wants you to know…” anything. What I will say is:
    • “I drew this card.” (If you’re sitting with me in person or on video, you can independently verify: yep, there’s the card, she pulled it out of the deck and there it is.)
    • I might describe what’s on the card. (Again, you can look at the card and independently verify: yep, there’s a moon on that card, all right!)
    • I might say, “When I see this card, I think that….” (You can’t independently verify what I’m thinking, unfortunately. You have to rely on me to honestly tell you what I think. But you will not hear me claim that a card definitely means a particular thing.)
    • Or I might say, “Traditionally, many readers think of this card as having to do with Y.” (I mean, just Google it, and you can easily determine whether I’m correct in saying that other readers historically have thought this card means what I’m telling you that many people regard it as meaning.)
    • I talk too much, even though I’m shy, and that’s because I want you to know why I think what I think. That’s so you can check my thinking against your own thinking. 
    • I will sometimes say, “I disagree with what other people say about this card.” (You’ll have to again take my word for it that I disagree, since you can’t independently check my thoughts.)
    • If I say something that I think is fairly far out, such as that I think there are angels watching over you, I will generally qualify it with, “okay, this is going to sound really cheesy, but this is just what I think,” and I’ll explain why I think so, but again, this is what I think, not what I know. There’s a difference. (And by the way, it embarrasses the heck out of me when angels show up in the cards. It is NOT my preference to be having to mention them! Because it makes me sound like an idiot. But yes, I do think they exist, I think they’re pretty bad ass, and I think that they are helpful but, often, they help in ways that are not your preferred way to be helped. Anyway, that’s a long tangent, sorry!)
    • My point here is, I tell people things that I know are true: I pulled the card, the card has a picture of whatever on it, and I think x or y about it. I don’t try to force anyone to draw the same conclusions I draw. It is up to you to do your own thinking.
  • If you come to see me too often, I will have the “do you really need so many readings?” talk with you.
  • Finally, with regard to grieving clients: I don’t find them, they find me. Just as lawyers should not be ambulance chasers, diviners should not be hearse chasers. When Oliver commented that grieving families are often pestered by psychics, I was appalled. That should not occur. Ever.
    • When the grieving find me, I give them as much time as they need or want. I can’t imagine requiring payment for extra time in that situation. I can imagine saying “I have to leave at 3 to pick up my daughter at school.”
    • I think I tell the grieving a lot less than I tell other clients. With grieving clients, I probably spend more time listening than talking. They don’t need me to reconnect them to their departed loved one, because they already have a connection. Why would adding me to that make the connection any stronger?
    • What the grieving need is gentleness, openness, and an approach that says, “let’s just see what we see, let’s just hear what we hear,” and whatever we see or hear, they need a gentle presence at their side. I cannot imagine playing the fishing game with them that I saw the psychics on John Oliver’s show playing. (You know, the whole “I’m getting an M; is there an M-named person in your life?” thing. WTF?)
    • Basically, with mediumship, depending on the situation, I believe that it’s often a good ethical practice to simply provide space for the client and their departed loved one, so their connection can be respected and honored, and so they have a witness to turn to when they feel moved to ask, “am I crazy?” No, I don’t think you are crazy. I hear you and I wholeheartedly believe you. And I believe IN you. 

If you go and find, not the television psychics, but the everyday working readers, I think you will find that most such people take seriously the idea of providing a service to their communities and work very hard to do so, often providing a lot of free service in addition to their paid work. John Oliver, you’ve met the Dalai Lama, and so I know you’ve experienced sitting down with a person who immediately gives you his full, wholehearted, kind attention. I’m not suggesting that diviners are all lamas or priests–but many are, and even those who are not, often feel the same sense of calling that priests and lamas feel. That sense of calling, and that desire to be of service, is what should be at the heart of the ethics of any diviner. Unfortunately, sometimes it isn’t. But you know what? Sometimes it is.

*Why I hate the word psychic: The dictionary says that it has to do with faculties that are inexplicable through natural laws, abilities that might be considered paranormal, supernatural, otherworldly, etc. And that’s poppycock. Or, let’s use my grandmother’s word, hogwash. Nothing otherworldly about it. Divination is worldly. Intuition is worldly. Animals have it. (In fact, we are animals.) Stop watching so many movies.

Please feel free to comment below. What do you think about divinatory ethics? How do you keep your own practice ethical? What do you think about science and religion and where they meet (or don’t)? 



  1. This is really fascinating- and I just read an interesting article in the March 4 New Y orker, “The Premonitions Bureau”, about psychologists investigating clairvoyance. I tend to think religion (or spirituality) and science are two elements of the language of the universe we live in, not separate or mutually exclusive if each is honest about what it does. Anyway it is a deep spring from which we all can partake! Thanks for writing this. I often struggle with how to characterize what I “do”….this was helpful!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! I like your phrase “if each were honest about what it does”–exactly! I often think, with regard to magical practices: If something magical works for reasons that science can explain, does that mean that it is real or that it is fake? It really kind of depends on how you look at it! It seems to me that that’s a case of science proving the magic was right, but I know that some people would say that if the mechanism of how it works can be explained scientifically, then it can’t be considered magical. But: what if it works, can be explained by science, but the knowledge that it would work came originally from divination and not from experimentation or investigation? Hmm….

      I’ll have to look for that New Yorker article, too. Thanks!


      1. I think, actually, that a lot of plant medicine, which demonstrably works, was “discovered” in what might seem to be a magical way- direct input from the plant to the person using it. Really, it’s as much a matter of sticking to a dualistic view of the world/life/everything as it is anything else. There is a lot more going on all around us than we know or utilize!


  2. Bravo Bonnie. Psychic ability is an expression of acute, heightened intuition, which is an acute expression of instinct. I never, but never approach clients. They find me, and I fully expect to be able to deliver ‘psychic’ insights. And I include forecasting. But I warn them off, if they think they are coming to see a fortune-teller rater than reader and adviser who takes questions. Prescience is not the same thing as omniscience. Context is king; and the question to myself in sitting to read is, what can I most usefully ‘see’ and understand, to help this person with, today?


    1. Thanks, Katie-Ellen! I have found myself thinking about psychic ability lately, and realizing: I tend not to let myself in on things that I know, psychically or otherwise. I don’t even know that I’m anxious until I start popping out in hives. Or if I get really grumpy, then I can tell that I’m starting to get sick or I’m super tired or hungry–otherwise I may not realize it. Maybe that’s why I’m so keen to draw some sort of “this, therefore that” line for myself and my clients. I need the cards to really spell things out–otherwise I’ll second guess myself and my feelings all day…only recently have I started to trust the things that suddenly come to me that I can’t draw a line to. And even still, if it’s something important, I’ll want to confirm it either in a mundane way or through divination. Because if I can’t draw a clear line between x and y, then I’ll want to do the next best thing and see if x pops up repeatedly when I look at the same question five (or even 10) different ways! I am just that neurotic. But I think with every year of doing this I loosen up a little bit more… 🙂


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