A Sad Day For Skepticism


I was saddened to read that one of the leading lights of scepticism, Robert Todd Carroll, author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary, has died; he had been ill for the last two years with pancreatic cancer.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary was one of the first sceptical websites I came across more than fifteen years ago when I first subscribed to a broadband internet connection (until then it was dial-up, and casual web surfing was almost completely out of the question because of slow speed and minute by minute charges). But for me it was an intellectual life-changer when I found out that not only did many other people share my doubts about paranormal and supernatural claims, but here was a resource that collated and critiqued those claims. Indeed, I found out that there was a worldwide community of like-minded rational thinkers out there.

Naturally, I subscribed to Robert Carroll’s regular newsletters, and I looked forward to new articles as they were added to the site. One feature I particularly enjoyed was the regular readers’ comments as they came in – especially those readers who thought they had demolished various criticisms of their cherished beliefs about just about everything from ghosts to medical quackery. And yet they could never seem to understand that belief is not the same as knowledge – one of the very things that Carroll was trying to explain.

I was always encouraged by his implicit exhortations to his readers not to assume knowledge, but to be on guard against that very assumption. It might be OK to claim certain kinds of knowledge, of course: facts are facts, after all, and 2+2=4, but if you want to claim otherwise then you are obliged to prove it. The fact that no psychic has ever passed a scientific test that has now become part of mainstream science does not mean that the next psychic that comes along won’t do it; then again, after more than a hundred and fifty years of supposedly scientific research into paranormal claims, we are still waiting for confirmation of anything allegedly psi-based.

Robert Carroll promoted an open-minded approach to assessing paranormal, supernatural and dubious medical claims, although the believers do not accept sceptics as being honest enquirers into their weird claims; rather, the believers regard doubters as what they call “pseudosceptics” – a rather derogatory term they use to describe those doubters as closed-minded denialists. If only the believers could have read The Skeptic’s Dictionary as what it was – a guide to logical and critical thinking that would, at the very least, have shown them a way to objectively examine their own biases. Then again, Robert Carroll said himself that his dictionary was aimed more at the sceptical thinkers than at the woo folk; he said clearly that his website had that bias. Personally, of course, I think that a bias in favour of objective analysis of off-beat claims is quite fair.

I hope that The Skeptic’s Dictionary website will continue to be there, even though Bob Carroll cannot make any further additions to it. I can only offer my condolences to his family, and say to them that he made a difference to my life. Even though I already had a university degree that prepared me for tackling absurd claims from various quarters in the woo community, the dictionary helped me to connect in a certain way to the wider community of rational thinkers who had been isolated from me before the advent of broadband internet communication.

In a world where irrationality and various superstitions seem to be thriving despite the fact that we now live in the twenty first century, a time when superstition should have died out by now, people like Bob Carroll will be missed by rational thinkers, but I also think that he has inspired the next generation of people who want to live in a rational world and are prepared to work for it. It worked for me, and I think that he has left a legacy that should be appreciated by everyone who just wants to know what is going on out there.


SPR Has A New Website

There’s a new website on the block – the Society for Psychical Research has replaced its old site with something newer and more up to date. It is, in fact, an improvement on the older version and easier to navigate and find articles of interest. The old site was one I seldom visited nowadays because it was fairly static for such a long time, so I didn’t ever really expect to find anything new (apart from some notices about forthcoming events). My interest is renewed, however, since I found out about this new upgrade thanks to Tom Ruffles.

But I’m a sceptic, so why am I (sort of) advertising “the opposition”? The fact is, although I don’t think there is anything in paranormal and supernatural claims, I think it’s important to look at and examine everything relevant to what is going on out there, as it were. Even though I am sceptical of paranormal claims, I don’t have any qualms about the possibility that someone, somewhere, might, actually, prove the reality of life after death, telepathy, poltergeists, astrology, Tarot, dowsing, auras, precognition, psychokinesis, remote viewing, apparitions, ghosts, orbs, UFOs, alien abduction, Bigfoot, mediums and sundry psychics, not to mention the assorted medical quackery out there in the form of homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, reiki, and other types of faith healing and magical thinking, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

To be fair, I regard the SPR as one of the more serious organisations that deal with paranormal claims; it has been around since 1882, after all, and it has had some very eminent people among its luminaries. I don’t think the SPR has proven the existence of anything paranormal in all that time, but I am prepared to defend the organisation as one that takes the matter seriously and at least tries to apply some academic and scientific rigour to what it does.

Personally, I don’t regard my disagreement with what I think of as “woo” as something that has to be (or should be) taken more (or less) seriously than any other academic disagreement. The paranormal exists or it doesn’t. It comes down to a basic inductive logical concept: the burden of proof is on the person who makes the claim. Promoters of the paranormal (including the SPR) have the obligation to prove the claims they make, so how is the SPR doing so far?

I haven’t had time to delve very deeply into this new site, although in their Psi Encyclopedia I have had a look at a couple of articles so far: one on the Victorian-era medium Eusapia Palladino, and another on the spoon bender Uri Geller.

I’m not sure the SPR are doing themselves any favours here. Palladino, in her time, was tested by some of the biggest names of the day, but she was repeatedly caught out using outright fraud to achieve the alleged paranormal effects that seemed to occur during her various séances. For some reason, the investigators overlooked, ignored or just dismissed these blatant ruses, preferring to believe that when they couldn’t catch her out, then she must have been producing genuine paranormal phenomena. That’s a bit overly optimistic, in my opinion.

The section on Uri Geller is also too flattering. Anecdotal claims of his supposed psychic powers are there in lieu of hard evidence, and some of the claims made (especially regarding Geller’s supposed work finding oil for oil companies, not to mention his paranormal espionage claims) can’t be elaborated on because of secret commercial interests and state security – so we are told, anyway. There is no mention of the famous Johnny Carson TV show where Geller failed to perform at all when he was presented with props he had had no previous access to, nor is there any mention of the numerous YouTube videos that purport to show him using nothing more than sleight of hand rather than real psychic powers. None of that is conclusive proof that Geller is a fraud, but the fact that contradictory evidence is excluded from the article is rather troubling if the SPR’s new site is supposed to be unbiased in its reporting of alleged psi in action. But maybe it isn’t designed to be unbiased, even though there is, for both articles, a list of references; that looks good on the face of it, but actual links would have been useful (and more convenient for the casual reader).

I’m basing what I have written so far on only a couple of articles, of course, so keep that in mind before you rush to make an overall judgement of the website. I will have to read further to find out if there is any actual sceptical or critical thinking being employed by the SPR to analyse any of the people or claims featured. I recommend that you follow the links I have given and judge for yourself.

Overall, I would recommend this new, revamped, website to anyone who has an interest in the paranormal (either pro or sceptical). I think some sceptics will be quick to pounce on logical and factual irregularities such as the ones I have pointed out above; at the same time, I think the believers will accept what is there at face value. In any case, the new site is more accessible than the old site, it is easier to navigate and there is the implied promise of a lot more content to be added in the coming weeks and months.

I applaud the SPR for upgrading their main resource for both their members and a lay audience; time will tell how it will work out. I’m rather ambivalent here: the believers will, I think, love it; the sceptics will probably shrug their shoulders.


A Lark In The Dark

A few years ago, the world of spiritualism was shaken when purported psychic Colin Fry was performing one of his supposed séances. It’s a well-known story now, of course: during one of Fry’s performances someone switched the lights on. Instead of being tied to a chair – as the audience thought – fry was walking about the darkened room holding a “spirit trumpet” with fluorescent markings that the audience thought was being flown about by psychic energy. That came as a shock to the believers; less so to those of us with a sceptical outlook.

Fry survived the scandal, of course, by “putting himself in a trance” and subsequently explaining that he had been possessed by a mischievous spirit that made him do it. And he was unaware of it himself at the time. He was as shocked as anyone else, according to him.

But most importantly, he got away with it and went on to bigger and better things on stage and TV. Such is the credulity of an audience of uncritical believers.

seance3Time will tell if a newer face in the psychic firmament will have similar luck. Gary Mannion, spiritualist, psychic surgeon and allegedly a lot of other mystical things, was recently caught in a similar manner, but this time not in front of witnesses (who were actually there but couldn’t see a thing in the complete darkness), but caught out by an infrared camera secretly filming the proceedings.

There are copies of the video recordings here. We will have to wait and see if Mannion can pull the same trick as Fry and rely on the gullibility of his fans to get him out of what is either a minor predicament, or more likely a career-ender. But one thing is sure: someone went to the trouble of setting up a camera in secret, and subsequently released the footage.

Another note I will add here is that all alleged séances could be recorded in infrared. When psychic phenomena occur and are recorded, and then published, then that will put a permanent stop to all sceptical criticism. So I urge all spiritualists to do that.

Then again, I think there is a better chance of finding a listed number for a gay bar in the Tehran telephone directory.

I’m just waiting to see how this latest example of psychic fraud pans out.


Free Speech And Speaking Your Mind

I’ve been tied up with a lot of things recently – work and home commitments, and other things that have taken up a lot of my time. I must try to get back into some kind of regular blogging, but before I do, I thought I would have a look at one of the recurring themes that have cropped up here and elsewhere – the principle of free speech. What is it, and when can it be justifiably said that one’s free speech is being suppressed?

The idea of free speech seems straightforward enough: someone wants to speak out about any subject at all, and that person just says it. Simple, yes?

Actually, whether someone has free speech depends, ultimately, on the law in any particular country. In western democracies, we tend to take it as a right – even what can be called a basic human right. We can promote ideas of our own, or criticise the ideas of others. We can criticise political leaders and their policies; we are under no obligation to join a particular religion, and we can criticise those religions; we can support any way-out idea, or criticise, parody or ridicule it without mercy; in fact, we can speak out about anything with only a fairly basic and reasonable condition, namely that what we speak out about does not cause, or incite others to cause, harm to anyone else.

Independent Thought Alarm - The SimpsonsCompare that with the situation in other countries. There are at least thirteen countries where atheism, for instance is a capital offence. No religious freedom there, then, and you might not be surprised that those countries are all Islamic states. And similarly, criticism of the governments there (and elsewhere) can bring down the wrath of the state, together with the institutionalised brutality that goes with it. It can’t be a happy life for anyone in any of those places who would like to create change by being able to openly question the status quo.

It’s a huge and complex issue, and occupies a whole area of philosophical investigation, with endless books written on the subject, and it also extends into everyday discussion as well as politics in general. It can be argued that even in our modern day and age our free speech is actually under gradual attack from our own governments. I’m thinking here of recent UK legislation that bans any organisation that receives state funding from having any representative speaking to or lobbying any government department about the subject they deal with. Paradoxically, it means, for example, that government funding given to climate research excludes climate scientists from trying to persuade the government to implement policies that are urgently needed to save the planet we live on. That law is pragmatic from the perspective of big polluters businesses who have caused the problem in the first place, and the governments they have paid to install for their own benefit. I find it all a bit annoying, to be honest. More alarmingly, a journalist is being prosecuted right now by the German government for criticising another country’s leader, President Erdogan of Turkey. That is very frightening for all of us.

Anyway, on a more local level, I have in mind not global or even national issues about free speech and what it is, but what people in general think about it, and what they want to do about it. In particular, I’m thinking about what is going on with the promoters of various woo ideas, especially those who promote those ideas whilst trying to stifle any criticism.

I am heartily sick of the woomeisters, quacks and assorted paranormal promoters who take exception to any criticism of their claims; when they are criticised, their first accusation is almost always that criticism of their nonsense equates to censorship, or that if they don’t have their ill-informed comments published on someone else’s blog or website then that is the same as having their right to free speech suppressed. To which I say, cobblers.

The Bad Thinking blog came into being for one simple reason: I found my own right to free speech being censored and suppressed – not by the state, but by a self-professed expert in all matters paranormal that I criticised. My own feeling is that a claim made by such a person should be able to stand on its own merits. If it is correct, then it should be able to withstand any criticism, in pretty much the same way that an actual scientific hypothesis should be able to survive in the face of intense scrutiny by scientific peer review. And let’s face it – in science, a hypothesis that is criticised has to survive that criticism from other scientists. Its validity is decided on the basis of whether it gets past all the tests thrown at it.

The same person I mentioned above has never proven any paranormal or supernatural claim he has ever made, but he has certainly removed criticism of his claims from the internet with threats of legal action against his critics (and bragged about it, too – perhaps as a subtle warning to others to keep their thoughts to themselves). That’s not the same as the state itself stopping free speech, but it is an example of an individual trying to use the civil laws of the state to stop someone else’s right to speak freely. Significantly, of course, the same person has only gone as far as threatening the use of the law rather than successfully suing anyone. Because of the potential costs involved, the threat of legal action is usually enough to shut someone up. The point, of course, is that using legal thuggery to close down criticism is a tacit admission that paranormal and supernatural claims cannot stand on their own merits. That is what censorship is, not the mere criticism of bad ideas.

If fact, we are fortunate in the UK (as in many other western democracies so far) to be able to speak out about all kinds of things. But the fact that people have that right does not mean that people have the right to impose their personal beliefs on others. What I mean is that religious people, for example, have the right to teach their beliefs in their churches, but I don’t have the right to insist that I should be able to intrude on a church service and start to give a lecture about science, and I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. I don’t see that as a restriction on my right to free speech.

In a similar way, religious people do not have the right to insist that science classes should include non-scientific concepts like creationism. That’s an old, worn-out idea about “teaching the controversy.” Except that there is no controversy at all – science agrees that the universe is about 13.82 billion years old, and evolution is a fact. Religion has no right to intrude into science classes any more than science has to intrude into church services. Unless maybe the creationists would like to invite science to teach in their churches, like they themselves want to proselytise in schools, colleges and universities.

No, not really; the last thing creationists want is to allow any kind of dissent with respect to their own faith. And they think that not allowing religion into science classes is somehow a violation of their right to free speech?

On the Bad Thinking blog, I don’t have a problem. I say what I think, and if anyone wants to reply, then I will publish their comments in full; I will, however, reply to those comments. The only comments I am probably not going to publish are those that are clearly libellous towards any third party, or those that are, in my opinion, likely to incite hatred or violence, and comments that are completely off-topic. Then again, I might publish some outrageous comments if they just demonstrate the ignorance and stupidity of the commenter. I have done that several times.

If someone wants to criticise anything I write on this blog, I am not going to accuse them of trying to suppress my freedom of speech. They can’t stop me from speaking out, after all. The fact that my comments elsewhere were deleted was an annoyance, and the fact that my comments on another blog were removed under the bogus threat of legal action against another person was doubly annoying; that did not, however, stop me from saying what I wanted to say. I simply started my own blog. Anyone can do it.

If someone writes a stupid article about alleged aliens, other paranormal claims or wants to assert that exorcism is a viable treatment for what is actually a mental illness, then I will criticise it. If I am denied the right to comment on their website, blog, newspaper site or whatever, then I will use my own blog to do that criticism. The fact that I am not allowed to comment on that website or blog does not mean that my right to freedom of expression is being suppressed, even if someone is trying to shut me up because he or she can’t take legitimate criticism. What constitutes suppression of free speech is a law that prevents it, or when someone uses the threat of a civil legal action to stop me or others from speaking out.

Personally, I can’t imagine myself instituting legal action against someone who has defeated me in a logical argument – you know, the type of argument where your premise has to be supported with testable evidence and the conclusion has to follow from the premises. Aliens are here? If you want to tell me that, then you have to supply the evidence for your assertion; it’s not good enough to say you have the evidence but just aren’t going to supply it. Let’s face it, in a court of law you can’t convict anyone of a crime by saying you have the evidence but it doesn’t get to be examined. The burden of proof is on the person who makes the claim. If you claim aliens are here, but you want to sue me because I want to see the evidence, then go ahead and try it. I will laugh at you. Then try to sue me for laughing at you. And then try to sue me for publicising the fact that you are making claims without credible evidence.

The truth is no libel.

Furthermore, if I criticise your nonsensical claims on someone else’s blog or website, don’t bother to get my comments removed from there under the threat of legal action against someone else; I will criticise what you have to say on this blog. I don’t libel anyone; I just offer honest criticism. If you can’t take that, then don’t waste your time.

Evidence presented for alleged paranormal phenomena always fails the tests of science, and often enough also the test of the basic common sense of an intelligent and rational person. I have the right to point that out.

Even if I am wrong about the paranormal, I think I have the right to question the various claims made. I think I have the right to ask for evidence for the claims that the paranormalists make. I think I have the right to demand that those claims withstand objective scrutiny and analysis. I think I have the right to have those claims substantiated by the people who make those claims.

And I think I have the right to question those claims without being under the threat of legal action for just asking the claimants to prove what they say.

I also don’t want to live in a society where the state could prosecute me or execute me for questioning the status quo. Even worse, somewhere where a mob of ignorant fanatics might hack me to death just for asking for some basic human rights to be extended to minorities that would like to see themselves allowed to follow their own beliefs without fear of irrational and violent retribution.

There is a lot of ignorance in the world, and a lot of ignorant people who seem to be hell bent on keeping it that way. The paradox, of course, is that the more ignorant a person is, the less able he or she is to understand that they don’t know things, and the more confident they are that they are right. And when those people have influence or power, then we are all in trouble. That doesn’t just apply to a political system where vested interests will allow the human race to go extinct through climate change because there are short term profits to be made, but also where religious beliefs are challenged and so the heretics and blasphemers (that’s actually everyone on Earth from every other religion’s point of view) must be suppressed and oppressed, not to mention killed whenever possible. Unfortunately, we have those who would simply like to have science stopped in favour of the irrational.

Sorry, folks, although I can’t personally do anything about the big picture, i.e., politicians misleading and manipulating people for their own personal gain, or the pious murdering innocent people because they believe their particular god wants them to do it, I can, at least, add my own voice to the battle for rational thinking. And I don’t intend to be gagged by those who think they can get their own way through legal threats in lieu of testable hypotheses. We are in what can be called the marketplace of ideas. If you want to say, for instance, that disease is a result of sin, then prove it; that was the medieval answer to why pandemics occurred in the days when no one had any idea about germs, viruses, toxins, etc. In the meantime, I will point out that an antibiotic will cure that disease, but no amount of prayer will do anything at all. And that can be tested and proved, by the way. In those days, there might have been a few lucky people who had a natural immunity to an ailment, so for them prayer “worked.” Hallelujah!

We’ve moved on since then, even if the devout will not accept that fact. It’s incredible that nowadays – in the twenty first century, for crying out loud – there are still people who believe that mental illness is not caused by a malfunction in the brain or just a fault in someone’s personal psychological outlook, but possession by an external supernatural source (a demon or whatever their particular religion deems it to be). A physical brain problem can often be treated with a drug intervention; a psychological problem can often be resolved with a psychological therapy. Sometimes there might be a combined treatment. What doesn’t solve such a problem, though, is prayer, exorcism, or any other form of what is, in fact, nothing more than superstition in the form of wishful thinking.

There is a lot of bad thinking in the world, and it has to be challenged. People have the right to promote their beliefs, but others have the right to challenge them, especially if those beliefs are without substance or are harmful in some way. Free speech is fine – an essential component of a civilised society – but free speech cuts both ways: say what you want, but don’t whine or make threats (legal or otherwise) when someone challenges you.

Free speech is important and has to be defended; I’m not frightened when someone disagrees with me, and I’m not going to use violence or the threat of legal action to stop anyone from telling me they think I’ve got it wrong. I’m not even going to refuse to publish here a logical argument that proves I have made an incorrect statement. I don’t see the need to get upset if I happen to be wrong about something. I don’t mind learning something new: I’m a sceptic, after all, so if I doubt a claim you make, then just offer your supporting evidence. If it holds water, I will probably go along with it. What’s the big deal?

On the Bad Thinking blog, say what you want. You can have your say without being censored just so long as you are not demanding that anyone else has to be censored in your favour.

Edgar Mitchell

Edgar MitchellIt was sad to hear of the death of former US astronaut Edgar Mitchell last week. In the days when the Apollo on-board computers didn’t have the processing power of even a modern pocket calculator, it took more than just nerve and bravery to head out into space with the goal of landing on the Moon and returning safely to Earth. Mitchell was a true pioneer, being only the sixth human being to set foot on our nearest neighbour in space, and I think it is also accurate and true to describe him, along with others, as a hero.

His achievements didn’t end there, however. Mitchell had academic awards including a Doctor of Science degree from MIT (as well as similar honorary awards from other universities); The Presidential Medal of Freedom; other awards from institutions around the world. The recognition he gained for his achievements and the records he broke is truly amazing, and well-deserved.

Mitchell was, of course, human, and therefore like everyone else; he could, and did, let his emotions override his logic. He made no secret of the awe he felt when he faced the vastness of space and perhaps thought deeply about the smallness of his home planet within it. But that might have been a tipping point. He later went on to pursue his beliefs in paranormal matters and especially the idea that aliens are here, their existence being covered up by a government conspiracy.

Unfortunately, Edgar Mitchell became a focal point for various cranks, conspiracy theorists and paranormal believers in general. “Aliens? Of course they’re here. Edgar Mitchell says so.” That’s the fallacy of the appeal to authority, by the way – assuming the truth of a claim based on who makes the claim rather than asking for evidence. Even Mitchell himself did not claim (as far as I can find out) that he had seen aliens or their alleged spacecraft personally, and said that his information was from others. In other words, his own information was second-hand and uncorroborated, but even worse, his followers accepted what he said about the subject only on the basis of who he was rather than any evidence that he could offer.

In a similar way, Mitchell claimed he had been cured of kidney cancer by a “remote healer,” again without corroborating evidence (he did not have a biopsy done). His alleged illness was never formally diagnosed, although he thought he had the symptoms and therefore the disease. His reasoning was wrong, because it takes a properly qualified doctor to make a diagnosis. Someone who develops a persistent cough has one of the symptoms of lung cancer, for example, but if it clears up after taking some vitamins it does not mean that a cancer was there or that the vitamins did anything. But when someone with Mitchell’s status makes a similar claim, a lot of people take notice and believe it. He certainly did.

In the early days of space exploration many astronauts like Edgar Mitchell became household names, although as time goes on and travel into space becomes almost routine, few modern astronauts gain the same kind of fame. Mitchell’s fame at the time was well deserved for his achievements, but it is a pity that his further fame came about because of his off-target beliefs about the paranormal, UFOs and all the rest of it. I suppose he genuinely believed the unsupportable claims he made, but his legacy is not as heroic as it could have been. Rather than helping to create a new generation of scientific and critical thinkers, he gave that away in favour of convincing uncritical thinkers that belief is better than – or even trumps – testable evidence.

Edgar Mitchell is one of the people I wish I could have met in person. I am old enough to remember the very early days of the space race (including the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin), and I remember following, in particular, the race to the Moon. I still remember the ups and downs, and the drama, of Apollo 13 (the actual event, not the film, by the way). Mitchell was part of that whole adventure to free mankind from the confines of this puny little speck of a pale blue dot that exists somewhere within the immensity of the universe – a true pioneer, pathfinder and hero. I just wish he had stayed with reality in his later years.

New Year, Old Struggle

We are now into the sixteenth year of the twenty first century, but it’s hard to believe it. Mankind has created the most scientific and technological society that has ever existed on this planet, and yet we are still surrounded by primitive superstition that would stop it dead in its tracks if it can ever get away with it.

Although I was brought up within a religious and superstitious family, I was able to notice after I left school and got out into the big wide world that the religious beliefs, superstition and, frankly, bigotry that I was taught as I was growing up, just didn’t match my own observations. And after several decades of those observations, I conclude that reality, supported by testable and confirmable evidence, is more reliable than (and preferable to) untestable and unconfirmable belief or faith.

Look around you and notice things. While the religious zealots are torturing and killing people, science has landed a spacecraft on a comet half a billion miles from Earth. It’s easier, I’m sure (although I couldn’t do it myself), to kill someone in the name of some god or other than it is to study science for years and do positive things that no amount of prayer will ever achieve.

Is the paranormal real? It’s certainly easier to make excuses for why psi claims don’t actually work than it is to produce the claimed effects. And just as easy to whine that those like me – sceptics – are just nay-saying curmudgeons who are just “desperate to protect their world view.”

Do the quack nostrums of homeopathy, chiropractic, faith healing, reiki and all the rest of the nonsense peddled for profit by (maybe some) well-meaning but unqualified (in scientific terms) practitioners do any real good for people? Someone suffering an ailment might be able to say honestly during such treatment (self-reporting) that they actually “feel better” as they undergo that “treatment,” but that is not the same as actually being cured. Germs and cancers do not disappear as a result of quackery, even if the sufferer has, as they often say, even with the latest medical treatment, “good days and bad days.”

Will your horoscope in the daily newspaper really be accurate today? Or maybe it would be better to pay through the nose for a personalised chart that will give you nothing other than a self-fulfilling prophecy – as long as you interpret it in the way that confirms your expectations and beliefs after the events you think they are predicting.

It could be that you will consult any pro paranormal website or blog that tells you why sceptics are “wrong in their beliefs” but don’t provide any testable evidence for that claim, which is really just sour grapes because the woomeisters have to face the fact that rational, scientifically literate people don’t go along with belief over testable evidence.

I could go on and on about all of the superstitions people prefer over actual reality, but by now if you have read this far, you might be starting to understand my frustration. I am one of those people that the paranormal promoters call, disdainfully, a “materialist!” Even worse than that, I am what they call (gasp, shock-horror) a “pseudosceptic,” one of those rationalists who don’t believe without question the paranormal anecdotes presented to me.

What can I say to it all, except, do you deny that the universe we inhabit does, in fact, have an actual material existence? I have to wonder why, but get no answer to the question, how can the “immaterial” exist for a start off, and how can it affect or interact with, the actual material (real) universe we all live in? Why don’t the physical laws of nature prevail over the immaterial (non-existent) “laws” of, er… the paranormal? In fact, what (physical or non-physical) laws control this immaterial paranormal “energy” or whatever it is? Where is the actual theory of the paranormal? (And when I say theory, I mean “theory” in the scientific sense.)

There is no such theory. A scientific theory can exist only if there is something there that can be shown (with a high degree of probability) to exist. At the moment, as has been going on for over a hundred and fifty years, paranormal investigators are still trying to show that there is anything paranormal going on at all. None of that has been demonstrated conclusively; so far, there is no compelling reason to think any of it is true.

And yet, no one needs any supposedly precognitive ability to just know that the year 2016 is going to be another non-stop tsunami of woo. That will include everything from serious paranormal researchers failing again to prove their claims, to outright frauds bilking the gullible for personal profit. There will also of course be well-meaning but off-beam believers spouting incorrect claims supported by totally wrong assumptions about the nature of, well… nature itself.

I will say this yet again: I do not believe in the existence of the paranormal or the supernatural, but my mind can be changed if anyone can prove the claims they make. However, those claims will have to meet the rigorous standards required by science, which does not mean someone’s heartfelt belief, or a single experiment that no one else can replicate, or an anecdote from some “eminent person of good character,” or any number of ad hoc rationalisations to explain what is maybe anomalous but not necessarily paranormal.

And don’t get me started about conspiracy theories:




“Chemtrails for Jesus,” perhaps.

In 2016 we are going to see more TV shows, books, and everything else about UFOs, ghosts, and all manner of irrational nonsense, supported by ignorant people who are willing to subscribe to it all and therefore pay for and perpetuate a kind of mind-numbing, modern-day “opiate for the masses.” Sensible programming about science – the true reality programmes – are (still) going to be side-lined, or given the least prominence because actual reality does not have the same commercial value to TV producers. That’s a shame, but it illustrates the problem.

For the forthcoming year of 2016 CE, I wish all of my readers a Rational New Year and freedom from Bad Thinking, while I continue trying to do my bit to fly the flag of reason. Wish me luck. (No, not luck, it doesn’t work like that… er, no, it really doesn’t; it’s a struggle.)


Harry Price: Ghost Hunter (TV Version)

I watched the ITV production of Harry Price: Ghost Hunter that was broadcast on 27th December, but I came away from it with mixed feelings.

Although the production and the acting can hardly be faulted, it seemed to me that apart from the name of the main character, Price, everything else was pure fiction with little to do with Harry Price the person.

I had expected (or hoped) that this drama would have been more of a biography, covering the work of Price over a period of time, but this was a single dramatic portrayal of one alleged case investigated by the eponymous paranormal investigator. Although I have read about Harry Price, there was little – almost nothing – I recognised as factual in this TV show. For more information about the details, I recommend that you read the critique by Tom Ruffles, which gives an excellent outline of the drama itself and the problems with the factual (or not) details.

For me, the biggest problem is that people who might have heard of Harry Price (and many who have not)) will probably come away with a totally wrong idea about the man and his work. Although he was a controversial figure of his day, I don’t think there is much doubt that he was serious in his research into the allegedly paranormal, rather than being the con man he is initially depicted as.

I don’t believe in ghosts or any other aspect of the supposed other-worldly, but I don’t mind if some people want to spend their time properly investigating it; if any of it turns out to be real, that’s OK by me. What does irritate me, though, is that this TV drama is just tagging the name of a real (historical) person on to a piece of pure fiction that could have stood on its own as a one-off fictional drama in its own right.

As Tom Ruffles suggests, this might turn out to be the pilot episode for a future series, but if so, it will do a disservice to Harry Price in particular, and serious paranormal investigation in general.

(Additional note: for some more information about Harry Price, there is a good article about him at The Haunted Museum. Well worth a read.)

A Skeptical Christmas To One And All

I’m a sceptic and an atheist, and yet I’m looking forward to the Christmas and New Year holidays and I intend to enjoy myself, together with my family and friends. But that idea seems a bit odd to some religious people I know: how can an atheist enjoy Christmas – a religious festival; and also isn’t it a bit hypocritical, to boot?

No, not at all. As Christmas comes around, I see it as a time to just relax, having a break from work, and maybe getting into the party spirit. Admittedly, I’m not a youngster any more, and partying in the way young people now do it is not for me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun, or that I am going to put a damper on anyone else’s enjoyment. I won’t be going to any Christmas church services, of course, but I’m also not going to criticise any Christians who do so. We live in a free country (so far, anyway), so I support everyone’s right to follow their religion as they choose. I also expect and hope that people of other religions will respect the right of Christians to go about their celebrations as they have done here for many years. I don’t want to see any Christian celebrations having to be curtailed or stopped in the name of political correctness in case the feelings of other religions are hurt. Cobblers to that idea.

I will, naturally, have to run the gauntlet of some Christians who despise me for not believing the same as they do, or appreciating the fact that I actually support and defend their right to be Christian. It’s just a pity that those Christians, as well as members of other religions, do not have the tolerance to want to allow me to have freedom from religion in the same way they have freedom of religion.

Right now, I’m seeing a lot of holiday spirit in the local High Street – buskers playing Christmas songs; any day now, I’m sure, the Salvation Army will make an appearance as they play the more religious carols, and I even look forward to it. I will also, no doubt, contribute some money in the collection box, as I also regularly do for some of the non-religious causes (the local fire brigade usually have a display that I always contribute to). It’s just a nice atmosphere they all create between themselves, and it works just nicely to make at least the very few short weeks in the run up to a special family day a good time.

At this time of year, there are young children who know little about religion, but who believe in Santa Claus, and hope to receive a reward for being good. That’s not much different from many of their parents, who believe they, too, are going to receive a reward for being good, albeit in some (equally mythical) afterlife. The difference here, though, is that we don’t expect children to believe in a make-believe entity when they grow up. But many adults do that very thing. At least a child can provide evidence for the existence of Santa in the form of presents delivered, but the adults rely on faith that they have to continue with until the day they die.

It is inevitable that children find out and come to terms with the fact that Santa was a comforting fantasy when they were so young. But it’s a tragedy that so many adults can never find out the same truth about whichever god or gods they happen to worship. And there is no shortage of religious people who are happy to tell the members of every other religion that they’ve got their theology wrong (and some are even willing to kill to prove their point).

That’s one of many reasons that I have no religion: I have no reason to harm anyone else in any way just because I believe something different. As it happens, the fact that I have no beliefs is a good enough reason for me to be able to listen to what others have to say, without at all having to hate anyone else for thinking differently.

That’s something I keep in mind always, but especially at this time of year when most people at least seem to be making an effort to be nice to each other. I wish they could do the same all the time.

But Christmas or not, if I happen to meet you, whether it is where I work, or at a bus stop or in a pub or whatever, I will be just the same person you might meet at any time of the year. I will be nice to you; I hope you will be the same to me

Dare I, as an atheist, say it – Merry Christmas to all my readers.

 Santa gets it

(Just joking with the pic.)

Analysing Skeptics?

I’ve often been accused by the believers of “not looking at the evidence” for the existence of psi – or any aspect of the paranormal. That isn’t true; I like to read anything I can come across that purports to provide evidence for anything paranormal whatsoever. I have quite a collection of books on various aspects of what is claimed to be paranormal, and there is a large number of paranormal blogs, websites and twitter accounts I follow.

What I notice, though, is that a huge majority of those sites do not actually provide evidence of anything paranormal; rather, they tend to attack sceptics. And worse, their view of scepticism in general, and sceptics in particular, is so far removed from the reality of the situation that I don’t wonder why the believers are as wrong in their perception of the paranormal as they are when it comes down to their mistaken view of scepticism.

I thought about this when I came across a recent post on Michael Prescott’s blog, cutely titled, Skeptics On The Couch. It’s not the first time I’ve come across a believer giving a “psychological analysis” of what they think goes on in the mind of the average sceptic. More interesting is the fact that Michael Prescott – like many other paranormal proponents – has no qualifications (as far as I can find out) in psychology anyway.

My interest here is that I do have a degree in psychology, so I look with a jaundiced eye when unqualified people blather on about it. But more than that, the same people usually have no qualifications in any scientific discipline whatsoever, but happily quote various fringe scientists who claim to have provided decisive evidence in favour of various matters paranormal. The same people also express indignation that mainstream science will not accept the “findings” of parapsychology, but they are blissfully unaware that their ignorance of science prevents them from understanding why science doesn’t accept it. It’s one thing to say that some parapsychologists have produced “evidence” that the paranormal is real; it’s another thing to be able to read a scientific paper and actually understand it. It is yet another thing to be able to examine the research paper in question and be able to deconstruct it and explain it in a meaningful way that would be understandable to others – in particular, non-scientists. It’s yet another thing to look at it and say, “He’s got it wrong, and here is why…”

What might be wrong with the methodology or the statistical results of any example of paranormal research? I really don’t think that Michael Prescott is in a position to criticise science or sceptics until he understands science and how it works.

But it’s easy to complain. If you really, really believe something, you might not be able to accept that others don’t. And you might also not be able to support your belief with testable evidence, and you also might not be able to provide falsifiable evidence, and you might not be able to just provide anything substantial of any kind. What you provide might not be scientific at all. If that’s the case, then just stop for a moment and ask yourself why your evidence is criticised.

Michael Prescott assumes that sceptics have a belief system, and that if those beliefs are challenged, then sceptics enter a state of cognitive dissonance – an uncomfortable mental state where two conflicting beliefs are held at the same time, forcing the person to do some mental gymnastics to overcome that dissonance. Therefore, according to Prescott, sceptics have to find ways to dismiss evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

However, Prescott commits the same fallacy as other believers, namely, assuming that scepticism is a belief system. In fact, sceptics are not defending a belief system of any kind; they are challenging those who do have beliefs, to prove their claims. It’s not part of any belief system I have that ghosts don’t exist, but when people claim they do, then the onus is on them to prove it. The claims made by paranormalists contradict what science knows about the laws of nature, and it’s not up to me to disprove those claims. If ghosts do exist, for example, then the believers have to show how it is possible for psychic “energy” to exist without contravening the laws of thermodynamics. If telepathy and the claims made for it are true, then it is up to the believers to demonstrate why the inverse square law doesn’t apply, as it does with, say, radio communication.

After about a hundred and fifty years of what might be described as serious research by parapsychologists, they are still trying to prove that there is anything paranormal going on at all. The research they produce is not accepted by mainstream science for some basic reasons – flawed experimental design, failure to replicate, statistical errors and so on. It is not, as Prescott would have you believe, because scientists and sceptics are protecting their worldview, it is because parapsychological research fails the basic tests of scientific research. And as well as that, there is no theory that underpins paranormal claims.

My own suggestion for the believers, if they want their claims to be accepted, is to produce someone who can perform the paranormal feats they claim to be able to do. Publicly predicting lottery numbers would be one thing, perhaps. Even better, in the light of recent events, would be providing the information that would allow governments to prevent any further terrorist attacks.

But let me head off any objections to that particular suggestion. It would be said by the believers that if any psychic did go to the police with such (specific) information, then he or she would likely be arrested because it is assumed that only inside information could give details of a specific terrorist event.

That’s OK, though, because our psychic could give information about terrorist attacks all over the world – but could one person really know the details of all the daily terrorist attacks that are ongoing? It would be recognised very quickly that a more likely answer to this conundrum is that this psychic is the real thing. That person would go from being an arrested suspect, to the most protected asset in the world. Terrorism would be stopped dead in its tracks. What really happens, of course, is that it is only after a major event – terrorism, earthquake or whatever – that the psychics appear and claim they knew about it beforehand.

But now come the excuses for why it doesn’t happen. We’re told that paranormal abilities are rare and elusive and can’t be called up at will. It doesn’t work in the presence of an unbeliever. A skeptic in the room upsets the psychic vibrations. And the list goes on, and on, and on, but none of the ad hoc excuses presented can be tested or confirmed.

Similarly, there is no limit to the speculation about how paranormal phenomena supposedly occur. Is a ghost or apparition really made of “energy,” as many paranormal pundits say – as if energy is some kind of substance or “stuff”? To say that a ghost or anything else is “made of” energy, is to do no more than to expose one’s total ignorance of physics in particular, and science in general. It’s a belief without (dare I say) substance.

Another ad hoc speculation is quantum physics to “explain” the paranormal. I can’t help wondering why quantum physicists themselves aren’t all over it – if the paranormal exists and really is quantum based.

And so it all goes. The existence of the paranormal is not proven; its promoters have endless excuses for why it doesn’t work when tested under properly controlled conditions; and the ideas about how it supposedly works are nothing more than speculation with no way of testing any of it. Whose belief system is under threat here? The promoters of the paranormal have only beliefs, built on nothing but hope and wishful thinking. It certainly isn’t sceptics who are worried that their supposed beliefs or worldview are going to be seriously challenged any time soon.

As always, the burden of proof is on the person who makes a claim, and is independent of what anyone else believes or disbelieves. If anyone’s belief system is under threat, then it is the belief system of those who already believe in things that simply do not fit in with what is already known about how nature works.

If anyone is suffering from cognitive dissonance, then it must be those who believe the paranormal is real. They are faced with an inability to prove their claims, and the fact that science does not accept any of it (for very good reasons). The way out of their dissonance is to assume their beliefs are true, and to claim that science just wants to maintain a perceived status quo at all costs. The fact that science thrives on new discoveries and would embrace the discovery of a new force of nature (call it psychic energy if you want) seems to escape them.

No, the bottom line is that sceptics, and science in general, are not defending any belief system, nor are they afflicted by cognitive dissonance. Personally, I feel no need or desire to disprove the existence of ghosts, telepathy or anything else; my own interest is in trying to get the proponents of the paranormal to actually prove their claims. The fact that they cannot understand science or why they have not proven their case to a reasonable level is something they themselves are unlikely to come to terms with.

The evidence available suggests that the paranormal does not exist, except in the minds of the believers. There are innumerable cognitive biases that people fall prey to, and those biases have been well studied and are quite sufficient to explain why the strong beliefs of the believers can be so resistant to change. Science changes in response to new data and new experimental results, so scientists can’t be justifiably accused of being either closed-minded or defending a particular worldview. The people who are guilty of that are those who spend time promoting paranormal claims, and are unable to understand why those claims are untenable.

In the meantime, I would just point out to them that they know as little about psychology as they do about physics – or any other branch of science. Sceptics aren’t the ones who hold unsupportable beliefs; the paranormalists themselves are the ones who have a belief system and worldview based on faith alone. Unfortunately, the more prominent promoters of woo often have a strong following of other believers who are even more ill-informed than them. So their own belief system is reinforced and further promoted.

It’s just a pity that faith is so easy, while science is so hard. It’s easier to believe, and so hard to know. And even easier, apparently, to psychoanalyse the people who would like to see some convincing evidence.

Former Bishop of Durham calls for Christian Theocracy, As Islamists Call For Sharia, While Atheists Just Want A Peaceful Life

bish of durham exSo, it turns out that a former Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, reckons that it’s about time democracy was done away with and replaced with theocracy.

As this article from the National Secular Society puts it, the Bish says:

“The whole meaning of God’s kingdom is about the one true God calling time on the world’s wicked empires and setting up a radically different empire instead.”

But we had all that in Britain a few hundred years ago when Catholics and Protestants were in some kind of race with each other to see who could torture, maim and burn the most heretics (i.e., each other, mostly) . And don’t forget – it was Christian “morality” that caused all that suffering for so many people. Maybe the Bishop would like to see a return to that good old fashioned fire and brimstone control that the church could exert over the ordinary people. Even kings came under the control of the church.

Yeah, let’s start burning philosophers and astronomers again. But the Bishop has, whether he likes it or not, been overtaken by the Enlightenment – which he also detests, apparently. Possibly referring to the present refugee and migrant situation, he says:

“The problem is that the West has bought so deeply into the narrative of the Enlightenment and then can’t understand what has gone wrong when the tragedies of this world literally wash up on our shores.”

Bought into the Enlightenment?  As if that is a bad thing? Yes, of course: no theology ever invented by man (they’re all patriarchal, after all) has ever had any use for anyone who could think for themselves; that sort of thing is the biggest danger to any religion, of course.

The only way nowadays that a religion could replace democracy in this country (apart from the constant threats of violent revolution by some Islamic extremists) would be the the paradox of democracy – if enough religiots voted together, then democracy itself could be voted out of existence.


The (mostly masked) Muslim people (men, not women, of course) in the above picture are using their democratic right to freedom of expression to demand that their right to freedom of expression should be revoked so that they should not be allowed to do what they are now doing – demanding that they should not be allowed to demand the law be changed to stop them demanding what they are demanding. If you can work that out, put your answer in the comments. (It actually comes within the logical fallacy of circular reasoning or, more formally, begging the question. In other words, Bad Thinking.)

Maybe the Bishop would like to see a referendum on the subject. He can’t invoke the power of the church to enforce his version of theocracy, but I wonder if he would be prepared to put his idea to a democratic vote? The population of the UK could have a vote to decide whether we have our present system of government (which is itself far from perfect by any objective measure); a Christian theocracy; an Islamic theocracy; a Hindu theocracy; a [insert a long list of religions here] theocracy; a plutocracy; an oligarchy; even pure anarchy or a new version of the Wild West, where individuals make their own laws which, almost by definition, is pure chaos and lawlessness anyway. In such a scenario, you would be given the right to have all your rights taken away from you! (After that, though, you won’t be able to change your mind again.)

Personally, I’m not taken with the idea that I might (actually would) be tortured and killed in the Bishop’s ideal society just for not believing in his particular god. I find the whole idea unsatisfactory. As an atheist and secularist I think that all religious people should have the right to follow their own religion without interference and that right should be protected by secular law. Similarly, people who have no religious beliefs should have the same rights and protections to not be forced to follow any religion. The only proviso I insist on is that so long as people follow their religion or lack of the same, they cause no harm to any other person.

If you are religious, then by all means bow to and worship whichever god or gods you believe in. I am not going to interfere with your right to do that, but I expect the same courtesy from you: I do not believe in your god or gods; so don’t interfere with my own lack of belief.

For as long as I can stand on my feet, I will defend your right to grovel on your hands and knees.

In the meantime, Bishop Wright can sod off back to the middle ages – where all religions belong. I’ll stick with the Enlightenment, thank you very much.