Monthly Archives: March 2017

Legend Detectives – Mysteries Not Solved At All

I was flicking through the TV Channels recently and happened upon the Discovery Channel series Legend Detectives. I decided to see what it was about, given the fact that the programme was presented by Ronald Top, a fine actor and someone I got to like firstly through the TV series Industrial Revelations.

But the programme was also to include Massimo Polidoro, well known sceptic and debunker of pseudoscience and assorted woo. This was starting to look promising.

Next up was Tessa Dunlop, historian; so, this was beginning to look like something I would naturally be interested in – something more serious than Ancient Bleeding Aliens or some other pseudo-scientific claptrap. This series of programmes was going to be investigating some of the historical legends we are all familiar with, but from a seemingly sensible perspective and in which some well-informed people would be trying to tease the facts from the myths of famous stories – Robin Hood, The Man In The Iron Mask and others. Just the sort of thing I like to get into.

And then they had to go and spoil it all by informing their viewers that the fourth member of “the team” would be Tony Stockwell, alleged psychic, who would be using his “powers” to find out what actual history researchers could not. [*Facepalm*]

I have seen only two episodes of the six made, but I don’t think I will bother to watch the others. The first I saw was about Robin Hood, and the second was about The Man In The Iron Mask. What was significant for me was that the four-person “team” never appeared as one group. Top, Polidoro and Dunlop are seen all together during the programmes, but Stockwell does not appear with them in the same group. Stockwell appears with Top as they go into a dungeon together, for example, trying to elicit information from the past using Stockwell’s supposed psychic abilities.

And then this programme suddenly assumes the mantle of any typical paranormal pseudo-documentary: we have been told that Stockwell has been given no prior information about what it is all about, and it is up to him to tell the presenter, Top, what was going on there hundreds of years ago, and bingo! Our psychic comes up with vague but seemingly relevant information that can be construed as a major validation of what historians already knew anyway. Amazing, isn’t it?

It reminds me of the TV series Psychic Detectives when Stockwell appeared with Colin Fry and TJ Higgs, supposedly solving past crimes and mysteries. I remember one episode where they were trying to discover the facts of what happened to a young man who disappeared and committed suicide. As I was watching that episode, I typed the man’s name into Google and a whole list of links came up, including newspaper reports of the time and so on, so I opened numerous tabs for many of those links. And, I have to say, Stockwell and his psychic colleagues got all of the details of the case exactly right! It was all there on the internet! How do you explain that, then? Some people might think I am being cynical when I point out that the information was there long before that programme was ever made, but that’s just me, perhaps. Maybe I am just one of those pseudo-sceptics that the believers carp on about.

Then things suddenly got worse. After a brief internet search I found out why Tessa Dunlop seemed familiar to me: she has also presented another “history” show, Paranormal Egypt, with another supposed psychic, Derek Acorah! In that series, she and Acorah were seen exploring ancient tombs with Acorah trying to contact the ancient Pharaos, no less. And if I remember correctly, there was an outcry later from officials in the Egyptian authorities who had not been told that what was proposed as a history documentary was, in fact, another programme of paranormal piffle, with Dunlop doing the screaming instead of Yvette Fielding from Most Haunted. For me, Dunlop’s credibility as an historian is now totally shattered.

Although I saw a brief scene with Top, Polidoro and Stockwell together on a boat as they travelled to a location, I did not see Polidoro actually in conversation with Stockwell, so I can’t say what Polidoro made of it all, but he must (surely) have been aware of what was going on. In any case, the summing up at the end of the episodes I saw did not include Stockwell with Top, Polidoro and Dunlop. I don’t know if that was any different in any of the other four episodes.

Things get even stranger, though. I tried to find out more information about the series, but there is almost no detail even on Discovery’s website. The Internet Movie Database is no help either; it lists the series title and three directors (for “unknown episodes”); there is no cast list, and no other details. The only factual thing I could find out is that the series was made in 2005. It’s almost as if no one associated with Legend Detectives wants anyone to know about it.

I just can’t work out what is going on here. I like the idea of a TV programme that looks at legendary characters and situations, even though the likelihood of arriving at definitive answers seems remote; there’s nothing wrong with some scholarly speculation and there might always be some new findings coming to light. The idea of using a psychic in a serious programme, though, is absurd. The show might have been more interesting if part of it had included something like the sceptic challenging the psychic, maybe, but that just wasn’t going to happen here. And an historian who thinks that historical information can be retrieved through a psychic channelling long-dead characters? No, I don’t buy it.

I guess this series of only six episodes made over a decade ago probably didn’t get great ratings when it first aired, so it might have just been quietly set aside, waiting to be rediscovered when there wasn’t much else available to fill the schedules. If they had ditched the psychic, or kept the psychic but had some confrontation between him, the sceptic and the historian – a discussion moderated by the presenter, perhaps – the whole thing could have been much better. But that didn’t happen, of course.

Overall, I have to give Legend Detectives a resounding thumbs-down.

What Makes An Odd Event Paranormal?

Strange things happen. All the time. And that is where the woo people and I part company; when the believing folks see something unusual, it seems their first reaction is to assume a paranormal explanation, but my own reaction to something out of the ordinary tends to be something like, “What the f…?”

There aren’t an awful lot of things the paranormal people claim to have seen that I, too, have not – in some form or another. The difference, though, is that my own reaction to something I observe but have no immediate explanation for, is to wonder about it, and if I can’t think of and confirm a rational explanation, I put it on hold. Often, the best I can do is to try to work out what is more or less likely in any given situation and just leave it at that.

Think of it this way: if one of my employees turned up late for work and said that it was because of a punctured tyre on his or her car, then I might believe it, just because car tyres really do exist and they sometimes do get punctured. It’s happened to me a number of times, so I can confirm that the proposed scenario is quite possible, even if the employee is telling lies because he or she just overslept.

But what if my employee said they were late because they had been temporarily abducted by aliens from another galaxy and their lateness was due to extended anal probing by grey-coloured humanoids who are creating alien-human hybrids with a view to infiltrating the highest levels of governments across the world in order to facilitate a take-over of Earth? Only die-hard believers in UFOs and alien visitation would entertain such a thought for more than a few milliseconds.

Yes, that’s what I’m getting at. When something odd happens, the choice you have is to think it through, or to jump to a preconceived conclusion. That is what the believers tend to do, especially if there’s something in it for them – publicity, perhaps, or even a cash reward if it increases business, as it often does for places where a good ghost story might increase revenue. There are lots of pubs, for instance, that have a ghost story attached. It’s never bad for business to have a ghost around.

That’s one reason I was interested in yet another ghost story highlighted on the Skeptic’s Boot blog (and I recommend you head over there to read it, and then follow the blog – it’s very good). Long story short: a customer’s glass of lager suddenly exploded, therefore “ghostly explanation,” supported by still pictures from CCTV; and even better, actual video from a different, but similar, event, where you can see the customer’s glass shatter in a very dramatic fashion.

The Skeptic’s Boot offers a reasonable and plausible explanation of what might have actually happened, and I am particularly interested because something very similar happened to me a year or two ago.

What happened to me was as simple as this: I made myself a cup of coffee and started to drink it. I was using the same glass cup I had used for a number of years, and had taken just a few sips from it. The cup was just over half full, but as it sat there beside me on my desk, it suddenly shattered and coffee was all over my desk. The sudden bang as it happened took me by surprise, alright.

Although the Skeptic’s Boot offers a perfectly rational explanation for the exploding glasses (possibly a glass still hot from the pub’s glass washer being stressed when a cold drink was put into it), the same explanation would not easily fit in with my own experience. My own cup is usually washed in warm, not hot, water, and in any case adding a hot liquid to a warm glass shouldn’t really cause a sudden, catastrophic failure of that kind, surely? I had used it hundreds of times, after all.

As you might guess, my own reaction to a personal experience that is odd is, to say the least, to try to find a plausible explanation before I start to invoke paranormal or supernatural answers. In my own example, I can’t give a definitive and confirmable answer as to what happened, but I can make an educated guess. Glass production has to be very precise so that the object created is going to be stable and safe to use. When glass products are made, it is important that the temperature is controlled throughout the process. The glass has to be made at very high temperatures, but more importantly, the objects made have to be cooled very, very slowly, otherwise the glass itself becomes stressed and therefore liable to go wrong, so to speak.

I think my own glass coffee cup was already stressed before I bought it. It worked fine for a number of years before it exploded right beside me, but it’s also possible that sometime recently when it had been handled, it might have been damaged. I know it had been dropped several times without apparent damage, but I think all it would take to make any internal stresses reveal themselves would be just the slightest scratch on the surface – possibly from a fall, or rough handling when it was placed onto the dish rack with other cups, plates and cutlery. But why should anyone propose a paranormal explanation for something that is much more likely to just be “one of those things”?

I tend to become rather exasperated when the believers accuse sceptics of simply making up what are, to them, “implausible excuses” to explain what is obvious to any believer: it’s a ghost, a poltergeist, a malevolent spirit, karma, or [insert preferred woo here].

The way to find out what is actually going on in a strange situation is to try to rule out normal explanations before coming to a paranormal or supernatural conclusion. And if you can’t find the cause of the problem, then you really need to put the thing on the back burner until there is more information available. Often, as in the above cases, no further information might come to light (yet), so all you can do is regard it as a bit of a curiosity. There are many natural ways for strange things to happen, so assuming the paranormal (which has never been proven to be real) is just irrational.

Paranormal activity cannot be considered as a possible cause of any unusual event until such time that someone can demonstrate that the paranormal has any basis in reality. Stressed glass is real, and so it can be put on the list of possible explanations for the above events. Ghosts have never been proven to be real, so they can’t be put on any list of possibilities. And of course, it’s not up to me or anyone else to disprove a paranormal hypothesis; the burden of proof is on anyone who makes such a claim. Giving preference to a paranormal explanation over a natural (even if tentative) explanation, is just bad thinking.