Category Archives: Pseudoscience

If Real Life Worked Like Claims Of The Paranormal

A while ago an acquaintance of mine, who happens to have been born in India, told me of a holiday he had taken in his home country. It turns out that he and his party decided to visit a remote area – a small village that had had little or no contact with the “outside world,” as it were. He told me of his astonishment when one of his group pulled out a transistor radio, and the villagers they were visiting pulled back in fright at the fact that voices and music were coming out of this small box.

Arthur C. Clarke’s famous saying, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” suddenly seemed very pertinent indeed. These were people who had never come into contact with what most of us take as every-day, nothing-special personal entertainment. For them, however, this was, indeed, an experience that seemed like actual magic.

 As we know, a radio receiver is a clever piece of technology, even if you don’t know exactly how it works (although you might know it’s to do with modulated radio waves being transformed into electrical signals that power a loudspeaker), you know that there is nothing about it that involves actual magic. The laws of physics are at work, and you can quite easily find out more about it. There is an underlying theory (and I mean theory in the scientific sense) that explains it all, and of course any aspect of the theory can be tested at will. Let’s face it: anyone can test whether a radio works just by turning it on and tuning it in to a radio station. It would even be possible, perhaps, for some of those villagers themselves to learn about electricity and electronics if they had the will (and perhaps the means) to do so.

 When I was told that anecdote, I began to wonder about what the paranormal folks think they are achieving with their various paranormal claims. My acquaintance had not gone to an out of the way place just to make unsubstantiated claims about an alleged magic box of voices and music – the radio was there and was working – but what if he had? Maybe those villagers wouldn’t have believed him. And why should they, if he had failed to provide the evidence that would convince them? It certainly wouldn’t be up to them to disprove the magic box claims.

 This, I think, is where all claims of the paranormal fail completely, and probably always will. There is no underlying theory with regard to any paranormal or supernatural claim. Sounds coming from a small box could be explained by saying that it contains very small people, or perhaps fairies have their home in there. The problem then, of course, is that some people might believe it; others might be sceptical. But what if someone proposing either of those “theories” could not demonstrate the claims they make, nor could they even make their magic box work on a reliable basis? Then they have to start making excuses for something they don’t understand themselves.

 Think of it this way: in the unlikely event that I met someone who had never heard of electricity and electric light, I would probably be eager to show them what they had been missing out on. I might invite them to my home so that as night drew in, I would be able to demonstrate my claims by simply flicking a switch and suddenly having my living room (and whole house, if necessary) bathed in instant light. No more of putting up with darkness until daylight eventually crept up in the early morning, or relying on a fire or just a candle with its weak and flickering flame. No, I’m talking about a sufficiently advanced technology that would seem like magic – at least until I explained the theory of electricity and how it works.

 But what if, when the darkness closes in, I flick the switch… and nothing happens? Should I say to my guest that the reason for the light’s failure is that the “energy” is upset by a sceptic (him or her, obviously)? Maybe I could say that he or she just didn’t have enough faith? Maybe I could claim that electricity is a rare and elusive phenomenon that can’t just be called up at will? Maybe the “energy” has chosen not to be tested at this time? Perhaps [insert any standard excuse of the woo people, including the accusation that disbelief is just the nay-saying of a typical pseudo sceptical denialist].

 This is the difference between the paranormal proponents and those of us who live in the real (and rational) world. I would not have to make excuses for failure, I would go through a standard procedure to rectify the problem, because I would be working on the basis of a real (scientific) theory.

 Here’s how it would go: the light fails to light up. Maybe the bulb has burned out, so I would replace it with a new one. But what if I flick the switch again and it still does not light up? The next stage would be to see whether the main fuse is OK; sometimes, of course, when a light bulb burns out, it also causes its fuse to blow or a circuit breaker to flip. If the light still doesn’t go on, then the next stage would be to check the light fitting, the switch, or any other part of the circuit that might have failed. If none of that cures the problem, then I would have to check to see if there is a general power cut in the area, or even check to make sure that I have actually remembered to pay the electricity bill and the supply hasn’t been disconnected because of my forgetfulness. The point is, electricity is real, even if my guest has never experienced it before. Eventually, of course, even after all of that, I will be able to prove my claim about electric light, and also demonstrate why it might sometimes fail, and how it can be put right. You know yourself that electric light is real (surely?).

 If my guest were sufficiently interested, I could supply him with books about electricity that explain electromagnetism, magnetism, electrical fields, movement of electrons and so on. He might even want to try to do some of the basic experiments that many of us did in school. The bottom line is that electricity can be understood, produced and manipulated because it is supported by a scientific theory. My guest could even, possibly, develop an interest in the subject to the point where he wanted to learn to be an electrician or electrical engineer.

 But that’s the real world. The world of woo is rather different. Someone might want to explain a transistor radio in terms of tiny people inside a small box. They switch it on and it produces sound. The tiny people hypothesis can be claimed, and it wouldn’t affect whether the radio worked or not. And I think paranormal claims are rather like that. If it didn’t happen to work when switched on, then it could be claimed that the tiny people have gone out for the day, or they were tired, or on holiday, or doing something else. The truth might be that the batteries have run out, or there are no stations transmitting at that time, or that the radio is in a bad reception area. Maybe there is a component failure that can be traced and repaired in a similar way to the electric light scenario above. Without a solid theory that explains radio transmission and reception, the proponents of tiny people are going to get absolutely nowhere. If you don’t know that batteries have to be replaced occasionally, you are in trouble.

 A sceptic like me would want to test this out. Tiny people? OK, let’s open this box and have a look at them. But what if I’m told I can’t see them because they’re invisible? I can’t touch them because they’re immaterial? I can’t hear them moving about because they are silent (except when they are producing sounds but only with the box closed)? And so on. Paranormal claims are like that. For every way that a claim might be tested, there is an equal and opposite excuse that can be given for why a test fails or simply can’t be conducted. Often enough, you would not even be allowed to open that box anyway.

 There are innumerable claims of the paranormal to contend with – telepathy, precognition, astrology, psychokinesis, spiritualism and a host of others. I think it’s possible that parapsychologists are not even testing what they think they are testing. In telepathy, for instance, I won’t disagree that there are sometimes examples of information being transferred from one person to another. There are many ways it can occur, but psychic power is not a necessary condition for that to happen. When a researcher believes he or she has managed to control for all possible normal ways that it could happen, then the next stage has to be to detect and test the alleged psychic energy or whatever they think is behind it. In other words, form a hypothesis regarding what this alleged energy might be and test it. And that is what seems to elude all parapsychologists.

 It seems to me that if those researchers have “proven” telepathy or any other paranormal claim, then doing the same old tests over and over is futile. If Michael Faraday had gone no further than moving a magnet through a coiled wire, then that would have been the end of it. Instead, he collaborated with James Clerk Maxwell, and then the whole electromagnetic spectrum was discovered. It’s a theory, alright, but a theory that actually explains what electricity (and light and magnetism) is, and how it can be used. It works, and there is no need to make excuses for failure.

 Unfortunately, the present state of parapsychology is rather like the radio mentioned above. It seems to work some of the time, but speculation about tiny people is way off the mark. Without a testable theory to work with, it is doomed to stay in the realms of woo. In my proposed electric light scenario above, a failure can be rectified by going through a standard set of procedures to test the circuit and repair it, based on the underlying theory. In the meantime, all the paranormal folk can do is make excuses – none of which can be tested or rectified in a similar manner. I think that after more than a century of supposed “scientific” psychic research there should by now be a theory available to underpin psychic and other paranormal claims if any of them were real.

 I can imagine a scenario where a tiny-person believer would call me a closed-minded pseudosceptic for not accepting the possibility (reality?) of tiny people operating the radio set from within. And I would also be derided for demanding testable evidence for what is, in fact, an obviously nonsensical claim; after all (as usual), I would not be able to disprove the claim – although that is almost always the fall-back of the committed woomeister.

 In the meantime… Pfffft! I will show you that electricity is real and how to test it, because there is a testable theory behind it, and I will not make excuses if my light does not light up; I will fix it if it doesn’t.

 If your psychic, dowser, remote viewer, astrologer, spoon bender or whatever fails to perform in the same way, then do what I do if I make a scientific claim – prove it. Then I will be convinced.

 Anyway, can any alleged psychic who disagrees with any of this just make a contribution in the comments section and state what this week’s lottery numbers will be?

 Additional note: many parapsychologists claim that their tests of various alleged psychics show that the probability of their subjects having passed the tests they have undergone, by dumb luck alone, are trillions to one against chance. If that is true, then I would suggest that because lotteries are only millions to one against winning the jackpot, then getting the right numbers in any lottery should be a trivial task by comparison. (The difference between trillions and millions is several orders of magnitude – for anyone who understands what “orders of magnitude” means.)

 However, using my sceptical powers, that I have vowed to use only for good, I predict with confidence that no psychic will provide those winning numbers. And if any do, then I will simply ask them to replicate their achievement the following week just for the purpose of replication in the scientific spirit, and confirming their claim, in the same way that any claim within science has to be replicated before it can be given serious consideration.

 I am not expecting to become a millionaire because of this challenge, however, although if any psychic provides me with the winning numbers in a couple of lotteries, I will be more than happy to renounce my scepticism and announce my confident belief in the existence of the paranormal from my new luxury yacht.

 

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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 Will 2017 Be Like For Paranormal Claims?

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Although I haven’t blogged very much in the last year, I have been keeping up to date with what is going on in the world of woo. The paranormal folks continue to claim that the only reason sceptics don’t accept the reality of the paranormal is that they have not read or studied the evidence, or that they are just trying to maintain some mythical scientific status quo, but that is simply not the case. Nowadays, for me, anyway, I spend much more of my time looking at woo websites than I do studying sceptical sites and blogs. The reason for that is pretty simple: I am looking for any evidence they have that will support – or even prove – the existence of any paranormal, supernatural, UFO or any other weird claim that is out there.

What I have found so far is that there is absolutely nothing new in terms of evidence supporting any afterlife, precognition, dowsing, telekinetic, poltergeist [etc. …] claims. What there is an abundance of, however, is a lot of moaning about, and attacks upon, sceptics and scepticism. There are websites and blogs that seem to be dedicated to criticising scepticism in general, and some of the more well-known sceptics in particular, but offering absolutely nothing (or at best, very little) by way of evidence to support the assertion that there is anything real about any paranormal or supernatural claims.

One theme I seem to come across often is the idea that those awful sceptics, if they were truly sceptics, should be good enough to be sceptical about their own position before they have the temerity to criticise others. Nice try, woo folk, but scepticism is not a belief system. Anyone who doubts a claim made by someone else (and it doesn’t have to be a paranormal claim, it can be anything) is simply doubting that assertion, whatever it might be. He or she is merely sceptical about something that perhaps contradicts their own experience, knowledge or training. You say you have fairies at the bottom of your garden? I doubt it, but I don’t see any reason why I should think my scepticism itself needs to be doubted. Show me the evidence for these alleged fairies, but don’t suggest to me that I should doubt the need to doubt a claim that requires evidence rather than a deeply held belief or unquestioning faith before it can be accepted as true.

I’ve seen some trends over the last year (and longer), namely the tendency of the woo promoters to mangle the words of some very prominent scientists and sceptics and try to use them for their own purposes. For example, Carl Sagan’s famous phrase, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” is often used by the woo people to support their own claims and silence the sceptics (who actually understand what he was really getting at). Here’s how the argument usually goes:

 Woomeister: Aliens from another galaxy are visiting our planet. They regularly abduct humans and perform unspeakable experiments on them (usually involving anal probes, sexual intimacy, genetic manipulation of our DNA and so on), not to mention the fact that Area 51 houses captured aliens and their spaceships, UFOs are all over the place, we are being observed and monitored, accounts of alien interference in world governments are true, “Ancient Aliens” is a series of factual documentaries [and so on and on].

 Skepic: Oh, right. I would like to see the evidence for that.

 Woomeister: There is plenty of evidence.

 Skeptic: So, can I see it, then?

 Woomeister: No.

 Skeptic: Then your claim has no basis and I can dismiss it. Show me the evidence and then I might change my mind.

 Woomeister: The fact that you haven’t seen the evidence does not mean that there is no evidence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, after all, so you should be open minded about my claim.

 Skeptic: You want me to accept a claim which, if true, would mean that the well-established and well-tested laws of physics are wrong – which I think is extremely unlikely; that is why claims such as yours have to be rejected. Maybe you really have uncovered some hitherto unknown force of nature, but only a fool would accept your – or anyone else’s – word for it. In the meantime, your claim is still rejected. What you call “open minded” is what I call “gullibility.”

And this is how many of my conversations with believers go; no doubt it will be pretty much the same in the coming year. The point is (or should be) easily understandable: absence of evidence is simply that – an absence of any reason to believe the absurd and ridiculous assertions made by those who promote what are extraordinary claims, but don’t feel the need to provide the equally extraordinary evidence that might support it. And those people think that I am the one who is being unreasonable.

No; alien visitation, for instance, is not impossible, perhaps, but it’s not good enough to simply assert that aliens from outer space must have developed faster than light travel, or the means to distort space-time by way of a warp drive, or that they can somehow do some kind of interdimensional space-hopping or even time travel. Any of those would do it, of course, and it’s easy to make up any fantastical method of travel, but without anything to back it up. No one has presented any alien artefacts, and no one has presented a testable theory of any of the methods of travel so far claimed. A Nobel prize and worldwide acclaim awaits anyone who can do that.

In fact, whatever the woo claim made – anything from aliens to spoon bending – the promoters have to think up something allegedly paranormal as an explanation for strange events for which they cannot find an ordinary explanation. But that’s one of the peculiarities of human psychology – we all want an explanation for things that happen, but in many cases a wrong explanation will do just so long as those explanations fill the gap, so to speak. And any tenuous evidence will also suffice – however wrong it might be – if it gives support to the relevant proposition.

I have to admit I find it tedious to see the same old justifications for the myriad woo claims out there being recycled endlessly without anyone who does so doubting (being sceptical of) their own position – the very thing they whine about when it comes to sceptical scrutiny of their claims. The point is: the promoters of all matters paranormal appear to have no doubts whatsoever about their beliefs, even though they cannot support them with confirmable evidence; their only other option is to try to rubbish the criticisms they come in for, for that very reason.

Something I find annoying also, is the mangling of logic that the woo promoters indulge in constantly. There are, in fact, some websites and blogs that actually try to debunk logic itself! The paradox here, though, is that to prove that logic is wrong, they have to try to use logic to do so, and in that case they are using arguments that are self-defeating because they are trying to use reason to prove that reason itself is wrong.

In fact, the woo people are not using logic, but rhetoric – a linguistic device that can sway the unwary into believing that the weak woo argument defeats what is actually a stronger logical argument. Rhetoric usually involves an appeal to the emotions of the listener, and unfortunately it is true that if a person’s emotions are put in conflict with their logic, then emotion wins every time. Ask any salesman. People don’t buy things because they need them, they buy because they want them. The woo people – in particular those who have a book to sell, maybe – don’t offer evidence for their claims, they sell you an idea; if you want to believe, you are more likely to buy it.

Here’s something to think about: next time you want to buy something, why not buy second hand rather than brand new? I occasionally do so. There is no way I would pay a hundred pounds or more for a shirt or any other item of clothing, although I do have some (second hand) designer clothes in my wardrobe. This is something I discovered when my wife worked in a local charity shop. There are people who buy clothes brand new but don’t even wear them. They are well off enough that they can simply buy expensive clothing, decide they don’t like it after all and just give it away. A similar thing applies to furniture, cars and all manner of things. A brand new hundred-pound shirt can be bought for just a few pounds, but it depends on whether you are willing to look at things in a way you normally don’t.

The same applies if you want to get the best deal on your utility bills. You don’t need to just accept your electricity supplier’s new rate, nor do you need to go to one of the many “comparison” websites. Do as I do, if you want to try it: phone another supplier and just ask them if they can beat the new rate you have been offered by your present supplier. They will probably offer you a better rate, but then you go to a third supplier and quote both of the offers you now have. That supplier might well offer an even better rate. Eventually you will find that after a few tries, you have found the cheapest rate you can reasonably get. Then phone your present supplier and ask them if they can beat – or match – the cheapest quote you have found. Remember that every supplier knows all of the rates offered by every other supplier, so they know you aren’t just bluffing. You don’t even need to suggest (threaten) that you might change supplier if they don’t give you a better deal, you are just asking if your present supplier can match a better quote that you have. Often, they will beat or just match one of the lower quotes you have, and that saves you from bothering to even change suppliers. But even if they can’t match your lowest quote, they might offer something better than they are offering you now, so you now have the opportunity to switch or stay, and save money anyway. OK, it might take ten or fifteen minutes to actually trouble yourself to make those phone calls, but for a potential annual saving of tens or even hundreds of pounds, it’s worth a try. It has worked for me. (I also suspect that some consumers might even spend unnecessary hours just surfing all of the comparison websites out there, without even eventually committing themselves to any change anyway.)

So, what has any of this got to do with scepticism? Well, it has to do with looking at things from a critical (or sceptical) point of view. Is my electricity supplier’s price offer the best they can do? I doubt it, and I might well delve into it to find out. Can a psychic contact the dead? I doubt that, too, and I will try to find out about that also. One thing I don’t need to do is to doubt the need to doubt extraordinary and sometimes completely absurd claims. Utility bills are real, everyday things; psychics are not – at least until someone proves that spiritualism, aliens, telepathy and all the rest of the psi claims out there are as real as that actual piece of paper that comes through the letterbox saying you owe money to someone.

Although I haven’t blogged much recently, I have been taking note of some of the bad thinking going on all over the internet, in particular the sites and blogs that promote woo in its many forms, but then attack anyone sceptical of their claims instead of providing the evidence that would change the scepticism of others into acceptance. Has science been wrong before (a common moan from the believers)? Yes, of course, but how often has any form of psi been confirmed? (Never, as it happens.) And how often has psychic research been wrong? All the time. The believers will not accept that, of course, but I invite any of them to give a single example of any scientific theory that has been replaced by a better, paranormal or supernatural, explanation of the workings of nature.

I confess that I get particularly irked at those writers that think they have some scientific insight into science itself, even though they are completely ignorant of what science is or how it really works. When you get down to it, science is, admittedly, imperfect, but it is, without doubt, light years ahead of any religious, parapsychological or any other woo way of explaining nature, and it also works when it comes to exploiting the laws of physics to our advantage. I know some very religious people, for example, who still rely on modern medicine to keep them alive rather than prayer to their preferred deity; also, there are heart-breaking examples of religious people killing themselves (and worse, their children) by ignoring science in favour of faith.

The reality of the situation is this: the paranormal has not been proven to exist at all; there are numerous examples of anomalous experiences that people have had, of course, but nothing that has been shown to be truly paranormal or supernatural. Failing to find a normal explanation for an unusual occurrence does not mean that a paranormal explanation is the default alternative. And that is why the paranormalists do not have their research published in reputable scientific journals; it’s nothing to do with scientists defending some status quo, it is to do with the fact that paranormal assertions that are claimed to be scientific have to be supported with actual science. And that just doesn’t happen.

Anyway, let’s see what 2017 is going to bring. My sceptical powers (that I have vowed to use only for good) tell me that there will be no proof forthcoming of any paranormal claim that might be made in the next twelve months or so. There will, however, be numerous scientific advances that will be derided by the woomeisters as unproven hypotheses or whatever. But the thing is, whether science has been wrong in the past is neither here nor there: science is the best method we have to find out what is going on out there. The alleged paranormal always leads absolutely nowhere. Think about that as you drive to your destination using satnav, also knowing that you have not succumbed to smallpox, polio or any other formerly death-sentence diseases as you were growing up. And if you want to disagree with me about my views, feel free to use modern science-based technology like computers and the internet to let me know. (Note: telepathy might not work, but by all means try it, and then leave a comment electronically on this blog to let me know it’s my fault that your psi powers let you down on this occasion.)

I might spend some time in 2017 examining the faulty reasoning (bad thinking) of some of the woo promoters who specifically attack science and scepticism, and just expose precisely where some of their specific claims are wrong, misleading and, sometimes, just outright dishonest and, very often, outright dangerous.

But: I hope my readers have had a merry Christmas, and that you have all enjoyed your new year celebrations. Now we have to prepare ourselves for the sceptical year ahead.

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.

 

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:

 

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Chemtrails?

“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.)

 

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.

Some People Don’t Like Science

Promoters of the paranormal, the supernatural, quack medicine and every other off-the-wall claim all seem to dislike science, and as far as I have discovered, there are two main reasons they offer:

  • Reason 1: Science is dogmatic and unchanging. (That’s why it won’t accept “new” ideas like the existence of the paranormal.)
  • Reason 2: Science is always changing. (Science doesn’t really know very much; if it knew about the world, then it wouldn’t need to accept new ideas.)

You might see a contradiction there, but the woomeisters don’t seem to notice it.

Science doesn’t accept the paranormal as real, of course, because it is mostly untestable, and many of its claims have been soundly refuted anyway. The burden of proof is on those who make claims for the paranormal, but even those parapsychologists who think they have proven its existence have only demonstrated that they have, at best, observed something anomalistic. It doesn’t follow that there is some kind of psychic energy at work.

On the whole, parapsychology has no theory that can be tested or exploited, and that is why science rejects it. Speculation about some alleged mysterious force that cannot be be detected or measured objectively is simply not scientific. And because it isn’t scientific, it cannot become part of science.

Answering the two points above, I would say this to the paranormalists:

Make your mind up. If science were as dogmatic as the believers in the paranormal, then no scientific progress would be made. Science changes in response to new discoveries; it formulates new theories to account for the new facts it discovers; it modifies old theories to accommodate new findings; sometimes it discards old theories altogether when they are discovered to be wrong (even though the old ideas “worked” quite well within the old framework). You can hardly accuse science of being dogmatic at the same time you accuse it of always changing.

The paranormalists are the people who are dogmatic. They hang on to the idea of “psychic energy,” for example. They can’t demonstrate this force that they believe exists within (or even outside of) the universe, and they just make excuses for their failures. That’s why it can’t become part of science.

Try this thought experiment:

I claim that electricity is real. So I invite you to my home where I claim that I can merely flick a switch and the whole of my living room will be bathed in light. So you come around one evening at about dusk, just as the daylight is receding and the moment of truth comes: I confidently flick the switch, and… nothing happens!

What do I do? If I tell you that it failed because the vibrations aren’t right, or that, as an unbeliever, you have disrupted the “power” (as it were), or if I told you that electricity is a rare and elusive occurrence that can’t be called up at will, or if I gave you any number of excuses equivalent to the excuses given by the woomeisters when their claims fail objective tests, you might be rather sceptical, dare I say, about the claims I have made.

Then again, I might ask you to wait while I replace the light bulb, because it could have burnt out. If that didn’t work, I might check the consumer unit and replace the fuse or reset the circuit breaker. If that didn’t work, then I might check the switch itself for a loose connection. And so on. In other words, I could go through a logical process to identify and then correct the problem, after which I would throw the switch and prove to you conclusively that my claim about electric light is true. Not only would I have proven my claim, but I would also have demonstrated that there is an underlying (testable) theory of electricity. I would not be making a claim I could not prove, and I would also not just be making excuses for failure.

The believers, and their heroes (those high profile parapsychologists who cannot get their research published in reputable scientific journals), complain that science somehow just “shuts them out” because of its intransigence and dogma. They laud their most prominent researchers (that they like to describe as mavericks), and complain bitterly that it is scientific dogma that will not allow them onto the scientific stage.

On the other hand, scientists (and sceptics) regard some of those paranormal researchers not as mavericks, but as cranks. Can it really be true that the whole of science is wrong, as opposed to woomeisters who cannot demonstrate the simplest claim they make, about a force they cannot present, and which when it fails (as it always does when properly tested), can only be accounted for by excuses they cannot prove, either?

Over many years, I have met people who claim to have various psychic abilities. Some of those people are even members of the Spiritualist religion and claim to be able to contact the dead. But their claims always fail. Unlike my example from the reality-based world of a claim I might make about electricity, their own claims never hold up. Those claims always fail objective tests, and excuses just won’t do.

Ask a clairvoyant to tell you what next week’s lottery numbers will be (I know that’s a cliche nowadays, but cliches gain that status because they tend to be based on truth). The answer is always along the lines of: “It doesn’t work like that.” So you won’t get the lottery numbers, but your clairvoyant will not be winning the lottery next week either, as he or she did not last week, this week or anytime in the near future. (I’m not discounting the possibility that your average psychic couldn’t win the lottery just by pure chance, but to be credible in a claim that it was their psychic powers that did it, it would have to be repeatable, and that’s another reason why you can’t accept a single, dumb-luck outcome as evidence of anything paranormal).

The bottom line is really straightforward: Science is not dogmatic; science changes in response to new discoveries. And that’s the way it should be. It’s why science advances, and parapsychology doesn’t. 

All the paranormal people have to do is to prove their claims. Right now, science does not accept the paranormal is real, but that will change if the paranormalists prove what they claim, without making excuses for constant failures. If any paranormal researcher makes a true breakthrough and demonstrates conclusively that any aspect of the paranormal is real, will they complain if science “changes” its “dogmatic” viewpoint and accepts it? We’re into Nobel Prize territory here, after all, so any scientist will be interested in proving the existence of some hitherto undiscovered law of nature.

The claim that science is dogmatic but always changing is a logical contradiction; it is also bad thinking, as well as simply a case of sour grapes.

Personally, as a supporter and defender of science over superstition, I find it rather satisfying and reassuring to know that there are many examples of science being forced to re-evaluate itself when something has come along to upset the apple cart, so to speak. Yes, some of science’s hypotheses and theories have had to be amended; sometimes they have had to be discarded altogether. Over time, however, science is not kidding itself that it “knows everything.” Science leaves that claim to the woomeisters and the religious.

For the benefit of those who believe that science is dogmatic, at the same time as they believe science is always changing, I offer this advice to keep in mind as they pursue their research:

Arse elbow illustration 3

Learn that distinction and you’re on your way to understanding what science is all about.

Haunted Drivel–The Eerie Power Of Video Editing

GhostI found yet another paranormal “reality” TV show recently as I was idly flicking through the hundreds of channels available nowadays. This one is called Haunted Collector, and its theme (or gimmick, depending on your point of view) is that a demonologist (no less) heads up a ghost-hunting team that seeks to resolve paranormal problems by finding and removing supposedly haunted objects that are the focus or cause of whatever haunting they are investigating.

There is more information about the series at Wikipedia, and a rather less-restrained critique at Rational Wiki. Long story short: the team investigate a haunted location and subsequently identify an object that is haunted. The owner of the property is then offered the opportunity to have the object removed (free of charge) into the personal collection of the head ghost hunter, therefore also removing the haunting that has been going on. The fact that these items are often antiques, sometimes worth lots of money, is neither here nor there, of course. If someone is gullible enough to believe in ghosts, and stupid enough to hand over valuable antiques for someone else’s personal collection, that’s up to them, I suppose. There’s nothing illegal going on, apparently, but it must be ethically dubious at the very least.

What caught my attention in the episode I stumbled upon – about a supposed haunting in an old west brothel about to be converted into a modern hotel – was a glaring filming and editing blunder. To be honest, I wasn’t really studying the programme, but when I looked at the screen, I noticed some kind of mark or smudge near the centre of the picture. That was during a segment supposedly filmed in darkness with a night vision camera.

Here is the problem: as with all similar scenarios, the action and the conversation between the people involved was continuous and uninterrupted. When I’ve watched these things before, I’ve assumed that they must be using at least two cameras – maybe even three. Obviously, the pace of the action is more dynamic and engaging if different camera angles are used, thereby allowing each person’s dialogue to be intercut quickly, as well as their facial expressions as they react to whatever is supposed to be going on.

However, the same smudge appeared in every camera shot as the picture switched between the various characters, although their conversation appeared continuous and uninterrupted. This is where I call, “foul.” It looks like the mark in the picture would have been caused by some kind of contamination on the camera lens, but an identical mark would surely not be on a second, or third camera. And yet each cut from one person to another had that same mark spoiling the entire sequence. (In fact, when I looked across to watch this particular scene, I thought at first that there was a mark on the television screen itself, but it wasn’t that.)

It’s pretty clear that the scene I was watching was filmed on just one camera. And it seems reasonable to suppose that in a low light scenario the cameraman (or woman) would easily have failed to notice a small mark in the picture.

If that is the case, then it means that the whole scene was an act, rather than spontaneous and unrehearsed, as the viewer is led to believe. The only way the scene could have been done as presented would be to stop the action at certain points, and then for the people involved to carry on their dialogue after the camera operator has adopted a new point of view. Obviously, if that is the case, then it follows that the whole thing is a set-up; the shrieks of fright and everything else must be staged for the sake of dramatic effect rather than real reactions in a live, genuinely haunted situation. In other words, there were no truly spontaneous reactions to anything that was going on (if anything at all was going on).

I guess the mark on the camera lens was not noticed until some time later in the editing suite, but it would be too late by then to do anything about it. It’s unlikely that it would be possible to get everyone together again maybe weeks later to re-shoot it all, so there would be no choice but to use the footage they had. And a scene crucial to the whole show could hardly be left out.

Using a single camera but showing multiple camera angles is a legitimate technique most of the time. A TV news report will do the same thing by focusing on the interviewee, but later record the interviewer as he asks the same questions again, not to mention cutaway shots before or after the interview itself. That just makes that segment more interesting for the viewer, and as long as the edited version transmitted is accurate in its factual content, then that’s OK. For the creation of dramas, the technique is essential, but at least there is no pretence there that the production is live or anything other than fiction, produced for entertainment, and no one is pretending that what is being recorded is anything otherwise.

What you see is not always what really happened when you saw it. Misperception and misinterpretation of observed events explains a huge percentage of what many people think are actual paranormal events (not that you will ever convince a true believer they’ve got it wrong). So consider the possibility that a paranormal ghost-hunting show aimed specifically at the confirmed believer is using, essentially, actors merely pretending that something eerie is happening when it isn’t. Add to that some creative editing. Then think of the symbiotic relationship between the people who produce these TV programmes and the people who want to watch them to confirm their irrational beliefs. In this case, the viewer sees what he or she thinks is a live recording, but it’s nothing of the sort.

There are people who produce nonsense, and there are people who are prepared to pay for an endless supply of it. Market forces in action, perhaps, but it’s a dumbing-down overall. The people who eagerly watch this bilge are consumers, not thinkers. And the producers of the same bilge are just shrewd suppliers, filling (and sometimes creating) a demand in the marketplace, and perhaps also using the specific marketing techniques that will ensure a continuing supply of mugs dupes marks viewers.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a sceptic’s work is never done. Anyone who believes anything that is portrayed in this or any other ghost-hunt type show – especially anything supposed to be filmed with night vision cameras – is guilty of bad thinking.

Shame on the the perpetrators of such nonsense.

Creationism Is Not Science

IMG_20150110_175325My last post was a very brief answer to an article in the Shields Gazette on Thursday, 26th March 2015, in which Mike Hallowell complained that I have criticised his anti-scientific beliefs. I said I would give a fuller answer to his article on the Bad Thinking blog because his original article has not been published on the Gazette’s website. I obviously don’t have a right to reply there, but at least I can reply here.

Mike reckons he doesn’t have a problem with science itself, it’s the “culture that often surrounds it” that bothers him.

Mike says:

I don’t mind scientists telling me what they’ve discovered, but what I don’t take kindly to is being told what I should believe.

Give me the facts, but don’t get heavy-handed with me and tell me how I should interpret them.

In all probability I’ll bow to the expertise of scientists, but I reserve the right not to on occasion. And that’s what some individuals don’t like.

All creationists are happy to accept what science has to say, but only up to a certain point: if science comes up with something that happens to contradict a religious believer’s faith, then that is where their acceptance of scientific discovery stops.

Mike is under no obligation to believe what science has to say about anything, but what “some individuals don’t like” is the campaigning by many creationists to have religion taught in science classes. Religion and science are totally separate issues that are simply not compatible with each other.

Similarly, the so-called “debate” between evolutionists and creationists is a non-issue, except for the creationists. If they want to believe that a god or gods created the universe and the life within it, no one is stopping them from following their religious beliefs. Science would quite happily ignore religion if only religion would keep itself to itself. Unfortunately, religions do not produce new knowledge; what the religious believe is already written down and it would be considered blasphemous to question holy scriptures, so nothing in religion is going to be tested, questioned or changed in the light of new scientific research. Creationism is simply not scientific, and “creation science” is just an oxymoron.

I find it ironic, however, that the religious – like Mike in his article – refer to what they call “scientific dogma.” At the same time, they also claim – like Mike does in his article – that science changes, even to the point of discarding ideas that were eventually found to be wrong. He says science is dogmatic, in an article where he also says it is always changing. He appears to see no contradiction there.

But what about those scientists he mentions who had religious beliefs? After moaning that I have said in the past that if creationists could be reasoned with, there would be no creationists, he says;

I don’t know about you, but I find that sort of attitude appallingly arrogant, for it forces us to presume that great minds like Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Newton, Herschel, Joule, Pasteur and Kelvin were so beyond the pail (sic) of rational thinking that they could not be reasoned with.

As far as I have been able to determine, all of these geniuses believed in a creator.

What Mike says there is simply a red herring – a rhetorical device intended to divert his readers’ attention. Perhaps all the scientists he lists were believers in a creator; Isaac Newton in particular was a devout Christian, but he saw himself as merely discovering and describing what he believed was his god’s creation. Nowhere in his scientific writings does he invoke any supernatural explanation for any of his observations. Other scientists don’t appeal to the supernatural either.

The same applies when a similar argument is utilised with regard to the USA, for instance. Yes, it is a world leader in science; it is also a very religious (primarily Christian) country. But its scientific accomplishments are despite, not because of, the religiosity of its citizens. The science is done by (mostly godless) scientists, not by those who are motivated by, and seek, supernatural explanations for what we see in the world and the universe around us. The US constitution keeps religion out of state schools and universities. Keep in mind the fact that scientific breakthroughs come from purely secular institutions, not Bible colleges or any other religious organisation.

Natural events can be explained by natural causes, and you will not find any legitimate scientific research report appealing to the supernatural as a cause for anything. Whether the religious like it or not, science progresses while religion stagnates.

Mike then comments:

Swiftsure also admits that science “is not a perfect system” but if it isn’t perfect, why should people be ridiculed for rejecting some of the things science currently teaches?

It’s true that science isn’t perfect, but it’s the best system we have to find out about the objective reality that is out there. Those who reject science are ridiculed when they make claims that are, well, ridiculous.

Using the same oxymoron as above, Mike continues:

Many creation scientists have been bullied, harassed and threatened because they reject the theory of Darwinian evolution.

The point here, though, is that the people he refers to are not doing any actual science anyway. It’s a classic example of people who think their beliefs have – or should have – equal standing with empirical research, whining that science ignores them. If they could come up with solid evidence to support their beliefs rather than just trying to nit pick perceived faults with evolutionary theory then they would be taken seriously. But trying to replace established and well tested biological science with “God did it” isn’t good enough. Strong faith is regarded as an admirable characteristic in religion, but in science faith is a weakness (even a liability) not a strength.

Mike’s next comment merely illustrates that he is talking about things he does not understand:

I don’t get angry in the least when I hear people deny creationism, but I openly confess I do not like the high-handed, arrogant and often venomous way in which some evolutionists belittle those who do not agree with their views on the origin of life.

This is the standard trope of the typical uninformed creationist, who thinks that science is trying to compete with their particular god or gods. For Mike Hallowell’s benefit, let me make this point clear: no one knows how life originated. Science makes no claims about how life began (although there are people working on it). The theory of evolution has nothing to say about how life started. Evolution is a science that investigates how life evolved after it began, not how it came about.

The next thing Mike says is possibly the most eye-rolling of his diatribe:

We’re told science is “self-correcting”, [Mike is referring to me, again, informing him of that], but that’s a process which only works if one allows for dissent and open debate.

And you can’t have open debate if you believe those who disagree with you are too stupid to be reasoned with.

Creationists who disagree with science with regard to evolution are in the same situation as someone who disagrees with the accepted “dogma” that an internal combustion engine has to be operated with petrol or diesel fuel. Dissent and open debate are regular features of science – but that happens between scientists, who do change and adapt their theories in response to new evidence. But should a non-engineer who has no training in, and knows nothing about, engines be “debated” with? Such a person obviously can’t be reasoned with. That doesn’t mean they are stupid, but their ignorance can hardly be denied.

Mike is still on his high-horse, however. He says:

Many creation scientists have been bullied, harassed and threatened because they reject the theory of Darwinian evolution.

I don’t know about any literal bullying, harassment or threats that Mike mentions, although those people might interpret the rejection of their anti-scientific views as being that. In reality, creationists cannot get a foothold in academia for the simple reason that the very concept of “creation science” is a non-starter as a method of discovery. The only thing creationists do is to try to pick faults with existing evolutionary theory – particularly in areas where there is genuine disagreement between real scientists. Where there are areas in which scientists don’t know yet what is happening, creationists fill those gaps in knowledge with the all-encompassing and untestable “God did it.” The true purpose of creationism is to get rid of any aspect of science that contradicts the actual dogma of religion.

But Mike isn’t finished yet:

No matter how convinced you are about the wonders of science, just remember: behind every currently accepted scientific doctrine lies a long trail of discarded ones which seemed just as sensible in their day.

Unlike religion, of course, where the battle against disease and every other adversity we come across is fought the same as it always was: with faith, prayer and an assortment of rituals and incantations.

Science itself didn’t actually start on any particular date; it began when thinking people started to question religion. A drought was never overcome by prayer, for instance, but some people reasoned that bypassing gods and digging irrigation ditches would work – and it did. While some people were offering worship to their god during an outbreak of cholera, others were actually doing something useful – finding a source of clean water that was not contaminated with whatever was actually causing the disease. Those people were wrong when they thought cholera was caused by a miasma – a bad smell – and they discarded that idea when they found out about germ theory. Yes, that’s pretty much how science works – by keeping what works, and discarding what doesn’t. But Mike sees that as a bad thing.

Before science as we know it now, people were lucky if they lived to their mid twenties. It is the advancement of science that has brought us out of the dark ages, but it is the unchanging dogma of religion that would take us straight back there. And it might yet succeed. Mike, according to his article, is clearly also a global warming “sceptic,” (read, denialist) and he has the same complaints about science and what it has to say on the matter.

Unfortunately, the anti-science lobby is very influential, supported by religion and vested interests. However, when the rising water levels on this planet start lapping around the denialists’ ankles, they might start to pray, but by then it might also be too late. We have a realistic chance of avoiding disaster if we act now by listening to, and acting upon, what science has to say about it.

When the Earth becomes a water-planet with most of what is left of the land a parched wilderness, science will be able to do no more than say, “I told you so.” And the religious will replace their failed prayers with, “It was God’s will; we can’t do anything about it. Praise the Lord.”

If religion would stop trying to interfere with reality, we would all – including the religious – be much better off.

Meanwhile, here is a snapshot of our evolutionary history. No one is being told they have to believe it, it just happens to be true whether you believe it or not.

IMG_20150111_200601

Addendum: This is strange; the above article is now on the Gazette website here:

http://www.shieldsgazette.com/opinion/columnists/kicking-up-a-stink-over-origins-of-life-1-7178249#comments-area

It doesn’t appear on any of my feeds on any of several computers I use in different locations on different networks, and I came across it only by chance when I was looking for something else. Nevertheless, you can now click over there and read it; there are some interesting criticisms (at least there are at the moment; it’s not unknown for the Gazette to remove criticisms, so read now while you have the chance).

What’s the difference between a donkey and a UFO?

I recently came across another piece of inane blather from a self-styled paranormal “expert.” And it’s just too good to pass up.

This blog, Bad Thinking, is dedicated to exposing the logical fallacies and poor arguments used by the promoters of, and believers in, woo generally. I’ll not name the “expert” in question, but some people might take an educated guess – it’s more guff about UFOs, after all.

Like a lot of fallacies, this falls into an area of overlap, so to speak. And a lot of fallacies do. This could be called a category error, or it might be called a false analogy. It also comes under the heading of the appeal to popularity and, in the context of the original article, the appeal to authority. It’s one of those errors of reasoning that doesn’t fit neatly into one specific slot, but it’s an error of reasoning, nonetheless. But it’s also an exemplary example of how to fit so many fallacies into so few words.

First of all, I will give the relevant quote from the newspaper column I found it in. Here we go:

If 1,000 independent witnesses tell me they’ve seen a donkey running down the middle of King Street, odd though that may be, I’d be pretty tempted to believe them.

Why? Because the idea so many people would independently decide to tell such a fib without any apparent motivation is far more difficult to swallow than the idea of a donkey running down the street.

DonkeyThat’s from an article promoting the idea that UFOs and their alien pilots are here, but that it’s all being covered up by governments around the world, and we should all believe it because, well, you know, why demand evidence when other people say they’ve seen it – just believe what you’re told: lots and lots of people say so; what more do you need? And this author makes a living from writing about what other people say. Yeah, right…

Here’s a brief analysis of this published piece of certifiable bad thinking:

The fact is that

  • 1: There is no doubt that donkeys are real.
  • 2: There is plenty of justifiable doubt about the existence of aliens and their space ships visiting this planet.
  • 3: Unproven claims of UFOs are entirely different from claims about established facts (they are in different categories).

It wouldn’t take a thousand witnesses to convince me that they had seen a donkey running down the middle of my local High Street. Even if it seems unlikely, I would probably reserve judgement until I got some further confirmation (a report in the local newspaper, say) but I wouldn’t be too worried about it. After all, there are news reports from time to time about escaped animals causing havoc, so the idea of a donkey causing inconvenience to some local shoppers would be unusual, but not totally implausible, and certainly not impossible.

It wouldn’t even matter if just one person told me he had seen it himself, even if he just happened to be a pathological liar who had fabricated the whole story just to wind me up. That would not alter the fact that donkeys are real, and that no one disputes their existence.

UnicornWould the author of the article believe what he was told if a thousand people informed him that they had seen not a donkey, but a unicorn running down his local high street? Like UFOs, no one has presented compelling evidence – and especially not proof – of the existence of these mythical creatures, so believing an uncorroborated report of what is certainly an extraordinary claim would be irrational.

The same goes for UFOs. These alleged alien spacecraft are not proven to exist, however many former astronauts and military personnel claim to have had access to aliens and their technology. Many of these people are making a handsome living from their books, articles, public speaking engagements, television appearances and so on. But not one of them has provided testable and confirmable evidence of any of their claims.

Has NASA been exploiting alien technology since the so-called alien flying saucer crash in Roswell in 1947, as many conspiracy “theorists” assert? You might want to believe it, but I would point out that rockets are still using chemical propulsion to get into orbit, not anti-gravity devices. Has transportation been revolutionised by teleportation technology, or are we still using cars, trains and planes? Can anyone prove that the truly massive structures being designed and built nowadays are being put together using the same alien technology that some would have you believe was the only way that the ancient Egyptian pyramids could have been built? Is humanity so stupid that we can’t do anything ourselves on a big scale unless someone else from light years away just provides it for us?

To put it plainly:

  • The number of people who make a claim is irrelevant to the claim’s veracity (that’s the appeal to popularity).
  • The status of those people is also irrelevant, even if they are former military personnel or astronauts (that is the appeal to authority).
  • Claiming a link between things that have no connection is a category error, and also quite often an argument by false analogy.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; hearsay just won’t do if you want to be taken seriously.

The author of the article obviously thinks that claims about donkeys (which exist) are equivalent to claims about aliens (for which there is no evidence to show). He is wrong. Maybe he believes in flying horses and talking ants. Who knows?

Pegasus 

So the difference between a donkey and a UFO is simple: one of them really does exist; the other has as much evidence available for its existence as there is for unicorns, i.e., none at all.

Belief without evidence is called faith, and it is also bad thinking.