Category Archives: Psychics

SPR Has A New Website

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Lark In The Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.)

 

Grabbing The Mane Chance

CecilYou must have heard about Cecil the lion – killed by a dentist from Minnesota – news of which made many people down in the mouth. (I’m not biased against dentists, by the way; I look forward to going to see my own dentist, as it happens: for a busy person like me, it seems to be the only chance I get for a sit-down nowadays.)

Anyway, it’s bad enough that anyone thinks a good holiday is not complete without killing one of the most majestic creatures on the planet. But this dentist was not exactly putting himself in any danger by going on an organised hunt, so he isn’t any kind of hero. There is, however, a world-wide outcry about it and I suspect he’s having second thoughts now (hindsight is not as good as foresight, though).

But things get worse: the psychics have started cashing in. Well, one psychic at least, Karen Anderson, “animal communicator”, who would have you believe that she has “connected with Cecil the lion in the afterlife and has his final words for humanity.”

Get a load of this drivel from her Facebook page, where she announces that Cecil told her:

“Let not the actions of these few men defeat us or allow darkness to enter our hearts. If we do then we become one of them. Raise your vibration and allow this energy to move us forward. What happened does not need to be discussed as it is what it is. Take heart my child, I am finer than ever, grander than before as no one can take our purity, our truth or our soul. Ever. I am here. Be strong and speak for all the others who suffer needlessly to satisfy human greed. Bring Light and Love and we will rise above this.”

It must be good luck that Cecil spoke or thought in English rather than any of the indigenous African languages – or just “Lion”. (E.g., “Roar, growl, roar”.)

If you believe that load of old tosh, then you can hire her to contact any pets you might have had in the past, and it will cost you only $149 for thirty minutes on the phone.

But maybe there is some kind of connection between “psychic animal communicators” and lions; psychics and lions are both predators, after all. At least lions prey for survival, whereas psychics prey for monetary profit from gullible believers. No doubt the publicity generated for Anderson with her 1,500 “likes” on FB will boost her income, although I would have felt (slightly) less disdain towards her if she were advertising that she would be donating a substantial percentage of her increased income towards animal conservation in Africa.

No, there isn’t much good coming out of this whole sorry mess, unless the publicity coming from it can raise awareness of the need for conservation – not just of lions in Africa, but the bigger issue of conservation in general, including our own survival as a species in the face of major environmental concerns – pollution, global warming – in fact everything that conservative climate change denialists seem to hold dear.

In summary, a rich dentist thought is would be fun to spend thousands of dollars going on a holiday where he could kill a lion with no physical danger whatsoever to himself; a supposed psychic has jumped on the bandwagon and gained worldwide publicity for her business; a lion is dead. Who wins in a situation like this? The animal is dead, the dentist is being hounded, the psychic is cashing in.

Oh. The psychic wins. That’s who wins. A psychic sits on the sidelines and then just moves in to take advantage of the opportunity that presents itself. Just like your average predator, or, more accurately in this case, your average parasite, as it happens.

To be honest, this story is just one of many that I come across and shake my head at. It might be more significant to me right now just because our pet cat was old and ill, and I am the one who had the job of taking it to the vet this week to have it “put to sleep,” as it is euphemistically called. In reality, I took it to its death; it didn’t know what was about to happen to it, but in law it seems that if I knowingly allowed it to suffer unnecessarily, then I might be open to criminal charges of animal cruelty. Strange, isn’t it, that a rich dentist from Minnesota can pay for the pleasure of killing a cat, but I could face possible prosecution for not arranging to do the same, albeit without any pleasure whatsoever? (Yes, I realise the circumstances are not the same, but I hope you can understand what I am getting at. There is a difference between causing unnecessary suffering to an animal, and ending an animal’s unnecessary suffering.)

Enfield – Making A Paranormal Drama Out Of A Crisis (Maybe)

I watched the recent three-part TV drama, The Enfield Haunting, and I thought I might as well add my own review and analysis to the many that have already been presented.

The drama, based on Guy Lyon Playfair’s book, This House Is Haunted, was transmitted on Sky Living over three weeks. Starring Matthew Macfadyen as Guy Lyon Playfair and Timothy Spall as Maurice Grosse (the two main parapsychological investigators), the story was based on what was described as “real events” that occurred during an alleged poltergeist haunting that was investigated by Playfair and Grosse during the 1970s in a modest suburban home in Enfield, London.

Even as a sceptic myself, I have no problem with a good ghost yarn. And this was good – very good. The writing, the acting and everything else about it was superb. The drama of the situation was particularly enhanced by the attention to detail, especially with regard to the way a typical 1970s home might be decorated, although the fashionable colour schemes people liked in those days (browns, orange) would be out of place in anyone’s home nowadays. I remember that fashion in decor quite well, so it struck a chord with me, and it was easy to imagine myself being back in that era; it added to the overall effect for me. For a younger person used to modern light airy pastel decoration, I’m sure it would have added a certain ominous feel to it all, particularly given the careful application of lighting and shadow in the production, the effect no doubt used to enhance the overall sense of the sinister.

I won’t criticise the drama itself, although there are other aspects of the whole thing that I found rather troubling. First of all, it was promoted as being “based on real events.” Some people might dispute that. The original book, This House Is Haunted, came in for lots of criticism from sceptics (and still does, not surprisingly). The existence of poltergeists – like the existence of ghosts and other paranormal claims – is certainly not proven, but the danger of this type of drama is that it lends a faux legitimacy to it. It’s the same psychological process in action that affects a lady I know who once told me that psychics solve crimes (they don’t, of course), and it must be true because she has seen the “documentaries” on TV and she really thinks (as she told me in all seriousness) “They couldn’t put it on the telly if it wasn’t true!”

Perhaps many of the believing viewers of this drama have a similar mind-set. The claim that the story is “based on real events” might just translate in their own minds into the idea that it must be true because the TV people have actually made it into a TV drama (and “they couldn’t put it on the telly if it weren’t true”, could they?)

The programme is listed at the IMBD, and some of the comments are interesting; in particular, one commenter says, “I feel like the show has given me the belief in ghosts…” Maybe that’s someone who had no beliefs about the paranormal one way or another before he watched the series, but if that’s the case, then here is a new convert to the woo mind-set. And of course the existing believers will just have their beliefs confirmed and even reinforced.

I don’t have a link handy, but I know that Guy Lyon Playfair himself – the author of the original book – has complained that some of the drama contained events that did not happen. This combination of events being invented for dramatic purposes, together with the story being advertised as being based on “real events” gives an undeserved legitimacy to a story that is controversial, to say the least, but certainly not proven.

It’s bad enough that TV schedules are overflowing with pseudo-documentaries about alleged “ancient aliens,” UFOs, ghost-hunting capers filmed with night-vision cameras and all the rest of it without this sort of programme adding to the plethora of paranormal propaganda that airs non-stop on the seemingly unlimited number of TV channels available nowadays.

There’s a difference between a drama based on known and confirmed historical events, and a drama based on unconfirmed, but sensational, claims. The Enfield poltergeist case is one person’s personal account of alleged happenings that do not comport with what empirical scientific investigation has told us about the world we live in and the universe around us. It’s just not the same as something from history (even recent history) where the overall story and chain of events is known and not disputed, but which needs a dramatist’s talent to flesh out what might have happened behind the scenes, so to speak. OK, even that writer’s particular interpretation might be disputed, but that approach can be thought-provoking as well as controversial without anyone doubting that the events dramatised actually happened.

I have watched and enjoyed many dramatisations of historical events – from very old history to very modern history – and thought them to be intellectually stimulating and, to say the least, providing “food for thought.” They are the kind of programming that make it worthwhile to be a person with an inbuilt curiosity about what goes on in the world and what might make people do what they do. Human nature in action, dramatised in a way that one might or might not agree with, but at least the best drama makes you stop and think.

Although this particular dramatisation was good (even compelling) TV, it did not do anything to promote what the world really needs – thinking people. To paraphrase Carl Sagan (very loosely, in my own words): we live in a technological world where hardly anyone understands it; we’re finished if so many people are going to spend their lives believing so much claptrap when we actually need more people who will be interested in reality.

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Entertainment is OK, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that modern society is heavily dependent on science and technology. Some of the best science fiction has inspired many of today’s scientists to do what they are now doing, and I would argue that TV should produce more science-based fiction rather than woo-based fiction. However good a drama might be in its own right, I think there’s a case to be made for TV producers to keep a firm eye on what is real.

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.

Science Doesn’t Know Everything

MP900341489It’s true – science doesn’t know everything. It’s also true that science has been wrong about things in the past. There have also been cases of scientists committing fraud by falsifying their research results, and some of the big research companies have not exactly been untouched by charges of outright corruption. I’ve even highlighted some of that on this blog myself. So is it time to give science the heave-ho?

Actually, although science has to face up to the same problems that confront every other institution or business, it is in fact the most valuable and successful enterprise humanity has ever created.

It goes without saying, of course, that the religious and the woo people don’t like it because it usually contradicts their cherished beliefs. Religious and paranormal claims have nothing to support them by way of testable hypotheses: science cannot even confirm that anything supernatural or paranormal is happening anyway, never mind what these mysterious forces might be. What is “psychic energy,” for example? Science happens to be very good at detecting and measuring energy, so why can’t it detect so-called psychic energy? Is it just because science doesn’t know everything?

When you get down to it, though, the religious and the woomeisters accept and rely on science in every aspect of their lives except one specific area – their own particular, closely-held cherished beliefs. I detect some hypocrisy here.

Take religion, for example. Ask a believer to do something extraordinary by prayer (that they believe works), and you get a refusal because “it doesn’t work like that.” God will not be put to the test, or some such excuse. A religious person whose life is saved by medical science prays to and thanks their particular god for their cure; the physician or surgeon who did it gets a polite thank you as an afterthought.

Take woo in general. If you meet someone who claims to be psychic, ask for next Saturday’s lottery numbers, but you will be told “It doesn’t work like that.” (Psychic powers are rare and elusive and can’t be called up at will – or any of a list of similar excuses.)

For these people, science is regarded as useless – only because science doesn’t support their beliefs. But science is not about belief, it is about things that can be tested. When yet another psychic fails an objective test of his or her powers, there is always an (untestable) excuse for their failure. Does the presence of an unbeliever (a sceptic) really “upset the vibrations”? What vibrations? Psychic vibrations? What are they and how can they be tested?

The remarkable aspect of all investigations into the alleged paranormal is that parapsychologists assume the existence of the paranormal only because they are unable to find a natural explanation for what they can’t explain. It’s a bit silly, if you consider it for a moment: “I have observed something; I can’t think of how it could have been done by normal means; therefore it is paranormal activity.”

Personally, I have watched magicians do things that I can’t explain. Then again, after some consideration, I have been able to work out for myself how some of those tricks were done. There are many other tricks that I cannot work out. But one of my correspondents told me some time ago that he had interviewed Uri Geller who, he believes, bent one of his keys, and he “knows” that Geller (magician) just could not have fooled him.

Similarly, some years ago, when I was arguing a point on another blog, I asked my correspondent if he would be confident enough to sit with me in a theatre, watching a stage magician, and explain to me as the act went on, just how those tricks were being done. I got no reply of any significance to that, but I think he might have realised that maybe he, like me, cannot just see through the trickery and deception that stage magicians use to entertain us all. But some alleged psychics do the same thing – is there a good reason to think that just because you can’t immediately explain something unusual that it must be paranormal, supernatural or just actual magic?

Science tries to find out what is going on out there. It’s true that science doesn’t know everything, and there are lots of gaps, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to fill in those gaps with guesswork that just happens to align with their personal beliefs. In fact, historically, every time science takes a step forward, religion and woo have to take a step back. Those gaps are closing.

It’s an easy claim, of course: “Science doesn’t know everything, therefore this or that paranormal or supernatural claim must be true by default. What else could it be?” But look at it this way: does science know more than it did last year? What about the state of scientific knowledge a hundred years ago? Until the late 19th century, science as we understand it now was called “natural philosophy,” but in those days science – a systematic search for knowledge – was still going on.

Think back to the ancient Greeks (or should that be the ancient Geeks?). Although they believed in gods, the work they produced was nothing short of astonishing. Eratosthenes worked out that the Earth is a sphere (approximately), and its size to within a few miles, for example, although in the same society Socrates was regarded as something of a heretic and was sentenced to death. Rather like today, any scientific research is OK just so long as it doesn’t contradict religious dogma.

Clever as they were, though, the Greeks didn’t develop radio telescopes, space flight, antibiotics, electricity, computers, the internet, a theory of nuclear fusion (they thought the Sun was a burning hot stone), a theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, a global positioning system, television, radio, etc., in other words, all of the things we just accept as normal nowadays. Philosophy preceded natural philosophy, which in turn preceded science as we know it now. Back in those days, there was plenty of scope to say philosophy (science, in other words) “doesn’t know everything.”

Things weren’t much different from now, two and a half thousand years ago, when it comes to wanting to know what makes the Earth and the universe “tick.” As clever as the Greeks were, they still had the same psychology that humans have today – an inbuilt need for answers. Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to accept any answer, however wrong it might be, just to feel that they know what is out there. Thunder and lightning? If you don’t know about electrical charge and how it builds up in a cloud, leading to a lightning strike, then a made-up angry god will be a good enough explanation. And once you and your tribe have that belief built into your culture, woe betide any upstart philosopher, natural philosopher or scientist who tells you that you don’t need to sacrifice animals – or humans – to appease this non-existent god. The philosopher or scientist who shows that disaster can be avoided with a lightning rod could end up on a pyre for disagreeing with accepted religious doctrine.

SAM_0423I notice, however, that every church I pass when I drive around just happens to have a lightning conductor that reaches even above the steeple of that church. Why should that be? And why should that piece of copper cable reach higher towards God than the top of the steeple itself? Maybe it’s a better protector of God’s house than God himself.

The empirical knowledge we have now is way beyond anything the ancient Greeks had, and since then, that knowledge has increased and is still increasing. And over the last two and a half thousand years, there has been opposition to scientific knowledge from ignorant people – often as a mob – who think they have some insight unavailable to those who actually test and measure the universe around us. From the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by (probably) a Christian mob, to the famous book burnings by the Nazis in the middle of the 20th century, to the burning of priceless books and the destruction of ancient relics right now at the Mosul Library in Iraq by Islamic militants, the fight against knowledge by the ignorant continues.

Although it’s true that science doesn’t know everything, it knows more and more as time goes by, steadily closing the gaps that were formerly filled by claims of a god or gods. But science knows better than the ignorant that as questions about the universe are answered, more questions are thrown up in their wake. That’s what spurs science on.

The religious can claim, “God did it,” as if that answers anything at all, but religion does not lead to new knowledge, it leads to stagnation.

The paranormalists also stop further inquiry by not only failing to demonstrate anything paranormal, but by excusing their failure to do so by criticising science – those closed-minded researchers who are hell-bent on “preserving scientific dogma at all costs.” But while they accuse science of preserving some imagined, unchanging dogma, they also claim that science is always “changing its mind” about things.

The reality is that science tests the testable. It makes no attempt to actually explain nature, science merely describes nature. Why nature and the laws of physics are the way they are will likely never be explained. But the facts of nature and the laws of physics can be described and utilised for our benefit, even if no one will ever know “why” they are the way they are.

I don’t why E=MC^2, but it does. So we have GPS satellite navigation, nuclear reactors providing our electricity needs and so on. When you get down to it, piety and prayer provide nothing of practical value in the world, paranormal claims provide nothing of practical value in the world, no amount of belief in anything gives us anything of any use whatsoever.

If you have an electricity supply in your home; a connection to a safe water supply available, literally on tap; if you can access the internet or health care or even a library, then you are reaping the benefits brought about by science. If you really want to claim that because science challenges your deeply held beliefs that it doesn’t support, then just stop using science and its benefits. You don’t have to go far to prove you are right and science is wrong; just contact your energy supplier and have your electricity supply cut off. If you have a gas supply for your heating, that’s even better – have that disconnected too. Have your water supply stopped. Pray to your god to sustain you, or use your psychic powers to survive. If you can do it, science can measure it and confirm that there is something going on here.

That’s not going to happen, is it? In the meantime, science might not know everything, but it works. Religion and woo don’t.

Then again, I’m a sceptic. I can change my mind in the same way that science changes in the light of new evidence. Show me the evidence. Or show me next week’s lottery numbers. Or create world peace with a prayer.

The Myth Of The Psychic Disclaimer

You might have noticed that “psychics” advertise their shows (in the UK, anyway) with a disclaimer, the wording of which will usually say that the performance you are paying to see is “for entertainment only,” and should be regarded as “an experiment,” because the nature of the presentation “is considered controversial by some.”

Such a disclaimer for psychics is quite new, and has only been common since the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 was repealed. Since then, psychics have to be wary of The Consumer Protection From Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which puts psychics in the same category as double glazing salesmen and any other trader. In short, the claims made by the person concerned should be fair, honest, truthful, etc. If you are paying money for goods or services, you are entitled to get what you pay for.

Although some disclaimers in business are fair, in that they give customers honest information, some can be unfair and possibly illegal. A car servicing business, for example, that crashes your car cannot escape its obligation to take reasonable care of your property by having a notice on display saying that they do not accept responsibility for any damage they cause.

When it comes to psychics, I have to ask myself: if they really can contact the dead, why do they need a disclaimer anyway? Surely you would think something was wrong if your dentist had a notice in his surgery informing you that your scheduled root canal surgery is “experimental” and “purely for entertainment.”  No, you expect him or her to be suitably qualified and experienced, and not relying on disclaimers. He is already fully trained and regulated by a professional body that exists to maintain professional standards.

That’s not the case with psychics, not least because no one has ever proven the existence of an afterlife, much less the idea that the dead can communicate with the living. Psychics do not have to prove their alleged abilities to an official regulatory or professional body (there aren’t any of course), so the only protection ordinary consumers have is through the law.

But let’s be clear about something here – although some psychics claim that they are required to display a disclaimer because of “the law” or “the regulations,” there is no such requirement at all:

Psychics are not required by law to have a disclaimer.

The purpose of a psychic’s disclaimer is to protect that psychic from being prosecuted for providing a service that is not real (even if a psychic honestly believes they can contact “the other side”). By saying that a disclaimer is displayed because of the regulations or the law, they give the false impression that they have no choice legally but to have a disclaimer. I’m finding it more and more common that supporters of psychics do believe that they have no choice in the matter. “Psychics have a disclaimer because that’s the law,” is a phrase I am hearing more often nowadays, but  it is not true.  

No psychic has a legal obligation to display a disclaimer of any kind regarding their claimed abilities, any more than a heart transplant surgeon has to have a disclaimer in the operating theatre telling his patients they are there “for entertainment purposes only.”

A psychic cannot be prosecuted for “Failure to have a disclaimer.”  

No, I don’t buy it. The reality is that if psychics didn’t bother with their disclaimers, then there would likely be a flood of complaints to consumer protection departments around the country. They would be required to prove their claims or be prosecuted, but as we all know, there isn’t a psychic in the world who has ever proven they have powers over and above the power of wishful thinking. I don’t think a Trading Standards officer, or a court of law, is going to be converted to a belief in the paranormal by a psychic,under oath, gushing the usual, “I’m getting a “J” or a “J – sounding” name; does that mean anything to you?”

It’s quite simple, really, a genuine psychic would have no need for any disclaimers, yet they use them as a shield to protect themselves from prosecution because they know that without it they would be facing fraud charges in a court of law – and that, I think, is the only predictive power they have (which doesn’t need any paranormal ability at all).

My own opinion is that any psychic who displays a disclaimer is also someone who admits that they know they could not pass an objective test of their professed paranormal abilities. The famous psychics almost always refuse the many challenges that are out there to be objectively tested; the few who have, have failed and then vanished into obscurity; some lesser-known psychics have failed such testing and then later rationalised their way out of their failures but are still in business, and some unknowns have tried to beat the statistical odds and failed miserably but without having anything to lose by trying.

How nice it would be if a psychic’s disclaimer could say something like:

This show is for entertainment purposes only, and I’m telling you that because if I didn’t,  I could be prosecuted, fined, possibly jailed and be shown to be a complete and utter fraud who has been demonstrated to be a heartless conman/woman who has no scruples about ripping off gullible (and often very vulnerable) people without compunction and worse than that, I could lose a lucrative income because of it even though I think that I might be genuine in my belief that I can communicate with the dead, but if I’m not a fraudster then I am at least just a deluded but well-meaning person who thinks I can put you in touch with your deceased loved ones, which gives me genuine satisfaction as I think about it when I drive back to my luxury home in my luxury car, paid for by you, my followers, some of whom have paid money you can’t really afford, to hear me tell you, in all honesty on my part, that I really believe I got the letter “J” and it was meant just for you.

Please note: no one claiming to have psychic abilities has ever passed an objective, scientific test of their claimed paranormal powers (including me) and I refuse to undertake any such test, so if I give you statements from your deceased loved ones that contradict what you know about them, then keep in mind the fact that you have already been told that you are here to be entertained, not that you will be given accurate information from the “other side” (whatever your own interpretation of that means, but that’s up to you and has nothing to do with me).

If psychics are real, there is no need for a disclaimer, and there is certainly no legal requirement for those people to use one if they can really do the paranormal feats they claim. So why do they use them?

If there really were a law that insisted that psychics, mediums and all the rest of them had to have some kind of notice presented at their shows, I think it should read something like:

No one who claims to have psychic abilities has ever proven that their claims are real; there are, however, many purported psychics who have been demonstrated to have been frauds, and some of those have been jailed because they have defrauded innocent people. You are paying money to see someone who claims to be able to put you in touch with your deceased relatives, but who has not proven their so-called paranormal abilities in any objective sense. If you are dissatisfied with the service you have paid for, please telephone [the number of the local Trading Standards office] who will be happy to take up your complaint on your behalf. You might be entitled to substantial compensation after the subsequent legal proceedings.

That’s more like it. That’s what I call consumer protection! And even better than that, not a single psychic has made any comments on this post before it went live. How do you explain that? Eh? Eh?

To put it bluntly, if the paranormal were real then it would be an accepted part of science, regulated in the same way as science-based medicine is recognised. Psychics would have to undergo rigorous training followed by stringent exams, after which they would be licensed to practise by an accredited regulatory body that would constantly monitor their performance (not their “performances,” maybe). Their right to continue working would be dependent on their tested and proven ability, not a disclaimer.

Some people, unfortunately, make life-changing and sometimes personally destructive decisions based on what they are told by some psychics. If a doctor is negligent and causes harm, then there is at least some recourse to be had through the doctor’s professional body, and sometimes a doctor could be prosecuted for malpractice – maybe even jailed for it for disregarding his training and legal obligations to his patients.

That’s not the case with psychics. No training, no exams, no accreditation, no accredited professional body, no accountability, no responsibility, but lots and lots of money to be made. If you come to harm by following any advice given to you by a stage psychic, just remember that the advice they gave you that you followed was provided as part of a stage show you attended in which you implicitly agreed to absolve the psychic from all personal responsibility whatsoever.

Nice work if you can get it –  just display a disclaimer and the law can’t touch you.

Maybe it’s time for a new campaign – a campaign to make it illegal for anyone to make money from their claim to be a psychic unless they prove they can do what they say they can do. You can’t set yourself up as a doctor, gas fitter, lawyer or a host of other professionals without validation, so I think it’s about time the same thing applied to anyone who claims to talk to the dead (and get them to talk back, of course). And – like any other real professional person – no disclaimers allowed.

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Bad Thinking Disclaimer – The advice given on this blog is based on logic and rational thinking. If you disagree with anything posted here, then you are probably wrong. Read this blog at your own risk. The author accepts full responsibility for any reader who, after studying its contents, converts from Bad Thinking to rational thinking.

One last thought: it’s OK to ridicule something that happens to be ridiculous. I found this illustration on Twitter; unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to find its origins so I can’t offer full credit. Nevertheless, it’s so funny I’ll republish it here and see if the author wants to be credited, which I don’t mind, of course. (I think it was meant for as wide a publication as possible anyway.)

IMG_20141028_180031

 

Psychic Threatens To Sue Sceptic; Husband Threatens To Have Him “Lifted” And “Disappear”

Celebrity litigant psychic Sally Morgan possibly failed to foresee the Streisand Effect that is surely about to strike after she threatened to sue a sceptic – and her husband threatened to have him “lifted” and “disappear.” Legal threats combined with physical threats? I’m going to be following this with some interest.

The story can be found at The Guardian. It turns out that a sceptic went to one of Morgan’s shows and handed out leaflets to the audience as they entered. The leaflets themselves were not in any way libellous, but Morgan’s husband John made physical threats, which were followed up by legal threats from the “psychic to the stars” herself. (Apparently, Princess Diana was a client, but somehow died in a car crash – perhaps, in the throes of romance and love with Dodi,  she just forgot the warning that Sally must surely have given her? I don’t know, I’m not psychic. It’s just guesswork on my part, so maybe I am psychic by some standards.)

If you read the Guardian article and follow the links in the story, you will soon get the picture better than I can explain it. It’s also worth looking at what the Good Thinking Society has to say about Sally Morgan’s tactics; there is also information about Psychic Awareness Month that’s also worth reading.

In the meantime, I have my own thoughts on the subject.

Anyone can talk to the dead – it’s true! However, there is not a shred of testable, confirmable evidence – and certainly no proof – that the dead can talk back. I will illustrate that with a graphic I have used before:

the_data_so_far

Credit to xkcd.

Sally Morgan has been invited in the past to demonstrate her paranormal abilities under scientific, controlled conditions, but for some reason has declined to do so. She didn’t accept the challenge, so there is no logical reason to conclude that she would have just become part of the right hand column, but if she had agreed to participate in the offer, then she could have become the first psychic in the world to have made a score in the left hand column. Sadly, it was not to be. Rather than demonstrate her psychic powers in a way that would finally force science to acknowledge the existence of the paranormal, she did the same as other alleged psychics and refused to prove conclusively that she has the powers she claims to have. You could almost see it coming. (I don’t think any sceptics were surprised, but their predictions that she wouldn’t go for it were not based on anything paranormal, just the regular refusal of almost every prominent fortune teller to be tested. Nothing new there.)

I have food for thought, though. I was watching one of her TV shows one night, and I Googled the name of the celeb she was talking to. Several references came up, so I connected to the various websites listed – official site, fan sites and so on. It was quite amazing, really, because everything Sally told the celeb about herself was true. And I know it was true, because almost everything Sally told her was right there on the internet in front of me! How do you explain that? Eh? Eh?

Anyway, I think this story is going to get a bit of mileage so it’s worth keeping an eye on. In the meantime, my sceptical powers (that I have vowed to use only for good) tell me that Sally Morgan will never submit to any objective test of her paranormal claims. (Then again, I’m a sceptic, so I have to admit I might be wrong about that. Any bets?)

The South Shields Poltergeist – TV Documentary Even More Dire Than The Book

20140118_113858-1When The South Shields Poltergeist was published in 20o8 it came in for heavy criticism from the outset. The book was written by Mike Hallowell and Darren Ritson, described  on Mike Hallowell’s website by veteran paranormal writer Guy Lyon Playfair as two “dedicated amateurs.” But dedicated or not, the result was a totally unconvincing account of an alleged poltergeist haunting in an otherwise normal household. [The link or its contents might change later, but I have a copy of the page to resolve any disputes about its contents that might arise later.]

Most of the criticism the authors faced when the book was published (apart from the fact that it was utter tosh) was the fact that they have not publicly released any of the evidence they say they have that would support what they believe to  be a genuine case of paranormal activity. Among the many excuses they made for not publicising their evidence was the claim that to do so might compromise the possibility of having a TV documentary made if a producer could not have access to evidence that had not been used elsewhere. (The authors also lambasted their critics for criticising them without examining their evidence, oblivious to the fact that they would not let anyone else see it anyway, except fellow believers who also would not – or were not allowed to – release it into the public domain.)

Well, things might change now because a Canadian company has produced a “documentary” that features the eponymous spirit, and you can see it online at this link. (Until recently it could not be viewed from the UK unless one went through a proxy server, but the link appears to be working now – at least as I write this.) So now that their long hoped for documentary has been made, perhaps Mike and Darren will be releasing their long awaited confirmation of a genuine poltergeist event?

Personally, I think there’s a better chance of Myleene Klass turning up at Mike’s front door wearing nothing but baby oil and a smile, asking, “How about it, big boy?” (At least there is no doubt that Myleene exists, so the possibility is there, however remote that possibility might be.)

The documentary itself deals with three alleged poltergeist hauntings, including the South Shields case. It’s embarrassing to watch, however, because the standard techniques of the woo documentary makers are clear to see. For example, dramatic reconstructions that bear no resemblance to reality are the norm in this sort of show, and anyone who has read the actual book will realise that there is no similarity between the photographs of the house portrayed in the book, and the overly dramatic and sinister portrayal of the house in the documentary.

It appears that none of the authors’ original “evidence” has been used anyway, and especially not the absurd “bottle footage” that Mike had removed from the internet after it came in for so much laughter and derision, even from people who believe in the paranormal.

There is, however, some sceptical input from Chris French, who says that the most likely explanation for events like this can be hoaxes, misperceptions of events and so on. But later, the host of the show, Darryll Walsh asks what the scientific evidence says about it all – but does he return to Chris French or go to any other scientist? No, of course not; his first “scientific analyst” is Guy Lyon Playfair, non-scientist, who reckons it must be real (he’s been writing about the paranormal for decades, after all, so you just have to take his word for it.).

The other “scientific” answer from a non-scientist comes from Alan Murdie, a British barrister who is also chairman of The Ghost Club Of Great Britain. Unfortunately, like his commentary here, he presents his case in the manner of a lawyer defending a client he knows to be guilty. No doubt the believers will lap it all up. [I have a copy of that page, too, just in case.]

Obviously, neither the book nor this pathetic excuse for a documentary has a believability level that has drawn the serious (like, it’s real) attention of any reputable news organisations – the BBC, for instance – or any genuinely scientific organisation. It’s one for the seriously dedicated believer who doesn’t have the time or the inclination to be weighed down with the burden of thinking for him or herself.

But I like to be optimistic about things, so the fact that the long-awaited documentary has now materialised, as it were, means that perhaps now is the time that Mike and Darren will release all that evidence they say they have, and prepare to be invited to present their findings at the Royal Institution, followed by the presentation of their joint Nobel Prize for discovering a hitherto unknown force of nature that  goes beyond – or even explains – the quantum physics that the most brilliant minds on Earth have been struggling with for over a hundred years.

(No, I don’t think so, either.)

(The woo brigade are always claiming “quantum” this, “quantum” that, after all, despite the fact that no quantum physicist would entertain such nonsense for a moment. Even if there are any scientists familiar with quantum physics who believe in the paranormal and think it can be explained by subatomic phenomena, not one of them has provided evidence, proof or even a mathematical foundation for such claims.)

But the documentary is now out, and with the help of my sceptical powers (that I have vowed to use only for good), I predict that the authors of this bedtime story will still find excuses for not showing us the evidence.

The book’s hype says that this is one of the most disturbing books you will ever read. That might be true for the uncritical believers, but for the rest of us, it’s just a bit disturbing that there are that many credulous people around to spend the money that keeps this sort of nonsense in vogue. As for the “documentary,” I can see the authors’ fans wetting themselves in fear, while everyone else is wetting themselves with laughter.

In the UK, like many other countries, it is a legal requirement that all children receive at least a basic education, but it’s not a legal requirement that anyone has to learn anything. The ones that don’t are the people that keep this nonsense alive because of bad thinking.