Tag Archives: Paranormal

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.

 

Edgar Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year, Old Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And don’t get me started about conspiracy theories:

 

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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.)

 

Harry Price: Ghost Hunter (TV Version)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

CARL-SAGAN-007

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.

Extraordinary Ignorance

The woo people don’t like it when they make a paranormal claim, only to be met with disbelief by rational thinkers. Are some people being abducted by aliens from another galaxy – or even another “dimension,” for example? Can some people really contact the dead? Is it really possible that others can bend metal using only the power of their mind? Is remote viewing for real?

For a sceptic like me, those claims – and many others like them – come under the heading of “extraordinary.” And what makes them extraordinary is the fact that no one who makes such claims can prove, in an objective way, that what they say is true. More importantly, however, they are all claims that do not align in any way with what we know about how the laws of nature work.

A claim that goes beyond what science knows about the universe and everything in it is definitely extraordinary. The woomeisters don’t help their case either when they try to hijack areas of science, making claims that science itself doesn’t. Sticking the word “quantum” into a pseudo-explanation of telepathy, for instance, is not an explanation at all – particularly since no one has even proven that telepathy is real.

Nevertheless, extraordinary claims about the paranormal continue, and because no one can actually prove them, there are several standard responses to sceptics about them that the believers and promoters have to rely on. One of the standby tropes they come out with to the sceptical notion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is one that I come across more and more often, which is:

What is extraordinary to you is ordinary to others, who experience it all the time.

The argument seems to go something like this: If you met someone who has never heard of TV, say, then the idea of seeing moving pictures together with sound, coming from a box sitting in the corner, would be an extraordinary claim to that person. But to you, it is within your ordinary, everyday experience, so it isn’t really an extraordinary claim, is it? So stop asking for extraordinary evidence for what some people regard as perfectly ordinary.

Anyone who thinks that is a good argument is guilty of bad thinking. Perhaps it could be called desperate thinking, because it is nothing more than an attempt to bypass the need for evidence. Some people might think they are experiencing paranormal phenomena, even on a regular basis, but that is the very thing that needs to be proven. If anyone doubts my claim that TVs exist, I can take them into any TV shop and they can see plenty of them.

Someone who has never heard of TV would be justified in doubting my claim if the best I could say to them was something like, “But it’s an everyday experience for other people.” They would be perfectly rational if they asked for evidence. They would be, well, sceptical. Should they be called pseudo-sceptics because they want evidence? And yet people like me are called pseudo-sceptics by the woo promoters and accused of being unfair or closed-minded for wanting confirmation that an unscientific – even antiscientific – claim is actually true.

Nearly a week ago, there was a huge earthquake in Nepal. Thousands of people have been killed, many more injured, and the full extent of the tragedy cannot be fully known yet because there are many areas cut off and unreachable. There have, however, been a few heartening stories coming out of the region, such as the fact that a young boy has been rescued alive this morning after being buried under rubble for five days. There will probably be others still buried but alive and hoping to be found.

This is a situation where those people who claim to have paranormal abilities could prove their claims beyond any doubt whatsoever. But I have to ask: where are all the remote viewers while all this is going on? They’re certainly not in Nepal pointing out to rescue workers where any survivors are buried. If they were, it would certainly make me sit up and take notice.

No, while paranormal promoters are busy right now telling us that all of the alleged powers they say are real and possessed by certain gifted individuals are not extraordinary at all, people are suffering and dying. For some reason, none of them seem to want to do their bit in a humanitarian effort to save lives. Why not – if these alleged abilities aren’t so extraordinary after all?

As I watch and read reports of this disaster, I start to feel rather annoyed. People who supposedly have miraculous abilities that could be saving lives right now in Nepal are rather silent at the moment. If some paranormal promoter says to me in the near future that extraordinary claims don’t need extraordinary evidence, I don’t think I’ll bother to engage them in a logical argument. The best answer I can think of at the moment is simple: “You’re full of shit.”

And I don’t think I’m making an extraordinary claim when I say that.