Tag 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.

 

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.)

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.

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?)

They Called Me A Pseudoskeptic!

No, I don’t believe there is anything paranormal going on. I’m sceptical of extraordinary claims that the psi folk make but which they cannot confirm. It would be different, perhaps, if psychics really did solve crimes, or predict lottery numbers, or if minefields were being routinely cleared by dowsers, or if anything – anything paranormal at all – could be proven clearly and unambiguously.

It seems, however, that anyone like me who doubts the existence of any of the myriad claims made about the paranormal is not merely a sceptic, but a pseudosceptic. Gosh! I need testable, confirmable evidence before I will believe that a claim that contradicts the known physical laws might be true! I just don’t have faith, and that won’t do.

I’ve been called a pseudoskeptic often by the believers, who seem to think that a “true sceptic” is someone who goes through the motions of examining the evidence offered by the psi proponents, and thereafter accepts it uncritically. In fact, it is claimed that the reason people like me do not accept the paranormal is because I just haven’t examined the evidence. But the opposite is true: I spend as much – or more – time looking at paranormal claims and the supposed evidence supporting it as I do reading about actual science. And I find the evidence in favour of the paranormal woefully inadequate. But I do have a knowledge of science and its methodology, although I make no claims to be a practising scientist.

The believers put great emphasis on the research offered by parapsychologists – often people who do actually have scientific credentials. It sounds good to say that scientists have proven the existence of psi; they have Ph.D. qualifications (usually), so what more do I want? Am I just rejecting science that does not conform to my personal prejudices – as the believers claim?

Actually no – I am rejecting research that no mainstream scientist can replicate. That’s a key point, because nothing is accepted in science unless it can be replicated, and even then it can take a long time to overcome the scepticism of other scientists. Plenty of parapsychologists have claimed to have found proof of psi, but if it only happens in their own laboratories, and no-one else can reproduce the same results and there turns out to be absolutely no practical benefits from it, then why believe? If the psi believers and researchers cannot provide evidence that stands up to independent scrutiny then it is reasonable to doubt the claim – to be sceptical, even. After more than a hundred and fifty years of scientists dabbling in paranormal research there is not one single practical application that has come out of any of it. Of course I’m sceptical – any rational person should be.

In the real world, paranormal claims fall flat. Psychics simply do not do the things they – and others – claim for them.

Consider this scenario:

You meet someone who claims to be a concert pianist. He is with a group of his friends who all confirm his story and even offer anecdotes about the concerts he has performed in the past. They tell you that he has been tested by qualified music examiners and passed every test and exam they have put to him. They regale you with accounts of this pianist performing musical feats that seem impossible to you, a non-musician. You protest that there is no evidence that this person has any musical ability, so why should you accept such a claim?

The matter can be resolved, however: there is a piano in the room, so you invite this pianist to play something. You propose that even though you are not a musician, you will accept the claim that this person is at least a pianist if he can play a recognised piece of classical piano music. You will even leave the choice of music to him, just so long as it is a known classical piece. You are not going to accept “Chopsticks” – you want some kind of Waltzy Sonata or something; nothing less will do.

If this person sits down and plays, say, Mozart’s Alla Turka, note-perfect, I think I would be be convinced. And so should any other reasonable person.

But what if your request for the alleged pianist to perform as he claims he can is met with the reply, “It doesn’t work like that”? That’s the standard reply from psychics and their supporters, after all.

And what if you are told that because you are sceptical of his abilities, his musical abilities will not manifest themselves – that’s the way it is in the presence of sceptics and unbelievers?

Suppose he said that he will not do it because the piano that is there is an upright, and the performance of music on anything less than a Steinberg  grand piano is “not conducive” to musical performance?

What if he said to you, “The production of music is a rare and elusive phenomenon that cannot be called up at will”?

Maybe he might say, “Musical phenomena are spontaneous and cannot be predicted, so I can’t be expected to perform on demand.”

OK, then, suppose he finally agrees to do the test and sits down at the piano, only to produce nothing more than a jumble of notes with no melody whatsoever. He might acknowledge that he got it wrong then, but he assures you that he gets it right about eighty or ninety percent of the time, i.e., every time you are unable to see or hear him perform.

By now I think I would conclude that this fellow can’t play a piano. I might even tell him to his face that I don’t believe he has any musical ability.

But then his followers would probably call “foul.” They just know that he can do what he claims, because they have heard him with their own ears, not realising that they are themselves tone deaf and have no knowledge of music theory.

In a similar way, psychics and their supporters are like that. They have lots of faith, but no knowledge of how science works, or even what constitutes valid evidence (and no, anecdotes are not evidence).

If you have watched some of the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent auditions by people who are truly awful singers but who – together with their supporters – believe they are great performers, you might start to understand my analogy. The show’s judges – who do know something about music – can usually be relied on to weed out the hopefuls who cannot do what they think they can.

The reality is not that I have not studied what the paranormalists believe is evidence for the paranormal; in fact,  they themselves have little or no understanding of science. Even many of the parapsychologists who do have scientific credentials are themselves practising pseudoscience. In fact the believers often dismiss empirical findings with the casual refrain, “Science doesn’t know everything.” Some self-styled “experts” also claim to have evidence but they just won’t let you examine it. And science itself is usually referred to by the derogatory term “scientism.”  Oooooh!

If there is such a person as a pseudosceptic, then its definition boils down to this: a pseudosceptic is another name for a denialist. A denialist, like a believer, has a fixed point of view that is impervious to reason. I can be convinced of the existence of the paranormal if anyone can ever prove it. A belief backed up only by excuses for constant failure will not do it for me; nor will anecdotes, personal testimony, heartfelt declarations and so on.

Show me a psychic that can actually do anything psychic and I will accept it. But make a claim for the existence of psi without backing it up with testable evidence and I will doubt it. That’s what scepticism is about.

For your entertainment:

Here is someone who claims to be a pianist, and actually proves it. This is brilliant.

Someone who does what he claims.

 

Here are some people who genuinely believe they have talent, but are making complete fools of themselves. Tragic and sad.

Ambition goes beyond ability

 

Here are some psychics who do what psychics do, (fail when tested) but just happen to be exposed as charlatans. (And they didn’t see it coming, for some inexplicable reason.)

Psychics: the reality

 

Naturally, it might just be that the three mediums featured above were just having an off day. I mean, psi doesn’t work like that, does it? It’s a rare and elusive phenomenon that can’t be called up at will. They are also in the presence of a sceptic and the conditions are therefore not conducive to psychic effects Etc., etc., etc.

No doubt there will be believers who will make excuses – as they always do – for these psychics and other psychics who can’t do anything psychic. But the main point still remains: paranormal proponents have yet to prove beyond any doubt that the paranormal is real. They have not done that, nor have they produced a testable hypothesis that would make any headway into psi, and they certainly do not have anything approaching what could be described as a theory (in the scientific sense) that can explain psi or be predictive in any way that science would accept.

No one can prove a negative, so no one can actually disprove the existence of the paranormal. The burden of proof is on those who claim that the paranormal is real; until they do so, I remain sceptical.

There is nothing pseudo about reasonable doubt.

Wrapping Up 2013 And Looking Forward To 2014

Well, it’s the end of another year and the beginning of the next, so I thought I’d do a roundup of the successes of psychics and other proponents of the paranormal, and the breakthroughs made by parapsychlogists. The list of notable positive achievements by the exponents of psi, UFOs, remote viewing, astrology, spiritualism, remote viewing, spoon bending, psychokinesis, exorcism, telepathy, ghost hunting, poltergeists, etc., is as follows (in no particular order):

1) Erm…

2) Yeah, right.

3) Umm…

4) That’s about it, actually.

seance

And the list of achievements for the practitioners of the various and assorted forms of medical quackery out there is:

1) Oh, give me a break…

2) What about a list of dangerous quacks who should be jailed…?

3) Really – don’t get me started.

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Actually, when I thought of doing a year-end round up, I thought of doing a comprehensive list of links to the failures of various psychics, deaths by exorcisms, people being duped out of their life savings by “money cleansers,” false or wrong predictions by clairvoyants, the failure of any pseudoscientific paranormal research to be published in any accredited scientific journals, the astoundingly stupid publications of self-professed but qualification-free “experts” in the paranormal, stage and TV psychics who aren’t really psychic otherwise they wouldn’t advertise their shows as being “for entertainment only” if they really were psychic (and if they were they would be able to prove it), dead people who eschewed medical science in favour of any form of quackery you can think of, and the list goes on and on and on. But a list of links like that could go on indefinitely, and I would guess that no one would have the inclination – or the stamina – to go through it all.

The bottom line is straightforward: there is still no confirmable evidence that the paranormal is real or that anyone is being cured of anything by supposed complementary and alternative medicine. The believers go on deluding themselves, and the promoters of woo are never short of eager suckers willing to part with their cash and even put their lives in danger to pursue a chimera.

I think the only uncontroversial thing to be stated is that the controversy will go on.

But what will 2014 bring? Like everyone else, I’m not psychic, so I will have to rely on my sceptical powers (which I have vowed to use only for good) to make some predictions:

  • Millions of people around the word will waste billions of pounds making thousands of psychics a little bit richer.
  • Millions of people will waste their money on unnecessary health supplements, unnecessary and often dangerous colonic irrigations, various quack remedies that are useful only to hypochondriacs; quacks will get a little bit richer and some of their patients will die because they should have seen a doctor before they went for “healing” rather than evidence-based treatment.
  • Exorcisms will continue to cause injuries and claim lives around the world because pre-Enlightenment religious superstition still pervades the lives of billions of people, reinforced by a lifetime’s indoctrination, and of course it will be promoted by people who can make money peddling it in their writings.
  • No one will be abducted by aliens from outer space or be anally probed by them, but the reports will continue to come in. Writers of this kind of nonsense will continue to believe that anecdotes trump testable evidence, and will wonder why they are being criticised for it.
  • Books and articles promoting the paranormal will be written by people with Ph.Ds who have moved away from science into pseudoscience; and books and articles promoting the paranormal will be written by people who have neither accredited qualifications  nor any knowledge of science but claim themselves to be “experts,” while the rest of us are not. In both cases, the existence of the alleged paranormal will not be proven to the exacting standards required by science.
  • Anything you can think of relating to any branch of woo will, in short, carry on pretty much as usual, and not a single thing within the paranormal or supernatural arena will gain support from science or become in any way a regular part of  life in the same way as we accept electricity, smartphones, (real) medicine and so on.
  • There will be no Nobel Prizes awarded to any promoter of woo who claims that the paranormal is explainable in terms of quantum physics – and let’s be honest, quantum physicists tend to think the idea of the paranormal is a load of old tosh anyway, without self-promotional oafs bastardising a scientific concept that real scientists have spent decades investigating – without discovering any links between unproven psi claims and hard science.

It looks like the battle for rationality will have to continue in the face of relentless pressure from those who believe in, but cannot prove, the paranormal claims they make.

It still all comes down to a simple concept: the burden of proof is on the person who makes a claim. It’s not up to me or any other sceptic to disprove anything that a psychic or woo promoter says, it is up to them to demonstrate clearly and unequivocally that what they claim is true. They’re going to be challenged. Someone asked me once, “Are you still trying to prove that psychics aren’t real?” My answer now is the same as it was then: “No, I don’t try to prove that psychics aren’t real; I try to get them to prove that they are real.”

And the same applies to those who claim that UFOs are alien spaceships from another galaxy (ASFAGs), but who can do no better than rely on unconfirmed anecdotes from alleged witnesses. Produce a piece of alien hardware or something; that might do it.

The fact is that there are many people out there who are determined to undo the Enlightenment. The tragedy is that so many of them truly believe they have “knowledge” that is unavailable to the rest of us and that methodological research, i.e., science, should be way down the list of priorities when it comes to finding out what is going on in the real world.

The biggest problem being faced by rational people – and the very foundation of science – is not so much the ignorance of those who promote woo in all its forms, but their illusion of knowledge. The fight has to go on.

So, although I’m not usually one to make New Year resolutions, I think I’ll try to make an effort to post more often than I have done recently. There’s no shortage of nonsense out there to blog about, after all.

Psychic Refuses Scientific Testing

Celebrity psychic Derek Acorah has been arrested this week after his Nissan sports car was in a collision with another vehicle. Although the famed medium was uninjured in the accident, the two occupants of the other vehicle were taken to hospital suffering from possible whiplash injuries.

Acorah has been charged with careless driving, but he declined an offer to be scientifically tested to see whether he had been interacting with the world of spirits – he refused a breath test, so he’s been charged with that as well.

This is one case where no psychic powers are needed to work out what the outcome of that is going to be.

She’s Dead, Honey.

By our paranormal correspondent, Kristal Borle.

It has been announced that Sylvia Browne – the world’s worst psychic – has died peacefully in hospital, surrounded by her beloved money.

Browne, whose catchphrase was, “He’s dead, Honey,” passed away at the age of 77, eleven years before her own prediction that she would die at 88. “Only God gets it right all the time,” was her other catchphrase.

browneNews of the famed psychic’s demise was greeted with howls of anguish from devoted fans who had already paid thousands of dollars five years in advance for a five second telephone reading (no refunds) from the now-deceased medium. One of them said, “Psychics are obviously real. I know that, because the last time I spent a thousand bucks for a reading, Sylvia told me I would experience a disappointment in my future. Now I’ve lost my money – that couldn’t be a coincidence.”

Chat show host Montel Williams was visibly shaken when we announced the news to him. “This is awful,” he said, his voice trembling. “There is now a great void in my life,” he wailed, “just like when they cancelled my show.”

For more than fifty years, the gravel-voiced paranormal huckster was famous for being able to give hope to the relatives of missing persons. On one occasion she was able to inform the parents of a missing girl, “She’s alive, Honey. She was kidnapped and sold into white slavery in the far east.” Unfortunately, that good news was shattered when the dead girl’s remains were found five minutes later in a shallow grave nearby.

Although Browne became famous for such blunders, she was never without her defenders, who would point out that no one is perfect. Indeed, some people had good reason to believe that Browne’s many wrong pronouncements often turned out to be blessings. One such fan – whom we can only refer to as “Shawn” – said: “If Sylvia had been right about me, then I wouldn’t even be here to tell you what a useless piece of crap she was.”

Funeral arrangements have not yet been announced, but it is expected that she will be buried (very) privately in a shallow grave between two jagged rocks. Near water. We expect that the non-specific location of her final resting place will be announced by the renowned medium Jimmy von Parp, after which, Browne will be revealed by famed clairvoyant Jon Egghead to be alive and well, and working as a lap dancer in a downtown strip joint beginning with the letter J… or a J-sounding name: “Does this make sense to you…?”

No.

Statistically Impossible? Probably Not

Paranormal proponents seem to have a thing about statistics. It’s a bit of a conundrum, actually, because they love to quote some research by some big name in parapsychology who has said that the chances of a particular psychic gaining a particular score in some test or other is in the billions to one against pure chance, and therefore telepathy or whatever must be real. At the same time, they obviously haven’t a clue what they are talking about – and just don’t understand the concepts they are trying to use to justify their belief in the paranormal.

Here’s an example. A couple of years ago I joined  a discussion on a pro paranormal blog where the author pointed to a small number of people in America who had won several lottery jackpots. The point he was trying to make was that because winning the lottery is such a long shot (one chance in almost 14 million in a six from forty nine draw) that the probability of winning two, three or even more jackpots is so unlikely that there must be something paranormal going on. Pure chance, for him, just doesn’t come in to it. His belief was that those winners must be attracting those wins in some paranormal way, even if they weren’t consciously aware of it.

Sometimes, the paranormal people will make a statement along the lines of, “This psychic scored a result in a scientific test that was so improbable that it is statistically impossible for it to be just a chance result.”

To which I can only reply, “No. You don’t know what you are talking about.”

It comes down to a simple principle: statistics deals with probability theory. The probability of something happening due to chance is measured as a ratio between zero and one. A probability of one = certainty. A probability of zero = impossible.

Statistics is used to analyse the probability of a particular event happening. If you buy a lottery ticket, then your probability of hitting the jackpot is one in (approximately) 14 million (in a six out of forty nine draw). The next week if you buy a ticket, the probability of you winning is also one in 14 million. Whether you win or lose the first draw, it has no effect whatsoever on whether you win or lose the second draw; they are independent events. The probability of you winning both draws can be worked out by the multiplication rule, so 14 million x 14 million, represents one chance in 196,000,000,000,000. How do you like those odds?

If you want to know the probability of winning the third jackpot, then multiply that number by another 14 million.  And so on. It doesn’t take long for those numbers to become mind-bogglingly big.

But here’s the big question: at what point does a particular posited event become “statistically impossible?” When can you declare that something is impossible – or that there must be something psychic going on as the only possible explanation for an unlikely event?

Ask yourself this: why should it be the case that a small number of people (who do not regard themselves as psychics) win several jackpots, but no self-professed psychic can predict the next lottery draw? It’s rather cliched, but ask a “psychic” what the next lottery numbers are going to be and he or she will squirm out of it, almost always starting with the words, “It doesn’t work like that.” How very true, but they won’t tell you how it does “work,” either.

MC900439329A long time ago – more than twenty years ago, I’m sure – I was walking along the local central shopping centre and noticed that there was a stall set up by a charity. There was a new car parked there, and on the stall there was an offer: “Win this car. Throw six sixes with these dice and you win it. £1.00 per entry.”

Would you take a chance on it? OK, this was a long time ago. The car was small and possibly worth (maybe) about a couple of thousand pounds at the time. On the other hand, a pound was worth more than it is now. But even if my guess and memory are correct, there is still a huge difference between a pound and several thousand pounds at stake at the time. Would you take the risk? All you have to do is throw six dice and get six sixes. Easy or what?

But what if you represent the charity that is trying to raise money for an undoubtedly good cause by taking the risk of giving away an expensive prize to someone who might win it with the very first throw of the dice? What are the actual risks here?

The reality is this: when a charity offers a huge prize (that they can’t really afford to lose), they employ an insurance company to take the risk on their behalf. On the other hand, if it pays off, the charity stands to make a lot of money to help them pursue their charitable goals. And that’s a good thing.

In fact, they won’t lose. Even if someone throws the six sixes on the first throw, the risk will be taken by the insurance company — in exchange for a premium, of course, which will be paid for from the draw takings – and the charity takes the rest. The insurance company calculates the odds, and charges the premium the charity pays accordingly. Depending on how the actuary of the insurance company works it out, there might, for instance be a limit imposed on how many dice throws are allowed during the charitable event. Or the premium to be paid might be adjusted for the number of throws over and above the basic calculation.

I’ll just add a note here: the charity will have to pay the premium, even if someone does actually win on the first (or a very early) throw. There’s still a risk, even for the charity, but the risk is small and in any case, it is an “allowable expense,” as it were.

I’ll add another note just for interest: a charity will also have a good relationship with the press and the event will be well publicised – which means that the additional publicity will also attract donations from people who support that charity’s aims. Those donors won’t have the opportunity to try to win the car, but will donate just because they are nice people who are willing to be altruistic. Good for them.

But look at it this way: if the car in the event I mentioned was valued at, say, £2,000 at the time, and participants were paying £1.00 per throw, there are 46,656 (6x6x6x6x6x6) possible combinations that the six dice could fall on. Although the first participant could throw the winning combination, he probably won’t. It’s also possible that even if exactly 46,656 people took part, there would still be no winner.

calculate winningsDouble that number to 93,312 participants, and there is still no guarantee that there would be a winner. Or perhaps the winning throw would happen on the very last throw. When it comes to pure chance, the outcome cannot be predicted. An insurance company might take the risk, but overall the odds are on their side. Occasionally, of course, an insurance company has to pay out, but how often do you hear of an insurance company going out of business because they got their sums wrong? And keep in mind the fact that some high risks are farmed out, as it were, to other insurance companies to share the risk. Insurance is, in fact, a highly profitable business. It’s for the same reason that you never see a down at heel bookmaker – they do the same thing with big risks.

To be realistic, a charity event like the one I’ve already mentioned being played over the course of one day in a busy shopping centre might attract a few hundred people (rather than tens of thousands) to part with their money. In that case, it’s unlikely that anyone will win the big prize, so the punters have a cheap flutter; the insurance company collects its premium; the charity adds a few hundred pounds to its funds and everyone is happy.

Would you say, though, that odds of one in 46,656 are impossible? No, of course not. Obviously some people win the lottery jackpot and the odds are even longer. Neither are “statistically impossible.” The same applies to multiple lottery wins. The point is this: if the probability of a particular event is greater than zero, then that event is certainly possible, however unlikely it seems to be. There is no such thing as a “statistical impossibility,” but some things are “statistically unlikely.” If I pay a pound to try to throw six sixes in that charity competition, I probably won’t win. And that’s the same reason I don’t play the lottery, with its even longer odds. (I do, however, donate to charities, so I’m not being a skinflint for not entering the prize competition.)

Unfortunately, probability is something that most people just do not have an intuitive grasp of. One person I met some time ago claimed that he played the lottery because he reckoned he had a fifty-fifty chance of winning; his reasoning was that you can only win or lose, ergo a probability of 0.5. He is, in fact, a gift to the gambling industry but I don’t think he will ever realise it.

So what does it mean when the pro paranormalists claim that some psychic scored a result that was “statistically impossible” in a test for telepathy, or whatever? Actually, such a claim means nothing at all. If the probability (greater than zero) of an event can be calculated, then it is possible. Only a calculated probability of zero is impossible. Think of it this way – what is the probability of throwing six sixes with only five dice? Zero, of course. But what is the probability of someone flipping a coin to land heads up with a double-headed coin? The probability is one (it’s certain).

So what is it that the pro paranormalists are getting at when they say so confidently that some psychics really have paranormal powers “because their score in a test was statistically impossible?” One thing is sure: no one in the paranormal field ever gives a figure – a probability level – that they can prove mathematically that marks the dividing line between possible and impossible. If a probability of one in a million is proposed, can that be said to be the dividing line? Maybe not; after all, some people win the lottery against much bigger odds. And some people have won several lotteries, remember.

Try this idea: suppose a psychic were to claim that if he were dealt all the cards in a well shuffled (randomised) deck, he would, using his powers, “attract” those cards in a specific order – Ace to king of Diamonds, then Hearts, then Clubs followed by Spades.Would you think he had the powers he claimed to have? (I might, but only under certain conditions that I will come to later.)

If you were dealt all the cards in a deck but you got a seemingly random hodge-podge of cards, would you think that you had attracted them through some kind of latent psychic powers you were not aware you had? I’m relating here to the hypothesis of the above blogger who assumed that because a very small number of people had won more than one lottery jackpot that they must have psychic powers as the explanation for their good fortune. Could the millions of people who lose out regularly be attracting bad luck through equally effective, but “negative,” psychic powers of their own?

Look at the card-dealing scenario again. Here’s something that might surprise you: the probability of being dealt any particular sequence of cards from a full deck  is one in nearly ten to the power of 68. In other words, there is a mind boggling number of possible combinations of cards that you could be dealt. If your hand is fair (the deck is not rigged in any way, and the deal is truly random) then any possible combination of cards could be dealt – including our psychic’s four straights. In a random draw, that combination is no more or less likely than any other combination.

Here’s what makes the difference: the blogger I referred to made his decision about the probability of a small number of people winning several jackpots after they had already won. That’s a fallacy called The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy (drawing the bulls-eyes around the bullet holes after the event. I’ll do a post about it later.)

The same applies to our putative psychic who tells you before his cards are dealt that he will attract the consecutively numbered cards of each suit. But before the cards were dealt, he could have claimed to attract any particular sequence of cards out of 10^68 possible combinations, not just a particularly memorable sequence. To put it bluntly, no combination of cards is any more or less likely than any other – including Ace to King, or any other combination you can think of. When you are dealt such a  hand, the odds of getting those particular cards is 1 in nearly 10^68 – a one followed by sixty eight zeros.

Even with such a huge number of  possible combinations, however, you must get one of them. The odds against you getting those particular cards are incredible.

What makes the difference is whether or not a psychic predicts what will happen before it happens, or whether an unlikely event is claimed to be paranormal after it happens. The same applies to the so-called prophesies of Nostradamus – every claim made that he predicted this or that event is made after it happened. No one has ever successfully  identified an event supposedly predicted by him before it happened.

So would I really believe that someone is psychic if he or she predicted an unlikely outcome before it happened? It depends on several things:

First, there would have to be strict controls in place. If a psychic intends to predict a sequence of playing cards, then he does not get to be the dealer. Nor does he provide his own cards.

Second, the cards would be a brand new, sealed pack, which would then be randomised by an independent person (using a shuffling device of some kind that does not rely on his own randomisation process) who does not take any further part in the experiment.

Third, the cards would be dealt by some mechanical means so that no further human contact is involved.

Fourth, there are other controls I can think of, all of which would be designed to ensure that there is no possibility of either fraud or trickery.

Fifth, I would have to keep in mind that no experiment is perfect; there might be something I have missed. The best an experiment can do is reveal that its result is probably not due to chance alone, not that a result is “impossible” by chance alone.

Sixth, to the believers in psi who would say that such a setup “is not conducive to the production of psychic effects,” I would say: “Learn some science and stop whining.”

If our psychic successfully beats incredible odds, can we now declare him to have psychic powers? Unfortunately not. In science a single experiment is not definitive. Even at those huge odds, a fluke can still happen, which is why the experiment would have to be repeated many times. It would also have to be confirmed by independent researchers; in other words it would have to be replicated by others who are not involved with the original research.

Parapsychologists always seem to fall down at that hurdle. Whatever the alleged psychic phenomenon is, their experimental results only seem to happen for them, in their own laboratories. No one is suggesting that any of them are cheating in any way, but other researchers often find flaws in their methodology, and even if their experiments seem OK and are faithfully copied, the same results just fail to materialise.

There is also another problem with researching paranormal claims. The fact that an experimental result shows that a claimed paranormal event is probably not due to chance does not imply that the event is actually paranormal. Unfortunately, paranormal research has been plagued with fraud – so much so that scepticism is justified; some would say it is a requirement. Even some of the best researchers in the past (and some in the present) have been hoodwinked by various charlatans – and some have been charlatans themselves. But even without any kind of cheating, there might always just be something that the experimenter has overlooked. No experiment can ever be claimed to be perfect.

I would add this: if a professed psychic were to beat huge odds against, shall we say, information transfer by pure chance – at whatever probability level is set, I would accept that that information transfer is probably not due to pure dumb luck. I would think that the information transfer has happened, but there are many ways that that could happen without the need for a paranormal explanation, or an accusation of fraud.

Given the fact that even skilled paranormal researchers have failed to prove the existence of the paranormal, what credence should be given to other claims – like the one above about a small number of individuals winning several lottery jackpots? The simple fact is this: coincidences happen. Far from it being “statistically impossible” for someone to win multiple lottery jackpots, it is, in fact, a statistical certainty that some people will do just that. The big problem lies in predicting a coincidence before it happens.

The important thing to keep in mind about all this is that if a probability can be calculated, then that is the probability of a given event happening just by pure chance – however long the odds. A long shot that works out does not imply that something paranormal is going on. And when a statistically unlikely event is claimed to be paranormal only after it happens, forget it.

Ask a psychic to predict the next lottery draw. He or she will give reasons why they can’t or won’t do it. Don’t be surprised.

Then read some report of someone whose claim to have predicted something unlikely or unexpected surfaces only after the event, and see the paranormal folk go wild about it. Also don’t be surprised.

That’s why James Randi’s million dollars, for example, is safe. Psychics claim they can beat the odds, but if they could, the Million Dollar Challenge would have been won a long time ago.

Excuse me while I chuckle inwardly. Last time I checked, the MDC was a two part test. The probability of passing the first part by pure chance is one in one thousand. Get through that and you get to the second and final part – also a one in one thousand chance. The probability of getting through both tests by pure chance is (by the multiplication rule I mentioned above) one in one million.

Ordinary (non-famous) psychics apply for Randi’s prize and fail; they don’t have much to lose, but they do have a one in a million chance of hitting the big time. It might just work out for one of them one day.

On the other hand, the famous psychics who are raking in the cash already, have everything to lose – fail a big and famous test like Randi’s Challenge and they will be finished.

Psychics make claims about their alleged powers which, if true, would beat astronomical odds on a regular basis. I would start to believe in them if they would actually do what they claim. Wouldn’t it be nice if the evening news could have a guest psychic appear on screen half an hour before the live lottery draw to announce, “And tonight’s lottery numbers will be… “?

Or more importantly, news announcements about next week’s earthquake – and the fact that evacuation of the inhabitants is already underway in good time. Or perhaps after the earthquake those people who refused to leave in time were being found alive in the rubble of various buildings by remote viewers rather than rescue workers who have to use thermal cameras, microphones, sniffer dogs and so on.

Will that ever happen in the future? The statistical odds are against it. But maybe a psychic can tell us when it will happen?

I’m not going to bet money on that, either, but I will give the last word to Albert Einstein:

“God does not play at dice with the Universe.”

[Note: Einstein was referring to the new science of quantum physics; he wasn’t declaring a belief in any gods, it was a metaphor to illustrate that he couldn’t come to terms with the fact that subatomic events can happen randomly, without a preceding cause. His science dealt with the very big (the universe), whereas quantum physics deals with the very small (subatomic sizes). He never did manage to achieve his ambition to create a “theory of everything.”]

Claiming a coincidence to be paranormal is just bad thinking.