Tag Archives: Skeptic

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.

 

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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.

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.

In Support Of Santa

I’ve just recently noticed that a number of people aren’t too keen on Santa Claus – the imaginary jovial old man in red who brings toys to good girls and boys each Christmas, but might only deliver a stocking full of cinders to the naughty. What’s going on here?

I noticed in Mike Hallowell’s Gazette column last week that he thinks it’s about time youngsters were told “the truth”. As he puts it when he ponders whether it’s time to send Santa into retirement:

“I’m certainly no kill-joy, but I think the reformers have a point when they say that enough is enough, and that its time we told the youngúns the truth about where those presents really came from.”

Mike’s point is understandable, of course; since he converted to Islam a few years ago, everything he writes is now from a strictly Islamic perspective, and also explains why his Gazette column now avoids his previous beliefs in psychics and mediums, and his former belief that UFOs are alien space ships from outer space.

But he does echo the beliefs of his and some others’ religions; I’m thinking in particular of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who worship Jesus Christ, for example, but for whom Christmas itself is not celebrated, never mind it being a time for Santa and presents.

For the religious, the idea of an imaginary magical guy in the sky who rewards the good and punishes the bad is clearly something that children should not be taught. Mike Hallowell and other religious people think they should be taught the truth: in other words the story of an imaginary magical guy in the sky who rewards the good and punishes the bad.

Oh. Er…

To be fair, though, there are some some sceptics who seem to have a similar idea about what children should be taught. Take a look at this:

DearChildren

DEAR CHILDREN One Day You Will Learn About Santa Claus. On That Day Remember Everything The Adults Have Told You About Jesus.

That’s going a bit too far, I think. It’s a good idea to teach children how to be rational as they grow up, and over time encourage them to develop logical thinking skills, but there’s plenty of time for that.

Despite what any religion might tell you, all babies are born atheists. They have no knowledge of any gods, after all. In fact, they have no knowledge of anything at all. As the philosopher John Locke put it, the mind of a new born baby is a tabula rasa – a blank slate upon which life’s experience writes itself. That’s why children adopt the religion of their parents and every other belief they come to hold. Superstitious parents raise superstitious children; educated parents raise educated children; criminal parents raise criminal children. There are exceptions, of course, but the general pattern tends to hold true.

Is there really something wrong if children believe in Santa – or the Tooth Fairy, or the witches and wizards in the fairy stories their parents read to them a bedtime? I don’t think so.

I look at it this way: children are not expected to believe in Santa into adulthood. It’s a nice fantasy that parents know their children will grow out of. Same thing with the Tooth Fairy. Unlike religion, which is designed to ensnare children for life, belief in Santa is part of a learning process in which children eventually find out that there are going to be many disappointments as they travel life’s highway. It can be tough to find out that something you used to believe is just wrong, but that’s the way it is, and it’s a useful learning experience.

Both the religious and, obviously, some sceptics should stop to consider that young children don’t care about religion or scepticism. Offer a child the option of a religious ritual, a logic puzzle to solve or a new toy to play with, what will a child do? In my experience, a child will go for the toy, haul it out of the box – and then pretend the box it came in is a ship, or a plane or anything else: so often, the cardboard box is more interesting than its contents, and the child’s imagination takes it on a journey that we, as adults, just shake our heads at in wonderment. (Why didn’t we save a lot of money by just getting a cardboard in the first place?)

But what about those bedtime stories about witches and wizards and princesses held hostage in castles and everything else that isn’t real? Oh, come on. Bedtime stories are a child’s introduction to literature. Like Santa, we don’t expect a child to spend its life believing that nonsense, we expect a child to develop an appreciation of literature, art, music, drama and also develop the critical ability to tell the difference between what is real and what is not. All of those things are used as a vehicle to express and critically examine what can be called “the human condition,” understandable to other humans who can discern reality from fantasy, but also recognise the basic truths about life that talented writers, dramatists, musicians and even comedians can express in a way that a thinking person can ponder in a meaningful way. I think I could argue that the most important experience of any child’s life is its introduction to its own existence through bedtime stories, and yes, even its early belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy.

At least a child can tell you he or she has evidence for the existence of Santa: the presents are there on Christmas Day! Eventually, though, a child can be guided to think rationally without spoiling what is, after all, the amazing and wonderful universe we inhabit. For me, the experience of a magnificent sunset loses none of its beauty by knowing that photons formed in the heart of the Sun spend a million years getting to its surface and only then travel across space for about eight minutes and then through our atmosphere to be diffracted into a range of colours, obeying the laws of physics. Some people are satisfied to be ignorant by explaining sunsets and everything else they don’t understand with the words, “God did it.” It’s an explanation that explains nothing at all, and a lot of adults are happy to not know things, although they seem to think that a non-explanation that relies on a non-existent  deity is sufficient. Those adults can never outgrow their superstitions, and are hardly in any position to complain that children should not believe in a Santa that has no more of an objective existence than any man-made gods.

Our children deserve to have their innocence; they are not really born as sinners, or as ready-made members of any religion – they are a completely new person who has to take a long time to work out what this new world is that they have been born into. Parents have a duty to guide their children as they grow up, hopefully teaching them to be rational and responsible people in their own right, ready to produce the next generation of humanity. A child’s belief in Santa is a part of its learning experience, an experience that should be enjoyable but at the same time can be let go of as it develops intellectual maturity. Religion and other superstitions are what holds back human potential. If only adults had learned to shake off their beliefs in various deities and superstitions as easily as children shake off and come to terms with the non-existence of Santa, we could now be heading for the stars.

But that is still a long time in the future, I think. Not because children believe in Santa, but because so many adults still believe in gods.

The Bad Thinking Blog Says: Long live Santa.

Let kids enjoy themselves; they have plenty of time to come to terms with reality – and surely a lot of them will do just that.

This Is Getting Tedious

untitledThis post is fairly important to me, because I am allowing Mike Hallowell, who has, in the past, had comments I have made elsewhere about his paranormal and supernatural claims on the internet removed under the threat of legal action, the space to speak his own mind, uncensored, on my own blog. I believe in free speech, and I think that the way to counter a bad argument is with a better argument, not legal thuggery or any kind of threat or intimidation.

My last post detailed an actual weird experience I had that many other people would have assumed to be an actual encounter with a UFO (Alien Spaceship From Another Galaxy, for the dyslexic). But it turned out to be something more mundane; not the sort of thing a UFO “expert” wants to hear, of course, because rational explanations for extraordinary events are taboo for the woo fraternity. For them, the comforting belief in their fantasy is preferable to the objective reality that is actually out there, and if some of them can make some money from writing cobblers they truly and honestly believe, then that is the way it just happens to be.

I admit I included an “in-joke,” not intended for the casual reader of this blog, but with meaning to only a very small audience of sceptics who are “in on it,” although Mike Hallowell, self-proclaimed expert in matters paranormal (who has never proven any of his paranormal claims to the standards required by science or ordinary rationality), noticed it. And it seems to have hit a nerve.

Mike is rather sensitive when his various claims are exposed to scrutiny. It’s not just me who criticises him, of course, it must be almost a full time occupation for him chasing his critics around the internet, but in the process failing to recall the old maxim, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging!” (This is a good place to start if you want a flavour of what I mean.)

And so it is here. Mike submitted a comment to that last post, but I did  not publish his comment on that particular thread because it was, first of all, completely off-topic and did not address the subject of the post at all. It’s standard practice on blogs for the host to reject comments that do not contribute anything to the subject at hand. I think that’s fair enough, but I think it’s also fair to let him have his say while I demonstrate to him where he is going wrong with his petty outburst. Hence this new post.

Also, the comment he submitted included some of the false allegations that he has made numerous times in the past and seems to be prepared to continue indefinitely into the future. I think the best thing to do here is to nail those allegations once and for all, and maybe, if necessary, create a new section on the Bad Thinking blog to do that. For me, it will be much easier to have a specific area where my refutations of Mike’s comments can be dealt with for readers by clicking on a ready-made link, rather than me composing a new reply to old tropes every time Mike decides to go ballistic.

Here is Mike’s comment in full, with my responses, with my answers in red Times New Roman.

Mike Hallowell commented on My Very Own UFO

One thing that frustrates me when the woo folks have a tale to tell, i.e., some claim of the paranormal that sounds rather …

“Should I send it off for “expert analysis” and see if there are any “startling results” to follow?”

It doesn’t really matter, for in my experience you’ll have fibbers claiming you did this anyway even if you didn’t. I had an experience like this once, where a local” sceptic” made a similar claim about me. In fact, the accusation was drawn from an article written by another journalist entirely! You couldn’t make it up. The chap concerned claimed that I’d made such claims “many times” in one of my own columns. I challenged him to show me just one example, but he couldn’t, of course, as his accusation was complete fiction. I still read through our lengthy correspondence on the matter with fondness every now and then when my faith in the ability of our species to think creatively starts to wane.

Obviously, I am the “local sceptic” Mike is referring to. But he is being disingenuous here, and did not include a link to the article he means, nor did he quote me accurately. I have said elsewhere that Mike claims to send evidence away for analysis, and which returns startling results. That was sarcasm with a bit of hyperbole that went over his head. I have not claimed that he has made that claim “in one of his columns,” but he certainly has claimed to have sent evidence “away for analysis” and he has claimed to have received “startling results.” But his claims are empty anyway because he consistently refuses to release any of these alleged results for public scrutiny.

The article by “another journalist entirely” can be found here: Is This The Face Of The Salon Ghost?. That article appeared on 6th March, 2009 – more than five years ago. It is clear that the reporter interviewed Mike, whom she describes as a “Gazette columnist and ghost buster,” and there are several quotes by him. She also says, “Mr Hallowell has sent the pictures off to be analysed, and an overnight vigil is to be organised to gather more evidence from the salon.” [Emphasis added] It appears to be a follow up article to this one about the same “haunted” salon published on 17th February 2009 (two prominent pieces of free publicity for a local business – not bad).

It is obvious that Mike must have said that to the reporter, even though it is not presented as a verbatim quote, and in any case it is standard journalistic practice to sometimes describe what someone has said without the need to put every single utterance into quotation marks. If Mike said to the reporter something like, “Oh, by the way, I’ve sent those snaps away to be analysed,” then reporting that he has said so is acceptable. At the end of the article, though, there is a direct quote from Mike: “Until they have been analysed further we can’t make any definite pronouncements…” Any reasonable interpretation of this article suggests that Mike Hallowell did indeed claim to have sent his snapshots away for analysis by some unnamed third party. (He did not say, “Until I have analysed…”)

Now here’s the problem: 1) Is Mike denying that he told the reporter that he has sent those pictures off for analysis? I have suggested to him in the past that if the reporter has misquoted him, or (even worse) just made it up (a serious ethical breach), then he should make a formal complaint to the Shields Gazette and demand a retraction and an apology. He could even threaten to sue them if they refuse to do so (he regularly threatens legal action against his critics, so this should be no different). If he is willing to let the article stand, then he is, by implication, accepting that it is a fair account of what he actually said. Assuming that The Shields Gazette and Mike Hallowell (freelance Gazette columnist paid money by that newspaper) are honest and dispassionate seekers and reporters of the truth, then there is no danger that The Gazette will refuse his request to retract or amend that article, nor will they drop his column if he wants to threaten them with such legal action to ensure that his personal integrity is maintained.

Then again, I’m a sceptic; I shouldn’t make assumptions, but you can if you want to.

Another problem: 2) I’m not aware of anyone – myself included – accusing Mike of writing that article. Where did that come from? There is no dispute that it was written by someone else. And so what? It is completely irrelevant. Also, I have not been able to find a follow-up article by the same reporter to tell us the results of the analysis of those photos that Mike told her he was sending away for that purpose, and I am also unable to find anything about them published by Mike himself. As I have also said in the past, when Mike says he has sent stuff away for analysis, no one, in my opinion, should be expecting to hear anything about them again. But you never know; after all this time the results of that analysis might be in now, so perhaps Mike will publicise it. (It is five years later, though, so personally I don’t really expect to hear anything about it again.)

And has Mike ever claimed to have had “startling results” returned from evidence that he has actually claimed to have sent away for analysis? Yes, indeed, although it’s not at all clear to me why this is such an important point to him – and it clearly is, because every time I refute it, he comes back with the same old trope as if it were the first time it had ever been brought up.

But here’s something sneaky: Mike challenged me some time ago on someone else’s blog to prove that he had ever made such a claim. I was happy to oblige, and I provided a link to his own website where it was stated that some audio recordings from one of his poltergeist investigations had been subject to analysis, and had returned, he claimed, startling results He says (above), “I challenged him to show me just one example, but he couldn’t, of course, as his accusation was complete fiction.” That is a false claim.by Mike. He challenged me to prove claims I made, even offering to pay £30.00 to charity if I did so. I did, but he decided that I did not and he therefore did not pay up. (The blog I am referring to is owned by my sceptical friend Brian, who has allowed me to identify him as the blogger who removed my comments under legal threat against him, rather than Mike Hallowell defeating me through logical argument. Although Brian focuses mostly on local political issues that might not be of much interest to people outside of South Shields, he is also a sceptic with an often  (Occam’s) razor-sharp insight into the world of woo. He and I discussed Mike Hallowell’s legal threat before he removed my comments, which he did with my agreement. But those comments of mine have been merely “unmodified.” They are still there in cyberspace and might be reinstated in light of the new Defamation Act introduced on 1st January this year. (The link I have given, if anyone is hardy enough to try to wade through it all, will not make an awful lot of sense in some places. With some of my comments removed at this time it seems a bit disjointed. When I contributed my comments, it was before I started my own blog, and I used to comment in various places under my old handle, “the skeptic.” After comments I made on the Shields Gazette website about the same article in the above link were removed, comments on Brian’s blog were removed under legal threat. That was the reason I started my own blog – my comments were taken down from Mike Hallowell’s newspaper column comments section for no good reason, and then other comments of mine were removed from someone else’s private domain through bogus legal threats. I decided to start my own blog where Mike Hallowell himself will not be censored (although he does that to others with threats of legal action in lieu of evidence to support his anti-scientific claims), and I will not be bullied into removing fair criticism of the unsubstantiated claims of uneducated people who claim expertise in subjects for which they have neither accredited training nor qualifications.) And before Mike Hallowell starts whining (again) that he had nothing to do with the removal of my comments from the Gazette website, I never did accuse him of doing so; it is just as likely that the Gazette removed them because they realised that my comments showed up their columnist as an ignoramus. Perhaps one might even consider the possibility that the technologically-savvy South Shields Poltergeist did it. Can anyone disprove a claim like that? No? It must be true, then, by Mike Hallowell’s own “logic” – the argument to ignorance – see below)

But did any of that resolve the issue? No, it didn’t, because after I posted the link, the words he complained about were changed on his website from “startling results” to “extremely interesting results.” Some people might think that that change is relatively minor and doesn’t make a great difference to the overall meaning, but it was obviously important to Mike, who has never let it drop. But the point is, when I rose to his challenge to show where he had ever said that evidence he had had analysed returned startling results, he changed the very words that would confirm what I had said.

Here are the before and after screenshots from his own website:

1_Before

1_After

Even in his magnum opus (The widely panned The South Shields Poltergeist) he says clearly (and get this if you want a laugh) that he sent  a copy of the alleged poltergeist’s handwriting away to a graphologist for, yes, analysis. (There is no copy of the graphologist’s analysis published, either. Startling results? Extremely interesting results? Mike has said before that he doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone, so don’t expect too much.) And it’s pretty much the same with two “well qualified nurses” in the book who supposedly confirmed that the alleged injuries caused to one of the central characters in the same book must have been paranormal in origin. You might not be surprised to learn that these unnamed nurses, who did not give written testimony in the book as other witnesses did, have now transformed into the more vague, but still anonymous, “medical personnel.”

Hallowell snip 02

“The footage was reviewed by medical personnel experienced in treating such wounds and they stated categorically that it would have been absolutely impossible for such wounds to disappear in such a short space of time.”

Anyone who has seen this footage will know that it is poorly lit and of very poor quality; whatever is happening is indistinct at best, but “experienced nurses” or “medical personnel” had no problem with it. The footage that was on the internet shows, maybe, with a bit of imagination, some slight marks on the person’s back, but the “medical personnel”  presumably must have been able to discern the victim’s back being “slashed to ribbons,” as Mike puts it in the book. There’s not much chance of ever viewing it again, though, if you want to form an opinion of your own. After much criticism and laughter, Mike had it removed from the internet to save his blushes to protect his copyright.

Mike will probably want to come back on these points about his alleged book, but I hope he gives his underling colleague and co-author, Darren Ritson, permission to join in.

On a different note, I’d like to raise a couple of points about the following comment you made:

“The evidence for UFOs – Alien Spaceships From Another Galaxy (ASFAGs as I think they should be called) – is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts.”

You claim (in opposition to many astronauts, pilots, police officers, astronomers, military personnel, scientists and others) that, “The evidence for UFOs…is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts.” All those people who claim to have seen the hard evidence must be lying, I suppose. [Mike can suppose that if he wants to, but that is not my position on the matter. In any case, calling upon the status of those alleged witnesses is a fallacy called the appeal to authority.]

People like Dr. Edgar Mitchell, Major Gordon Cooper and others have reached their conclusion that UFOs exist because they have seen the hard evidence. [No, those astronauts have claimed to have seen the hard evidence. They have not produced it.] You have reached your conclusion that they do not exist based on a perceived absence of evidence when you are in no position to know. [I know that hard evidence of UFOs is not in the public domain. It would be pretty big news if it was.] I’m pretty sure I’m on safe ground when I say that their position is far more logical than yours. [No, it is illogical for people to believe extraordinary claims on nothing more than hearsay – whoever it might be who makes those extraordinary claims.]

Are all the expert witnesses lying, deluded or insane? [Perhaps some of them are; others are enjoying a lucrative income from the lecture circuit, writing Aliensabsurd books and articles and taking part in stupid TV programmes about UFOs, “ancient aliens,” and other assorted nonsense, also without producing a shred of testable evidence. They have motivation to be less than critical about the claims they make, even if they are sincere about it. Mike could have offered another possibility – are they, like many other people, merely susceptible to misinterpreting what they have experienced?] Many have said that they are prepared to testify before Congress regarding what they know at great risk to their careers. [I’d like to see it happen. They would be required to produce evidence to support their claims, but I think it’s unlikely that the American Congress wants to appear to the world to be giving a platform to a bunch of cranks.] The world awaits your judgement on the matter, although I think we already have a good idea what it might be. You once argued that witnesses like Dr. Mitchell could have been fed some rather dodgy info supporting the existence of UFOs to cover up a secret government project. [No, I didn’t “argue” that the US government was feeding “dodgy info” to anyone, I suggested that the US government might just not discourage people from thinking they have seen UFOs if they have actually witnessed top secret testing of new military projects. The military might even encourage people to maintain their false beliefs, although I think it is going a bit too far to assume they are actively “feeding” anyone “dodgy” information.] Not impossible in essence, but certainly impossible when one takes the evidence provided by Dr. Mitchell in its entirety; something you signally failed to do, if you recall, when you last tried to pour cold water on his testimony. [Mitchell’s testimony “in its entirety” is anecdotal, and not proof of anything: all talk, no substance.]

When Major Cooper testified before the UN to the existence of UFOs and their extraterrestrial occupants, was he fibbing too? [I don’t know. Did they believe him and then issue any kind of document, judgement or directive to confirm what he was claiming? Are his claims now official UN policy adopted and implemented by member countries? I didn’t see it if they did, and it is certainly the kind of thing the UFO people would publicise. I haven’t seen that, either.] Just what do you say to a veteran astronaut who states, “For many years I have lived with a secret…a secrecy imposed on all specialists in astronautics. I can now reveal that every day, in the USA, our radar instruments capture objects of form and composition unknown to us. And there are thousands of witness reports and a quantity of documents to prove this, but nobody wants to make them public. Why? Because authority is afraid that people may think of God knows what kind of horrible invaders. So the password still is: We have to avoid panic by all means”? [I think I would say something like, “Wow! That’s incredible! Show me all that evidence! (that you haven’t shown to anyone else).” And I might also say something like, “You, like all other military personnel of your rank, are entrusted with state secrets that you now want to blab about? Where I come from, that would be called treason. You are prepared to betray your military and your country? OK, then, give me all the documentation and I will pass it on to The Guardian newspaper while you make your escape to Russia and join your fellow countryman Edward Snowden, who also gave the game away (with incontrovertible evidence of his claims about the American government’s surveillance of not only its own citizens, but the citizens of countries all over the world.). Become a fugitive in the name of openness and truth and I will support you on my own blog. Oh, and pick up a million dollars from James Randi before you leave – it might come in handy.”]

Was Major Cooper lying when he said that a condition of secrecy had been imposed upon specialists in the field of astronautics? [Hardly; the Americans (and every other government) usually don’t want foreign powers to know what they are up to, so secrets “in the field of” just about anything is pretty normal. Non-governmental organisations (businesses for example) also require secrecy from some of their staff.] And why would such secrecy be imposed if these thousands of sightings were simply misattributions? [It might be because if the US government exposed the stuff that is nonsense, then what is left is (dare I say it) the truth – the very thing they don’t want people to know about, things like new military technology that has nothing to do with alleged aliens.] Why would US Navy witnesses with extremely high security clearance levels claim that huge a UFO had emerged from the sea in front of USN vessels before flying off at incredible speed? [It depends what is in it for them. Decades in jail, maybe, for giving away state secrets, or making money on the UFO circuit talking nonsense to a gullible audience, knowing that they are not in danger of prosecution because they are not giving anything away at all.]  Are they lying too? [I didn’t suggest that anyone was lying; they might be shrewd. Mike Hallowell has, in the past, said that he thinks it is the interpretation of evidence that makes a difference. Those shrewd navy witnesses might have an interpretation that just happens to have a superficial plausibility, acceptable to the believers even if their interpretation of the alleged evidence contradicts common sense, science, logic and reality in general.]

The only argument you have to fall back on is the old canard that we can’t rely solely on eyewitness testimony without “hard evidence”. [Eye witness testimony is often wrong; that is why it needs to be backed up with “hard evidence.” Mike once used a courtroom analogy with regard to personal testimony, but if he were falsely accused of, say, committing a murder, would he think it fair if he were convicted on the say-so of a couple of high-ranking, but mistaken, military personnel? He wouldn’t be able to prove them wrong; in that case I think he might suddenly want to rethink his strongly held belief in capital punishment.] The problem is that hundreds of professional people are now openly claiming to have seen just such evidence, which forces you into the uncomfortable position of having to argue that although you may not have seen the evidence yourself, they are either all making it up or are mistaken. [Here are two logical fallacies in one sentence: the first is the fallacy called the appeal to popularity, and the other is called a false dichotomy.  The truth value of a claim is not determined by how many people believe it, and Mike offers only two possible alternatives regarding why the claims have been made, but there are other possibilities.] How can you “mistakenly” see a UFO in a USAF hangar? [If it is Unidentified, how can you know what it is? Could it actually be a new and very secret military project? What does an actual alien space ship look like? (Hint: it probably doesn’t look like a blurred smudge (BS) – the typical “evidence” produced on photographs and film/video that the UFO buffs seem to have orgasms over.) But go ahead and show the evidence.] How can you “mistakenly” be associated with secret governmental projects, as was Dr. Mitchell, in which the hard evidence is examined and evaluated? [He says he was; show the evidence.] How can you “mistakenly” film a UFO hovering over a military base and then have it confiscated by the security services the next day? [It’s easy to make a claim. Show the evidence.] Were they all dreaming? You can deny the eyewitness testimony all you want, but to pit yourself against such a large array of respected experts in so many different fields is bordering on the bizarre. [No, believing big claims with no evidence is what is bizarre (and in this case is still the fallacious appeal to popularity and the appeal to authority). In fact, it is irrational.] Your very own Dr. Carl Sagan once said, quite rightly, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Your stance flies in the face of this maxim, but with you it’s worse; you don’t even have any evidence that the evidence is absent! [Carl Sagan, one of the most influential scientists and sceptics of the 20th century, is described in this article by Mike Hallowell as being “not very rational.” So it’s interesting that Mike quotes him here to try to support his case. But the fact is the burden of proof is on the person making a claim. Absence of evidence is still absence of evidence. The only people who can provide the evidence are those who claim to have it. To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens, “Assert something without evidence, and I can dismiss it without evidence.”] Here are two hours of testimony from those who have indeed seen the evidence. Perhaps you’d like to tell us whether these are all lying or deluded too: [Yes, testimony. I’m not going to waste two hours watching talking heads unless they are presenting testable evidence. I’ve done that many times in the past; if this is just “personal testimony,” it is not of much value.]

http://www.youtube.com/watchfeature=player_detailpage&v=7vyVe-6YdUk#t=549

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that you don’t have to believe in the ET hypothesis. But what you really need to do is at least take a stance of detachment and withhold judgement considering the quality of the witness testimony arraigned against you. [There is no “quality” witness testimony arraigned against me. Just witness testimony for which there is no testable or confirmable evidence to support it. Testimony is not the same as proof. The woo brigade would like nothing better than for sceptics to “withhold judgement,” in other words, “shut up.”]

I really do find your stance quite intriguing, and would like to ask you on what evidence you make this assumption. I mean, unless you personally visit every building on the face of the planet large enough to house such an object you really wouldn’t know, would you? [The same argument applies to Mike, unless he has personally visited every possible location where an ASFAG (Alien Spaceship From Another Galaxy) might be hidden. I don’t, however, claim to “know,” I claim to doubt.] It doesn’t seem very scientific to me to deny the existence of something just because you haven’t personally seen the proof. [Mike Hallowell is a science denier anyway, but has Mike personally seen the proof? If so, then like his heroes, he has not presented it. To be fair, Mike does not claim to have had the same access to secret information as he thinks some astronauts have had, he just believes what they say, and that’s good enough for him. His readers should just believe him, in the same way he just believes what some astronauts say, and what other writers on the subject say they say. I do not believe that this planet is being visited by space aliens. However, I hold that opinion tentatively and if anyone can prove their claims then I will accept it. In the meantime, the probability that aliens are here is vanishingly small, given the fact that we still have only claims but no tangible evidence.] Wouldn’t a truly objective person withhold judgement on the matter rather than take a sceptical standpoint based on nothing more than a personal opinion? [What – as opposed to someone believing extraordinary claims based on nothing more than their own personal opinion formed from hearsay with no confirmable evidence to support it?]

Please explain to the world just how you KNOW that there is no evidence for the existence of UFOs other than anecdotal accounts. [I don’t claim to KNOW there is no evidence for the existence of UFOs (if that means extraterrestrial vehicles) but I know that the only evidence I have ever come across is anecdotal, not testable or confirmable. The burden of proof is still on the person making the claim.] It’s no good arguing that no one has seen such evidence, for that would just be yet another wild assumption on your part too, wouldn’t it? [I’m not arguing that no one has seen it, but if they’ve seen it, they should show it. Making claims about evidence for UFOs is rather like making claims about evidence for poltergeists: those who make the claims but refuse to prove their claims come in for justifiable criticism. Refusal to show the evidence or just making excuses for not doing so makes the claimant look rather foolish – except to the believers, who keep them in business.] Again, how could you possibly know? You are essentially arguing that because you haven’t seen something then it can’t possibly exist. [This is a straw man fallacy. (I’ll do a new post on the subject.) I am not “essentially” arguing that something I have not seen cannot possibly exist. I’ve explained the straw man fallacy to Mike some time ago.] Is this how true sceptics condition themselves to think? [Sceptics try to think logically, not Mike’s distorted version of what he thinks they think.] I’d be delighted to see a step-by-step explanation in your blog as to how you reach a position of disbelief when you could not possibly have determined whether such evidence exists or not. [This logical fallacy is called the argument to ignorance. Mike’s implication is that if one can’t disprove a claim, then it should be accepted. In fact, if a claim cannot be disproved, that is no basis for assuming its veracity.] You chide bad thinking, so please enlighten us as to how you reached your conclusion by utilising good thinking. [What conclusion is Mike referring to? He posted his comment on a post where my “conclusion” was that an apparent UFO I saw turned out, after investigation, to be nothing more than an optical illusion. I explained it in detail in that post.]

Mike is a regular critic of sceptics, science and the scientific method, so he will no doubt be able to tell me where I went wrong when I perceived what initially seemed to be an alien spaceship taking off from out at sea but then investigated it further to find out what it actually was.

Maybe I should have sent my account to him for possible publication in his Wraithcrap column, and seen it published with this kind of analysis:

http://www.shieldsgazette.com/opinion/columnists/wraithscape/a-close-encounter-of-the-ufo-kind-1-6338120

Long story short: a fellow wakes up at 3.30 am and looks out of the window to see a saucer-shaped object; he gets his friend, who comes into the room and also sees it; it then shoots away at high speed. The fellow contacts Mike Hallowell thirty-odd years later, while it is still fresh in his memory, to tell him about it. Mike’s conclusion is:

“It was a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control.”

An “expert” like Mike doesn’t, apparently, need to wonder how accurate a person’s memory of an event is more than thirty years later, nor how reliable that memory is from a person woken up in the middle of the night and still partially asleep. As Mike says:

“The question I would pose to skeptics is: On what basis should we disbelieve him – or for that matter, any of the other thousands of experients who have had similar encounters?”

It turns out you don’t even have to be a former astronaut to come out with a story that Mike will swallow believe, support and verify – at least to his own satisfaction. I could pose a question to Mike: how does he know that some of the tales he gets from his readers aren’t just made-up stories sent in to see if he would fall for it? (I’m sure it wouldn’t make any difference to him anyway; he writes up the drivel his fans send him and then trousers the cash for regurgitating it in the Shields Gazette and presumably other publications. You can probably read a version of that bilge in the next issue of UFO Wankfest Quarterly, or whatever).

For me, however, when I had a “UFO experience,” I decided to investigate it and found an answer that was consistently repeatable. What I found was an optical illusion, and in the light of that, there is no rational reason to believe that what I experienced was a UFO taking off from its secret underwater base.

I spent several weeks replicating what I found, also spending many hours doing so. But that’s a bit too sciencey for some people. I guess I could have saved my time and sent my initial observation off to Mike, just to see if he would publish it in the Shields Gazette. At first glance it certainly did look like “a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control,” but in reality it was nothing of the sort. I don’t think Mike, in this instance at least, is going to contradict me, even if he can quite willingly publish outlandish claims from anyone else who sends him an uncorroborated claim that he, himself, did not witness, but which he can confidently validate as “a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control.

At the end of the day, I still think it’s better to try to confirm or disprove things rather than take someone’s word for it. You look silly otherwise.

I’m bored now.

 

My Very Own UFO

One thing that frustrates me when the woo folks have a tale to tell, i.e., some claim of the paranormal that sounds rather fantastical but might be reported to have many witnesses, is the triumphant shout of “How do you explain that?”

It’s an absurd thing to say anyway, of course, because the burden of proof is on those who actually make a claim. I’m not going to waste my time trying to disprove the notion that the US government, say, has alien spaceships hidden in a secret hangar. There might well be former astronauts who make such a claim, but if you are willing to believe their claims on the grounds of who they are, rather than solid evidence (that they always fail to produce), then you are guilty of bad thinking.

The evidence for UFOs – Alien Spaceships From Another Galaxy (ASFAGs as I think they should be called) – is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts. And anecdotes are not evidence. I know that some of the woo promoters insist that anecdotes in the form of personal testimony are allowed as evidence in a court of law, but so what? Personal testimony in court is not accepted at face value; it is going to be challenged and witnesses are going to be subjected to often harsh cross examination and possibly have their credibility destroyed in the light of opposing evidence or even proof. If a witness gives an alibi for a defendant but the defendant’s DNA, fingerprints, and so on are produced to refute that personal testimony, then I think the hard evidence is going to be more compelling than the anecdotal evidence.

What if a defendant’s alibi is that he could not have committed a particular crime because he had been abducted by aliens and he had a dozen witnesses to say they had seen him “beamed” aboard the aliens’ mother ship at the time  the alleged crime was committed? I would suggest that any such testimony would be thrown out because such a claim is absurd – although it wouldn’t be classed as absurd if the existence of aliens had already been established. Which it hasn’t.

But here’s a conundrum (for me, at least). I saw my own UFO (ASFAG?) and I can offer only an anecdotal account of the encounter I had. But if you will bear with me, see if you can follow the logic of my narrative.

The striking aspect of my story is that I experienced or witnessed for myself an event that I had often wondered about – witness accounts of UFO sightings where an alleged UFO travels at amazing speed and then suddenly turns at a 90 degree angle and shoots away at equally high speed. OK, it’s easy to criticise the usual blurry photographs purported to be UFOs. It’s easy to criticise UFO claims that have subsequently been debunked. It’s easy to look with a jaundiced eye at former astronauts who rely on their status rather than testable evidence for their UFO claims. But one recurring claim that always troubled me was the alleged 90 degree turn at high speed that often crops up. That’s not so easy to dismiss as a light in the sky that could be almost anything.

Anyway, the scenario was this: I live on the North East coast of England, and I regularly drive along a road that runs approximately parallel with the coast. The road itself is about 1.5 miles long between two main junctions, and at night is very dark except for about four pedestrian crossing points that each have a couple of street lamps on either side of the road. Apart from that, the entire road is just complete darkness for night time driving, and the use of headlights is essential. Although the road edges can be seen in the glow of one’s headlights, anything further than the far kerb is just complete blackness. The only occasional sign of life might be the lights from a ship out at sea. But this night, there was not even that.

This is a photograph of what can be seen in normal daylight, but keep in mind the fact that after sunset there is just complete blackness beyond the kerb you can see in the picture.

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The road itself is one I have driven along thousands of times in almost forty years of driving, at various times of the day and night. It is almost always an uneventful drive except for this particular night: from the corner of my eye I saw a vaguely orange light shoot straight up in the air, and as I turned to look at it, it turned at 90 degrees and shot away at high speed in the opposite direction from my own line of travel.

I saw this out in the blackness that would have had to be the sea, and although I wondered at first if it could have been a distress flare perhaps from a fishing boat in trouble, it was immediately obvious that a flare would not have done such a sharp turn and headed out of sight at such high speed. Even if there had been a heavy wind, I would have expected it to curve through the air, not turn and shoot off.

But just as I was pondering the improbability of me having discovered an underwater alien base, it happened again! Another light shot up in the air and again did a 90 degree turn, again shooting away into the distance. This was just getting too weird for a sceptic like me.

When I reached the end of the road, I turned the car around and headed back – obviously keeping a keen eye on the seaward side. But this time – nothing.

Never mind, once I had returned to the original junction, I set back off in the original direction I was headed (north). Again – nothing.

This was more than just a little bit irritating because (dare I say it?) I know what I saw. But to be honest, what I saw (twice) was a light shoot upwards, turn 90 degrees and then shoot away at apparently high speed. I’m not going to claim I saw an alien space ship. I still wanted to know what it was, however, and I was determined to at least try to solve this awkward riddle.

As I headed north for the third time, I realised that the time difference between my first and second sightings (maybe about eight seconds) was approximately the same time it took to travel between two of the pedestrian crossing areas with their attendant street lights.

I had noticed a correlation, but beware – any statistician can tell you that a correlation does not imply a causal link, although it’s true to say that if there is a causal link there will always be a correlation. So what next?

I did what any competent researcher does – I put together every salient fact I could think of and I tried to form a hypothesis that would explain what had happened.

The main facts were these:

  • It was a dark night.
  • The effect happened when I passed under street lights.
  • It was raining lightly.
  • My car window was partially open at the time of the sightings.
  • The local council had recently installed new lamp posts.

Given the fact that I have travelled the same route thousands of times over the best part of four decades, at all times of the day or night in all kinds of weather, one thing was different this time  – the new street lights. Could that have something to do with it?

Being the inquisitive person I am, someone who loves puzzles but hates mysteries, I really had to get to the bottom of this, and I drove back and forth along that stretch of road until I found what was at least a tentative answer. Maybe nine or ten times up and down the same road. But – Eureka! Here’s what happened that night, and over several following weeks of testing and retesting:

My habit, as I drive around town, is to drive with my window slightly open – just a gap of a couple of inches for a flow of fresh air. Even during light rain, that’s OK unless the rain is heavy enough to come into the car, in which case I drive with the window closed.

On this particular night, there was light rain and my window was slightly open as usual. If my memory was correct, then each time I had seen this mysterious UFO was just as I passed by one of the sets of street lights.

I also realised that the local council had recently been undertaking a programme of street light renewal. These particular lights were new and, unlike the old lights, are taller and the lights themselves are set at the top each lamp post rather than on an arm that extended over the road itself.

I wondered if it was possible that the angle of the lights in relation to the car window might be something to do with this strange phenomenon. So I drove back and forth until the exact effect happened again. And it turned out that with my window at a particular height, the effect could be reproduced, There was no end of UFOs that night. It seemed that the UFO effect was caused by light from the streetlights reflecting from the edge of the car window: one point of light travelling up the sloping lead edge of the window giving the impression of a light travelling vertically, and then travelling over the rising top of the window giving the impression of the light suddenly travelling horizontally.

Problem solved? Not quite.

Reproducing an experiment once or twice is hardly conclusive, so I repeated the drive a couple of nights later. Alas, nothing happened, even though I did the same run – back and forth – several times, and trying the window at different heights. Nothing.

Maybe the rain had something to do with it? I had to wait a week or two for more rain and set out again. This time – success! More UFOs!

And during the following weeks I did the same thing. Clear nights, rainy nights. On the clear nights nothing, whatever height I set the window. On very rainy nights, nothing, whatever the height of the window. But on nights with a light rain, and with the window set to a particular height, the effect of a UFO taking off vertically and shooting away horizontally could be easily reproduced.

I think I solved the problem: the effect was produced because of light rain forming a bead of water on the leading edge of the window, and that was where the light from the street lamps focused and reflected into my peripheral vision, causing what was nothing more than an optical illusion. When it happened, it was momentary and fleeting – but absolutely startling. If I had already been a believer in UFOs, I’m sure I would have been convinced that I had had a close encounter, and might possibly have contacted the press to make such a claim.

The reality is rather mundane: it all came down to a particular set of conditions that had to come together by chance. Consider what was involved:

  • New street lights that were taller than the previous lights.
  • The lamps attached to them were close in to the lamp posts rather than extended over the road.
  • There was a light rain.
  • My car window happened to be at a particular height.
  • The rain had formed a bead of water on the edge of the glass.
  • The light from the streetlights had been refracted through that bead of water as I passed by them.
  • The effect as it happened lasted only a very small fraction of a second.

At that moment, I really thought I had witnessed a light out at sea shoot vertically upwards and then turn at 90 degrees and shoot away.

I think most people would not have gone much further than the original observation, and perhaps some of them would be making  a song and dance about it. It is, after all, a staple of the UFO community – something strange is observed and – wait for it – it can’t be explained! Ta-Daaaaa! And as any believer can tell you, if it can’t be explained, then it must be [insert preferred woo here].

Yes, indeed, how do you explain that? Actually, you go out and investigate it.

I spent time over several weeks investigating this strange event, but I think it was worth it – at least to satisfy my own curiosity. Admittedly, my investigation into what happened doesn’t satisfy the criteria needed for publication in a scientific journal, but at least I followed some basic rules of research and I was able to eliminate some possible explanations until I came to a conclusion that is reasonable and is consistent with the known laws of physics (and optics, especially).

If only the promoters of the paranormal would do something similar in their everyday lives. It’s just too easy, however, to observe an event that appears anomalous and then just assume it is paranormal because it happens to fit neatly with existing beliefs.

Is there a moral to this story? Maybe. Believers in paranormal phenomena tend to accept claims of the paranormal at face value. A paranormal claim becomes a paranormal fact for them, and sceptical objections are dismissed as “just so stories” from nay-saying curmudgeons. The believers seem to be so committed to their beliefs, however, that possible explanations offered by sceptical critics must be swept away. Quite honestly, though, I still chuckle inwardly when I recall one of my correspondents calling me “deluded” for “not being broad minded enough” to believe. Quite. Silly me for preferring quantifiable reality to  unsubstantiated claims that no one can demonstrate to be fact.

As I said earlier, the claim of UFOs shooting in one direction and then turning at 90 degrees in an instant and flying off at equally high speed was something that puzzled me for some time. It’s not so easy to explain as just pointing out that a blurred smudge on an out of focus photograph is not proof of alien visitation – and of course the believers still think that the onus is somehow on sceptics to disprove paranormal claims rather than they themselves having any obligation to prove  the anti-scientific claims they promote.

The bottom line is this: I actually experienced a phenomenon that seemed unlikely, even though there are numerous eyewitness reports of “UFOs” doing high speed manoeuvres that seem to defy the laws of physics. It isn’t something for which a possible explanation is easily available. Even if you want to postulate an optical illusion of some kind, that’s not much to work on unless you can offer a plausible scenario. Without knowing the exact circumstances of any particular claim, you can’t really say much about it.

In my particular case, however, I can say with some confidence that what I experienced was, indeed, an optical illusion. It was an illusion that was so startling and real at the time that I was momentarily stunned, and in that moment I thought of other accounts I had read about from UFO believers, and I think I can understand why some people would think they had had an extraterrestrial encounter.

But, the question is this: if you have an unusual experience, should you assume an answer that fits your beliefs, or do you try to find out what is really going on?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it would be cool if the existence of anything paranormal could be confirmed, and I would not object to it at all. But the confirmable evidence needs to be there. Prove that alien space ships are real, and even I will accept the possibility of alien abduction as a plausible alibi in a court of law.

Until then, I remain sceptical. In the case of UFOs claimed to be travelling at high speed and turning instantly at 90 degrees, I think the first question anyone should ask is, “Were there any reflective surfaces nearby?” Even reflections in a pair of spectacles might provide a possible answer to some alleged UFO sightings. It’s worth thinking about before assuming an answer for which there is no credible evidence.

Additional Note:

This is a genuine photograph I took when I was testing out my new smart phone thingy in January this year. This is the picture, with no “photoshopped” special effects added, no digital photo manipulation, just a cropped section of a picture that was recorded when I took the photo. I was looking at the moon, among other things, when this hove into view. If any UFO experts want to tell me what it is, I will be happy to publish all analyses.

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I have my own hypothesis, but should I leave it up to the UFO “experts” to decide? Should I send it off for “expert analysis” and see if there are any “startling results” to follow? Are there any local “photo analysts” that can help me?

I will post my own ideas about it in the comments in a couple of days.

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.

Alien Invasion Might Be More Horrific Than You Thought

I found an amusing takedown of another bit of credulous UFO apologetics. Yeah, UFOs must be real because you can’t prove they’re not. Sceptics are just awful.

I’m old enough to vaguely remember the beginning of mankind’s exploration of space, starting with Sputnik, and I’ve grown up with the fantastic advances in science and technology that we have all seen and gained the benefit of. In fact, for me, this is the most exciting time to be alive, and I hope that, before I snuff it, life elsewhere in the universe will be confirmed.

Right now, NASA is sending probes out into space to try to detect life; in particular, there are machines on Mars designed specifically to find out if that planet could have supported life in the past, or even if there might be the remnants of actual life there now. And the SETI Institute is constantly scanning the skies in the hope that we might detect signals from other civilisations.

All of this is being done very publicly, and there are some excellent documentaries being broadcast that deal with the latest ideas in science that discuss the likelihood of alien civilisations being out there, and the possible ways that other life might have evolved. It’s not settled yet, of course, but the laws of physics apply all over the universe: it’s likely that life is abundant. If life could arise on Earth, there is no reason to assume that the same couldn’t happen elsewhere.

(By the way – I mentioned “excellent documentaries”: I mean things like Wonders Of The Universe, not unmitigated cobblers like Ancient Aliens or UFO Files. )

“”Ufology” – a pseudoscience if ever there was one – is like any other aspect of paranormal investigation, and totally unlike any real science. The existence of the claimed phenomenon is inferred from the fact that the paranormal investigators just can’t think of (or accept) an ordinary explanation. A light in the sky? No idea what it is, therefore it’s an alien spaceship from another galaxy (ASFAG, as I call it – not UFO, which by definition is something that has not been identified).

I’m not claiming it’s impossible for aliens to be here, just that it’s highly unlikely. If it’s true, then we need confirmable evidence, not the say-so of a few cranks who write uninformed magazine or newspaper columns, have books to sell and/or a profitable career to pursue on the UFO lecture circuit.

Despite the various science fiction scenarios we are all familiar with –- flesh-eating aliens, creatures that want Earth’s natural resources, the assimilation of this planet into some galactic empire, and so on, there could be something worse in store for us if and when these aliens do arrive. What if (shudder) these “people” have got… RELIGION?

Just think of it for a moment. Instead of spaceships with alien scientists and anthropologists on board, there might be exotic craft heading our way full of Missionaries! (Aaaargh!)

It might seem incredible to think of an advanced civilisation worshiping any gods. After all, the one thing that stands in the way of scientific progress here is religion. Some of the more liberal religious people accept much of their religion as being largely allegorical and metaphorical, without taking away their belief in a creator, which allows science to progress without too much interference (some scientists are religious, but at least they do tend to be deists rather than theists). Fundamentalists, however, will not accept science if it contradicts their religious beliefs. In fact, there are many fundie organisations that say categorically that anything that contradicts their dogma (especially science, which happens to be testable with no faith required) must be rejected. Creationists are trying to get their beliefs taught in science classes as though there is anything remotely scientific about any of it. If they get their way, then real science will be destroyed, along with any hope we might have of ever reaching the stars ourselves.

Given the history of religious strife on Earth – an enterprise that has turned countries into graveyards, the possibility of aliens being evangelicals is a thought that is quite horrifying.

Then again, aliens, if they arrive here, will (I hope) have probably ditched religion eons ago, but they might just clear off as soon as the fundies start knocking on their spaceship doors to “spread the good word” – or worse – “destroy the infidels.” The aliens might conclude that their search for intelligent life has drawn a blank in this backwater of the Milky Way.

No one knows for sure what’s out there; we can only say that alien life probably does exist, but is probably not here.

For an illustration of the probability of human/alien interaction, this is a good analysis (with thanks to xkcd):

I’m going to be optimistic on this one. If aliens still have religion, then they will very likely have done the same as the fundies on this planet have historically done, i.e., tortured and killed their best thinkers. Maybe they have been successful in replacing science with religion in their science classes. If that is the case, then there is no chance that they will have been able to develop the science that would enable them to cross the immense void of space to get here just to do the same thing to us. But if they have been able to outgrow a concept that belongs in the infancy of any advanced civilisation, then perhaps there will, one day, be meaningful contact between them and us without the barbarity that has afflicted humankind throughout its history and is still with us “thanks” to religion.

On our little planet – this pale blue dot — history is quite clear: religion delivers intolerance, death and destruction; science delivers computers, the internet, medical wonders, the beginnings of space exploration – and the actual possibility of travel across interstellar space.

But if aliens really are on their way here,  we had better just pray hope that they don’t have religion.

Free Speech Now A Reality

At last Parliament has given the boot to the bully boy tactics commonly used by  those who have regularly resorted to the threat of legal action to stop fair criticism. The new defamation bill now just requires Royal Assent, after which the words, “Remove your blog post or I’ll sue the pants off you” won’t work.

There’s some information here, but there will no doubt be a lot more to come in the next few days as the media reports on it.

As a sceptical blogger, I am particularly pleased with this new law. It allows legitimate criticism of outlandish claims made by various members of the woo fraternity, but without the fear of being sued for trivial grievances. And what, exactly, is a trivial grievance? It could be a blogger saying to a paranormal advocate something like, “Where’s your evidence? You’ve been making these claims for years and there’s nothing to show for it.”

A statement like that infuriates the self-proclaimed experts who make a living from writing unsubstantiated cobblers aimed at  a credulous readership. When they are called out on it and challenged to provide the evidence that they say proves their claims, they respond with legal threats, not the evidence they say they have. Quite honestly (in my honestly held opinion, as it were) I think they have evidence, alright, but it’s probably the sort of evidence that would be laughed out of a junior school science class.

Then again, maybe their evidence for their paranormal claims is such that when they finally release it they will have the world at their feet: a Nobel Prize for starters, not to mention the worldwide adulation, invitations to lecture at the Royal Institution, etc., etc., …

Yeah, right.

I’ve been a victim of this kind of intimidation myself, although indirectly, in the sense that comments I made on another blog were taken down because the blogger was threatened with legal action if they stayed up. The comments I made on that blog were not libellous in any way, but the costs of defending a trivial claim can be ruinous even before any case gets anywhere near a court. So I don’t blame that particular blogger in any way; he was a victim of the kind of bullying that is now going to end.

Obviously, there does need to be protection for people against malice; publicly accusing an innocent person of some kind of wrongdoing is itself wrong and there has to be a system in place for suitable redress. The new law still protects people from libel, but the difference now is that libel laws cannot be used as a personal weapon to censor honest criticism.

So far it has been common for some people to proclaim all kinds of codswallop under the banner of freedom of speech, but at the same time stifling the freedom of speech of others by threatening legal action against anyone who criticises them. I suspect there will be a lot of bloggers right now busy dusting off old blog posts for republication – posts that were removed because of legal threats but which can now be waved in the faces of bullies who have had things their own way for too long

Bloggers can now publish on the basis of “Is it true?” rather than “Will they sue?” It’s nice to know that the people who have threatened critics with financial ruin could now be the ones facing hefty legal bills for bringing meritless claims that are going to be thrown back at them.

About time, too.