Tag Archives: Skepticism

If Real Life Worked Like Claims Of The Paranormal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Edgar Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Skeptical Christmas To One And All

I’m a sceptic and an atheist, and yet I’m looking forward to the Christmas and New Year holidays and I intend to enjoy myself, together with my family and friends. But that idea seems a bit odd to some religious people I know: how can an atheist enjoy Christmas – a religious festival; and also isn’t it a bit hypocritical, to boot?

No, not at all. As Christmas comes around, I see it as a time to just relax, having a break from work, and maybe getting into the party spirit. Admittedly, I’m not a youngster any more, and partying in the way young people now do it is not for me. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun, or that I am going to put a damper on anyone else’s enjoyment. I won’t be going to any Christmas church services, of course, but I’m also not going to criticise any Christians who do so. We live in a free country (so far, anyway), so I support everyone’s right to follow their religion as they choose. I also expect and hope that people of other religions will respect the right of Christians to go about their celebrations as they have done here for many years. I don’t want to see any Christian celebrations having to be curtailed or stopped in the name of political correctness in case the feelings of other religions are hurt. Cobblers to that idea.

I will, naturally, have to run the gauntlet of some Christians who despise me for not believing the same as they do, or appreciating the fact that I actually support and defend their right to be Christian. It’s just a pity that those Christians, as well as members of other religions, do not have the tolerance to want to allow me to have freedom from religion in the same way they have freedom of religion.

Right now, I’m seeing a lot of holiday spirit in the local High Street – buskers playing Christmas songs; any day now, I’m sure, the Salvation Army will make an appearance as they play the more religious carols, and I even look forward to it. I will also, no doubt, contribute some money in the collection box, as I also regularly do for some of the non-religious causes (the local fire brigade usually have a display that I always contribute to). It’s just a nice atmosphere they all create between themselves, and it works just nicely to make at least the very few short weeks in the run up to a special family day a good time.

At this time of year, there are young children who know little about religion, but who believe in Santa Claus, and hope to receive a reward for being good. That’s not much different from many of their parents, who believe they, too, are going to receive a reward for being good, albeit in some (equally mythical) afterlife. The difference here, though, is that we don’t expect children to believe in a make-believe entity when they grow up. But many adults do that very thing. At least a child can provide evidence for the existence of Santa in the form of presents delivered, but the adults rely on faith that they have to continue with until the day they die.

It is inevitable that children find out and come to terms with the fact that Santa was a comforting fantasy when they were so young. But it’s a tragedy that so many adults can never find out the same truth about whichever god or gods they happen to worship. And there is no shortage of religious people who are happy to tell the members of every other religion that they’ve got their theology wrong (and some are even willing to kill to prove their point).

That’s one of many reasons that I have no religion: I have no reason to harm anyone else in any way just because I believe something different. As it happens, the fact that I have no beliefs is a good enough reason for me to be able to listen to what others have to say, without at all having to hate anyone else for thinking differently.

That’s something I keep in mind always, but especially at this time of year when most people at least seem to be making an effort to be nice to each other. I wish they could do the same all the time.

But Christmas or not, if I happen to meet you, whether it is where I work, or at a bus stop or in a pub or whatever, I will be just the same person you might meet at any time of the year. I will be nice to you; I hope you will be the same to me

Dare I, as an atheist, say it – Merry Christmas to all my readers.

 Santa gets it

(Just joking with the pic.)

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.

The Myth Of The Psychic Disclaimer

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psychics are not required by law to have a disclaimer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_20141028_180031

 

A Guide For Paranormal Investigators

Let us be clear about one thing: the existence of anything supernatural or paranormal (including alien visitation and abduction, not to mention magic medicine like homeopathy) has not been proven. For such claims to be true, there would have to be something fundamentally wrong with everything that science has discovered about the world around us and across the whole universe. The laws of nature are pretty well understood, and for the usual claims of the paranormalists to be valid, they would have to demonstrate how their claims do not contravene those laws, or at the very least they would have to show that they have discovered some hitherto unknown law or laws of physics.

It is claimed that telepathy, for instance, is real, but there is no testable hypothesis suggested, and there is certainly no theory (in the scientific sense) that explains how information can be transmitted directly from one person’s brain (or consciousness) to another. The proponents of such claims sometimes talk in terms of a mysterious energy that is undetectable to science (which just happens to be very good at detecting and measuring energy), but which is somehow just transmitted and received by certain rare people who also cannot explain it in any sensible way that could lead to objective confirmation.

Parapsychologists, of course, claim they have the proof, but when their claims are tested by others they just don’t work. At least they usually seem to be following scientific protocols, but replication is the acid test for any scientific claim; so far, however, no one else can get the same results, so the paranormal is not taken seriously by science. That’s the way it is.

Quite honestly, however, I would not be bothered by science rejecting, say, dowsing, if those dowsers could actually do what they claim they do in the real world. If a dowser could clear minefield after minefield, I would be convinced, never mind what those “closed-minded” scientists say. My own hypothesis, however, is that the number of dowsers it would take to clear a minefield is exactly equal to the number of mines in any minefield. (That hypothesis is testable, so it is a scientific hypothesis. As a proposed experiment it would not pass any ethics committee, of course, but my other hypothesis is that no dowser would volunteer anyway, so it’s a moot point – unless any dowsers want to travel to any of the many war zones in the world to prove me and science wrong.)

Things get murky, however, because there are a lot of enthusiastic but scientifically illiterate paranormal “experts” who go on various “ghost hunts” and “vigils” and so on, promoting absolute nonsense in lieu of rationality. To put it bluntly, they have no idea what they are talking about. They go on about “energy” but flounder about when asked what, exactly, they mean. Over a year ago, I listened to a local radio station broadcast where a group of ghost hunters were interviewed by an equally credulous presenter. One of the interviewees, a local beauty therapist by trade, “explained” that when someone dies, their energy can’t dissipate. It’s electricity, she said, although she didn’t mention Ohm’s Law, or the relationship between voltage, current and resistance in a circuit, nor did she give any of the basic mathematical relationships between those concepts that would explain why the well-established laws of thermodynamics are invalid within her interpretation of reality. Michael Faraday, et al, did not rate even a mention. I can only assume that she is qualified in her chosen career, and that when her clients leave her beauty salon they are (at least in a statistically significant way) less ugly than when they entered. But I think she should stick with make-up rather than making it up.

In short, parapsychologists are doing it wrong, ghost hunters are doing it wrong; psychics, dowsers and all the rest of them are doing it wrong. If they could get it right, there would be no dispute. So, as an aid for those self-styled experts in the paranormal, and as a public service, I present the Bad Thinking Guide For Paranormal Investigators:

Arse elbow illustration 4

Feel free to use the above illustration for educational purposes.

Can Skeptics Handle The Truth About The Unexplained?

I got a sudden upsurge of traffic on the blog a couple of weeks ago after my last post. Mike Hallowell’s article claimed that a Neanderthal had been shot dead by time-travelling hunters using modern firearms. The article was picked up for criticism elsewhere, here, for example, so it obviously made an impression.

Since then, Mike has published a follow up article in the Shields Gazette, but rather than accepting that he made several factual errors and had fallen into various logical fallacies he has, in fact, dug himself deeper into a factual and logical hole. Let’s have a look.

The title of his article doesn’t start things off very well. It says,

Some can’t handle the truth about the unexplained

If something is unexplained, then it is unexplained. The only truth about the unexplained is that it is just that. What is the alternative? Maybe the usual, “We don’t know what this is, therefore aliens.” (Occam’s razor would come in useful there, and as it happens I am already busy drafting a post on that very subject.)

Mike starts his article with the statement (I have added bold for emphasis, and my comments are in square brackets):

MY recent article about an ancient animal skull and a human one which appeared to have a bullet holes in them created quite a bit of interest; more than any other column of mine this year, in fact.

That’s not just misleading but flat out wrong, because he stated specifically that it was a Neanderthal; there was no mention of a human being as the subject of the story. (I know from experience that Mike Hallowell will probably now accuse me of accusing him of being a liar, so I will make this as clear as I can for him: I am not claiming that Mike Hallowell is lying, I am claiming that he is contradicting himself; I have provided the links, and even if those Gazette articles mysteriously disappear for any reason, I also have copies of them that I can produce later.) He said in his previous article:

It was, in fact, a Neanderthal skull, and Neanderthal bones did not exactly come ten-a-penny. [Not in Africa anyway, at all.]

And:

As there were no radial fractures on the Neanderthal skull, it was unanimously concluded that the projectile must have had a far, far greater velocity than an arrow or spear. [Concluded by whom? Mike doesn’t say, so it’s not going to be easy for any (qualified) researcher or anyone else to follow up.]

As I pointed out in my previous post, the skull in question is neither human nor Neanderthal, although it is probably an ancestor of both. Although Mike said in his original article that the skull was Neanderthal, he now says he was writing about a human skull. (Pick the bones out of that. (as it were))

Mike’s response to those who pointed out to him that Neanderthals did not live in Africa is:

Really? And they know this how, I wonder? Absence of evidence is not absence of evidence. It is likely that Neanderthals did inhabit parts of Africa. [I think Mike means “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” Carl Sagan’s famous quote.]

No, the absence of evidence of any Neanderthals in Africa indicates it is unlikely they lived there, and almost certainly did not. In any case, this is a red herring – the skull referred to in the original story is definitely not a Neanderthal, despite Mike’s original claim, and the main question (perhaps) is whether it was shot at all, never mind whether time-travellers did it with a modern firearm.

Mike says that “even if” the existence of Neanderthals in Africa is unlikely, he says that the absence of evidence doesn’t mean they didn’t live there, just that “…they may not have.” He doesn’t see the need for a positive claim to have positive supporting evidence before it can be taken seriously. That is basically the appeal to ignorance – the idea (whether stated explicitly or implicitly) that if a claim cannot be proven false, then by default it should be accepted or at least be given serious consideration. Then again, no one has found kangaroo fossils in Africa, so should we accept the possibility they evolved there with no evidence for that either? They haven’t found polar bear fossils in Antarctica; what should we make of that? It doesn’t prove they weren’t there, after all.

Mike reckons that sceptics are most upset at the idea that ancient people might have developed technology even more advanced than our own. He asks:

On what logical basis can we say that?

The logical basis is called induction. Archaeology and palaeontology have discovered tools and other artefacts that are associated with mankind’s evolutionary development, from stone axes to more advanced technology through the ages. Nothing equivalent to modern power tools, computers or other technology has ever been found at ancient sites.

Mike says it is extreme arrogance to suggest that no ancient peoples were our equals when it comes to “…their understanding of the sciences”. There are a number of links in the article, but good luck trying to get through to them. For me, all but one went to a “page not found” link, and the one I did get through to is nothing but the usual sensationalist and highly speculative rubbish that has been repeatedly debunked. And no, even if you can find the video of some astronauts claiming UFOs are real (and there is no shortage of them on Youtube), the number of people making an unsubstantiated claim does not make such a claim true. That’s the appeal to popularity – also a logical fallacy. It doesn’t matter how many people make a claim, it is of little use without corroboration.

(I’ll add a note here about that. A constant refrain from the woo people is that eyewitness testimony is allowed in a court of law, so it should also be “admissible” as evidence of paranormal claims. What they seem to be unaware of is that such testimony in court is subject to cross examination, and is still considered weak at best if there is no corroboration; if sufficient doubt is raised in the minds of a jury, then a defendant must be found to be not guilty, and a Crown Court Judge will tell a jury that that is the law. Sceptics also have their doubts when a paranormal claim is made without testable evidence to back it up.)

Mike then bemoans the fact that sceptics hold science in such high regard. He wants to know why “supposedly intelligent people” deny his claims. He says:

The answer lies in the obsession that some sceptics have with insisting that scientific testing, experimentation and observation are the only reliable means of establishing the veracity of something.

Well, when you can pick and choose your own criteria for establishing truth, and ignore completely such things as multiple eyewitness testimony, you’re on a pretty safe bet, of course.

Whether Mike likes it or not, science is the best method we have for finding out about the universe we live in. A subjective assessment of claims is worthless if you are asserting that a claim is an objective fact. It is the paranormal fraternity who pick and choose their own criteria for “establishing truth,” but they have to be anti-science because science requires testable evidence of any claim made – eye witness testimony is not scientific.

And:

So what do you do with those pesky eyewitnesses who insist they’ve seen things you don’t want to believe in?

Maybe accept that they have just been “seeing things”? Mike believes that sceptics respond with character assassination and various ad hominem attacks, but he does not accept that in fact the various claims made by  paranormal proponents are rejected because of a lack of credible evidence to support them.

He doesn’t help his argument by stating that there are various astronauts who make public claims that aliens are here. As he puts it:

They’re either outrageous liars, or they’re telling the truth, I’d venture.

That fallacy is called a false dichotomy – offering only two alternatives when there are others. Perhaps those witnesses are delusional, or maybe they have been given false information and they truly believe it. I can think of other possibilities, but Mike thinks they should be believed because he sees “…no reason for them to fib.”

Paranormal buffs like Mike criticise science, commonly saying things like, “science is always changing its mind about things.” But look at it this way: someone claims that a Neanderthal skull has a bullet hole and the force of the shot destroyed the opposite side of the skull. That’s a testable claim because the skull exists and can be examined.

Scientific examination of the skull reveals that it is not that of a Neanderthal anyway. It turns out that the “bullet hole” shows signs of healing, so the individual did not die from the wound. Evidence also suggests that it may have been caused by an infection in the overlying tissue. And, despite what he said, the opposite side of the skull is intact, and definitely not showing signs of a bullet’s exit wound.

All of that has been pointed out to Mike Hallowell, but not only will he not admit that he got it wrong, he defends his original article with self-contradictory statements and logical fallacies, and criticises science – the very discipline that could have upheld his claim if only it were true.

So it turns out that the skull in question is not a Neanderthal and it wasn’t shot dead by time travellers using a modern firearm. That’s the truth and yes, sceptics can handle it. There was nothing paranormal to explain n the first place.

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.

 

They Called Me A Pseudoskeptic!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider this scenario:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For your entertainment:

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

Someone who does what he claims.

 

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

Ambition goes beyond ability

 

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

Psychics: the reality

 

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

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

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

There is nothing pseudo about reasonable doubt.

She’s Dead, Honey.

By our paranormal correspondent, Kristal Borle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.