Tag Archives: Supernatural

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.

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Wrapping Up 2013 And Looking Forward To 2014

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

1) Erm…

2) Yeah, right.

3) Umm…

4) That’s about it, actually.

seance

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

1) Oh, give me a break…

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

3) Really – don’t get me started.

vacuum_cap_thumb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creationism Is Not Science

 Creationism vs ScienceMy previous post was a parody of religion and its malign influence on humanity. In particular, I was pointing out the way that superstition in the form of religion stops progress, and also the fact that it is only science that has enabled humanity to leave the caves and have the potential, at least, to live long and healthy lives in comfort and safety.

It can hardly be denied that religion has caused untold misery through the ages, and even now, thousands are being killed and maimed in the name of religion. But not only are people being murdered by the thousands, vaccination workers in Pakistan are being targeted and killed. Millions of lives have been saved through one of science’s greatest triumphs, and yet the ignorance and anti science of religion is managing to kill even more people by killing the very people who could have saved their lives.

All of that is bad enough, of course, but even in the western democracies there is a pernicious wave of anti science trying to worm its way into educational institutions – creationism. This is dangerous and has to be stopped. No one is trying to to prevent the religious from pursuing their beliefs in their places of worship or in the privacy of their homes, but there is no place in a science class for something that is not only not science, but is overtly the enemy of science.

I wrote the previous post after looking through some of the comments left on earlier threads. One of my creationist commenters said:

1) You believe that Creationism is unscientific.
2) Creationists believe that Creationism is scientific.
3) Both of these opinions are based upon different interpretations of the evidence and data. Both sides believe the other side is wrong.

Currently, Evolutionists hold the reins steering the direction of scientific teaching in our places of learning, It was not always so, and there may come a time when it will not be again.

There are few things I claim with certainty, but one thing is certain beyond any shadow of doubt: creationism is unscientific. Let me deal with the above points:

Point 1: The problem with creationism is that it works in completely the opposite way that science works. The thing that marks creationism as unscientific – even outright anti science – is the fact that it starts with the conclusion it wants to prove. Consider the fact that there are thousands of religions, each with its own creation story: each one has a different conclusion for which evidence has to be found. It’s easy to find evidence that supports a belief, but is the evidence falsifiable? If not, it is not science.

Point 2: Yes, creationists believe that creationism is scientific; in this post I will show why they are wrong.

Point 3: “Both of these opinions are based upon different interpretations of the evidence and data.” Except for one simple fact: creationists do not discover any evidence or data; real evidence and data are found by real scientists, and creationists can only attack the scientific evidence. They produce nothing original themselves. In any case, if evidence is open to wildly different interpretations, then you need better evidence.

The last point (not numbered) is either an expression of ignorance or an aspiration to overthrow science. It also sounds vaguely threatening.

One thing that can be said about creationism is that its proponents are profoundly ignorant about science. It is not what they think it is. In the simplest way I can think of stating it, science is a three stage process: observation; formulation of a hypothesis; testing the hypothesis. (It’s more involved than that, of course, but as an outline it covers the basics.)

Science begins when a phenomenon is observed. Whether it is something mundane or something totally unexpected, a curious person wants to know what is going on. Next, a possible explanation (the hypothesis) for the phenomenon is formulated – an explanation that is at least plausible. Then the hypothesis is tested to see if it does, in fact, explain the observation.

But here is the unexpected thing (which creationists cannot seem to grasp): the hypothesis is not tested to try to confirm the hypothesis, it is tested to try to disprove the hypothesis. In other words, a scientist tries to prove that the hypothesis he (or she) thinks is true is actually false (that’s called the null hypothesis). If it is false, then the scientist goes back to the original observation and formulates a new hypothesis to be tested. But even if the hypothesis is confirmed, it is held only tentatively – more testing needs to be done.

 

The principle of falsifiability in science is crucial. If a hypothesis is false, then there must be a way to prove it. This is not the same as trying to prove a universal negative. It is not possible, for example, to prove that psychics aren’t real. Even if a psychic fails a properly conducted test, all it tells you is that that person failed that test on that day at that time, but hey, they might get it right another time. No, falsifiability means that the parameters of any hypothesis should include a way to tell if the hypothesis is wrong. Although some people claim that evolutionary theory is unfalsifiable, for example, all it would take to falsify it would be (as someone famously said) to find a rabbit fossil in the precambrian. And there are many other possible ways to falsify evolutionary theory if it happened to be wrong.

Here’s the crunch – creationism does not provide much in the way of testable hypotheses. Ask a creationist how to test the hypothesis that his or her particular deity created the world and what do you get? Apologetics – in other words, a list of excuses to try to say why any particular creationist belief is not testable (but they still claim that creationism is scientific).

Here’s an example: Young Earth Creationists (YECs) insist that the Earth is no more than six thousand years old. Now that’s a hypothesis that can be tested.
Carbon 14 is a radioactive isotope that is abundant in nature and absorbed by all living things. When a plant or creature dies, it no longer replenishes that C14, which then decays at a known rate. By measuring the amount of C14 in an organic sample, the age of that sample can be calculated. The technique can measure age up to about fifty five thousand years, after which there is not enough C14 left to be measured. The technique has been tried and tested and is reliable.

If any material is dated that is older that six thousand years, then the hypothesis that the Earth is no more than that age is falsified. And that is what happens routinely (not even counting other types of radiometric dating that can go back billions of years).

Can the creationists accept these scientific findings? No, of course they can’t. God must have created the world with the “appearance” of age. Or perhaps Satan planted those fossils in the ground to beguile godless scientists. Even the speed of light must have changed in the last few thousand years just to make it look as though the young universe itself is old. All said with a straight face and no evidence whatsoever. If creationism really were scientific, then those YECs would accept that the Young Earth hypothesis had been falsified. But it isn’t, and they don’t.

It gets no better with any other aspect of religion. Hindus, for example, believe that there are an infinite number of universes – past, present and future, each lasting for trillions of years until they are all reborn. The latest measurements from science reveal that our universe is about 13.82 billion years old, but there is no way to test (falsify) the Hindu hypothesis (more accurately, faith), so the claim is not scientific (whether it is true or not).

Should creationism be given equal time in science classes? It’s easy to see one major problem: add together the number of creation stories from the thousands of religions that exist, then divide the number of hours dedicated to science in schools by the number of creation stories there are, and you would be lucky to have more than just a few seconds per week when science can be taught. And it goes without saying that each religion will have strong objections to anyone else’s religion being taught.

And that is what would happen – science classes would be replaced by religion, and the in-fighting in schools between those religions would just mirror the upheavals that have dogged mankind for thousands of years. No more scientific progress, just religious warfare but on a classroom level.

Creationism is not scientific, nor is it compatible with science. If religions ever did apply science and, more to the point, accepted scientific findings, then religion would just die out. Planets follow their orbits according to well established laws of physics, and there is no need to suppose they are being pushed by angels. Earthquakes happen because of tectonic movement, not because of some god’s wrath to visit punishment on wicked people. In short, the laws of nature follow regular and predictable patterns; gods are an unnecessary hypothesis.

I’ll mention one more thing: creationists point to the fact that many scientists, past and present, were/are religious, as if that proves that science and religion are compatible. The simple fact is this: scientists do not get their scientific results from prayer, even if they do have religious beliefs. Even if Isaac Newton was a devout believer in a divine creator, he saw himself as merely describing what he believed his god had put in place. (He did, apparently, believe that his god inspired him, but the bottom line is that he still had to do his own working out.)

That, in fact, is very important to keep in mind. Science is an endeavour that describes nature rather than trying to explain it. Newton described the laws of nature from his observations and calculations. But the supernatural as an explanation is something that cannot be tested scientifically. Newton and many other scientists may well have believed (and many still do)  that a god or gods are the ultimate explanation for everything that exists, but however religious a scientist might be, he or she can only describe the facts of what is going on out there, they cannot prove or disprove the existence of a deity that might or might not be behind it all.

My correspondent said:

Currently, Evolutionists hold the reins steering the direction of scientific teaching in our places of learning, It was not always so, and there may come a time when it will not be again.

But it’s not going to be much of a science exam where the answer to every question is, “God did it.”

That would be the end of science and a return to the dark ages.

Mike Hallowell on the Jinn–A reply

 

In my last post, here, I wrote about possession, and I referred to this Shields Gazette article written by Mike Hallowell. In it, he details his belief in possession, but I disagree with him that it is a real phenomenon; at least there is no objective, confirmable evidence to support it.

Mike has replied to that post, but in order to give him a full reply, I have to do so by creating this new post. That’s because images I need to use to support my points cannot be embedded in the comments thread.

I would recommend that you read my previous post (and Mike’s reply) and the Gazette article before you go ahead reading this reply of mine to Mike.

My reply to Mike Hallowell:

Mike,

 
I know that hanging was the usual punishment in England, but I referred to the UK in general, not England in particular. Scotland was the place to go for the burnings. In any case, crimes against the state were so often synonymous with crimes against the church.

Some religious people have, of course, made great scientific leaps forward, but they did it using science, not religion. Isaac Newton was a devout Christian, but he did not explain his findings in terms of divine intervention in the movement of celestial bodies, he explained their movement with mathematics, even if he thought that a god existed and created the laws of physics he was measuring. He also went off the rails with his pursuit of alchemy, but he kept that research quiet until his death because he knew that he himself would face execution if anyone found out about it.

Science and religion are incompatible. Young Earth creationists insist that the Earth is no more than between six and ten thousand years old. They are wrong – demonstrably so. Faith healing does not cure disease – medical science does. Prayer does not suspend the laws of physics in favour of the person who prays.

 
I am not “condemning religion on the basis of what some psychopathic extremists once did,” (and still do, for that matter).

As for the Soviet Union – you might even be thinking of Joseph Stalin, an atheist – you might also like to note that even he did not kill the millions he undoubtedly did in the name of atheism. He killed millions because he was an evil dictator. Now look at all the killings being done around the world right now in the name of religion.

I will go along with your notion that extreme acts are done by psychopaths who might not necessarily be representative of most of their contemporaries. They are also done by otherwise sane people who believe they are carrying out the will of their particular deity.

As for the use and misuse of science, scientists do not make political policy. Science has been warning of the dangers of man-made global warming, for example, but some countries – the USA in particular – are going ahead with policies that are making things worse. The world does indeed suffer from poverty, crime and so on, but that is despite science, not because of it.

You mention religious-minded scientists again, but again, those religious scientists get their results from using scientific methodology, not prayer. One man’s superstition is still superstition.

“Antiquated” opinions are those old ideas that are held despite evidence that disproves them. The Earth is not 6000 years old, for example, it is more than 4.5 billion years old.

I do not try to curtail anyone’s free speech. I’m not on a campaign to have your Shields Gazette column stopped, nor do I try to prevent you from publishing your books. You might even notice that I have published your comment here in full and without any editing of it. And I’m also not demanding that you stop expressing your opinions.

Teaching the paranormal and creationism in schools and universities? Not in science classes. Science deals with hypotheses that can be measured and tested objectively. Faith is not required.

You mention free speech again, but I’m all for it. As for your readers, they are not all the same. Some of them probably believe everything you write, others are more discerning.

You are playing with words when you say you do not believe in demons. You are certainly talking about alleged supernatural beings that supposedly invade a person’s body and/or mind. It doesn’t really matter what you call them. If, as you claim, demons and the Jinn are entirely different phenomena, I look forward to you demonstrating first of all that they exist, and secondly how you tell the difference between someone who suffers a mental health problem and someone who is possessed.

Then again, I said that there is no objective evidence that these alleged entities exist, and your response was, “To the best of my knowledge this is correct.” If you agree that there is no objective evidence that these things are real, then there is no need to believe in them.

Yes, indeed, I said, “If someone has the right to promote superstition, then others have the right to challenge it.” But it’s not up to me to supply any facts; you are making the claim, so it is up to you to prove it. But you said that you agree that there is no objective evidence to support your claim. By your own words, you are saying that you cannot prove the claims you are making. That’s what I’m getting at. But prove it and I will change my mind.

Regarding your “certain local blogger,” are you referring to me? I know you have never “promised” to release your evidence, but the fact that you keep on claiming that you have evidence supporting your claims gives your readers a sense of expectation that never seems to be fulfilled.  That’s sort of the point, really; you never do promise to reveal your evidence. And you have certainly claimed to have sent evidence away for analysis, and which has returned startling results.

 
In fact I did prove it with a link on another blog. Unfortunately, since then, on your web page I linked to, your reference to “startling results” has  been changed to  “extremely interesting results.” Here are the screen shots:

Before:

Startling results 01

“Can you tell us more about the audio recordings?”

“Some of the audio recordings have already been subjected to analysis with startling results, which will hopefully be detailed on the forthcoming documentary.” (Emphasis added)

And after:

Startling results 02

“Can you tell us more about the audio recordings?”

“Some of the audio recordings have already been subjected to analysis with extremely interesting results, which will hopefully be detailed in the forthcoming documentary.” (Emphasis added)

Why did you change it? Anyone following my link to there would see something entirely different to what I directed them to.

 
As for the “salon ghost,” here’s a link to the original newspaper item:

http://www.jarrowandhebburngazette.com/news/local-news/is-this-the-face-of-the-salon-ghost-1-1303932

The reporter wrote:

“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.”

Any reasonable person would take that to mean that you yourself told the reporter that your pictures had been “sent off to be analysed.” (Emphasis added) If the reporter has misreported what you said, or worse, just made it up, then you should take that up with the Shields Gazette and demand a retraction.

Like you, I keep records too. I found out a while ago that your website is unreliable as a source to link to. Apart from the fact that you have changed a crucial point that I referred to earlier, many of my bookmarks now go to dead pages (error 404) or have different content entirely. But I make it routine to archive every web page I visit. The same goes for video.

I like this point of yours:

“Oh, and as for those “unqualified, self-appointed” experts you speak of, as you’re presumably an expert yourself could you give me just one example of such a person who has truly proclaimed themselves as an expert as opposed to being lauded as an expert by others?” (Emphasis added)

Yes, Mike – you. Have a look at this comment you made on Curly’s blog:

http://curly15.wordpress.com/2008/05/22/exorcisms-on-the-rates/#comment-23600

“…we’re experts in the field and you’re not.”

As you requested, just one example. And they are your own words, answering your own challenge.

That’s something of a paradox, though. On your own website, the veteran paranormal writer  Guy Lyon Playfair describes you as amateurs. I’m including a screenshot before you change that page as well.

Experts Playfair

“…amateurs like Mike and Darren…” (Guy Lyon Playfair)

And remember, on the Shields Gazette website:

http://www.shieldsgazette.com/community/columnists/wraithscape/we_re_worlds_apart_on_ufos_1_3441571

(All of the comments are now removed for some reason but here are a couple of screenshots): I asked you what qualifications you had, and you told me that qualifications are not necessary:

Expert 03

“…as we live in a democracy, one is entitled to call oneself a Paranormal investigator without having a single qualification at all.”

Expert 05

“For your edification, Skeptic, paranormal investigators do not have any “authority” and do not need any, just as you don’t need any “authority” to engage in any of your own interests and pass-times [sic].”

Additionally, you say here about you and your colleague, Darren Ritson, “Well we are not scientists and have never claimed to be”:

http://pelicanist.blogspot.co.uk/2009/06/south-shields-view-from-minefield_25.html

(Just scroll down to the section, “Findings should be presented in a calm, scientific manner…”)

So, in your own words, you have no relevant recognised qualifications or authority, and yet also in your own words, you claim to be an expert. You also say in your own words that you are not a scientist. In response to me saying that the supernatural beings you refer to have no objective evidence for their existence, in your own words: “To the best of my knowledge this is correct.”  And Playfair describes you as amateurs on your own website.

I don’t claim to be an expert in the paranormal. On the other hand, I recognise a claim that doesn’t fit in with what science knows about the universe. I know that when people talk about supernatural energy, or whatever, then the well established laws of thermodynamics, for instance, are being challenged. But again, it is up to the person who makes the claim to prove it. Anyone who makes a claim that contradicts well established science is likely to be challenged. That’s OK, though. Sometimes there are some theories in science that turn out to be wrong – or, more likely, incomplete rather than totally wrong – but if you can overturn what science thinks it knows, I don’t mind if you can prove your claims of the supernatural, paranormal or anything else you write about.

The number of books and articles and radio and TV shows and all the rest of it that you take part in is neither here nor there. The fact that you write about weird things does not make them real.

I know there are some mental health workers who consider the possibility that possession is real, but I see that as an indictment of some faulty training they must have had. When you get down to it, though, no psychiatrist is going to diagnose possession in a person and then refer them for an exorcism. If you know of any who do, please report them to the General Medical Council. Urgently.

No, I haven’t read the Qur’an (well, not much of it, anyway). But any holy book is self-referential. Every religion refers to its own religious writings to support its beliefs. Everything makes sense for the religious when they view the world from their particular religious perspective, but there are thousands of religions in the world, and all of them think they have it right and everyone else is wrong. They can’t all be right.

Your reference to Doctor and Egyptologist Maurice Bucaille is a simple appeal to authority. So what if he thinks the Qur’an is scientifically accurate? Perhaps you can tell me what you think of this video of an Islamic scholar explaining that the Earth is flat and that the Sun revolves around the Earth and the Sun is smaller than the Earth, and a number of other things. His authority is the Qur’an, so do you believe it? I’m not sure what to make of it myself; he is saying something that is directly opposed to science.

The Earth is flat–Islamic science from the Qur’an

 

Thank you for your offer of a public debate, but I will decline it. I think it is much better for us to put our views in writing rather than have everything we say forgotten or misremembered by a live audience. Having our “good-natured and civilised debate” like this on blogs and websites is much better.

And, of course, you will be able to copy and paste screenshots and anything else I post, and use it against me at a later date. (And I probably won’t even threaten to sue you for doing so.)

You are wrong when you say my mind is completely closed to the possibility of Jinn possession. I’m a sceptic and you can change my mind by proving what you claim. It was you who said that Muslims are the ones who are not going to change their minds.

As for your suggestion that I remove this post, the answer is no. You had the right to publish your views on the subject in the Shields Gazette; I have the right to criticise it; and you are quite welcome to post your rebuttals here. I don’t see how I could be any fairer than that. Free speech is a valuable commodity, and I protect my free speech by helping to protect the free speech of others – including you. If you think your arguments are sound, then there should be no need for you to request, demand or even issue legal threats to have opposing opinions removed from here or any other website or blog.

Of course you let your readers know who you are – you need publicity because of the very nature of what you do. But those critics of yours who put a name to their posts could be anyone – anyone at all. You don’t know who they are, either – just like I don’t know the identity of the improbably-named “Fred West” who sprang to your defence on the above Shields Gazette UFO article, and who, by the most remarkable coincidence (it could almost make one believe in synchronicity, even), had the same problem you suffered: his same comment being repeatedly posted. Astonishing.

No, I’m not a coward, but your name-calling doesn’t strengthen your arguments.

The story behind Jinn possession – an exercise in belief over objectivity

the-exorcistIn those parts of the world where learning and science have prevailed, miracles have ceased; but in those parts of it as are barbarous and ignorant, miracles are still in vogue.
— Ethan Allen, Reason the Only Oracle of Man (1784)

In a western secular democracy like the UK, everyone has the right to pursue their religion without hindrance, and that is the way it should be. The same freedom applies to atheists, who are not forced into following a state religion that will apply torture and even death to any non-believer or anyone of a different faith.

In this country we are quite lucky, if you think about it. In times gone by, when the Catholics were in charge, Protestants were burned at the stake. When the boot was on the other foot, Protestants were burning Catholics at the stake. But both sides would quite happily kill anyone thought to be guilty of witchcraft. Or heresy. Or anything else that did not agree with the prevailing dogma.

One of the greatest perceived enemies of religion has always been science. It’s pretty significant, I think, that you will not find any historical accounts of astronomers banding together and marching out to burn the religious to death, but the aroma of roasting scientists was not exactly uncommon in the medieval era. Contradicting religious dogma was a dangerous business. (It still is, in some parts of the world.)

Then the Enlightenment happened. Science gained a foothold and superstition started to be replaced by objective study of the world – and the universe – around us. I hardly need to start listing the benefits that science has brought to the world – everything from electricity to medical expertise that routinely saves millions of lives worldwide. It’s amazing.

And yet, even in this day and age, there are those who still try to force their antiquated superstitions on us. That’s the price of free speech, of course, but free speech is a two way street that is open to everyone, and we cannot let superstition take us back to the dark ages.

I found an article in the Shields Gazette that promotes exorcism  (yet again, ad nauseam) as though it is a real method for driving out the demons (or Jinn) that the author – Mike Hallowell (who announced his conversion to Islam in June 2011) – believes can possess some individuals. I’m not going to do a full critique of the article (you can read it, and shake your head in exasperation, by clicking on the link), but I will make a few points.

There is no objective evidence that demons (or whatever name you want to give them) are real, nor is there any confirmable evidence that those who have the symptoms of a mental illness are possessed by such alleged entities.

In the article, there are some points in particular that are worth mentioning:

If you haven’t seen a Jinn-possessed person up close and personal, you have no right to pontificate on the matter.

Wrong. If someone has the right to promote superstition, then others have the right to challenge it.

“In the West, some health professionals want everything their own way.”

That would be the scientific way. Obviously we can’t have that, can we?

Most significant, perhaps, is this gem:

Both sides need to learn from this and be prepared to understand each other a little better.

Which sounds fair and conciliatory, except it is followed immediately by this (bold added for emphasis):

Muslims are not going to change their belief, substantiated by the Qur’an, that the Jinn exist and occasionally possess people.

In other words, “It doesn’t matter how much science and objectivity you bring to bear, our beliefs will not be altered. The Qur’an says it, I believe it, that’s the end of the matter.”

In view of such closed-mindedness, the fight for rationality obviously has a long way to go yet.

Cost of ignorance: another death by exorcism

We are so constituted that we believe the most incredible things: and, once they are engraved upon the memory, woe to him who would endeavour to erase them.
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This is the 21st century, isn’t it? It’s hard to tell when you come across stories like this. A thirteen year old girl was not just killed, but tortured to death by a so-called pir (exorcist) who is now on the run from police who intend to charge him with murder.

The report of an autopsy performed on Salma, 13, stated that she had died from suffocation. It said the girl’s breathing was hampered by blocking her nostrils with cotton buds and holding her mouth shut.

The autopsy, carried out at Cheechwatni tehsil headquarters (THQ) hospital, confirmed that her skin was burnt with a hot iron rod. The report said there were bruises on the girl’s arms, face and chest.

The girl’s parents are not being charged with anything, apparently, but I think they should be. It seems incredible to me that this case only came to light because of a tip-off to the police; the child’s father had accepted his daughter’s death as “…the will of God,” and would not have taken any further action had it not been for someone else reporting it.

It isn’t clear what, exactly, convinced the girl’s father that his daughter was possessed by a djinn, but the exorcist recommended to him was someone who didn’t charge money for his services, so it must have seemed like a bargain at the time.

According to the girl’s father, at the end of the exorcism:

“The pir said we could take her away and warned us against uncovering her body, wrapped from head to toe in a piece of white cloth,” he added.
He said the pir immediately left the room afterwards. “He had fled by the time we found out that she was dead,” he said.

But this is the cost of ignorance and superstition. And it is still going on today. Exorcisms are not confined to third world countries where education is severely limited; it goes on even in the so-called advanced western democracies. Deaths by exorcism –and subsequent prosecutions – have also been reported in the UK. Incredibly, even in a UK newspaper, this dangerous nonsense is promoted as if it were real. If you don’t believe me, then have a glance at this series of articles in The Shields Gazette: here, here, and especially here.

Superstition goes hand in hand with ignorance, of course. And the problem with ignorance is that the more ignorant a person is, the more certain they are that they are right. And the more certain that they are right, the more certain it is that someone is going to be hurt or even killed.

On the other hand, when someone does die of a botched exorcism it can just be claimed it is the will of God. Problem solved. But that’s the useful thing about religion: whatever happens, just say it is God’s will and you are absolved from all personal responsibility. That’s handy – so long as you can find people stupid enough to believe you.

It’s little comfort to the victims of exorcism and their relatives, but at least in our secular society, there is a chance that the criminals who advocate and perform superstitions that lead to the death of innocent victims will be caught and jailed. Unfortunately, it is only serious harm or death that will attract the attention of the authorities. Exorcism cannot be regulated by any accredited governing body because so-called possession cannot be confirmed by any objective measure. It therefore cannot be confirmed as being a real phenomenon, and like everything in any religion, it comes down to faith; in other words, a belief without any supporting evidence.

That’s fine for consenting adults who go to their places of worship and conduct whatever rituals they deem necessary to commune with their particular god or gods. But it is different for children and other vulnerable people who find themselves under the control of religious fanatics who have decided, through their own particular interpretation of their holy writings, that they have the answer to what they think is a supernatural intervention in their everyday lives.

prayer2Astonishingly, these exorcists who, by their own admission, (and in fact) are mere mortals, think that they can overcome and beat into submission supernatural beings who, by definition, have powers beyond normal human comprehension. They do it through their particular god or gods by simply calling upon their deity to do the job for them. (OK, there has to be a lot of ritual and associated mumbo jumbo to satisfy the faithful – and themselves.) I am sure there are many supposed cases of “possessed” believers being informed that they are possessed and then, through some ritual, believing they have then been “freed from demon possession.” The same can’t be said for the unfortunates who end up dead or seriously injured – physically or psychologically.

Here’s the problem: there is absolutely no objective evidence whatsoever that possession by demons, djinn or any other proposed supernatural entity is real. To determine whether a person is “possessed” by a supernatural entity, it would be necessary to determine whether that person is mentally ill or not. According to the believers in possession, the possessed are not mentally ill, therefore the aberrant behaviour exhibited by them can be explained only by possession. On that basis, only an exorcism can cure the problem.

Now consider this: the diagnosis of any physical or mental illness can only be carried out lawfully by a qualified medical professional who is licensed to practise. Anyone who is not so qualified is committing a criminal offence if they make any such diagnosis. A doctor – in particular, a psychiatrist – has the necessary qualifications to make an informed decision about a person’s mental health and is also qualified to diagnose and treat that particular affliction with the best available science and evidence based treatment. There is no recognised medical or psychiatric diagnosis that comes under the heading “spirit possession” or anything like it.

Only people who believe in possession are likely to claim it as the explanation for someone’s unusual behaviour. But if someone – an exorcist – claims that someone is possessed, then they have made a diagnosis about a person’s mental condition that they are not qualified or legally entitled to make. This is extremely dangerous for at least two reasons: 1) a person who has a mental health problem is not going to be cured by any religious ritual, and without proper treatment their problem is going to worsen; 2) the victim of an exorcism could be injured or killed – as is happening regularly around the world.

I sometimes wonder how many deaths by exorcism have not been uncovered. As in the case above, superstitious believers are very unlikely to make an official complaint when a loved one is killed by an exorcist. It is almost a license to kill, with the easy get-out that if a possessed person dies then it is the will of God.

Nothing I can write, of course, will convince believers that they might just be wrong about about spirit possession. We can only hope that this kind of dangerous nonsense will start to die out as future generations become better educated and scientifically literate. (It will take a long time, though, and there will be a rising body count before it happens.)