Thursday, 23 February 2017

Brian Cox On Ghosts: The Truth Hurts.

Celebrity physicist Brian Cox recently made some interesting comments on an episode of the Infinite Monkey Show from Manchester, regarding advances in physics and what they quite possibly mean for some more archaic notions regarding the reality of nature. Referring to the work done at the large hadron collider in Geneva and specifically the discovery of the Higgs Boson and how it relates to ghosts, Cox remarked:
"Before we ask the first question, I want to make a statement: We are not here to debate the existence of ghosts because they don't exist. If we want some sort of pattern that carries information about our living cells to persist then we must specify precisely what medium carries that pattern and how it interacts with the matter particles out of which our bodies are made. We must, in other words, invent an extension to the Standard Model of Particle Physics that has escaped detection at the Large Hadron Collider. That's almost inconceivable at the energy scales typical of the particle interactions in our bodies. I would say if there's some kind of substance that's driving our bodies, making my arms move and legs move, then it must interact with the particles out of which our bodies are made. And seeing as we've made high precision measurements of the ways that particles interact, then my assertion is there can be no such thing as an energy source that's driving our bodies."
 To some Cox' approach here may seem harsh, cold even. He seems to have taken very little care in considering the beliefs of others in the statement and it's comparable to statements he made regarding ghosts in the past. Unfortunately, we have to accept that it's Cox's prerogative to approach the subject of ghosts in this manner. As a physicist, Cox works in a domain concerned with formulating an accurate and utilitarian description of nature. Though unexplored areas of physics sometimes involve more esoteric ideas such as hidden dimensions and many worlds, these aren't wild flights of fantasy, they're mathematically sound and provide an explanation for some aspect of reality that has been shown to exist. Cox has spoken without ambiguity on the subject of ghosts, and I think it's necessary for people to do this. I myself offered an explanation of why the laws of physics don't allow for the existence of ghosts last year. I regretted my ambiguity somewhat when I saw people commenting on the post that I stated in my conclusion that ghosts may exist, but ghost hunters and paranormal investigators must try harder to find empirical evidence. I can see how the conclusion given below could give that impression, but it isn't really how I felt:
"To accept the existence of ghosts requires the rewriting of all of the above laws and theories of physics, does that mean that we should stop looking? Not necessarily, but believers must accept that a high standard of evidence is required to start rewriting the textbooks."
The only aspect of the statement made by Cox in which I really disagree to any extent is that the LHC has proven that ghosts don't exist. It's just made an existence which already bordered on almost utterly unlikely, even more unlikely. That's why I don't really view this comment as offering anything new to the argument. If you weren't already convinced by Newton's laws, the laws of thermodynamics, Einstein's energy-matter equivalence and literally almost all of physics and biology you aren't likely to be convinced by the LHC's probing of ultra-high energy states.

Belief in ghosts isn't generally informed by knowledge, it's informed in acceptance of anecdote as evidence. In a desire to believe. In the effectiveness of psychological phenomena such as cognitive dissonance in protecting weak and ill-formed ideas. Cox's words, like the words of any other scientist, are unlikely to sway believers in ghosts or any other supernatural phenomena. In fact, it's likely to cause them to do what most of us do when our beliefs are threatened, run to our echo-chambers and lash out at perceived aggressors.

Unsurprisingly, this is what is occurring on facebook and other social media right now.

Aside from the insults, accusations of being a member of the Satanic Illuminati, claims that he is an "astormior" (he isn't) who aren't scientists anyway (they are) and threats to curse/haunt Cox, on the various paranormal groups where I've seen this discussed, I've only seen one real attempt to raise a coherent argument against Cox. The idea that lots of people claim to have seen a ghost, therefore ghosts must exist.

Such arguments don't consider that there isn't some critical mass of anecdotal evidence, at which point it becomes empirical evidence. Nor do they consider cultural influences, psychological factors or the fact that some people just lie. All of which, alongside plain old misattribution, can account for such a wealth of sightings. Looking at exchanges such as the ones above I have to wonder who these people are trying to convince? Their "arguments" certainly won't win over skeptics or anyone who believes that concepts should be supported by some level of evidence. Are these simply exercises in self-persuasion? Isn't that the point of some of these groups? To be echo chambers in which flawed ideas won't be challenged?

This idea speaks a lot about the culture we currently live in, Cox has spoken the truth in so much that it is a pretty close reflection of reality, the laws of physics don't allow for ghosts to exist. And the laws and models of physics become more well evidenced and complete every day. Yet speaking this truth has earned Cox ire and accusations of self-appointed superiority. I'm inclined to paraphrase a very pertinent quote offered by Michael Gove last year:

"The general public are tired of experts." After all. They tend to tell us things we don't want to hear.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Confronting Quantum Woo. The Double Slit Experiment.

Let's continue with our dissection of the alleged quantum/conscious connection by moving further into the Collective Evolution article, an exploration that will lead us straight to Young's double-slit experiment, without question one of the most famous and crucial experiments in the history of physics. In addition to showing that the double slit experiment doesn't suggest that consciousness collapses the wave function of a particle, I'll attempt to go further and show that the double slit experiment suggests considerable evidence that "consciousness hypothesis" offered by quantum-woo proponents must be false. To do this I'll first suggest a hypothesis for consciousness inspired wave-collapse as I couldn't actually find one in Lanza's book. The article linked above, QUANTUM THEORY SHEDS LIGHT ON WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE DIE: THE AFTERLIFE gives its evidence for Robert Lanza's "theory" that consciousness relates somehow to quantum physics.
"His theory implies that our consciousness does not die with us, but rather moves on, and this suggests that consciousness is not a product of the brain. It is something else entirely, and modern science is only beginning to understand what that might be. This theory is best illustrated by the quantum double slit experiment. It’s is a great example that documents how factors associated with consciousness and our physical material world are connected in some way; that the observer creates the reality."
To consider this relationship an element of science we first need a working hypothesis. The suggestion of a hypothesis offered by Lanza and others in regard to consciousness caused wavefunction collapse can be phrased very informally as:
"Consciousness can exist separately from matter. This consciousness can be shown to have a physical effect in the collapse of the deBroglie wavefunction of a travelling particle. Consciousness is otherwise physically imperceptible. This effect this best shown in Young's double slit experiment." 
This is my interpretation, as I mentioned above Lanza fails to offer an explicit hypothesis in his book and I've struggled to find one elsewhere. Let's call this the QC hypothesis, and return to it in a moment.

I'm sure many of you are familiar with Young's double slit experiment, but I'll give a brief introduction for those that aren't.The double slit experiment was revolutionary as it was our first outright hint that there is more to matter and energy than first suspected, namely that both light and matter on scales far smaller than that of our macroscopic world display both wave and particle characteristics (Actually, a more accurate description would be that both matter and light can be modelled as a wave and a particle. In reality, light is neither). The concept of particle and wave duality was staggering enough for light, but a series of experiments involving electron diffraction showed that matter possessed the same duality of nature. If you want more details about the double slit experiment, the Wikipedia page is actually a pretty decent resource. Rather than wax on about the finer points, I'll use a computer simulation to show the results of the double slit experiment and what this tells us about the nature of matter. Consider below, when reading the phrase collapse of the wavefunction, this refers to an electron switching from a wave-like behaviour to a particle-like behaviour. For example, the appearance of a single dot on a fluorescent screen is particle-like.

We start with a hypothetical apparatus set up as shown below.

Figure 1:
An electron gun fires electrons through two narrow slits onto a fluorescent screen. Where an electron hits the screen a white dot is left behind. We aren't going to concern ourselves too much with the widths of the slits(1nm) or the energy of the electrons(38V).

Figure 2
As the electrons stream through the slits one by one they appear on the screen seemingly randomly. In fact, this underlines how the probabilistic nature of quantum physics can still be reconciled with the deterministic nature of classical physics. We cannot predict with any certainty where the next particle will strike the screen, but we can predict with absolute certainty the overall distribution of a large number of electron hits.

Figure 3
The final distribution shows wide bands of electron hits punctuated with thin black bars showing virtually no elections strikes. These bars don't line up with the blockages in the equipment, and the distribution clearly doesn't resemble what we would get from firing hard projectiles such as bullets through scaled up slits where we would expect a graph of the hits to be two "humps" corresponding to the openings, with some lying between. Compare that to the graph yielded by our electron firing simulation in Figure 4 below.

This fringe pattern is destroyed if we run the experiment again, but this time with one of the slits, slit 1 in the case below, closed. Figure 5 below.

The fringe pattern is known as interference and it can be explained easily using an analogy to water waves. When two waves meet at the point of their maxim amplitude the overall amplitude is increased as in Figure 6 ( left. The waves are in phase.

When two waves meet with maximum amplitude and minimum amplitude, the waves cancel. Unsurprisingly, this is destructive interference. Figure 7 ( left. The waves are said to be out of phase.

These patterns are achieved every time this experiment is conducted. Even though the precise build is random and probabilistic, the final distribution is deterministic and fully predictable. Remember this, it's crucial for later when we reassess the consciousness/wavefunction collapse hypothesis. 

These wavefunctions, known as deBroglie waves, are a mathematical interpretation of how a particle propagates through space, they are composed of all the possible positions of the particle at any time and the probability of finding a particle at that particular point. In what follows you'll see why it's necessary to describe the propagation of a particle through space as a wave function. In an attempt to understand these effects in the above experiment, we reopen both slits and turn down the current of the electron gun to allow one electron at a time to hit the screen. Remarkably the fringe pattern returns, albeit slowly, defying the idea that it is the wave function of one electron is interfering with its neighbour. In fact, it's clear that the electron interferes with itself.

Stop laughing at the back!

The consequence of this is we are forced to abandon the classic idea of a particle possessing a single defined trajectory through space. The passage above demonstrates that the particle can be considered passing through each slit, with the contribution of each slit in the wave pattern causing constructive and destructive interference. How does physics explain this? Well.... we can't. We can offer interpretations of this phenomena, such as the Copenhagen interpretation which states that quantum systems don't possess definite properties prior to measurement, only probabilities that reduce to certainties on measurement. There are other interpretations such as many worlds interpretation, but it's the Copenhagen interpretation I'm most comfortable with. There is good experimental evidence to support the idea that quantum qualities become definitive only upon measurement. Einstein argued against this and suggested quantum systems contain hidden variables in his EPR arguments, which were countered by Bell's inequalities and later answered by a modification of the same known as the CHSH inequality. As I don't want to digress too much I won't discuss those further here, but it's well worth a Google search if just to see how even opposition to an idea in science can sometimes strengthen and refine that idea.

So, we're left with an ambiguity, a hole in our carefully crafted quantum science. You may imagine this is where quantum woo merchants begin their machinations, as that's often the tactic of the pseudoscientist, to insert pseudoscience into a gap in conventional understanding. But, It's actually in our attempts to resolve this ambiguity and obtain what we refer to as which way information, that our quantum woo merchants operate.

Figure 8:
In an attempt to resolve the mystery of which slit the electron passes through, we introduce a new element to our experimental setup. We scatter photons off the electrons to see if the electron is in the vicinity of slit 1 or slit 2 and follow their path to the fluorescent screen.

Figure9&10: When we observe the results from this test on our fluorescent screen the interference pattern is gone, replaced by a distribution that is just the sum total of particles passing through the slit. The wavefunction now collapses prior to reaching the screen. It is as if our act of observation itself caused the wavefunction to collapse, and this is most certainly the quantum-woo merchant's interpretation of
this experiment. This brings us to our first misunderstanding supporters have of quantum physics and I can't express how fundamental this is to every conclusion they reach following this.

The Fundamental Error 1: It is not the presence of the conscious observer that collapses the wavefunction, it's the action they perform on the system that causes the wavefunction collapse. 

Let's consider this first in the case of the example given above, electrons fired at a fluorescent screen. When we bombard the electrons with photons the interaction changes the state of the system catastrophically as despite lacking mass, photons do carry momentum.

Mathematically we can show this quite easily if the wave is made of a superposition sum of all the possible states of the particle with constants that represent the probabilities of finding the particle in any of an infinite amount of positions, the probabilities of these possible locations must be 1 as the particle is certain to be somewhere. Therefore if we make the probability of one of these possible states 1 by locating the particle, the other probabilities must be zero! Thus, the wavefunction "collapses" from a superposition to a simple value. I've show this below crudely in a form that describes a "which slit" superposition.

An easy way to understand this physically is by analogy. Imagine me asking you to determine the location of tennis balls I'm firing into a darkened room. The only instrument I'm going to give you to do this is a tennis racquet. There's no way of you doing this without fundamentally changing the state of the ball. You may be able to give me the position of the ball at impact, but you would find it impossible to give me information about the ball after impact. The act of measurement has destroyed the information you had, there is no way you can violently examine that system without changing it fundamentally.

We call any measurable quantity in quantum physics, an observable. Obviously, this is a name that doesn't help the layman distinguish between an "observation" and a measurement". The choice of name seems to suggest that observation is a crucial part of quantum physics, rather than the true meaning of the name: a quantity which can be observed. Other examples of observables are energy, momentum and spin, the above principle applies to these qualities too, any attempt to know one destroys the wavefunction. We often find proponants of quantum woo run versions of the above experiment in which the electrons are fed through spin selectors, therefore collapsing the wavefunction for in the same way as a bombardment of photons does for which way information. We can define this by considering quantum systems to be in extremely delicate balance, with slight perturbations causing collapse.

This is what we find anytime a quantum system interacts with a classically defined object. It's nothing to do with an observer as the following thought experiment should show.

Thought Experiment 1

Of course, the big question is can measurements occur without an observer? The key to considering this idea is to remember that the CHSH inequality has shown there are no hidden variables. Before a measurement is made a quantum system has no determinable observables. In light of this consider this thought experiment.
An isolated nucleus of Uranium 238 exists in the far reaches of space, it has zero momentum. It emits an alpha particle via the process of alpha decay and becomes a thorium 234 nucleus. The conservation of momentum tells us that the total momentum of these two daughter particles must be zero, therefore the momentum in an undefined direction of the alpha particle must be matched by an equal momentum in the negative direction of the thorium 234 nucleus.  Neither direction can be known, until the thorium 234 particle interacts with a particle of dust with a defined location. Suddenly both daughter particles have a definitive directions and thus momentum vectors, they must as there is a physical effect on the space dust.
This interaction can be considered a crude form of measurement, the wave function for both particles has collapsed, no observer necessary.

Finally, let's return to our QC hypothesis, to see how what we've covered strongly implies it is inconsistent with reality.

"Consciousness can exist separately from matter. This consciousness can be shown to have a physical effect in the collapse of the deBroglie wavefunction of a travelling particle. Consciousness is otherwise physically imperceptible. This effect this best shown in Young's double slit experiment." 

Let's  question for a second what we would expect to find if the double-slit experiment was repeated in a world in which the QC hypothesis is true. Surely, an unavoidable consequence of the fact that we can't detect or protect our experiment from incursions and interactions from disembodied consciousness is that we should expect that there would be occasions in which the wavefunction collapses for no discernable reason. It would be as if we'd attempted to gather which way information with the later addition of a photon source and a conscious observer, despite us doing no such thing. If the QC hypothesis were true we would expect to see random wavefunction collapses. This has never been shown to happen. I think that strongly implies that the above hypothesis is incorrect in some way. Either consciousness does not exist separate from matter, or consciousness is not responsible for wavefunction collapse.

 Or Both.

Finally, just for fun.

Thought experiment 2

Plinkett and Nadine are conducting the double slit experiments with the electron gun set to a slow voltage with the particles released at 2 minutes intervals. They do not attempt to collect which way information. As Plinkett observes particle 2 hit the screen at 2:00, Nadine attempts to escape. Plinkett corners her in the living room 3 minutes later. Too exhausted by the struggle to return to his basement lab, he decides to watch the experiment progress on the VHS relay his friends at Lightning Fast VCR set up for him and that he began recording at time 0:00 when the first particle hit the screen. Plinkett tells Nadine when they turn on the VCR they will see particle 3's impression on the screen. Nadine agrees but adds that if they rewind the tape they will see the point appear at 4:00. Plinkett argues that they will not as their was no conscious observer present at this time. He believes the particle will not be present on the tape before 5:00 despite being automatically fired at 4:00. His finger hovers over rewind. 
Who is correct? 
Correct answers get a pizza roll. 

Computer package used: Open University S207, The Physical World: Electron Diffraction. 

Monday, 13 February 2017

Confronting Quantum Woo. Part 1: Common Mistakes.

As many of you know, as well as being a blogger of ill-repute, I'm also a student of physics, part-time, currently in my third year of a degree. For the past year and a half, that study has concentrated on aspects of quantum mechanics. As a result of this, I'm shocked at how quantum mechanics is presented to the general public. Much of what I read about quantum theory in over the counter pop-science books before I began studying was simply wrong or over-simplified to the point where it may as well be wrong. Nowhere is this more prevalent that when it's used for the purposes of supporting mind-body duality or psi-phenomena or any number of unverified non-materialistic ideas. When used in this way, quantum physics is distorted and misrepresented to the nth degree, but correcting those distortions is laborious and often unrewarding.

There's another reason many qualified physicists don't debate these ideas. As Robert May, President of the Royal Society from 2000-2005, responded when asked why he refused to debate creationists:
'That would look great on your CV, not so good on mine'. 
There's an argument that professors arguing against pseudoscience risk lending credibility to that pseudoscience. Would a debate between a leading biologist and a creationist like Ken Ham, risk legitimising creationism in the eyes of believers? Quite possibly. Also, it's hard to live debate pseudoscience from a scientific standpoint. the pseudo-scientist is free to make any claims without validation, whilst the scientist must rely on peer-reviewed studies and available data. That either requires an encyclopaedic knowledge of a subject that few possess and the ability to predict curve balls the pseudo-scientist may throw out. Unfortunately, this means that occasionally very bad ideas and concepts go unchallenged by the people with the requisite skills and qualifications to challenge these ideas.

What follows started as my appraisal of an article published on the website collective evolution on 14th January, entitled "QUANTUM THEORY SHEDS LIGHT ON WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE DIE: THE AFTERLIFE" but it soon became clear to me that there's so much wrong with the article, and much of that touches not just on the misunderstanding of quantum physics, but of science as a whole that one post simply wouldn't cover all the bases. Nor, would it seem prudent to limit the criticism to this one post. The criticisms I'll make also apply to at least three other quantum physics/consciousness survives death articles I read in preparation for writing this. In addition to that, it's necessary to focus on the main source for the article in more depth than I originally intended. I'll also reference points made to me by supporters of quantum woo when these and other such articles were published on a social media sites.

In the first part, I'll cover some common mistakes made by supporters of quantum woo that also apply to arguments that favour other pseudo-scientific ideas. In the second part, I'll deal with mistakes that are specific to quantum physics.

The list that follows is by no means complete.

Common Mistake 1: "Scientist X believes Y"  An argument from authority.

The article quotes two prominent contributors to quantum mechanics, Max Planck and Eugene Wigner. The quotes are as follows
“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.” Max Planck (1931)
“It was possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to consciousness.” -Eugene Wigner (undated-taken from a letter written in the last decades of his life) 
What's important to note is these observations are separate from Planck and Wigner's work in quantum physics. What Planck and Wigner are discussing here are their beliefs, not their theories. There are no scientific findings that show consciousness is necessary as part of a quantum system. This is exemplified by the fact that Wigner's quote continues "....I firmly believe that in whatever way our future concepts may develop, the very study of the external world leads to the conclusion that the content of consciousness is an ultimate reality..." Wigner's belief has yet to have met fruition. Quantum physicists quite happily formulate the laws of physics on a non-macroscopic scale without recourse to consciousness. This may be why the article fails to cite the whole quote and omits a source for the quote.

When quoting these two prominent figures in quantum physics who believed that consciousness was fundamental to the associated theories, proponents of quantum woo don't mention hundreds of equally prominent figures who strongly believe consciousness has no role no play in the collapse of the wave function. They also fail to recognise there's a reason that the scientific method is so successful, it forces those that use it to abandon their beliefs at the door. It prevents belief from becoming theory. Therefore, these quotes fall firmly into the logical fallacy category of argument from authority.

Which brings us to:

Common Mistake 2: The Doctor/scientist trope. An argument from false authority. 

The article goes on to discuss another scientist, Robert Lanza, who unlike Planck and Wigner is attempting to prove a correlation between quantum physics and consciousness. But there's a clear bait and switch here. Also, unlike Planck and Wigner, Lanza isn't a physicist or a mathematician. Here's how the article describes Lanza's qualifications and expertise. See if you can spot the bait and switch:
"In 2010, one of the most respected scientists in the world, Robert Lanza, published a book titled Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding The True Nature of the Universe. An expert in regenerative medicine and the scientific director of Advanced Cell Technology Company, Lanza is also very interested in quantum mechanics and astrophysics..."
Interested? So not qualified then? I'm very interested in psychology, but I don't for one second assume this gives me the right to start proposing revolutionary theories in the field. I think Lanza and others who propose revolutionary ideas in quantum physics are suffering from a form of the Dunning-Kruger effect, they believe a cursory knowledge of the subject they aim to pontificate one is sufficient simply because they only possess a cursory knowledge of the subject!

Proponents of Lanza's theory fail to see the issue with his lack of qualifications as a result of what science blogger Max Power calls the "doctor scientist trope" most easily exemplified in popular culture.

There's no argument that Lanza is remarkably skilled in his field of cell biology. His achievements speak for themselves and he is clearly a remarkably intelligent man. But, he isn't a physicist. You wouldn't go to a cardiologist for a root canal, would you? And I doubt adding "he's the best cardiologist in the world, with an interest in dentistry" would change your mind.

Supporters of quantum woo often meet this argument by claiming that developments in science often come from left field, and even I have pointed out in the past that the progress of science is sometimes non-linear.

Common Mistake 3: Do the math(s).... Ignoring the formal presentation of quantum physics

 In the course of writing  this rebuttal Lanza's lack of qualifications in the area of quantum mechanics were sharply illustrated to me, courtesy of one of his supporters during a facebook conversation. Martin sent me a page of Lanza's book Biocentricism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe in an attempt to show me how mathematically robust it is. In the text, Lanza attempts to explain a Lorentz transformation between two inertial reference frames exemplified by the twin paradox.  

Even though Lorentz transformations strictly don't have much use in quantum mechanics, breaking down the passage above shows Lanza doesn't have the requisite mathematical skill to formulate theories in quantum physics. There are several problems with the above passage. First the trivial: Lanza doesn't use standard SI units. Equations such as the Lorentz transformation equations of which there are several are based on the use of standard units. Conversion from years and seconds and miles and metres are simple enough but it's telling that Lanza hasn't attempted to use his conclusion in an actual example. Secondly, the v doesn't represent the velocity of the travelling frame but the relative velocity between the two frames, which is only a trivial error if we model one of the frames as stationary. If both frames are moving relative to each other, it's certainly not trivial.

A mistake that is also far less trivial is the fact that Lanza, rather laughably, gets the equation he cites as "quite simple" and later "meat and potatoes" completely wrong! He gives the Lorentz factor, which is found in all the Lorentz transformations, explicitly as:

ΔT = t√1-v²/c²

Where he gives delta T as the time in the moving observer's reference frame and t as the real time in the stationary observer's frame. Lanza takes the square root of just 1, not of 1-v²/c². This is completely laughable as the square root of 1 is just 1 so why would Lanza think it was relevant to include? Possibly because even very basic maths eludes him?

Let's look at the actual formulation Lanza needs, and consider its use in an example of a muon travelling towards Earth at a velocity of 3/5 the speed of light. If an observer on Earth records the time elapsed for the particle as 2.75 us, how much time elapses for an observer travelling with the particle?
Where the delta tau (the curly t) is the time progression in the reference frame of our travelling particle and delta t the time progression in our hypothetical lab.

Rearranging to make delta tau our subject gives:

Plugging in our values

Which is a reasonable result in fitting with Einstein's theory of special relativity which states that clocks run slower for moving observers, the result using Lanza's formula remains consistent but is incorrect.

From what I can see from a brief look at a PDF of Lanza's book is that there is little to no mathematics, the Lorentz factor is one of the only equations I can see given explicitly at any point and it's both nothing to do with quantum mechanics and wrong!

This is so important because more so than other areas of physics, quantum mechanics is based on abstract mathematical models. The values and associated probabilities of observables in quantum mechanics arise from manipulations of Schrodinger's equation as do concepts such as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Without being able to perform these manipulations one simply can't do quantum physics. Does that make me sound like an elitist snob?

Tough. It's the truth.

Looking through the index of Lanza's book shows no mention of Schrodinger's equation. When he mentions a particle existing in a superposition of states he doesn't seem to understand that wavefunctions and superpositions are mathematical models, not physical realities. We need these mathematical descriptors in quantum physics because it's beyond our ability to physically describe or determine these states. Lanza isn't alone in these mathematical failings, I've yet to see an article or book that proposes a connection between consciousness and quantum mechanics that doesn't gloss over or reject mathematical formalism. 

Speaking of books...

Common Mistake 4: Popular Literature Vs Peer Reviewed Literature

No major scientific breakthroughs have ever been made in popular literature, if Lanza's work is so revolutionary why hasn't he submitted it to peer-review. It may be because Lanza hasn't actually conducted any experimentation for himself. His "theory" is based on his misinterpretation of existing work by other physicists. There are no original results in his book, nor is there a working hypothesis. His book simply wouldn't pass peer-review, nor would the work of his fellow quantum woo distributors such as Deepak Chopra. Supporters of Lanza and Chopra would argue that peer review isn't perfect and they are right, it's not. Sometimes bias shows through and sometimes findings that pass peer review are overturned, but it's literally the best system we have for assessing scientific ideas. The infrastructure of modern scientific understanding is based on the framework of peer review, anyone can put literally anything in a book or on the internet, the same cannot be said for peer-reviewed journals.

Supporters of quantum woo often meet this argument by claiming that developments in science often come from left field, and even I have pointed out in the past that the progress of science is indeed sometimes non-linear in nature. In the course of making this rebuttal, they will often cite Einstein and special or general relativity as an example of a paradigm changing ideas emerging from non-establishment sources. And it's certainly true that in 1905 when Einstein wrote four of the major papers of his career that changed physics forever, he was not part of the physics establishment working as he did as a patents clerk. Despite this, Einstein still was a qualified physicist, his degree didn't lie in cell biology as with Lanza, or epidemiology as with Deepak Chopra. Proponents of quantum woo often go on to cite the physics establishment's reluctance to accept many of Einstein's findings as if confirming their theories and concepts also having validity. The problem with this idea is plucky Einstein's ideas didn't win through because he simply stuck at them, or published vanity press books. Einstein's theories won out because people went out and collected evidence that could only be explained by those theories being correct. This is something that has yet to be done for the quantum/consciousness connection. If indeed, this is something that can be evidenced at all.

Common Mistake 5: When No Formal Education Is An Advantage

When considering quantum woo claims one of the first arguments I make is that in two years of formal, degree level education in the subject, I've haven't come across one reference to consciousness as a cause of wave-function collapse. That's in roughly seven text books and hundreds of pages of additional material in addition to hours of lectures and tutorials. A mathematical model of reality can't have a component that can't be described mathematically, and there is no formal description of consciousness. This incredulity is often met with accusations that formal physics education actively seeks to suppress radical theories. As the aforementioned Martin put to me:
"No. You've just spent two years studying the "shut up and calculate" side of QT while either ignoring, or being denied information on, the nature-of-reality side of things."
Except quantum physics education does include discussion of the nature of reality. The many worlds and Copenhagen interpretations of quantum physics are heavily discussed in physics degrees. What isn't discussed is wild unfounded speculation.

There's a supremely unthinking arrogance in suggesting that a lack of formal education in an extremely complex subject is a benefit to its understanding and even to developing new ideas within its framework. Further suggesting that such an education may actually be detrimental. It's an insult to the people who've dedicated their lives to furthering knowledge in these fields, be they any field of science of any discipline at all for that matter.  And further to that it's potentially quite dangerous. We rely on scientists and good avenues of communication to reach politicians and world leaders with correct and contemporary scientific findings so they can make informed decisions. The suggestion that a formal education isn't needed to understand these complicated concepts muddies these waters. 
As an example of this perhaps none is more prescient than that of climate change.

We are currently in a situation in which a major World leader believes climate change is a hoax. Unless proper scientific information can be relayed to the American government quickly, they likely to pull out of various carbon-emission limiting deals and protocols. Following this, without the caution of listening to actual climate scientists being heeded, other countries may well follow suit and also extricate themselves from such deals.

In the next part: how proponents of quantum woo abuse the most fundamental experimental in quantum physics, the double slit experiment. 

Friday, 27 January 2017

Tabloid Fame Seeking Exposes The Cynicism Of The "Paranormal Detective"

Remember Mark Vernon, the self-proclaimed paranormal detective? I wrote about him back in August last year with regards to his ongoing quest to prove various historic buildings in the UK are haunted. What was most striking about Vernon, a self-professed paranormal investigator was how unimpressive his "evidence" was. If you don't remember that perhaps you'll remember one of Vernon's recent tabloid appearances. These include "Ghostly Monk" In the Sun (18/06/16), a "spectre" following him around a stately home in the Daily Mail (09/08/16), the "ghost of Jack the Ripper" in the Mirror(06/09/1) amongst others.

We'll come back to the "Jack the Ripper" case shortly.

It's clear that Vernon has created something of a cottage industry in producing paranormal evidence for the tabloids. It's pretty clear that Vernon is enjoying the limited fame and financial gain that providing the tabloids with these stories provides as he's back in the local press today, the Wakefield Express 27/01/17, the article describes Vernon's capturing what he describes as "something impressive, big and fast". He tells us:
“There had been some strange noises coming from the cellar. “The lady who lived there couldn’t understand what was happening. “I can detect paranormal things and as soon as I arrived I knew something was down there. “I spent some time sat in the corner waiting and watching. “You see me get up and walk towards the camera, as I was going to replace the batteries and the ghost comes out from the wall behind me. “It’s quite impressive what I got on film. Whatever it was, it was quite big and fast."

Upon watching the short video, it's immediately obvious what the cause of Vernon's apparition is. Follow the link above and you'll probably immediately see the cause for yourself. As Vernon walks to the camera to replace its batteries he's holding a lit cigarette in his left hand.

As Vernon bends down by the camera, his "ghost" moves across the bottom from the right of the screen to the left. It's clearly just smoke from his lit cigarette!

Likely the easiest thing I've ever tried to explain. It's that simple.  Vernon tells us he can "detect paranormal things" I suggest he sees paranormal things, without a hint of critical thinking, in the most mundane of occurrences, making him a terrible example of a paranormal investigator. He may well "detect paranormal things" but I wouldn't trust him to detect his nose with both hands. Frankly, the fact that Vernon frequently sits smoking in front of his recording equipment, a fact various videos on his Youtube channel attest to, whilst looking for evidence of the paranormal implies to me he doesn't give a damn about possible misinterpretation of environmental factors or contaminating areas he's investigating or footage he's recording. 

In fact, I mentioned above the "Jack the ripper ghost" Vernon showcased in the Mirror last year. I think that this phantom can also be attributed to cigarette smoke, check out the image below in the upper right-hand corner.

In Vernon's account of how the Wakefield Express footage was captured, he describes being "called in" to the property by a lady. Street view of the location reveals that these are private properties, terraced housing, not public buildings. This means that members of the public are putting faith and trust in Vernon. If these people are vulnerable or afraid, Vernon is using the assumed authority a title like paranormal investigator brings to persuade them their homes are haunted. Some may be comfortable with this, others not so much. The "Jack the Ripper" case I've alluded to already above, gives a striking example of this. The lady in question called Vernon in after years of being afraid in her own home, she tells the Mirror:
"The ghosts have been here for as long as I've lived here - the man that used to live here told me they were here before me too. One in particular is very violent and aggressive. We've had priests and exorcists and all sorts over the years, but nothing makes a difference - so I've just learned to live with it."
She also describes living alone after her partner suffered an accident that left him paralysed. If this lady is as vulnerable as she seems, Vernon isn't helping her by describing photographs of cigarette smoke as "anomalies" and promptly selling the story to the press. Nor is he helping her when he makes aggrandizing claims like this about the house:
"It's the nasty ghosts I really like to go for - Gaynor has countless ghosts, but one in particular is really violent.... I don't deal with fakery but I have been to Gaynor's before and I can say 100 per cent she is genuine (yeah, but are you mate?-SB).... I feel sorry for what she has gone through, I have never seen a house with so much activity going on....This is one nasty ghost. It could be Jack The Ripper, it could be a relative of his, or it could just be a spirit telling lies."
Investigating public spaces is one thing, but Vernon is clearly not displaying the care and professionalism one should expect from someone conducting an investigation in a private residence. The fact that right-clicking Vernon's image of the supposed physical harm this ghost allegedly did to him in his lady's home you get the photo's tag "PAY-jack the ripper ghost" tells you almost everything you need to know about Vernon's interests in the case. Almost...
I actually think Vernon, enjoys the attention these stories bring him as much as the limited financial reward. His drive to get stories published is clear from the sheer amount he has sold to the press in the last year alone and the relative ease at which the "evidence" he presents is debunked.

Frankly, Vernon is going to continue to ride this paranormal gravy train regardless of the fact that the exposure he receives in the tabloid press gives paranormal investigators a bad name, and it's a reputation that's already severely tarnished. Nor is he stopping to consider the potential harm he's causing to the individuals who become aware of him due to his media exposure and call him in to "investigate" their homes.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Devils And Monsters.

The past few weeks have seen a glut of demon/possession related articles in the tabloid press and on social media. Most feature common themes and lack any substance. Others show a worrying trend of the use of the concept to facilitate dehumanisation of those with opposing ideologies.

On December 28th, 2016, the New York Post published an article with the headline "The World Desperately Needs More Exorcists". The title struck a particular cord with me as I've written many times on this blog regarding the dangers associated with the popularisation of ideas of demon possession and exorcism, pointing out that I'm yet to be directed to any solid way "demon possession" can be differentiated from mental illness. Unsurprisingly, these factors are missing in the post article too.

The article begins:
"A New York woman who levitated six inches off the ground, mysteriously spoke in foreign languages and demonstrated paranormal powers made medical history in 2008 because a panel of doctors from New York Medical College agreed she was possessed by the devil."
Once again as is common with reports of this nature, we are told of supernatural feats surrounding an individual presumed to be possessed. Despite hundreds of thousands of documented and recorded cases, these feats have never been demonstrated. Funny that. We always get the growling, shaking and contorting but the extraordinary evidence always manifests when the cameras are switched off leaving us with only anecdote as evidence. What isn't common here is the allegation that a panel of doctors concluded this woman was possessed.

It continues:
"In presenting the case of “Julia” in the New Oxford Review, board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Richard Gallagher cautioned that religious practitioners should be on alert for what he called a “rapidly growing worldwide phenomenon.”.."
Dr Gallagher (above) is indeed a Yale-educated psychologist, well respected in his field, He writes that the Julia case as a genuine case of demonic possession among a wealth of fraud and misattribution. When Gallagher tells us about the case he gives no details of the medical review panel, which the New York Post piece alludes to. We can likely dismiss this as a flourish added to that piece. What Gallagher does give use is a collection of the usual tropes associated with the "possessed" and as a result of this he never quite manages to highlight what exactly sets this case apart from others which he dismisses as "counterfeit". Dr Steven Novella examined Gallagher's claims and the Julia case on his NeuroLogica blog and concluded:
"Richard Gallagher is now a classic example of how even a highly trained professional can fall prey to bad logic and the desire to believe. He nicely demonstrates why basic skeptical knowledge is necessary, even for scientists and professionals..... like every snake oil salesman who says they are too busy treating patients to do proper research. This is not an excuse for lack of skepticism, but all the more reason for it. I can easily turn the tables on his logic – what if these are all just mentally ill patients with firm delusions, who happen to be smart and clever enough to do a decent cold reading? By accepting their delusion, you are reinforcing it, making it even harder to treat. You are victimizing the people you are supposed to be helping, by failing in your primary duty as a professional to be detached and evidence-based."
In Gallagher's own biography he describes his close associations with an organisation of exorcists "...Dr. Gallagher is the only American psychiatrist to have been a consistent U.S. delegate to the International Association of Exorcists, and has addressed its plenary session."  When "Julia" needed a doctor, a psychologist, what she got was an exorcist. The NYP implies this was revolutionary as a medical practitioner concluded she was possessed, but Gallagher approached the case not as a medical practitioner but as a believer in possession.

The NYP article continues:
"exorcists... claim there are now so many devils out there, the Vatican can’t recruit enough exorcists to chase them away. The Rev. Vincent Lampert, the head priest at St. Malachy’s in Indianapolis, Indiana, reports... the situation is dire, he said, because rampant pornography, illegal narcotic use and the occult have made it easier for Satan to cast his net."
Maybe the situation is dire because priests such as Lampert are working overtime to scare the public into believing the devil exists and possesses people. At a time when the Catholic church seems to be working harder to be more progressive, these archaic ideas work in direct opposition to that ideal. Clearly, some in the Church believe that the way to get people back into church is by scaring them there, perhaps recalling the claim that there was a surge in church attendance after the release of the Exorcist, something that has never actually been verified, although requests for the ritual of exorcism did rise at the time.

Don't worry though, the scientific advisor to the exorcists' association, Victor Cascioli is on hand to offer a much-needed dose of logic and critical thinking.

“... demons across the world have multiplied and there aren’t enough priests to fight them.The lack of exorcists is a real emergency,” 

Really? In the spirit of you allegedly being a scientific advisor, how about proving that? Or attempting to prove that demons exist at all. As with Dr Gallagher above, it's clear that when approaching topics of faith Cascioli's role as a scientist takes a backseat, relegated to a title alone, and that title is a ruse to gain unwarranted credibility.

Whilst these Priests seem to essentially blame the internet for the rise in possession, a New York chaplain Marcos Quinones, who also works as an "occult investigator", feels there is another culprit:  
“Many drug traffickers practice forms of the occult. They incorporate voodoo or black magic that gives them the power to succeed. It makes the product more powerful and creates a stronger addict. In essence, they’re doubling the curse the drugs cause anyway.... The original word ‘pharmacy’ is derived from the Greek ‘pharma,’ which literally means sorcery.” ”
Yep. Completely nuts.

The whole article is completely nuts.

And this topic is one the New York Post returns to frequently. On January 13th they reported that the priest on which the lead character in the Exorcist was allegedly based, Malachi Martin (seen above somberly not revelling in his fame as his calling requires) also the subject of the aforementioned Netflix documentary series, died "after a possessed child spoke to him..."Malachi Martin went to perform an exorcism on a 4-year-old girl in Connecticut in 1999 – but mysteriously died soon after when he was pushed by an invisible force." The only thing that truly stands out about this story is how unextraordinary it is. Martin died sometime after the child spoke to, and in the meantime, I imagine he spoke to many people. Also, Malachi was 78, sadly elderly people fall sometimes, rarely that fall proves fatal. Why are we to suspect an invisible force? Because Martin allegedly "told a friend" who isn't named or quoted.

The Post was banging the demon drum on 23rd January, reporting on a priest who has allegedly exorcised 6000 demons. Something which scares me for completely different reasons than the Post probably intends. As with the articles above the story quotes heavily from a report in Catholic News Agency and gives us lurid details of supernatural strength and occurrences without a jot of evidence.

I've tried time and time again to elucidate just how harmful I believe the propagation of this medieval superstitious rubbish is, and I will continue to do so. I'll never be short of examples of this belief, this backwards religious practice, being used to hurt the innocence and the ill often by the misguided, but too frequently by malicious abusers.

The following story wasn't featured in the New York Post, but the Daily Post in Nigeria. It's not lurid clickbait. It doesn't feature an elderly Priest warning of the diabolical dangers of weed or porn. Instead, it documents another way the spread of these ideas can be used to hurt innocent people.
"A Kenyan head teacher identified as Willy Kiprop, has been disgraced openly for allegedly defiling three school girls under his care in Kapsaos, Uasin Gishu area of Kenya."
Kiprop, uses as his defence that at the time of the abuse he was possessed by the devil. Would a lack of belief in the supernatural in the area have prevented the abuse suffered by these girls? Likely not, but we can't rule out the idea that Kilprop self-justified his actions being a result of possession.

Only days before various news agencies featured a disturbing video of a young couple in Peru being dragged through the streets by their families to attend an exorcism. The youngsters aged 18 and 16, are crying and growling, and I strongly suspect they are under the influence of Brugmansia. The couple's family indeed seem to acknowledge this when they tell the press the incident was a result of some kind of "pollution". This was after an exorcism was forcefully conducted of course.

Closer to home, ideas demons and allegations of possession were recently used by televangelist Jim Bakker (left) used to condemn participants in the Women's March and protests against Donald Trump. Bakker describes critics of Trump on both the left and the right as literally possessed by the devil:
“I’m telling you, there are some people that I’m concerned are demon-possessed. They’re just going crazy. Their eyes look like demons [are] coming out of them. I’m scared.”

It's a disturbing use of religious rhetoric used by Bakker to dehumanise people he is politically opposed to, in a similar vein to the rhetoric spouted by Alex Jones (above) during the election campaign. Jones frequently referred to both Hilary Clinton and Barrack Obama as being literally demon possessed. Even going as far, in the bizarre rant I've posted above, as to describe the foul stench of sulphur allegedly emitted by Clinton, and to cite footage of flies landing on President Obama proves his demonic nature.

It's easy to write Jones and Bakker off as complete lunatics or accuse them of cynically holding positions that appeal to their audience for financial gain. But, when public figures engage in the dehumanisation of their opponents it concerns me greatly.

Every time I speak or write about this topic I link to the What's the Harm page which details an uncomfortable and tragic number of cases of children and young adults killed and injured during exorcism attempts. But, it seems clear that the dangers presented by these ideas extend beyond immediate physical harm or mental abuse.

In my opinion, the World desperately needs less superstition, fear and bullshit right now. The World needs more critical thinking, skepticism and education.

In other words: More exorcists are the opposite of what the World needs.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Acrylamide: FSA Concerns May Well Be Half-Baked.

I arrived at work today to encounter several colleagues discussing the risk eating roast potatoes and overcooked foodstuff like toast posed to developing cancer. I jumped to an immediate conclusion that a tabloid news outlet, likely the Daily Mail, had misrepresented a study in some way. As the day went on I discovered the BBC were also running the story without a hint of cynicism and was shocked to discover that the source seemed to be the UK food standards agency (FSA) themselves. The elevated cancer risk is attributed to the concentration of acrylamide in foods cooked at high temperatures, with foods such as burnt toast and roast potatoes being of particular concern. This isn't the first time the compound has been linked with cancer, but it's usually by alternative health websites such as Daily Health Post. For a serious and well-regarded organisation to be repeating these claims, there must something to them... Right?
The New Scientist gives us this description of acrylamide:
"Acrylamide is made by something called the Maillard reaction, which browns cooked foods and gives them their pleasing flavour. As sugars and amino acids react together, they produce thousands of different chemicals. Particularly high levels of acrylamide are found in starchy foods, like potatoes and bread, when cooked at temperatures over 120 oC. In the body, acrylamide is converted into another compound, glycidamide, which can bind to DNA and cause mutations."-New Scientist
Acrylamide has been considered a potential cancer risk for some time so one may ask why the sudden concern? What evidence does it have that acrylamide poses a more serious health than previously believed?

The FSA website states:
"Biological effects of acrylamide exposure include cancer and damage to the nervous and reproductive systems. Most of the evidence is based on effects seen in experimental animals or cells studied in a laboratory. Whether or not acrylamide will cause these effects in humans will depend upon the level of exposure."
The strongest link between acrylamide and cancer thus far, has been found in studies concerning rodents, not humans. This is an area of confusion to the public and concern to science, as it's very tricky to extrapolate results from animal studies to human beings. Firstly animal research is often very poorly conducted and reviews and summaries of methodologies and results have been found to be inadequate in many cases.  Key problems with animal studies are summarised in a 2004 study by Pandora Pound et al published in the BMJ:

  • Disparate animal species and strains, with a variety of metabolic pathways and drug metabolites, leading to variation in efficacy and toxicity
  • Different models for inducing illness or injury, with varying similarity to the human condition
  • Variability in animals for study, methods of randomization, choice of comparison therapy (none, placebo, vehicle)
  • Small experimental groups with inadequate statistical power; simple statistical analyses that do not account for confounding; and failure to follow intention-to-treat principles
  • Nuances in laboratory technique that may influence results, for example, methods for blinding investigators, being neither recognized nor reported
  • Selection of outcome measures, which being surrogates or precursors of disease, of uncertain relevance to the human clinical condition
  • Variable duration of follow up, which may not correspond to disease latency in humans
    -(Pound, et al, BMJ, 2004)
So there's a very pertinent question of whether animal research can be extrapolated to humans based on both biological differences and methodological flaws in the studies themselves, but even putting this aside, do the studies that FSA reference even suggests what the body has inferred?
" EFSA published its first full risk assessment of acrylamide in food, which confirms that acrylamide levels found in food potentially increases the risk of cancer for all age groups."
The FSA statement above seems to be based on one study from the European Food Safety Authority, Scientific Opinion on acrylamide in food (Working Group on Acrylamide in Food, 2015) does indeed show a higher risk of cancers in rats and mice exposed to acrylamide, but the level of exposure is far greater than that in the human diet. The paper gives us relevant levels of exposure. High human consumption is stated as up to 3.4 µg/kg b.w. per day, whilst mice showing signs of neoplastic effects were exposed to 0.17 mg/kg b.w. per day. In other words, the rodents were exposed to up to 50 times what even a high consumer of acrylamide, referred to as AA in the report, would be exposed to.

The report concludes
"The Panel concluded that the current levels of dietary exposure to AA are not of concern with respect to non-neoplastic effects... the epidemiological associations have not demonstrated AA to be a human carcinogen..."
But also the margins of exposure may mean a greater risk in the industrial uses of acrylamide. The paper also suggests the need for more research into the human effects of dietary consumption of acrylamide.
"Evidence from human studies that dietary exposure to acrylamide causes cancer is currently limited and inconclusive."
Contrast this with what the FSA are telling the British public the study and the EFSA conclude about acrylamide and it's actually quite shocking.

 Have any studies been conducted with regards to acrylamide and cancer occurrence in humans and what have they found, if we are disregarding animal studies? Yes, in Sweden in 2003 and the FSA reference that too. And again they don't exactly get the contents of the study correct.The study, Dietary acrylamide and cancer of the large bowel, kidney, and bladder: Absence of an association in a population-based study in Sweden (Mucci, et al, 2003) published in the British Journal of Cancer states in its conclusion:
"We found reassuring evidence that dietary exposure to acrylamide in amounts typically ingested by Swedish adults in certain foods has no measurable impact on risk of three major types of cancer. It should be noted, however, that relation of risk to the acrylamide content of all foods could not be studied."
The FSA are conducting their own research regarding acrylamide and it all pertains to studying which foods contain the highest concentrations and how to reduce this factor in cooking. None of it seems to be focused on establishing a strong causal link between acrylamide and cancer. They tell us, in their "Go for gold" initiative, for instance, to toast our bread to golden rather than brown, but give no indication of the different concentrations of acrylamide in the different states of toast. I doubt there's a difference of a factor of 50 in a golden piece of toast and even a charred piece, the factor which the study they cite is indicative of elevated cancer risk. That's if we're to take that study at face value which they clearly have!

So, what's the issue here? Acrylamide may well cause cancer and more research is definitely needed, maybe cutting down isn't such a bad idea. The problem is that scare stories such as this turn the public off to science. There's a general perception of scientists as lofty, aloof and removed from the general public, passing down decrees about what foods should and shouldn't be consumed. Scares stories like this are also used to downplay the risk of factors which have been conclusively shown to cause cancer. In her statement to the press regarding this issue Emma Sheilds of Cancer Research UK attempts to refocus the debate on these issues:
“Although evidence from animal studies has shown that acrylamide in food could be linked to cancer, this link isn’t clear and consistent in humans. It’s important to remember that there are many well-established factors like smoking, obesity and alcohol, which all have a big impact on the number of cancer cases in the UK,”

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Paranormal Teams Must Stop Using Physical Injury As Evidence Of "Ghost Attack"

In my last post, I discussed one of the effects of a boom in paranormal investigation teams being formed which are either heavily or solely inspired television ghost hunting. So it only seems fitting that I tackle another aspect of that same phenomena in this subsequent post. This time it's an element that is more worrying than poor investigation techniques or a fundamental misunderstanding of how equipment operates. I find the explosion of paranormal investigators using physical marks and scratches as evidence most concerning. The phenomena seems to have grown in response to its popularisation on shows like Ghost Adventures, now there are few paranormal teams whose social media page doesn't include images of team-mates bodies adorned with scrapes and scratches. (Please note, barring the example below and the one at the foot of the post, I've used very few examples of these scratches and welts presented by paranormal teams throughout what follows. This was a conscious choice, as whilst many of these images would strengthen my case and I do normally like to present examples, I don't want to garner further attention for the practice, which I find pretty abhorrent.)

Here's an example from Greg Newkirk of Week In Weird. Gregg claims that scratches occurred during an investigation at Ohio State Penitentiary. 

In the "raw footage" offered by Newkirk, he expresses feeling pushed, the camera cuts and when footage resumes we find three finger marks dragged down Newkirk's back. Clearly, Newkirk doesn't understand what raw footage is, the edit here distinctly prevents this from being considered "raw". It's just footage. Nor is it footage of an "entity attack" as Newkirk describes it on Week in Weird. As is common in paranormal TV the marks on Newkirk's back are unveiled "live" on hard camera. This is done to give the impression that the marks must have occurred recently and thus isn't faked off camera. It's an element that's negated here by that edit. This element of immediacy is also neglected in the volume of images produced by Paranormal Investigation teams. The reason that paranormal TV shows present this as "evidence" is it's presented as happening right on camera. This doesn't transfer to static images. I'd describe what these Tv shows do as something or a crude conjuring trick. It's not difficult to explain where or when the scratches occur, immediately before filming or possibly as some sleight of hand on camera which goes unnoticed. These images aren't even a crude conjuring trick. It's akin to the magician revealing the card in the inside pocket of his jacket and expecting applause when he tells you he assures you it was in the deck and it is the card you would have chosen if he'd given you the opportunity to do so!

Newkirk and the paranormal teams also neglect another element of paranormal investigation shows: they fake evidence all the time and this is the easiest thing to fake. Blemishes and easy enough to produce, especially in areas of sensitive skin such as necks and backs, coincidentally where these things always seem to occur. 

So why should we consider these scratches and blemishes as anything remotely non-naturalistic? Newkirk (and I use his arguments as an example of wider held justifications) is again on hand to explain why skin abrasions such as the one he received are distinguishable from ones received from more naturalistic in origin, i.e:- one's own fingers/fingernails and the finger/fingernails of a co-investigator:
"When someone is scratched by a stray nail, a girly-fight, or their own hand, there’s often the tell-tale remainder of white, ashy skin flakes and traces of blood, but in the case of “supernatural scratches”, the wounds seem to fit a different set of criteria. They’re free of blood, lack the powdery remainder of skin cells scraped off by fingernails, and appear as something much like burns or welts."
Skin flakes and blood traces? Aren't such things extremely small? It would take a detailed examination to ascertain that such things were absent from supposedly paranormally induced marks. Also just because red marks appear doesn't mean the skin has been broken. Pressure applied to the skin can cause blood vessels to burst under the skin. It's like Newkirk doesn't know what a bruise is. Even when bruising doesn't occur pressure applied to the skin can cause blood to rush to that area to deliver clotting factors.

Greg continues:
"...Even more interesting is that the scratches disappear shortly thereafter, usually within hours of their appearance. These kinds of criteria aren’t simply limited to scratches either, but manifest as many other physical marks allegedly inflicted by supernatural forces..." 
Again, one would expect any red mark on the skin to fade, in the latter case which  I outlined above without any visible signs of any physical trauma. So why do these red marks appear so red? I think back to your childhood. Ever been hit by a football in the cold? Hurts a lot much than in the warm. It also leaves a more intense red mark. This because in cold environments the blood in your body is withdrawn from extremities to maintain body temperature. This includes the skin in a process called peripheral vasoconstriction. Thus when some pressure is applied to the skin and blood rushes to the area to deliver clotting agents that area appears much redder than surrounding areas. Couple this with strong lights sources against dark environments which can blanch the appearance of the skin anyway, making the red welts appear far more pronounced. Where do ghost hunters do their work predominantly? In the cold and the dark.

You may well be thinking now "why should marks made by ghosts applying force appear any different from force applied by the fingers?" Is it surprising the body reacts in a similar way, which is opposed the differences Greg lays out above. There's a very crucial argument from physics similar to the one I made here. The force would have to be applied by some form of matter, which should be detectable in other ways. It should have mass. Most ghost hunters would insist this isn't the case. Or they'd attempt to invoke energy mass equivalence, as they don't understand what "energy" is, or the deeper implications of E=mc^2, most tend to view energy and mass as some currency which can be exchanged in an easy non-violent fashion. Cue Greg's energy argument, and an instant display that he doesn't really understand at least one form of energy.
"Upon closer inspection, marks left by “ghosts” don’t conform to wounds left by physical force. They more often appear to have been left by energy, like stray electricity moving through the air, leaving behind burns and welts in its wake,,,"
Stray electricity doesn't just wander through the air until it strikes a hapless ghost hunter. Electricity moves between areas of differing potential. Stray electricity describes a system where some form of isolation has failed and a potential gradient has been created. More pertinently when "energy" causes a mark on flesh it isn't shaped like fingers. Newkirk and others who use similar arguments to justify want us to focus on the details so we miss the obvious. These marks and welts are almost always in the form of finger marks, they almost always reflect the normal spread and positioning of fingers. Often one can even differentiate the typically stronger fingers from the darker welts and find they conform to the positioning on the hand.


When I first wrote about this topic it was in response to evidence of the paranormal offered by an Irish paranormal investigation team. I took particular exception to an image of a female team member with welts on the side of her neck which appeared self-inflicted. The team member in question became very upset that I had implied that she had self-harmed. But I'm sorry, that's the most obvious conclusion that the evidence points to. That or that someone else did that to her. Or she has a rare undiagnosed dermatological condition. Paranormal teams who offer these images as evidence cannot point to anything that suggests a non-natural explanation, all they tend to offer is anecdote around the circumstances under which the marks occurred, and anecdote doesn't constitute a high enough level of evidence to overlook our everyday experience of how these marks occur, not to mention the wealth of evidence from physics and biology. By sharing these images these teams and individuals encourage others to self-inflict wounds upon themselves in the name of "evidence". They are encouraging people to hurt themselves. Even if they believe these marks are genuine, that's deeply irresponsible.

I'll leave you with some images that deeply coloured my opinion of this topic. It's a "paranormal investigator" from a team I won't name. He's sat in a chair nursing the wounds of a supposed "ghost attack" and what looks like an alcoholic beverage and he appears drunk. The marks don't appear to have been made by fingers but by a sharp object. Next to his chair is a small child who lives in the house the is under investigation. This child likely believes that something unseen in this house physically harmed this man.

This subject speaks deeply to the ethical responsibility of paranormal investigation, and many teams come up lacking to a shocking degree, and responsible teams must consider speaking up in comdemnation.