Monday, 8 December 2014

Lies "n" the lying liars who tell 'em.

This Is further to my piece earlier today which discussed the utter credulity of people viewing a post the facebook page "Ghosts n All Things Paranormal". Well guess what they are at it again tonight, blatantly and demonstrably LYING to their followers:

Now if you can't read that, admin Christine states:

"This photo was taken following a real werewolf attack earlier this year. I can vouch for its authenticity as its from my college. This case is still under investigation. Courtesy of the American Institute of Metaphysics. Christine" 

This is blatantly and demonstrably untrue. While many users have highlighted the likely hood of the authorities releasing such a photo and other such gaps in plausibility, which is all very good and exactly the type of critical thinking I called for earlier, proving its fake is actually much simpler than that. Let's not bother with the heavy lifting of researching police policy and behaviour. Why crack a nut with a hydrogen bomb?

A simple Google search reveals this rather gory image's true origin: it's a screenshot from a 2010 horror film called The Dead Matter, and comes courtesy of horror make-up master Tom Savini. You can see the image in context here.

Why would the admin of this page perpetrate such an obvious and easily exposed fraud? Well either they enjoy playing the expert with hidden arcane knowledge of the paranormal that they feel their followers will admire them for, something in the paranormal community that I've hit upon before. Or they are trolling... they get a kick out of making believers look foolish and credulous. I suspect the former. 

The page frequently mentions "American Institute of Metaphysics archives" , who I assume is The Institute of Metaphysics http://www.instituteofmetaphysics.com/ an organisation offering "Doctorates" in demonology and "conspiratorial studies"(!) and the like. 

Knowledge of this organisation and the belief that inclusion of its name will bring credibility to a fabricated story, implies that the author of this post is as at least as gullible as he/she wishes their audience to be.

Look if you are a believer let me offer you a piece of advice with respect: This type of rubbish, these blatant and ridiculous fabrications seriously damage your reputation and your credibility, especially if you are trying to conduct earnest research in these areas. This particular page has over 58,000 likes! 

People you have to vote with your feet, if a page is caught trying to deceive you, make as many people aware of it as you can, call these people out.... otherwise you make my job way to easy. 




Away with the fairies: some people will buy anything.

Way back in those halcyon days in 2007 when you still thought Ricky Gervais was funny and Mika and his jaunty pop tune about being chubby and proud was going to be the next big thing, artist and illusion designer Dan Baines created this fantastic model of a dead fairy as an April Fool's hoax. 



Pretty impressive right? And perhaps not too surprising that quite a few took the photos and the tale of its discovery by a dog walker at Firestone Hill near Duffield constructed around them, seriously. The thing is that even after Dan came out and admitted that his fairy was fake (I hasten to use the word "fraud" because I don't believe that Dan's intention was ever to actually deceive anyone) people were still coming to his site and insisting that it was real, some suggesting that the story of fakery was a cover-up, others going as far as telling Dan that he must return the corpse or face terrible consequences!   

But this was way back in 2007, we were ignorant back then, some of us actually bought that Mika song. Surely this isn't still being shared and reported as if real today, in these enlightened times, when we have the next big thing Mehgan Trainor and her jaunty pop tune about being chubby and proud .... sigh.... of course it is, otherwise I wouldn't be writing this!

From the source of constant inanity that is Ghosts n All Things Paranormal on Facebook. 



Depressing enough, add in some totally credulous comments:



And my favourite, the following person insists that this must be fake because this isn't what happens to fairy's bodies: 



Without wanting to sound condescending, I actually used to feel sorry for people like this, I used to think all they need is a nudge in the right direction, a hint to not accept things like this at face value... To think a little more critically...

Now, I'm not so sure. After all they have the tools to check things like this out for themselves, are they too deluded to even bother, or do they simply not want to know the truth?  Or are they *gasp* just fundamentally.... well.... stupid? 


If I were being charitable, I'd say "wilfully ignorant" but is that really all that different? 

Perhaps the reason we don't label beliefs such as this, and the people who hold them as "stupid" is because we don't want our own beliefs labelled as such. Are we protecting them in order to protect ourselves? The truth is the if a position is held due to good reasoning and solid evidence we can defend it... If it isn't... Perhaps it should be called out....

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

A Real Thor Spot.... Why Diversity in Comic Books Has Always Been Tricky.

This is a bit of a diversion for me. As well as being a skeptic with an interest in science and the paranormal, I'm also a massive nerd. I know, I know. You would have never guessed right?

One of my biggest loves being comic books. Not graphic novels, I don't try to hide my obsession behind a seemingly more respectable moniker. I love Comic books.

One genuine criticism that has been levelled at mainstream superhero comics over the years has been a lack of diversity amongst characters, especially super-heroes. Early attempts to rectify this were, misguided to say the least. Female superheroes, barring the early Wonder Woman and Black Canary, were initially
re-gendered versions of pre-existing, popular male-counter parts. Think Super-Girl, Bat-Girl, She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel and Spider-Woman, the latter at least having a separate origin and powers to her male
counter-part.

Ethic differences were treated with even less tact. Early black heroes had the pleasure of mostly having their ethnic heritage up front in their names, Black Panther, Black Lightning, Black Racer, Black Vulcan.... When black heroes weren't presented like this, they were still awkward racial stereo-types. Luke Cage a.k.a Power-Man was one of the black heroes to have his own book, he was also a ex-gang member, born in Harlem and a convict when he received his powers. John Stewart, the first black Green-Lantern, was presented as a stereotypical "angry young black man". These its likely black characters were mishandled by white writers, who may well of had the best intentions at heart, but simply couldn't find the right voice for a black character.


That's black characters, but if you are looking for Hispanic heroes in a pre-90s book you'd have a long day in the back issue room. Bat-Hombre anybody? Didn't think so. 
 If you were looking for an openly homosexual character your search would be even less fruitful. Marvel's North Star a member of second-string team book Alpha -Flight was rumoured to be gay though-out the eighties, but editorial mandates prevented this from being outwardly stated until 1992. Marvel were actually beaten to the punch in 1991 when DC comics writer Bill Messner Loebs had ex-Flash villain, the Pied Piper, reveal to his now friend that he was homosexual. Becoming mainstream comic's first openly gay character. The fact that the plot point was sensitively handled and reacted to by the hero of the book with initial discomfort, soon replaced by acceptance, doesn't change the fact that this, as with North Star, was hardly a major character!

                         
In the modern era both mainstream companies DC and Marvel. have taken great steps to rectifying this previous imbalance. Often this is well-handled, sometimes it strikes as little more than an attempt to score publicity.

Take, for example, DC's announcement in 2012 that a "major" character would be revealed to be gay. If the spectacle of this didn't leave a bad taste in the mouth (it shouldn't have to be a major ANNOUNCEMENT DC! And the delay in announcing the character's identity only had some fans debating why it SHOULDN'T be a character they like!) the final reveal was the very definition of anti-climax. Green Lantern was gay! Only problem is, the DC universe features at least five prominent human Green Lanterns (and tonnes of alien ones too)! And it wasn't one of the major ones, it was Alan Scott, a Green Lantern from an alternate universe! And not the original Alan Scott either, a rebooted version! Also in 2012 DC announced they would also be introducing an  Arab-American hero... This turned out to be a Green Lantern too! Oh and the Flash pictured above... He has been reintroduced as an Afro-American. Whilst this is fine and dandy, once again, this isn't the only Flash in the DCU! The main one, as with the main Green Lantern, is white.

In 2011 Marvel replaced Spider-Man Peter Parker with Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino, to much critical acclaim. Fans almost instantly took too Morales, and critics were kind, if cautious about the move. To an casual observer, this may seem like an incredibly bold move on Marvel's part. Spider-Man is without doubt Marvel's flagship character, most well known and well loved.  Here's the thing, this didn't happen in Marvel's main line of books, it happened in its "Ultimate" line. Now defunct, the Ultimate brand met with initial success, aiming to make Marvel characters more accessible to new fans by doing away with decades of continuity. This popularity had petered (pun not intended) out by the time Morales was introduced, it had already been relaunched and rumours of its demise were already circulating. Sales for most Ultimate books were at a point were a regular title would of been cancelled Marvel's move wasn't as risky as it initially appeared was it?

When the Ultimate line disappeared Miles shifted over to the regular Marvel Universe where there is already a Spider-Man who isn't going anywhere. He becomes another ethnic counterpart for pre-existing character.



The supplementing of existing characters with ethnically diverse counterparts may seem like a positive step but its actually exactly what was being done with gender-roles as early as the introduction of Supergirl in 1958. The one major difference is at least these modern characters are being well handled, and are quite rounded, they aren't simple racial stereotypes (although DC faced some criticism for having their Arab-American Green Lantern use a gun, odd as none of the other Lanterns carry a handgun).

Even so much of this strikes as attempts to fill a criteria of  diversity, without doing so in any actual substantive, consequential or meaningful way. Diversity is offered as an alternative. Its throwing a titbit to readers who want to see more diversity, and generating more publicity and therefore revenue in the process.







This is exactly how I feel about today's announcement that Marvel are to introduce a female Thor.  It will generate a lot of publicity, but despite Marvel's protestations to the contrary, its just a female version of a pre-existing hero, nothing more. Consider too that this isn't a huge risk. While it seems that this is going to occur in mainstream continuity, its not likely to be permanent, these things in comics rarely are, and it won't be the first type Marvel have replaced Thor with a counter-part, two of the more unusual choices being a frog and a horse-headed alien during Walt Simpson's run in the 80's.



               

Instead of replacing an established character with a woman, why on the Earth didn't Marvel attempt to establish a new female character? They could of done far worse than consult a frequent collaborator on their movie projects, the director of the Avengers, Joss Whedon. Whedon is, of course, responsible for creating strong, powerful and independent female characters (and not just the title character) in the TV series Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Also Marvel have done this successfully in the past. Chris Claremont's long run on
X-Men was known for the introduction of several new female characters you could hold their own, they  were well fleshed out and remain some of the most popular members of the team. Why this backward step?

So how do fans deal with this forced attempt at diversity?

When Marvel Studios chose Samuel L. Jackson to play Nick Fury, few fans blinked an eye lid. The character had been depicted as a Sam Jackson look a like in the continuity free Ultimate universe Avengers title "The Ultimates" despite him being white in the regular Marvel Universe. This may be because few modern fans actually cared much about Nick Fury by that stage, as a character there wasn't much going on behind the eye-patch. Plus anyone is better than David Hasselhoff surely?










Reaction to the announcement of the portrayal of another long-standing, traditionally white Marvel character has been met with less enthusiasm. The announcement that Michael B. Jordan will be playing the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot has been met with scorn from many sectors of fandom. When pointed out that this is a ridiculous stance, as an accurate portrayal of the character Johnny Storm is not reliant on his race but his brash, reckless nature and occasional arrogance, most of those opposed have countered that "Johnny and Sue (team-mate the Invisible Woman) are biological brother and sister, so it makes no sense that one is black, the other white." To that I counter, "So why are you demanding a white Johnny Storm, and not a black Sue Storm?"

Friday, 4 July 2014

An Open Letter to Those Who Promote and Condone Exorcism.

About a week ago I wrote at open letter to a major promoter of the concept of demonic possession on Facebook. Needless to say, the post was quickly removed and I was prevented from reposting it. I won't give this individual more publicity unless I absolutely have to so I have removed his name.

Here it is:
"Dear ...., 
Whilst you and your "team" promote this superstitious rubbish, there are scientists and researchers in the fields of neuroscience and psychology endeavouring to discover the causes of abnormal behaviours that have in the past been labelled as possession. 
Your "work" actively hampers this progress. It results the sufferers of such afflictions not seeking out the correct medical help. It also impedes the work of mental health advocates who campaign to remove the stigma of mental health conditions. It results in the families of individuals suffering from these disorders not encouraging them to openly seek out the correct help without shame and fear. 
Take a recent case in Bolivia of a six year old girl suffering from uncontrollable fits of laughter, she was labelled as "demon/devil possessed", in the world that propagation of such nonsense threatens to bring about, that "diagnosis" would have resulted in the application of brutal, damaging, ineffective and occasionally lethal procedures such as exorcism. Thankfully in our scientifically literate age, doctors were able to use MRI and CAT scans to successfully locate and remove a tiny tumour on her temporal lobe. http://ecancer.org/journal/8/full/436-child-with-temporal-lobe-hamartoma-a-to-z-images-and-a-case-report.php 
The propagation of these beliefs often leads the abuse and murder of children by adults blinded by supernaturalism and often, mental illness themselves. Recent cases include: 
Amy Burney, 5, Staten Island New York, murdered in 1997 when during an attempted exorcism, her mother and grandmother tied her down and forced her to swallow a toxic potion and taped her mouth shut. They were charged with second degree murder. 
Kira Canhoto, 2, murdered in 1995 in Canada, when her parents and grandmother thought she was possessed by a demon, and attempted an exorcism. They forced her to drink huge quantities of water. The grandmother, mother and a neighbour were convicted of manslaughter. 
Amora Bain Carson, 13 months from Texas, murdered in 2008 by her mother and partner who believed she was possessed and tried to rid her of demons. They allegedly bludgeoned her and bit her more than 20 times. 
Terrance Cottrell Jr, 8, Milwaukee, murdered in 2003, Church members thought he was possessed by the devil. In an exorcism he was held down for two hours until he suffocated. The pastor was sentenced to prison, but never admitted guilt. 
Unfortunately those cases are just the tip of the iceberg, for the list I restricted myself to under tens from the last 20 years, and the US and Canada. I could of restricted myself to teenagers, or to partners murdered by spouses, or to children murdered by parents, or to the Northern hemisphere, or the Southern. and pulled just as many incidents.
Of course it would be ludicrous to say that belief in demons and possession always leads to murder but one cannot the unifying factor in these cases was the superstitious beliefs of the murderers./abusers. This is an ignorance that we should be lifting, not propagating.

-SB"
Unfortunately if I was writing that today I would probably be addressing it to the largest religious organisation on the planet. An organisation that speaks to, and to some extent for, roughly 1.2 billion people. The Catholic Church.

Whilst not a Catholic myself, many of my friends are, they are reasonable rational people who often privately admit that their church's frequently backward, intolerant, and sometimes damn-right deadly doctrines, actions and positions cause them great embarrassment. That's why I am happy to see occasional minor steps forward, many of which were made under progressive pope John Paul II. Unfortunately, for every small step forward the Catholic church seems to take one massive step backwards.

On July 2nd, the Catholic church formally recognised the International Association of Exorcists, an organisation lead by Father Gabriele Amorth, known as the "Exorcist of Rome," who claims to have performed 160,000 exorcisms.

In my opinion, Amorth is quite possibly as in need of assistance from mental health professionals as the unfortunates that he performs exorcisms upon. Previous statements of his include labelling Yoga as "satanic" and warning that Harry Potter introduces children to "black magic". The fact that he describes science as "not worth a jot" strongly implies that he isn't recommending that those believing they are possessed receive psychological assessment before they undergo exorcism.  Members of the group have spoken of sitting in front of lesbians and hearing "Satan growl." Amorth himself said that the relapse of the Mexican man touched by Francis to his previous state is a signal from God that Mexico should abandon a liberalization of its abortion laws.

Is this is the kind of individual and organisation that a forward thinking church should seek to credit? It seems that the new Pope is quite happy to let fundamentalism remain in the Catholic church.

An argument frequently used to defend exorcism, is that sometimes it actually works. Believers and sceptics alike present this as almost a spiritual placebo. The sufferer believes the ritual will alleviate their affliction and the theatrics of the exorcism process actually help confirm this.  The problem is, its simply not ethical to put people through a potentially harmful process simply to alleviate the symptoms of a possible underlying mental health disorder. The ends do not justify the means. Plus this process doesn't actually address the actual cause of the disorder. What happens if it reoccurs? Another exorcism? Often these are identifiable and manageable conditions.

As the Catholic church recognises the International Association of Exorcists, seemingly adding credence to the concept of demonic possession and exorcism, a stark reminder of the possible consequences of such beliefs has emerged from Pakistan.



The Independent reports:
"Police in Pakistan have launched a murder inquiry after a young woman was reportedly beaten to death by a Muslim holy man who was trying to “exorcise demons” from her.

Reports said the 24-year-old woman from Lahore, Zeenat Bib, had been suffering from undiagnosed problems for some time and that her family had taken her to several doctors.
Her condition had not improved and so her family decided to take her to a local pir, or Sufi elder, who they believed could confront “the demons tormenting her”.
The exorcism process involved tying Zeenit with ropes and beating her with a baseball bat. Her cousin, Shahbaz attempted to intervene, but the Pir, Pir Afzal, told him the blows were not harming Zeenit. The pir then instructed Shahbaz to take Zeenit to the hospital when the exorcism was complete. Unfortunately, the hospital was unable to revive Zeenit.

The police are currently holding Shahbaz and searching for Afzal.

Such incidents are unfortunately all too common. Salma Hussain, 13, was killed during an exorcism carried out in a Cheecha Watni village in 2012. She suffocated when pir Shabbir filled her nostrils with cotton wool, and burned her with an iron rod and chilli powder in an attempt to exercise "Djinn" from the girl.

As with Zeenit, her parents allowed this because of their unquestioning faith in a pir and their lack of understanding of mental health issues and medicine in general.

As I was completing this post, this news story emerged from Japan.

As this shows, such cases are not restricted to religion or geographic location. As I mentioned at the start of this post, website What's the Harm? features hundreds of such cases, such victims, from all across the world, the common theme?

Ignorance and superstition.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Control Issues: Why The Scoles Experiment is Not The Convincing Evidence That Believers Often Claim.

Saw this posted on a Facebook page this morning and what can I say. I like a challenge!

Supporters of the paranormal often cite the Scole experiment as the most robust evidence of the paranormal, using its purported conduction under the observation of "scientists" as conformation of its accuracy.  So what was the Scole experiment and was it really convincing scientific evidence of life after death?
Taken from head researcher, Montague Keen's 2001 response to critics of the initial Scoles Report*: 
"A number of experienced psychical researchers investigated the activities of a mediumistic group in Scole (Norfolk, United Kingdom), that claimed to produce under spiritual guidance a wide range of physical phenomena. During a two-year-long study, lights, tape recordings and films bearing images, glyphs, poems, symbols and messages in several languages were produced. The investigators could find no evidence of deception or human interference." - Keen, 2001 
In other words, the Scole experiment was a series of seances held in the early 90's. The researchers in question were fifteen members of the Society for Psychical Research. The seances were conducted by six mediums in the groups normal gathering point: a basement in the home of the lead psychics, Robin and Sandra Foy.

This is the first indication that the Scole experiment was not conducted under the tightest of controls. By allowing the psychics to conduct the seances in an environment they had access to prior to any test being conducted, they opened the door to an unlimited amount of rigging and tampering, including the secretion of objects around the seance table. When further tests were conducted with the same individuals in alternative locations, phenomena reported in the Foy's basement failed to manifest.

This stunning lapse of controls is a repeated theme throughout the Scoles experiment. The investigators were so lapse in this area that they actually allowed the mediums to impose controls upon them rather than the other way around! This included an embargo on any lighting in the seance room itself, no video recording equipment was to be used, and infra-red equipment was prohibited.
"...The sittings were held in a near-underground converted cellar in almost total darkness, save for the illumination cast at unpredictable times and luminosity levels....  It was a source of considerable anxiety and regret that we were unable to get them to accept the introduction of infrared video cameras at this stage..." Keen, 2001 
 Another condition imposed by the mediums was the playing of background music during the seances, this was accompanied by "casual chatter". This things could easily mask the sound of the mediums shifting position and reaching for concealed objects. As the only allowed recordings were audio in nature, this may well prevent future researchers detecting sounds, which may at least indicate some form of trickery is occurring.

The mediums did agree to wear luminous wrist bands, to show were their hands where at all times. Unfortunately these Velcro wristbands were created and supplied by the mediums themselves, and... you may need to read this twice... WERE NEVER EXAMINED BY THE RESEARCHERS! Even if these wristbands hadn't been gimmicked, slipping off a Velcro wristband is hardly an impossible feat, and the provision of music and chatter may well of provided a nice cover for the potential sound of adjusting Velcro.

One of the most repeated claims of paranormal phenomena was the appearance of images on film placed within sealed containers in the session rooms.


"...The production of films, which were the chief but not the only tangible effect created, did not conform to a rigidly determined procedure. The spirit team did not so much acquiesce in the investigators’ bringing and controlling their own film as to positively commend this course. Since the initial expectation was that films could be produced only after a gestation period extending over a week or two, it was necessary to agree on the sort of security container in which to house unopened rolls of virgin film. An initial experiment with an approved treble-thickness plastic security bag produced a few anomalous markings on a roll of 35-mm Polaroid colour film, but nothing intelligible or artistic. Nevertheless, the procedure followed was such that it precluded any form of interference or substitution. The black plastic, we were told, was difficult to penetrate..."- Keen, 2001
So when the film was contained with boxes supplied by the investigative team, no images appeared.  The mediums justify this by stating that "the spirits" had trouble penetrating the plastic. Special pleading if ever I heard it.  Never fear though the mediums are quick to provide a solution:
"...Consequently, we later used a small hinge-lidded padlocked box made by one of members of the Group..."- Keen, 2001
By providing their own boxes! And the investigators, again, are fine with this!

Dr Alan Gauld, a member of the SPR and one of Scoles main critics, examined one of these boxes and found it easily opened in the dark. This, of course, would allow the mediums to replace the "virgin" film rolls, with their own specially prepared roll.
"...when the box was examined at the University of Nottingham ... it was found that, by squeezing the hasp which carries the padlock securing the lid, it was possible to push its right-hand arm further into the right-hand socket, thereby enabling the left arm to be released from its socket by swivelling the hasp (after which the right-hand arm could also be removed). This allowed the box lid to be opened without interfering with the padlock and hence permitted any contents to be removed and/or replaced." - Keen, 1999 
Of course it would be necessary for them to know in advance what film was to be used, but this seems to be likely as Keen tells us himself that "the spirits" were informed of the film to be used, and even asked if they approved... All via the mediums of course!
"...the spirits agreed to try out a wholly new type of film, Kodachrome 200 (x36 exposures); the development of this film took place independently at Kodak’s laboratories in Wimbledon, London. This was equally successful..."- Keen, 2001
As with the change of location, when any other method of securing the film was used, all alleged paranormal effects failed to manifest.

Another reported phenomena was the appearance of darting and dancing points of light. These appeared to respond to command and direction.
"...Of the many forms of physical effects we witnessed and described in our re- port, the light phenomena were the most immediately impressive because of what we considered to be the impossibility of a natural origin or mechanism. Points of light would appear from above, dart at great speeds around the small chamber, describe elaborate aerial patterns, alight on our heads, frequently responding to spoken or silent requests, appear to enter bodies, “dive-bomb” the table top with a sharp “ping” and emerge from below it, irradiate a table tennis ball which ran away from our grasp on the carpeted floor around our feet, and illuminate crystals, bowls and the interior of the glass dome, spreading light slowly through the six Perspex supports on which it stood... " - Keen, 2001
  
All of the listed effects could easily by replicated with a simple laser pointer/pen. All that would be required would be for one of the mediums to slip their wristband and recover the pointer and for the tip of the laser pointer to be obscured from the view of the investigators. The moving of the tennis ball may well be attributed to a well-known seance trick: the use of a concealed extendible rod to manipulate objects. This has been a common source of fraud in seances since the rise of spiritualism in the 1800's. Again all that would be required for this method to be employed, would be the unnoticed removal of a Velcro luminous wrist band.




These fundamental failures to impose controls and the allowing of the mediums to dictate the protocol and limit controls, mean that the Scole experiments findings simply can't be deemed credible. This is the reason that, as of writing this, no other organisations have even attempted to replicate the experiment.

A common theme with those that defend the Scole experiment is that no hoaxing was ever detected.
"As Professor Arthur Ellison wrote the reply to the critics: 'No serious student of the Scole investigation can reasonably conclude that their four years' work and some 500 sittings, most of them closed to outsiders, warrants the assumptions (of fraud) implicit in such a practice ...' and 'None of our critics has been able to point to a single example of fraud or deception.'"- Victor Zammit
Well I don't have any direct evidence that a magician is using trickery to create the illusion of the paranormal, should I conclude that every magic trick I've not been able to explain was the result of paranormal phenomena unless direct fraud is discovered?

Critics don't have an incident of fraud to point to as all we have of this experiment to examine is the investigators own credulous eye-witness testimony.  Assessment of this leads to no conclusion other than the opportunities to fake phenomena would of been rampant. Do believers really expect to completely shift the paradigm of modern science's position based on an "experiment" with virtually no controls in place?

The Scoles experiment is a clear demonstration of what happens when investigators set to discover an effect with little or no consideration of the null-hypothesis. The investigators here wanted to find evidence of the paranormal so much, they allowed their subjects to relax the controls to the extent that such evidence was virtually guaranteed.



*The Scole Investigation: A Study in Critical Analysis of Paranormal Physical Phenomena1
(MONTAGUE KEEN, Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 167–182, 2001 0892-3310/01 © 2001 Society for Scientific Exploration)










Monday, 30 June 2014

Fashion Victims?

From the Daily Mirror 27/6/14 comes a story of the alleged haunting of a New Look store in Sidmouth, Devon.

















"Terrified staff have called in a medium over fears their shop is haunted by a gran who hates skimpy outfits.
Seven workers at fashion store New Look heard mystery bangs, footsteps and whisperings."
The article continues:
"Spiritual medium Linda Helliker poured cleansing salt on the floor and tried to communicate with a prudish widow named Gladys.The strange happenings began when staff in Sidmouth, Devon, entered an unused storeroom.They discovered it used to be Gladys’ bedroom when the building was a hotel three decades ago."

The information that the building used to be a hotel is quite useful, the rest seems to be nothing but speculation. Did the staff "discover" that this room was Gladys' or was that simply ad-hoc invention on their part? I suspect that the staff may of named Gladys themselves. I've worked in allegedly haunted buildings myself and you tend to find the stories surrounding the "ghost" develop over time courtesy of the staff. This includes the parochial naming of the "ghost". If this information has come from elsewhere, we are never told its source, and of course, its still speculative. Even if there was a "Gladys" who lived at that location, why assume that this is the source of these occurrences? 



So we know that the building used to be a hotel, how is this useful to us? 

Well, quite often reports of anomalous noises, such as footsteps, originate not in the building in question, but from an adjoining building. This is especially relevant in terraced housing/buildings where staircases are often placed on opposite sides of the same wall. This can result in the sound of a person climbing the stairs in building A, sounding like a person climbing the stairs in building B. If there is no one who could be on the stairs at that time in building B, this can be misinterpreted as a ghost.

Indeed we are told that footsteps on the stairs are a reported phenomena here:

"“When we’ve been in the stockroom we’ve heard footsteps coming down the stairs." 
This may be particularly relevant in this case. Remember we are told that the store was previously a hotel, but a quick at the store front on Google street view strongly indicates that the neighbouring store (right of screen) was also originally part of the hotel. You can see this in the continuity of the architecture such as the roof height, window style/height and brick work. This isn't a continuity that runs through the buildings on the rest of the street.





Hazarding a guess I would say that the mystery footsteps are originating from the store next door, which was originally part of the hotel, and where the division may not be masonry that is not as heavy duty as between the neighbours on the other side. It may even be possible that the two stores share the hotel's original stairwell. Many of the other unaccounted for noises may be caused by the moving of stock, and as these are both clothing stores, clothing rails.

Another possible culprit for these unidentified noises could be the stores air-conditioning. Most shops have air conditioning systems, which can emanate all kinds of weird noises. Rapping and banging being quite common. Often these noises travel along the system. Like central heating systems in houses, I'd say air conditioning systems are responsible for a great deal of mis-attributed hauntings in shops and offices.

As for some of the other experiences, the explanation for this may well be down to suggestibility and the more nervous members of staff  almost being primed by these ghost stories, resulting in a perceived encounter of their own.

"“One girl heard a whispering in her ear and she got so scared she ran into a table. Another of my girls felt someone breathing on their neck...""
Under conditions of fear and stress our senses are heightened as a result of the release of adrenaline, commonly known as the flight or fight response. This can result in a mere breeze that would normally go unnoticed, feeling like breath, or even a light touch. Likewise normal background noises are heard and imagined to be much louder than they actually are, therefore misinterpreted as supernatural in origin.

The haunting seemed to cease after a local medium, whose son happens to work in the store, was called in. Again, this seems purely psychological. The staff expected the actions of this medium to work and they did, not surprising as many of the factors of the haunting may well of been due to the staff's state of mind anyway. This is similar to exorcism rituals having success and the victim's (yep, I said victim) "recovery" being due to the fact that they expect the ritual to work.


Sorry guys, I think your story is pure window dressing.
   

Thursday, 26 June 2014

He's Not a Ghost Witness... He's a Very Naughty Boy!

Anyone seen this story in the press yet?
"Mitch Glover, 14, was visiting the Neuville-St. Vaast German Cemetery in France on a class trip and snapped the photo with his iPhone. When he returned to his home in England, he saw the ghostly figure and later discovered the cemetery is near where Scottish soldiers from the 114th Seaforth Highlanders died in April 1917."
         - Lee Moran, York Daily News.

So let's look at that photo, and a close up:



So initially I suspected this was a case of pariedolia, the Guys at the great Facebook page, Casebook: Paranormal thought this too and gave a great explanation of what could of caused such an effect:


Sorry guys, great explanation, but we got it wrong!

I found this fantastic image comparison by April Abercrombie at 13th Chime Paranormal*:




It would seem that someone has photoshopped the original image, adding in an image of what appears to be a headless action man. 

An additional search by myself revealed that this image is available on a Spanish ios ghost app, Ghost Effects 1.6.

Sorry Mitch, you and your ghost are busted!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Another Day, Another Demon....

*sigh*

Demons.

Possession.

Why on Earth are more and more people resorting to this dark-age superstition to explain well understood natural phenomena? Its understandable that in a time before psychology, neuroscience and the germ theory of disease, our ancestors resorted to superstition to explain how those around them could change drastically or die overnight, how the afflictions could spread through communities. It's part of our evolutionary heritage to assign agency to seemingly random events, it took our development of the scientific method and critical thinking in general, to overcome this innate bias.

Anyway... here is the latest "possession" video. Purporting to show the results of experimenting with a ouija board by three young adults. You can read the full story here (sorry its the Daily Fail, it really was the best source in this case), or here's the jist of it:
"Three American friends have been taken to hospital after reportedly becoming 'possessed' by evil spirits while playing with a Ouija board. Alexandra Huerta, 22*, was playing the game with her brother Sergio, 23, and 18-year-old cousin Fernando Cuevas at a house in the village of San Juan Tlacotenco in south-west Mexico. But minutes into it, she apparently started 'growling' and thrashing around in a 'trance-like' state.Meanwhile, Sergio and Fernando also reportedly started showing signs of 'possession', including feelings of blindness, deafness and hallucinations.
Paramedics were called to the house and took the trio to hospital, according to Alexandra's parents. They restrained Alexandra to prevent her from hurting herself, before treating the three with painkillers, anti-stress medication and eye drops, which seemingly worked.
Victor Demesa, 46, the director of public safety in the nearby town of Tepoztlan, said: 'The medical rescue of these three young people was very complicated.
Taken to hospital: Minutes into the game, Alexandra started 'growling' and thrashing around in a 'trance-like' state, according to her parents. Above, she was restrained by paramedics to prevent her from hurting herself
'They had involuntary movements and it was difficult to transfer them to the nearest hospital because they were so erratic.
'It appeared as if they were in a trance-like state, apparently after playing with the Ouija board.
'They spoke of feeling numbness, double vision, blindness, deafness, hallucinations, muscle spasm and difficulty swallowing.'
He added that whether the trio were really possessed, or had simply convinced themselves that they were, was not for doctors to comment on."
*Correction: Later reports have Alexandra as sixteen not twenty two.


The video is apparently shot in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.


As you can see we are only shown a small section of footage of one of these youngsters, Alexandra, displaying what I'd describe as typical "possession" behaviour. We see growling, snarling, clawing of hands and sinister laughing, all the behaviours we are culturally conditioned to expect from a possession. What we don't see are the other elements that we are informed are typical in possession cases, there is no superhuman strength, no impossible body contortions, no levitation. In short, nothing that wouldn't be explainable without resorting to the supernatural.

Like most of the individuals who are sharing story  around the internet, I also believe that the ouija board is directly responsible for Alexandra's condition. But its nothing to do with its purported ability to contact the dead, its a result of the fear and superstition that surrounds the ouija board. I would hazard a guess that Alexandra was in a state of high stress caused by the anxiety of performing the ouija board. This state would of been amplified when the plancette moved due to the ideomotor effect.

I believe this led to Alexandra suffering what is known as a brief psychotic episode with an obvious stressor. It may well be the case that witnessing their sister and cousin suffering this episode brought about similar episodes in the other two youngsters.

The symptoms of a brief psychotic are also consistent with  the symptoms reported by the three youngsters, and their treatment with anti-stress medication, which alleviated the problem, would seem to indicate a problem of this nature.
 
 Symptoms of a brief psychotic episode from WebMD:
"The most obvious symptoms of brief psychotic disorder include:
  • Hallucinations: Hallucinations are sensory perceptions of things that aren't actually present, such as hearing voices, seeing things that aren't there, or feeling sensations on your skin even though nothing is touching your body. (All three youngsters reported suffering from hallucinations- SB)
  • Delusions: These are false beliefs that the person refuses to give up, even in the face of contradictory facts." (in this case Alexandra's belief she was possessed leading her to "act out" in such a fasion.-SB)
So what causes a brief psychotic episode? One theory suggests that the disorder is caused by poor coping skills, as a defence against or escape from a particularly frightening or stressful situation. This could easily describe the situation these youngsters found themselves in.

The symptoms of a brief psychotic are also consistent with  the symptoms reported by the three youngsters, and their treatment with anti-stress medication, which alleviated the problem, would seem to indicate a occurrence of this type of disorder.

What is important to bear in mind here is that while I do not think that this is in any way "real" paranormal phenomena, that does not mean I believe it to be "fake" as such. I think the incident for Alexandra and her relatives was very real and probably quite traumatic. It just isn't what they, and many others, believe it to be.

Of course this is just speculation. I am not a doctor, nor am I a psychologist. my aim is simply to show that there are perfectly rational explanations for occurrences such as this that we should explore before resorting to dark-age superstition.  

I have the feeling there is more information to come on this story, I will update the post as I find it.
 
Update

So it would seem that these three youngsters had rather stupidly consumed Brugmansia which is highly toxic. Effects of ingestion can include paralysis of smooth muscles, confusion, tachycardia, dry mouth, diarrhoea, migraine headaches, visual and auditory hallucinations, mydriasis, rapid onset cycloplegia, and death.

Here's an account of another user of 
 Brugmansia:
"Soon after drinking the Tonga, the man fell into a dull brooding, he stared vacantly at the ground, his mouth was closed firmly, almost convulsively and his nostrils were flared. Cold sweat covered his forehead. He was deathly pale. The jugular veins on his throat were swollen as large as a finger and he was wheezing as his chest rose and sank slowly. His arms hung down stiffly by his body. Then his eyes misted over and filled with huge tears and his lips twitched convulsively for a brief moment. His carotids were visibly beating, his respiration increased and his extremities twitched and shuddered of their own accord. This condition would have lasted about a quarter of an hour, then all these actions increased in intensity. His eyes were now dry but had become bright red and rolled about wildly in their sockets and all his facial muscles were horribly distorted. A thick white foam leaked out between his half open lips. The pulses on his forehead and throat were beating too fast to be counted. His breathing was short, extraordinarily fast and did not seem to lift the chest, which was visibly fibrillating. A mass of sticky sweat covered his whole body which continued to be shaken by the most dreadful convulsions. His limbs were hideously contorted. He alternated between murmuring quietly and incomprehensibly and uttering loud, heart-rending shrieks, howling dully and moaning and groaning" Preissel, U.; Preissel, H. G. (2002).
Case closed I'd say. 






Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The Source of Denial.

Let me pose you a question:
If I had a product that I was offering, for free, every day on a social media, and you came along and said "That's an interesting product, do you mind if I take some of that free product and do some tests on it?" and my response was to say "No I don't think this product is for you!" and then kicked you from the group, what would your view be of that product?

You probably wouldn't trust it, right? You'd probably feel justified warning people to be wary accepting the product. You'd probably feel that testing was desperately needed. Right?

Anyway....

Readers of this blog who have come here from my Facebook page The Rational Paranormal or one of the many links I post on Facebook, are probably well aware of my plans to run a test of psychics who offer readings of "selfies" on various pages. If you've not come across this practice before (and you probably won't have unless you visit paranormal/psychic pages) here's how they tend to go:
























This initial post is then normally followed by a series of individuals, claiming psychic abilities, giving readings about the sitter's personal circumstances, the personality or their deceased loved ones. I'm sure that you can see there is an immediate glaring issue here. Photos are linked to Facebook account, meaning that much of the information that is given COULD, potentially, be gleaned by a little to the sitter's Facebook profile, or searching the sitter's name on other social media. Also the provision of a photograph gives ample opportunity to do some cold-reading.

Now I decided to design a test which would minimise the opportunity for psychics to glean information from the sitter's Facebook. Would receive the sitter's "selfie", check it is non-searchable, assign it a random number from 1-100 using a random number generator, and then pass the corresponding "selfies" to the 10 numbers the psychic being tested selects.

The full protocol will be posted to this page in a few days hopefully, but what I am sure is abundantly clear is that I will need at least 100 viable "selfies"/sitters, and some psychics to test. On the sitters front this has been ticked over quite nicely. I've posted about this on a few Facebook pages and I've received a steady amount of volunteers since then. The psychics, unfortunately, have been less keen to participate.

Now, I am aware that I don't have much to offer as a reward here. Unlike Skeptic supreme, James Randi, I don't have a $1,000,000 reward on offer. What I am offering however is a small source of validation. The opportunity to at least demonstrate that there may be an iota of truth to the claim they are making. Surely that's worth something? And as they are offering these readings for free anyway, there's no loss. They would only be doing what they are doing anyway, just with no searchable information.

This message was posted to two of the largest groups on Facebook offering readings on photographs and selfies:

"Hi Guys, thanks for the add. Hope I'm OK plugging this here. I am looking at organising a test for psychics who offer readings via photographs on Facebook. 
 I Should be ready to post my testing protocol for social media psychics, who claim to be ale to give readings from photographs, to my blog (http://skepticsboot.blogspot.co.uk/) within the next few days. I'll be looking for upwards of a hundred unique "selfies" never posted to social media before to be read. And of course I'll be needing psychics to take part in the test. Know any that claim this ability? Or anyone who is willing to submit a selfie and receive a reading (or ten)? Send them here!https://www.facebook.com/rationalparanormal"
In both cases the poster was immediately blocked from said group.  And we are talking within minutes here. Its almost as if  the admins didn't want their users, who between them offer hundreds of readings per day, to see the test. Or was it because these admins themselves claim these abilities and don't want to have to explain to their members why they declined to take place.

Here's the message I received when I posted the above request to the Facebook page Spirit Source:


Now take a look a some of the readings offered on the page, I would say they fit exactly the criteria of my test! Is it relevant where "on their journey" a psychic is? If they are claiming an ability, and using it to do readings everyday then what difference does doing it within the parameters of the test make?










Photo to be read.                                                           Reading given

                     


        





Wait!
Who is that giving the last reading? Its Kerry Carter who told me the group wasn't the target audience for my test, at 11:19 pm on 13th June despite that fact that she had herself been performing the exact act required by the test a few hours previous!

So who was Kerry protecting her novice users or herself?

The worst thing about all this is that some of the stories related on these pages are absolutely heart breaking, grieving parents, siblings, children....there are some people genuinely suffering here and looking for help. The individuals on these sites that are more than prepared to use their vaunted "powers" to intervene in delicate and intimate situations, but aren't prepared to show that they actual exist in the first place are exactly the type that we should be steering people away from. Because I suspect that they are the ones who know or suspect that they are playing make-believe games with people's lives.

If you are interested in submitting a "selfie" for reading, or you consider yourself to genuinely psychic and aren't afraid to put that to the test contact me here:  https://www.facebook.com/rationalparanormal

I hope to have the full testing protocol posted here very soon.


Sunday, 15 June 2014

Irish Teenage Demon Fighter and Ultimate Haunted Ireland: Cashing In On the Paranormal?

Irish Teenage Demon Fighter....

...Sounds like it really crappy idea for a Buffy the vampire slayer rip off doesn't it? Well I have to inform you that the Irish Teenage Demon Fighter is an  individual who actually exists. His real name is Rhys Byrne.  He is actually Irish. And I'm pretty sure he is nineteen, so technically a teenager (though he'll need a swift rebrand next year). Does he actually fight demons? That's the question. Another pertinent question would be, is Rhys actually helping people or is he exploiting vulnerable people for the sake of self promotion?

He has a card, must be professional. Right?
 Here is how Rhys describes himself and his mission on his website.
"Irish Teenage Demon Fighter is Ireland's youngest Demonologist recognized by the international Paranormal community."

Unfortunately it isn't exactly clear what recognition
from the international paranormal community entails, And why this actually matters. Recognition
isn't exactly endorsement is it? Also a community isn't bound by universal standards as a single organisation may be.

Its likely that there are as many individuals within the "international paranormal community" who think that the idea of demons and demonology are a dangerous and ignorant throw back to the dark ages as there are those who would be prepared to "recognise" Rhys in any fashion.

Apparently Rhys has some special gift which enables him to battle demons, his story of how he acquired these abilities is almost identical to that of most mediums and psychics:
"At an early age I realized that I was different to most kids.And could see and speak to dead people, and see them in the format that they died. This was scary as a child but something that I learned to work with."
Some would suggest that this occurrence of special powers during childhood reflects a need in a child to feel special or different from their peers. In an article from the Cork News Rhys continues, attributing the enhancement of his powers that allows him to fight demons to an undefined period in a coma!
 "When I came out of a coma at 15 it came in stronger than usual. I found the normal spiritual stuff of mediumship wasn't enough and I needed to do more, so I said I'd take on demonic. It kicked off from there. That's what I am good at." 
That's an awful casual mention of a coma there! It almost suggests that Rhys is making this up as he goes along, did the reporter not consider that the reason Rhys was in a coma was worth mentioning?

Another thing that Rhys fails to provide in the article is any evidence, and, perhaps very  tellingly, not even any anecdotes about occurrences during his battles with demons. He justifies this by stating that his client's confidentiality prevents him from sharing this information.
"I don't disclose information about who contacts me but cases I'm working on at the moment are mostly demonic possession. In some cases they are life threatening..." 
This amounts to absolutely nothing concrete to work with, we can't be sure that Rhys has even had any clients. I admire his convictions, but surely there are other ways of protecting his client's identities whilst still showing some evidence that he has actually had clients.

Rhys is similarly vague about the methods he uses to combat the "demonic". We are told in his Cork News article that he is a Buddhist  who doesn't use the Bible and a crucifix in his exorcisms. So what are his methods. All we are told is:
"...The teenager favours a "one-on-one" approach: "I get aggressive with it, and do what I have to do." he said..."
Erm... OK. Very macho but that doesn't actually tell us what Rhys' procedure for exorcism is. And this vagueness from Rhys is common across the board. In no interview I've read, at no point does Rhys divulge any further information about the above topics.  

A strangely standoffish interview with RTL2FM only served to cast more doubt on Rhys' tale of his youth. He claims to have been studying Buddhism for five years, and to have spent time studying with monks in India. As he is only nineteen, you can clearly see the problem with this story. When exactly did he squeeze all that meditation and training in?

Came out of a coma at fifteen, presumably left school at sixteen.... he's only nineteen now...

When asked this Rhys stumbles and stutters, seemingly knowing he has to be quite careful to adjust his story in order to not be caught out. Also this story about the gifts he received upon awakening from his coma are different. In this later interview he states he awoke with a greater understanding of Buddhism.

Could this be why Rhys is reluctant to reveal too much about his exploits, he knows that he can't think on his feet quickly enough not to be caught out?

One thing Rhys has no problem revealing is that he has an agent that all and any media consultation should go through. Represented by Mr Fintan Cullen of The Entertainment Factory, Rhys seems to be listed as an actor not a "speciality act" oddly enough. 





He also lists as his skills:


"Military-Boxing-Rugby-Gym-GAA-Motocross-Quads-

Hand to Hand Combat-Weapons specialist -
Military tactics,Manoeuvres,

Swimming,Diving,Go Karting,Sky Diving,Off Road Driving, Tactical Driving,

Travelling & living in various countries, Dogs, Reptiles,All Animals both domestic & wild,

Demonologist,Buddhism,Working with kids,disabled and able bodied,Soccer,Survival Skills, (sic)"
Wow! One has to wonder when Rhys had time to master all these skills. being only nineteen, and having spent a year in India studying with monks, and working as a demonologist involved with "life threatening cases". How does a nineteen year old fit all that in with military and combat training....and a little coma! Unless its all fabricated?

Sorry for the cynicism, but Rhys seems to me to be desperate for "fame" and is willing to take any avenue to achieve it.  He isn't alone. 

The problem is, that the route Rhys is using to achieve fame is exploiting potentially harmful and destructive superstitions. It may be feeding the delusions of some very damaged and ill people. Rhys may be a delusional and damaged person himself, but something tells me his desire for fame maybe his main problem. 

Update!


Slick Graphics!
It seems that Rhys isn't Fintan Cullen's only foray into the paranormal. Fintan himself is about to star in a TV show called "Ultimate Haunted Ireland"produced by SWV productions. From the images I came across it looks like yet another "wander around in the dark, jumping at nothing" paranormal TV show in the vein of Most Haunted and Ghost Hunters. 



Unfortunately, can't tell you when UHI will air, as it doesn't seem to have been picked up by any TV stations as of yet. A website for SWV productions displays nothing but a similar image to that above and a link for potential buyers, and may only exist for Copyright purposes.


There is a little more information on the Spooky News site and some images from the show on the Irish Paranormal News and news worldwide Facebook page: 
"Calls went out around Ireland for our top Paranormal Investigators and Mediums to come forward for an exciting new show called Ultimate Haunted Ireland.  The call was answered and the pilot has been filmed! ANN O’REGAN caught up with Writer and Producer Sandra Hickey of SWV Studios to find out a bit more…"
Unfortunately, I couldn't read further without sharing to Facebook, which quite frankly, I'm not going to do! When they say "calls went out around Ireland..." I can't help but wonder if actually means "calls went out from Fintan's Roladex.."

We are told exactly who these "top paranormal investigators and mediums" are on the aforementioned Facebook page: 

"Ultimate Haunted Ireland the new TV Show coming soon. Featuring Fintan Cullen, Shay Carry and Dorothy Shiels and many more Spiritual mediums and Paranormal investigators."
We get some lovely photos too!


Ooh look its Fintan (right) investigating ghosts an' stuff!











Who's that with Fintan there? Its Shay Carry, you will never guess this but Shay is also listed on Fintan's Entertainment Factory site as an actor! What a massive coincidence! 


Here's Shay. He doesn't claim any paranormal abilities as
Skills though. 















Hmm... I don't know about you but I am starting to get the impression that these projects are nothing more than a mercenary attempt to make money from the paranormal field. Fintan wouldn't be the first if this is the case and he certainly won't be the last.  The problem is that it ruthlessly exploits those with paranormal beliefs, and ridicules the work of groups trying to conduct ACTUAL research.

I've heard many a paranormal researcher complain that the problem with paranormal teams at the moment is every other one is attempting to get themselves on TV. That shallow pursuit of fame seems to be at work here. 


I wonder how long it will be until Rhys younger brother, also listed as an actor on the Entertainment factory's site is roped into all this as well?