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

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.

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)