Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Lowe Files In Focus: A New Lowe For The Paranormal.

One of the most undeniable effects of the boom in paranormal investigation television shows is the propagation of the idea that anyone can investigate the paranormal. Special skills in the field have diminished, as has the commitment to learning what the scientific method is about, and how an investigation should actually be conducted. Teams are formed on whims and the rush to find a cool name to print on a black polo neck/hoodie combo comes before dedication to learning and refining one's methods. The latest show passed through the A&E paranormal TV mill is highly likely to reinforce this homogenization of skill in the paranormal field.

Introducing A&E's "The Lowe Files." 

I'm sure very few of you need an introduction to Rob Lowe... I'll rephrase that.... I'm sure very few of you over 35 need an introduction to Rob Lowe. He's essentially a better looking, cleaner cut Robert Downey Jnr who never landed Iron Man. To say he wasn't on my radar would be an understatement. That was until this "news story" appeared in my social media feed.

It's apparent reading the various versions of the article that have appeared on a multitude of internet sites, that the story springing from an interview (1), was initially intended as a puff piece for Lowe's new paranormal investigation show/vanity project "The Lowe Files" that took on a life of its own. It did the trick very nicely. I had initially hoped the show was a clever parody. Perhaps even a Borat-style fly on the wall documentary, with the primary cast and crew aware of the joke and the members of the public Lowe encounters genuinely unaware of the nature of the show. I think it's got potential. Sadly, it wasn't to be it appears this show is playing it straight.... straightish

All of the following clips are featured for the purposes of review, comment and critique and as such improving public knowledge, uses which are covered by fair use.

The first episode takes the form of an investigation into a "haunted boys reformatory" in California, I suspect the show isn't going to stick to this format though preferring a "jack of all trades" approach that insults seasoned investigators who concentrate on one area of study for years. Not only will this show not dwell long enough in one location to conduct a proper investigation, it seems it won't linger on an area of research either. It's the paranormal TV equivalent of a child with ADHD. Lowe investigates with his two sons, Matthew and John Owen.

NB- I know many of you can't watch the videos embedded on the blog so I've consolidated them into one Youtube linked video in the sources section at the foot of the post.

The show begins in suitably frustrating style (above clip). We see one of the Lowe kids lying on a bed "calling out" to spirits. Overlaid is footage of a beach ball that begins to drift towards a piece of kit, looks like an EMF detector. Dramatic movement tells us something eerie has happened. The truth is what we are likely seeing here is an example of Brownian motion (2). The extremely light ball is disturbed by an air current, or equally likely the static around the plastic ball is interacting with the electromagnetic field around the device next to it. This is how you've chosen to introduce yourself and your show to the public, with a completely unremarkable event. I find it hard to believe even the most fervent believer will accept this as paranormal.

The opening credits roll, Lowe explains his interest in the paranormal over various faked images. It was telling to see one that I've debunked here on this site before, namely the "rake" photo allegedly taken from a trail cam (3). With this image, I feel the show just cited its one of its major sources, viral stories on the internet and social media. Be interesting to see how this element plays out during the series.

The show does get extra points for choice of theme song, the awesome majesty of "Don't Fear The Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult ensures I enjoy at least a minute of this dross. 

videoJohn Owen then raises a question that I've asked myself, what makes them any more qualified to investigate the paranormal than "any other idiot" his words not mine. What's funny is the line is quite clearly ADRed. It's been added to the audio track after the recording. This could be because it wasn't properly picked up in the car, or because the show's producers are acutely aware the show balances on an extremely flimsy premise. Lowe points out it's because they'll have a shaman called Jon with them. Erm... great, but that doesn't really answer the question, as presumably any of these other "idiots" could also take a shaman with them. Lowe gives us a load of new age pseudo-babble about "drawing out energy" and "crossing the void" to explain the Shaman's presence. "No one has ever brought a shaman before!" Lowe tells us hoping that we don't just link shamanism to any one of the other religious systems and beliefs that have been dragged along on the paranormal circus train over the past decades. Lowe explains he's doing the show because he loves paranormal television. Presumably, he loves money too.

They then stop for doughnuts. Then they stop for lunch.

After these extended breaks and what I assume is meant to be witty dialogue, we finally get to meet shaman Jon, otherwise known as Jon Rasmussen. Jon can be found spouting utter rubbish such as "This is a great tool to use on-the-go to align your body, mind, and soul with the most powerful vibrational frequency of Love." as he tries to sell you "the Lovetuner" a $58 flute that can be worn around the neck (4).

Unfortunately, as much as Jon seems to know about $58 bronze whistles, he knows nothing about conducting an investigation or the equipment used. "EMF meters" we are told "are the best way to detect ghosts" and if you get "any reading at all that's something." Seriously, this makes Nick Groff look like a seasoned professional. It would be laughable if it weren't so insulting. Of course, when Jon is handed the EMF detector later there is no indication the team has taken a baseline reading. Also, when he gets a reading of "17" later in the show, we have no idea what the significance o this unitless number is. There's no idea of what is normal for this area.

Lowe follows this with an explanation of the Ovilus ghost box, which he maintains allows ghosts, who speak in different frequencies to talk through it. Whether he knows that the Ovilus uses environmental readings to pull random words from its database, I don't know, but the cast does seem to allude to this later in the show. That doesn't stop them from using it as the body of the investigation part of the show. Every time it spits out a random word, Lowe assigns this word a great deal of significance and fills in the details ad hoc about what the word may mean.


In this clip, the Ovilus spits out the word "pie" clearly a completely random and meaningless word. Lowe asks his son where the kitchen is, he responds "down there" and points in a general direction. Lowe asserts the box said "pie" because they've reached the kitchen. Except they haven't reached the kitchen yet! It may well be somewhere in the general area, but they aren't there yet. That's the problem with the Ovilus, when the words have no apparent meaning, the user quickly supplies it meaning it can't ever be wrong.

The team take a tour of the location they are meant to be investigating, sharing lots of local stories and grim tales of drowned girls and shot children. This indulgence in local "colour" is clearly to provide an eerie atmosphere for the audience, but it's not helpful in conducting an actual investigation as it adds a layer of suggestibility to what is experienced at the location.

During an uneventful tour, the Lowes are shown an area on a wall adorned with a yellow/brown stain, which their guide assures them is a scorch mark that returns every time it is removed.

Whilst this looks like a burn, I'd suggest it caused by damp building up behind the wall. Possibly a rainwater leak pouring down and resting on brickwork or a lintel behind the wood panelling. If you look closely you can see areas where it seems like the moisture has seeped down past whatever this blockage is. Failing that, it may even be a burn, albeit caused by a hot water pipe behind the panelling. Either of these things would explain why the stain returns after it is cleared.

The Lowes then rendezvous with Shaman Jon outside the location, who spouts some metaphysical babble about thinning veils and then resorts to the ultimate cheap paranormal trope: the institute is haunted because it's built on a native American burial ground. I don't know nearly enough about Native American burial customs to suggest Jon is wrong when he states Native Americans typically used hills as burial sites, but I'd suggest that a list of categorised burial sites doesn't bear out the assertion. I'd also suggest that native Americans had a wide range of burial customs. Although hills, in general, could be considered sacred, that doesn't mean EVERY hill was sacred. Nor does it mean every sacred area was a burial ground. The "Indian burial ground" trope (5) is a deeply insulting one based upon the assumption that certain ethnic groups are somehow imbued with mystical powers.

When the main "investigation" is conducted, it's done so in the dark with night vision cameras, as one would expect from any ghost hunting television show at the moment. I think It would almost be heresy for a show to investigate in proper lighting conditions now.  As is also common at this point, everything that happens, from a flickering lift light upwards is described as significant in some way. The team are suitably jumpy as required by ghost television standards.


Rob and John Owen set a Triboelectric field detector down on the floor, to detect static fields, which Rob assures us is a sign of "paranormal activity" neglecting to mention that they are also a sign of operating electrical goods, even rubbing a piece of plastic on a shirt can produce a triboelectric field. The triboelectric effect is the general description of the static field that occurs when a positively charged surface rubs against a negatively charged surface. Most static electricity is triboelectric in nature He tells his son to turn the torch off to prevent interference, despite the fact there are multiple cameras running and the detectors have been placed in front of black electrical cables! We can also see a torch or camera light shining on the detector when it triggers.

The triboelectric field detector is a really cheap piece of kit which comes in all sorts of weird and not so wonderful shapes or sizes. Of course, we've no more reason to suspect this item would be any more useful for detecting a ghost than an EMF, and like an EMF detector, there's a multitude of possible sources for the detected field including the operators themselves!


Rob tells us that it will trigger is the "presence" of paranormal entities, but depending on the sensitivity, it will trigger when it's anywhere up to 15 feet from a static field. In the video clip above, a group selling one of these devices inadvertently demonstrates he can set it off with his hand, or the clothing on his arm, that's how sensitive can be.

My favourite part of all this is when the show's "skeptic" Lowe, John Owen pulls his turned on iPhone from his pocket and is stunned when the detector responds to his movement. "It doesn't like that...." he exclaims. No, they didn't, perhaps even the spirits are surprised you're so dense you're trying to take measurements of EMF and static fields with a switched on cell-phone in your pocket!


Our next occurrence of paranormal activity is an alleged temperature drop of 3 degrees on a thermometer placed directly under a window. Again we've no idea if this is abnormal or not as we have no idea what the base line is for this area. Of course, Rob tells us this has always been associated with ghostly activity. It's also always been associated with drafts as well!


We then see Rob and Jon's devices "going crazy" coinciding with them being brought in proximity to each other. Quite possibly as both detect EMF fields they are detecting each other and the intersection of their own fields. Of course, by this point, it's all a bit moot anyway as we know that at least Jon Owen (and potentially any of the others too) has a switched on cell-phone in his pocket!

After this, there's some more fun with the static detectors, and we're done.


I've never been so grateful to see the credits roll on a TV show.


The Lowe Files isn't the worst paranormal TV show I've ever watched, but it may well be the least interesting and it's certainly the least professional. We must surely now be near the point of over-saturation of paranormal television. It's becoming abundantly clear that each new show is attempting to find a gimmick to stand out from a burgeoning crowd, and this show's gimmick: "here's a film star you know hunting ghosts/ Sasquatch /UFOs" may well be the weakest yet.

I couldn't get the image of Troy McClure out of my head whilst I was watching. I really expected Rob Lowe to utter " may remember me from...." at some point during the episode.

The message from the show is clear"Anyone can do this. No experience? No special skills? No background in science or investigation? That's fine. Just be passionate." This is a frustrating message to be receiving at a time when ghost hunting groups are rapidly increasing in number. It's clear that Lowe hasn't bothered to do the slightest bit of research into how his equipment works, and I don't even think the show's producers have the slightest clue either. Why else include footage of John Owen pulling a cell-phone from his pocket.

Lowe admitted as much about his amateur status in another puff piece for the show just before it aired. At a panel at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, Lowe stated: "We're paranormal idiots (6)" When asked to clarify how a certain piece of equipment worked he added, "'Don’t ask me how, don’t ask me the science, I don’t know."

In a genre filled with rank amateurs, the Lowe Files and A&E as a whole manages to invent a new level to sink to. There was a stage when at least paranormal TV stars attempted to cover their lack of credentials. Watching this David Roundtree must wonder why he bothered to lie through his teeth about his qualifications. A shrug and a smile are enough. The ethos on display seems to be almost a pride in lack of expertise. When that is something freely admitted in any area of research, whether it's a hobby or not, or conducted in the media, you know that this flooded genre of television must be quickly headed for collapse.

In my opinion, this collapse can't come a moment too soon.








Collated Video.

Monday, 7 August 2017

The Politicization Of Science: A Response To "US trade deal after Brexit could see milk and baby formula with cancer-causing toxins flood UK market"

A short time ago I wrote an article regarding the way a piece of legitimate scientific research had been distorted in order to present a right-wing propaganda piece. As I stated in that piece, my personal politics don't influence my position on how science is presented. I knew it wouldn't be long until I was presented an opportunity to demonstrate this. Today we turn to the left and a recent article published in the Independent entitled "US trade deal after Brexit could see milk and baby formula with cancer-causing toxins flood UK market" by Tom Peck. Remember, with most news outlets if it sounds hyperbolic it probably is.

And boy is this hyperbolic.

The article begins:
"A post-Brexit trade deal with the US could see a massive increase in the amount of cancer-causing toxins in British milk and baby food, The Independent can reveal. American regulations allow more than 20 times the quantity of harmful aflatoxins in food products, compared to the stricter regime imposed by the European Union." The Independant (07/08/2017)
To unpack this first it's necessary to understand there are different types of aflatoxins. The National Cancer Institute tells us:
Aflatoxins are a family of toxins produced by certain fungi that are found on agricultural crops such as maize (corn), peanuts, cottonseed, and tree nuts. The main fungi that produce aflatoxins are Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus, which are abundant in warm and humid regions of the world. Aflatoxin-producing fungi can contaminate crops in the field, at harvest, and during storage.
Aflatoxins are divided roughly into two groups, the difuranocoumarins, most notably B1, B2, G1 and G2, of which B1 is both the most common and the most toxic. And the metabolites, aflatoxin M1 and M2, which are created when cattle are exposed to the difuranocoumarin compounds and are found in milk and dairy products. So with this in mind, we can check if US standards really do allow up to 20 times the amount of aflatoxin as EU standards do.

The EU regulations currently allow total limits of 15 μg/kg for total aflatoxins in most foods, whilst the US allows a slightly higher level of total aflatoxins of 20 μg/kg. No one in their right mind could mistake this for an increase of a factor of twenty surely?

But the Independent directly states:
"US standards also allow products made with nuts and cereals to have higher levels of the carcinogens, which cause damage to DNA and make cells more prone to becoming cancerous."
These figures directly refer to nuts and cereals, so where has the Independent's  figure of twenty times come from. The Independent also states:
"US regulations permit 0.5 micrograms per kg of aflatoxins in milk, cereals, nuts and dried fruits, but the EU restricts levels to 0.025 micrograms – twenty times lower."
This is blatantly false, as I've shown above the nuts and cereal regulations for both regions are much higher than the two figures offered above and it's unlikely that there would be the same regulations for milk and nuts/cereals as these products contain radically different strains of aflatoxins (B1 in nuts and cereals and M1 in milk and dairy). In fact, the figure of 0.5 μg/kg that is given for the US is for M1 in milk or dairy, but the EU figure of 0.025 μg/kg is NOT for dairy but is for infant products! The article also neglects to mention that EU and US restrictions on aflatoxins in animal feed are equal at 20 μg/kg in both regions.

In an example of burying the lead, the article includes a lengthy quote from Simon Dawson, a lecturer in Food Science and Technology at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Mr Dawson informs us of the risks of Aflatoxins, but when it comes to his opinion on whether adopting the US's looser regulations all we get is this throw away line: "He said that there were no studies he is aware of that show a level of 0.5 micrograms per kg resulting in adverse effects..." Dawson does add that we should aim for lower concentrations of aflatoxins, which is sensible. 

There's another element to consider here, the UK is unlikely to import major amounts of dairy products from the US as a result of its relatively short shelf life. What we are in a position to import more of is its cereals. And the regulations for cereals are hardly different, plus the EU has voted several times to loosen restrictions on cereals, so there are no guarantees EU limits wouldn't reach 20 μg/kg at some point in the near future anyway. The article references the EU's frequent adjustments to aflatoxin levels without pointing out that when these adjustments and made, it's generally to INCREASE what constitutes a safe level!

What the Independent says:
"Brussels set its limits in 2006 taking into account extensive research and best available practice to detect the chemicals, which is continuously reviewed and updated – but the US standard has not been updated since 1977."
What they fail to say: the levels set in 2006 were higher than previous levels!

With regards to infant formula, whilst aflatoxins are extremely hardy, studies have shown they do not generally survive UHT processes.

The major danger of excessive consumption of aflatoxin is Mycotoxicosis major outbreaks of which are rare in the west, mostly occurring in India and Kenya, areas where the storage of cereals is not as controlled. In fact, the article references a recent outbreak in Kenya:
"...there have been incidents in Africa and Asia involving intense contaminations of aflatoxins, including one in Kenya in 2004 which claimed 124 lives."
This tells us nothing about US safety standards! In fact, a 2004 study conducted by the CDC carried out in Kenya showed much higher levels of aflatoxins than US standards allow. The only recent outbreak of Mycotoxicosis in the US concerned pet food and claimed the lives of 75 dogs, in an industry that has since introduced considerably more stringent regulations.

The other major danger of aflatoxins is liver cancer, of which incidents are lower in the US than in mainland Europe! Liver cancers account for approximately 1.3% of new cancer cases and 2.6% of cancer deaths (Jemal et al 2003). Liver cancers account for approximately 1.3% of new cancer cases and 2.6% of cancer deaths (Jemal et al 2003).Liver cancers account for approximately 1.3% of new cancer cases and 2.6% of cancer deaths (Jemal et al 2003).InAs Independent reader Glipof points out in the comments section:

The links for said studies are in the sources section below for you to check out.

One last thing to point out, just because the UK will no longer be required to operate under EU regulations after Brexit negotiations end, that doesn't mean we won't choose to maintain these standards.

Look, I'm as against Brexit as the next man, but stories like this which misrepresent data in such an egregious way do no favours to almost half of the electorate who opposed Brexit and still do. Make no mistake, stories like this will be exposed and will be held up as evidence that "remainers" are a deceitful, scaremongering bunch, and when the real damage and danger of Brexit is highlighted it will just be conflated with stories like this. I see no real difference between this story and the claims of avid Brexiters like Nigel Farage who claimed that the entire populations of Eastern European countries would flock through the UK's open borders, or that ridiculous amounts of money were regularly mailed to Brussels with no benefit or return. Propaganda is propaganda no matter which side of the aisle in originates from.


Original story

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Who Invited You? How Does A Skeptic Justify Their Continued Interest In the Paranormal?

Picture the scenario, you're a skeptic with a healthy interest in the paranormal, you like to read the latest news stories, see the latest footage and photos and even keep track of the latest paranormal television shows without actually having to watch them. You may even have an interest in helping others understand that some of the things they believe are "paranormal" are actually quite... well... normal. You've not been there long before someone posts an image that fits this description quite well. Being the well-adjusted individual you politely interject and offer them a rational explanation for their photographic anomaly. Now, you'll normally get one of a few stock responses to this.

Rarely, the poster will thank you for your input, maybe even agree. More commonly you'll be told that you can't possibly be right, and then be offered anecdotal evidence that the photo is genuine. Super rarely you'll be told that pointing out a camera strap in an image is equivalent to comparing the photographer to the Trump administration!

But occasionally you'll get a response that is (saner) and worth some consideration. "If you don't believe in the paranormal what are you doing on a paranormal page?" A more thought provoking, less confrontational and more general version of this question was recently posed by a Facebook friend and I think it is genuinely worth answering.

Here's my paraphrasing of that question:
If you don't believe and don't like the ideas, technology or hypotheses in the paranormal field/community, then why are you still involved with the Paranormal? What is your goal within the community if you are not open to the possibilities of certain ideas and approaches?
I suppose I broadly fit the criteria of being part of the paranormal community, given that it's generally the area I discuss the most here, on social media and in the blogosphere. I also broadly fit the idea of someone who generally rejects almost all of the technology and the hypothesises, so I suppose my answer is as good as anybody else's.

Firstly, it's not really a question of whether I "like" these elements in the paranormal, it's a case of whether I can find validity in them or not. If the paranormal exists then it does so as a facet of the physical world, that means it should be testable in the same way that any other quality can. By science. There are a few really good, really sound paranormal investigators in the field and there's some good and important research. The problem is they are drowned out by the noise. If I can help cut through the noise and help these people and this research gain a better foothold in public, I'm going to do this. One of the ways I can do that is by highlighting the poor standard work, calling out its flaws, and in some unfortunate cases expose it as fake. Is it always nice?

Nope, but it's necessary.

Generally, this is an area that paranormal enthusiasts don't realise is directly lifted from the scientific method. If you're collecting and publishing any kind of work that pertains to be in any way scientific then you are subject to peer review.

I am open to the possibilities of the paranormal, but I think I owe it to credible and serious researchers in the field if I approach the ideas as robustly as researchers in any scientific field approach a piece of new research. I think I'm a lot gentler than they can be. Look at the way Hawking as approached the "firewall" theory of black holes. Now that's a flame war!

Tthe ultimate answer is do we care about the null hypothesis? To answer that I'd point to the most important null hypothesis conclusion in science history. When Michelson and Morley successfully concluded that the luminiferous aether did not exist, they broke the barriers that allowed physics to charge into the 20th Century. No one asked them if they "liked" aether or if they considered it to exist. No one asked Michelson and Morley what their motivation was. No one in the scientific community cared if they believed aether existed or not prior to their experiment.
The results of their devilishly ingenious experiment, their evidence, was all that was required.

Now, it's rare that an experiment can be so clearly devised as to support a null hypothesis. Normally all we can hope to ascertain is a positive result or a result that fails to show support for the tested hypothesis. I suspect, frustratingly, this will be the closest that any form of paranormal research comes to a definitive answer. But there's another reason to continue paranormal research, and hence peer-review of said research.

Consider, that the progression of science is rarely linear. Whilst I don't hold much hope of scientific acceptance of ghosts or Psi phenomena (cue flurry of peer reviewed Psi papers), I do think that such research may well lead to advancements elsewhere. I think of the scientific importance of "white dialectic material" in the discovery of the cosmic background radiation. If Penzias and Wilson had ignored the background hum in their equipment at Bell labs, if they hadn't crawled in to scrape out the pigeon sh*t in the Horn antenna, they wouldn't have made perhaps the most significant and groundbreaking cosmological discoveries of all time.

Their dedication to clearing crap gave us a clue to the origins of the universe itself.  We should all dedicate ourselves to clearing some brown dielectric material from the paranormal community.

That's why I'm here.

On an only superficially connected note I'll be appearing on the Paranormal Talk Radio Show with Matt Haas and Tim Vickers discussing the perceived intersection between quantum mechanics and the paranormal on Thursday 3rd August at 8pm Eastern in the US and roughly midnight in the UK. I really hope you can tune in and listen.Tim and Matt have a great show and I'm massively excited to take part! Link below!