Wednesday, 20 September 2017

5 Unexplainable "Ghost Sightings" Explained.

When websites and media outlets outside of paranormal specialist interest write an article about ghosts or the supernatural it's often presented as "unexplainable" or "undebunkable". As this recent article published on the website "oxygen" demonstrates though, this is most commonly a result of the author's own naivety, ignorance or failure/unwillingness to do even a modicum of research. The article in question, published on September 14th, titled "5 Documented 'Ghost' Sightings That Are Too Convincing Not To Believe" by Sowmya Krishnamurthy (1) begins:
"There are countless stories of human interactions with spirits and those that have "crossed over" beyond the grave. From Marilyn Monroe to Abraham Lincoln -- these documented encounters are hard to deny as paranormal activity."
So let's rise to that challenge and see we can do what Sowmya couldn't and find possible reasons to "deny" these five pieces of evidence provided is supernatural. Quotes describing the encounters or footage from Oxygen are in italics under the bold headings.

1. The Cleveland Museum "Claude Monet" ghost.
"In 2015, a special Claude Monet exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art was overshadowed when a mysterious figure who looks exactly like the late French Impressionist painter showed up in a photograph." 




If you're thinking "that just looks like a person who looks like Monet" then that's exactly what I was thinking too. We should we assume this is "a ghost". It looks pretty clear that the figure is there in the environment as the light is interacting with the figure. Is it a stretch to imagine a Monet enthusiast may style themselves after the man? They may well also take an interest in the setting up of a Monet exhibit. There is another possibility. Could this have intentionally been set up by the museum? What better way to start off an exhibit with loads of free attention from the local press? The story appeared first on WYKC.com, a Cleaveland TV station's website on October 8th, two days after the image was allegedly taken, in a short story with a link to the museum's website but no quotes from an employee (2). It was then picked up by Cleaveland.com (3) and published in the arts section with links to the specific exhibit's website and quotes from an e-mail sent to them from the museums' director of communication, Caroline Guscot:
"Caroline Guscott, the museum's communications director, said Friday that Jeffrey Strean, the director of architecture and design, took the picture of the mysterious visitor and posted it on his Facebook page.The photo shows the bearded, hat-wearing visitor looking down into the lower lobby outside the museum's special exhibition galleries, where preparations for the exhibit "Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse" were being completed on Tuesday.The visitor bears an odd resemblance to a banner-sized photo of the bearded, hat-wearing Monet, also visible in Strean's shot. Strean's image was not retouched, Guscott said. "What are the chances someone looks like that and happens to be at the museum the day we are finishing installation?" she wrote in an email.
The story was then picked up by various local news outlets and art related websites in turn-up up to Halloween (4) (5). Interestingly in these iterations of the story, the quotes remain the same as those given to Cleaveland.com by Guscot but this time are attributed to a lower ranking member of the communications team, Kelly Notaro.
""We thought it was such a coincidence that on the final day of installing Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, this man resembling Claude Monet was seen peering down into the lower lobby outside the special exhibition hall," Kelley Notaro, communications associate with the museum, told TODAY.com. "This snapshot taken by a staff member is not retouched or Photoshopped. And we have heard from others that they’ve seen the man, but there hasn’t been a confirmation in his identification! This is the first exhibition leading into our centennial year, so we are excited to start it off with something as cool as capturing a photo of this Monet look-a-like standing directly above an actual photo of the artist himself," said Notaro."
 You may be thinking now would a museum really resort to circulating a story like this just outside Halloween in order to get people in through the doors of an exhibit, after all, this isn't an English public house we're talking about? I thought the same thing, but the Cleaveland Museum has blogged about haunted paintings before and of the building itself being haunted by a former director (6) in a 2010 post encouraging families to visit for the Halloween weekend. Ultimately, I don't blame the museum for attempting to garner this type of gaudy publicity but I think it's a great shame that they feel they have to resort of this to get people to engage with art.

Is this unexplainable? Hardly. Moving on.

2. The Dinner Guest


Oxygen tells us this is the "photobombing ghost" of a transvestite who used to dine in the restaurant the image was taken in, I'm not making this up. They also attempt to divert possible objections by appealing that:
"It can't possibly be a reflecton because there are no windows or mirrors in the Begue Room."
This would be more convincing was that the most likely explanation of this ghostly image. As it happens, I don't think this is a reflection as such. I just think it's an example of an image created by the slow shutter speed setting of the camera used to take the image. Artist Emilie Lauwes uses this photographic artefact directly (below) to create ghostly images for an opera publicity shot (7).


The article offers this rationale to point to indicate this is indeed a phantom crossdresser "If you look closely, the image even appears to be of a figure in women's clothing and accessories." The author doesn't seem to consider who else wears women's clothes and accessories, living female patrons of the restaurant. Heck, living transvestite patrons even. It's obvious to me that a fellow diner has wandered into the shot as the couple take their selfie. Once again, this goes from unexplainable to easily explainable with a tiny bit of research.

3. Ghostly Cemetry. 
"This video is from a cemetary in Liverpool known for housing over 58,000 bodies, including one renowned sea captain. The captain was stabbed to death under mysterious circumstances. The shadowy figure caught on tape is seen swaying back and forth, which could very well be that captain, still tortured by his demise, or keeping watch over the cemetary grounds. Another theory is that the ghost could be the limping figure of William Huskisson MP. He has a mausoleum on the grounds after he was killed, when run over by a locomotive in 1830."
This one is from my neck of the woods. The footage below was allegedly taken in St James cemetery, Liverpool and first appeared in the Liverpool Echo in August this year (8). The footage is actually much older than that. It was originally published on the YouTube channel "The Way I see Liverpool" back in May 2015.



Now I've had a few ideas other theories about this footage that Oxygen seemed to have neglected. It could be an artefact of video compression as suggested by a commenter on the original Echo article. There certainly is a lot of pixelation during the video, most notably at the top of the screen. Another possible explanation is some form of steam, smoke or water vapour rising from the pavement in a vague face-like shape and the pareidolia doing the extra work.

I've got another theory though. I think this is a rather clumsy fake. The clue is those silver fleks near the bottom of the screen (below). What are these fleks?


Looks to me like rainfall. The thing is, these fleks don't move during the video. As the steam or smoke forms the rough face then dissipates, the raindrops make no downward motion. There isn't any other motion anywhere else within the frame either. In fact, the smoke doesn't itself drift or slowly form, it moves and changes shape instantaneously. There's no transitional changing. There's no motion in the raindrops, but if you watch the whole screen, the frame itself shifts about several times. I think what we have here is a video that is composed of several versions of the same still shot, almost like an animated flip book. Obviously, some of these stills are doctored with photoshop of a brushes application to give us our ghostly face.

4. Marilyn Monroe in the Roosevelt Hotel. 
"The Roosevelt Hotel is an iconic landmark in Hollywood and is known for its famous spirt inhabitants. One of its most famous guests, actress Marilyn Monroe, loved the hotel. She would stay for extended periods of time and died of an overdose while here. Since then, legend has it that the tortured actress never checked out."
Let's start with a glaring and blatant inaccuracy. Monroe did not die at the Roosevelt Hotel! She died at her home in Brentwood Los Angeles (9). This one isn't specifically about one particular sighting, photo or video, but the various reports of encounters with the ghost of Marilyn Monroe in the Roosevelt hotel. There are various anomalous images and experiences collected at the Roosevelt all of which have been attributed of Monroe's "ghost". I'd say there's a great deal of suggestion involved here. I suspect many visitors to the Roosevelt over the past were well aware of Monroe's association with the hotel and we have to consider the psychological effect of suggestion here, also the desire to have a paranormal encounter of some kind, especially with such an iconic figure. It means that unremarkable images such as this one featured in the article, are ascribed to Monroe.


The featured image was taken in 2005 by Frontline Paranormal investigator John Cain, who believes that Marilyn's image can be seen above both inside and outside the mirror (10). Sorry John, but I don't see anything but a blur, I certainly don't see Marilyn or a figure at all. This is an example of the kind of suggestibility and shoehorning that occurs at sites of famous hauntings.

To read more about explanations for the Monroe ghost encounters at the Roosevelt including the most famous example Joe Nickell's column for CFI covers it well (11).

5. Abraham Lincoln and the Mumler image. 
"Seven years after his assassination, an image of what appears to be the late President was spotted in a photo with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln. As USA Today shares, the photo was taken in 1872 by spirit photographer William H. Mumler. Critics at the time claimed that Mumler was a fraud, possibly using a technique like double exposure to create the image, and he was brought to trial. However, he was acquitted, and since then, paranormal fans are convinced the late President was communicating through the grave to his widow."
Remarkably and with no sense of self-awareness it seems, our Oxygen author here explains their own "unexplainable" image.


Mumler was indeed brought to trial and acquitted, but he was also ruined professionally, a fact our Oxygen author neglects to mention of course. During the trial, PT Barnum demonstrated the double exposure effect which Mumler had used to scam Mary Todd and countless others who had lost relatives in the American civil war by faking an image of himself also with Abe Lincon (12). This image couldn't be easier to explain. Mumler used a previously imprinted glass plate in his camera. Far from being "unexplained" it was explained over a century ago.

This really exposes the Oxygen article as what it is, lazy, uninspired, insipid click-bait. Not only are the images featured far from "unexplainable" one was explained before anyone reading this was even born.

Next time you find an article that claims to be "unexplainable" on the internet, explain it, even if you just publish the explanation on your own social media. Let's start getting accurate information out on the net in the same volume as the click-bait bullshit.

Sources

(1) http://www.oxygen.com/blogs/5-documented-ghost-sightings-that-are-too-convincing-to-not-believe

(2) http://www.wkyc.com/news/local/cleveland/could-it-be-monet/13720506

(3) http://www.cleveland.com/arts/index.ssf/2015/10/did_monets_ghost_visit_the_cle.html

(4) https://news.artnet.com/art-world/claude-monets-ghost-haunting-cleveland-museum-art-345974

(5) https://www.today.com/money/claude-monets-ghost-haunting-cleveland-museum-art-see-photo-t51471

(6) http://www.clevelandart.org/blog/2010/10/29/mysteries-unveiled-museum-after-midnight

(7) http://emilielauwers.be/Portraits

(8) http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/ghost-caught-camera-st-james-13479249

(9) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/12305_Fifth_Helena_Drive

(10) http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-814833

(11) https://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/another_ghost_in_the_mirror_marilyn_at_the_hollywood_roosevelt/

(12) http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150629-the-intriguing-history-of-ghost-photography

Thursday, 14 September 2017

The Nun, the devil and the science "news" site. IFLS may "love" science but they seem to love clickbait a whole lot more.

Back in 2015 I wrote a blog post (1) examining a single day's output of the science news website "I Fucking Love Science" or IFLS, finding that the content was particularly poor as a representation of science in general, with the articles providing a focus on extremely flawed, commercially conducted surveys in particular. The reason I found this particularly worrying was due to the vast number of people that received their science news through IFLS, standing at almost 23 million on facebook alone at the time. It's now up to 25 million likes and almost as many people following the site, receiving regular updates in their newsfeeds. What concerns me is that if this was the only access these people had to science news then their view of science, in general, would be extremely malformed.

Since that post, I've regularly checked in on IFLS, and found the content hasn't generally improved. Sure, there is the odd interesting and legitimate article, many of which are copy and pasted from other sites, but the majority of the articles have been little more than pure click-bait.

Unfortunately, with a recent article, IFLS descends from the position of "questionable click-bait" to outright supernatural bunkum and the possible propagation of the very dangerous idea of demonic possession. The article in question entitled  "Letter Written By A "Possessed" Nun Decoded Using Software From The Deep Web" by Tom Hale, published on 11th September tells us of a letter composed by a 17th century "possessed" Sicilian nun named Sister Maria Crocifissa Della Concezione. The story was also covered by such esteemed science periodicals as the NY Post (3), The Daily Mail (4) and The Daily Star (5) among others. Is this the kind of bedfellows a science website should be keeping?

Also consider the source IFLS use as it's primary source here, an Italian radio station's website. (http://www.105.net/news/tutto-news/237723/lettera-del-diavolo-dopo-oltre-300-anni-un-algoritmo-la-decifra.html?refresh_ce)

Sure The Times also published a version of the story (6) but it's short and doesn't mention the concept of possession at all. To compare how the Times report downplays the supernatural element let's juxtapose it's introduction to the story to that of IFLS and one of the tabloid sources.

What the Times says:
"A letter written in code by a 17th century Italian nun, which she claimed was dictated to her by the Devil, has been deciphered by scientists using a code-cracking algorithm after centuries of failed attempts. The nun, Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione, is believed to have screamed and fainted while writing letters at the convent of Palma di Montechiaro that she said were Lucifer’s ploy to convince her to serve evil rather than God."
What IFLS says:
"Back in the 17th century, a Sicilian nun wrote a letter claiming she had been possessed by the devil. Over 340 years later, scientists have finally deciphered this rambling message using a decryption program they came across on the deep web.The letter was supposedly written by Sister Maria Crocifissa Della Concezione at the Monastery of Palma di Montechiaro in the early hours of August 11, 1676. The following morning, she awoke covered in ink and claimed she had been possessed by Satan, who forced her to write the message. At the time, claims like these were taken very seriously."

What the Mail says:
"A 17th century 'letter from the devil' written by a Sicilian nun who claimed to be possessed by Lucifer, has finally been translated thanks to the dark web.The coded letter was written by Maria Crocifissa della Concezione at the Palma di Montechiaro convent in 1676, and she claimed it had been scribed by Satan using her hands."
I realise that this is somewhat subjective, but the IFLS article's tone seems to much more closely resemble the tone of the tabloid reporting of the subject. At only the conclusion of the article does the author acknowledge the possibility of psychological disorders and he never mentions the known psychological effects and afflictions that have symptoms that were previously associated with spiritual possession, leading to often fatal misidentification. I expect that from the Mail, but this is shockingly poor form for a science website.

As for the actual translation of this diabolical letter, Tom tells us:
"They (Ludum Science Center in Catania) have already translated 15 lines of the letter. So far, their work has revealed that the letter speaks of the relationship between God, Satan, and humans. It reads: "God thinks he can free mortals. This system works for no one... Perhaps now, Styx is certain."..
What Tom fails to mention is that we need to consider that the link between religious fixation and various mental illnesses such as schizophrenia is extremely well established (7). It's especially prevalent with individuals with strong religious upbringings and surrounded by religious iconography. Like a nun maybe?

I have some reason to suspect that the actual translation of the letter may not be particularly robust, particularly from this section of the article:
"It (the letter) goes on to try and convince the nun to abandon her faith, arguing that God is merely the invention of man and that Jesus and the Holy Ghost are “dead weights”...."
The letter was alleged to have been written in 1671, the origins of the term "dead weight" dates back to 1651, its first recorded mention, but its definition of a person of limited usefulness or burden was not widely used at this time. The main usage was nautical.  Also, its first uses were in English literature (8). Are we to believe its common usage had reached Italian nunneries within twelve years of it being coined?

It's possible but not likely.






I have to wonder if the editors at IFLS realise this article may have pushed the term "science" just a little too far, at the time of writing the site has turned off commenting on the post. I suspect it may disappear altogether shortly. By that point the damage may well have already been done, the post has been shared 28 thousand times. I came across it on not on a science group or page but in a small paranormal group posted by an admin who frequently posts articles about "demonic possession" and warning signs that your house is haunted.

Telling indeed.

Sources

(1) http://skepticsboot.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/where-is-love-how-ifls-is-failing.html

(2) http://www.iflscience.com/technology/letter-written-by-a-nun-possessed-by-satan-decoded-using-deep-web-software/

(3) http://nypost.com/2017/09/11/dark-web-helps-decipher-361-year-old-letter-from-lucifer/

(4) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4864708/Devil-letter-written-posessed-nun-finally-translated.html

(5) http://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/weird-news/643967/Devil-Christian-Bible-Proof-Letter-Possessed-Maria-Crocifissa-Italy-Decrypted-Decoded-God

(6) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/nun-sister-maria-crocifissa-della-concezione-letters-from-lucifer-decoded-via-the-dar-web-d5jwx5mwk

(7)  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4031576/

(8) http://www.finedictionary.com/Dead-weight.html#etymology

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Skeptic, Cynic Or Debunker?

This is a response to a comment left on my last post regarding the evidence presented in the Dear David saga by a Google Plus user going under the name "Eric Doe". I love getting comments and feedback on the blog, even critical feedback like Eric's. I don't even mind if commenters want to hang on to their anonymity. What I dislike is when commenters prevent me from replying to their comment as Eric has done, but I am going to reply to Eric's comment in a full post as it raises a few interesting questions about the role of skeptics in addressing paranormal topics and the question of whether I am a skeptic or indeed a "debunker" as he accuses me of.

*Unfortunately immediately after this response was posted "Eric" deleted his comment. As I only shared the post on my personal wall and my page, I suspect it is someone who I could interact with quite freely on Facebook. Why they chose to comment anonymously escapes me, as does their reason for removing the post.














Here's the comment in its entirety and I'll address it one part at a time. Eric's original comment in bold.
I have certainly not been convinced by his claims, but there is a question that I need to ask you relating to the topic in general. You have 'debunked' every case and instance of supernatural events that you've addressed with a long line of reasoning, some of which contains lines of reasoning that are considered debatable.
Firstly, I've never set out to "debunk" anything. I've set to seek a rational explanation for the "evidence" I'm offered, I attempt to use critical thinking, scientific principles and the preexisting framework of scientific understanding to explain a claim more parsimoniously and often this process results in finding explanations that aren't supernatural in nature. I've never debunked anything that wasn't bunk-filled, to begin with.

If any of my reasoning seems "debatable" to anyone I'd suggest they debate it. If they want to do so with me, even better. Often what I offer in the blog is an alternative hypothesis. Am I always right? Nope. And I correct myself in those instances when I discover I'm wrong. We have, with the stories and data I address, the supernatural hypothesis already. It would be superfluous for me to offer a supernatural hypothesis myself as presumably we're already given at least the beginnings of this.What I seek to offer is a stripped down, naturalistic hypothesis. Of course, I try to use well-reasoned arguments to back up my hypothesis. Is this balanced? Only if I allow the reasoning of the person or group making the supernatural claim to be heard as well, which I believe I do. I make sure there are competing hypothesis on the table, my readers can then decide which seems more credible. Often there are other competing rational explanations out there, that's great and often I address and assess these too.
But that criticism isn't really what I'm concerned with. What I am concerned with is that debunkers tend to not be very objective.
It often takes a great deal of effort to "debunk" a claim. I'd hazard a guess that in "debunking" the various stories, articles, beliefs photos and videos I've addressed on this blog, I've scrutinised them a heck of a lot more thoroughly than the people who've just outright accepted them as supernatural in nature. I often spend hours with a piece of footage, assessing it. If this doesn't imply the fact that I treat the "evidence" fairly and even-handedly I don't know what does. Being objective doesn't mean turning a blind eye to something, accepting it immediately or viewing it through slightly splayed fingers. You think many believers are being objective when they assess things like the "Dear David" evidence before they assume it's supernatural?

Also, this gives me my first indication that when Eric says "debunker" he actually means "cynic" which I'll address when it comes up again shortly.
My question is this: What would it require for you to believe that a claimed supernatural event or occurrence is legitimate?
Something testable, repeatable and independently verifiable. A hypothesis that is falsifiable, an element that I believe current supernatural hypothesis sorely lack, and this represents a major stumbling block between the supernatural and the scientific. I'll tell you what I don't accept: anecdote. Personal experience.

To accept ghosts exist it requires almost all of physics to go back to the drawing board. If there is some energy of spirit, let's call it vitality, then there must also be some vital force. In turn, a new force requires new fields and new force carrying particles. This means that the standard model of physics is wrong. In order to accept this, physicists are going to require evidence that is at least as voluminous and well supported as the evidence for the current paradigm. They're going to require data that cannot be explained in any other way under our current understanding. If you think that orb photos, or EVPs or moving chairs captured on grainy video are going to suffice, you are deluding yourself.

Sorry if that makes you angry or upset. It's the truth.
It's been my experience that there is a vast difference between a skeptic and a debunker.
There really isn't. If you're a skeptic who is actively using critical thinking and the scientific method to assess claims, there will be occasions when you inadvertently "debunk" these claims.  What Eric is doing here is conflating a process and the end result of that process. A skeptic unavoidably becomes a "debunker" if he/she applies their method well to a claim that is demonstrably false.


 A true skeptic has a completely open mind, is humble, willing to admit that we have not reached the pinnacle of all knowledge, and is willing to fairly and objectively consider evidence with that openness of mind, being willing to accept that not everything has a physical explanation. 

Eric here handily provides us with his own definition of what a skeptic should be, some of it's right. Some wrong. Who says a skeptic has to be humble? And who says we have to accept not everything has a physical explanation. I'm not going to accept something lacks a physical explanation until I encounter something that can't be explained physically. I'm willing to accept the possibility. But again, I'm going to need a high standard of evidence.

As an interesting side note here: what exactly does Eric define as "non-physical"? By constantly describing spirits and ghosts as "energy" believers are specifically acknowledging that they are physical in nature. Energy is a physical property of matter. If ghosts exist, and they are definable as energy, then they are physical. This is also true if they can have a measurable effect on the natural world, there must be some method of interaction.

Guess what? That means they should also be measurable. Wonder why we haven't yet?

A debunker is one that has already made up their mind even before considering the evidence (i.e. dismisses the topic out of hand and approaches all new instances of said event to be false and delves into the instance seeking to find how to tear it apart.) It seems to me that you are not a trueskeptic but a debunker.
Eric also provides his own definition of what a debunker is. Now let me ask you: if I've dismissed paranormal instances and data I write about "out of hand" why the fuck do I often spend hours examining it? Surely if I fit Eric's definition of a "debunker" then I'd consider this a wasted effort? Eric instantly contradicts himself, one can't "dismiss the topic out of hand" whilst simultaneously "delving into instances" even if the aim is to "tear it apart".

This is what makes me think Eric conflates the concepts of a debunker and of a cynic.

 As for me not being a "true skeptic" (Eric's definition) and being a "debunker".

I'm both.

I hope that my comment and query is not taken as rudeness or unfair criticism as that is not my intention. I truly want to understand your perspective and to learn what you require in order to believe that there is something more than merely the physical? Thanks for your time.
As always I appreciate the feed back and I hope my position is clear. The ultimate answer to your question is "empirical evidence" even though I think the more interesting question raised here is what does it mean for something to be non-physical? If something can be described as energy, can interact with the physical world and apply force to physical objects then it is by necessity: physical.

Before I end the post:

I recently appeared on the Paranormal Concept show with hosts Kerry and Paul and fellow guest Kev Kerr of Pararationalise. The show was great fun and Kev is really informative. You can listen to the show here:

https://www.spreaker.com/user/parasearchuk/paranormal-concept-kev-kerr-rob-lee-skep

Whilst you're at it, check out Kev's site Pararationalise, which is a great resource:

https://www.pararationalise.org/

Please show them your support.