Sunday, 10 June 2018

Responding to the Flat Earth '£100 Street Challenge'

I'm sure if you have a passing interest in skepticism and the intersection of pseudo-science and actual science you won't have failed to notice the rise in popularity of belief in a flat-earth. April this year saw the largest gathering of flat-earthers ever held in Great Britain and similar meetings have been held across the Atlantic. As such, it's important that science communicators don't ignore the claims made by flat-earthers. 

With that I mind I decided to take a look at a specific claim made by a Youtube group known as Beyond the imaginary curve posed in what they call "the £100 street challenge". The claim specifically relates to the idea that water "doesn't bend". Flat-earthers argue that because water cannot be made to curve to a surface on a small scale, this must imply that water would simply "run off the sides" of a globe earth. This is often demonstrated by flat-earthers pouring water over the surface of a ball or balloon.

Yes, I know. It's stupid. But lots of people take flat-earth rhetoric very seriously, so let's do the same and unpack the claim in detail.

In the Street challenge, we see Del of  Beyond the imaginary curve approaching members of the general public with a bottle half-filled with water. He offers them £100 if they can bend the bottle in such a way that surface of the water follows the curve of the bottle rather than remaining flat. Of course, water won't do this. This means, argues Del, that water will never curve in such a way and thus the Earth is not globe-shaped.

It's a pretty easy claim to debunk. Let's do so in the form of a video.





Tuesday, 5 June 2018

No. Sunscreen will not give you cancer!

The sun is shining again, summer is here, and that means with some certainty posts will start appearing on social media espousing the benefits of forgoing sunscreen and suncream or alternatively warning that such measures can damage health. That includes irresponsibly warning that sunscreens themselves can cause cancer. And indeed pose more of a cancer risk than the sun itself. 

This week brought one such article to my attention. Published in February of 2017 on the site Collective Evolution, a well-spring for awful science reporting, the article 'HOW SUNSCREEN COULD BE CAUSING SKIN CANCER, NOT THE SUN'  (1) proposes to show evidence from 'peer-reviewed' studies to prove sunscreens could be doing more harm than good. Let's examine the veracity of the claims made in the article.

The piece begins with a troubling picture of a severely sunburned back. It's an odd image choice to head an article that suggests avoiding sunscreen and promotes the natural benefits of the sun. This lady's back clearly wouldn't have been so badly damaged had she avoided sun-exposure or used sunscreen!

Ouch! An odd image to choose to front your article about avoiding suncream! 

The first paragraph strongly highlights the severe lack of knowledge the author is going to display and the propensity to drop scientific claims without citing supportive literature. It begins:

"Yet, while we do indeed need protection to prevent sunburns, blocking out the sun entirely is not ideal. Rich in vitamin D, it offers a number of other health benefits, including, oddly enough, cancer prevention." 
Firstly, a minor gripe. Sunlight is not "rich in vitamin D" as the article laughably suggests. There are no chemicals in sunlight. The connection between sunlight and vitamin D as ultraviolet B light on the skin triggers its production in the body. Even articles such as the one provided by the NHS which I read (3) whilst advising on the benefits of vitamin D also advise the use of at least a spf15 sunscreen and exposure to the sun for short periods only.

There is some evidence that vitamin D deficiency is linked to some cancers but it's an extremely relationship to quantify, as an estimated 40% of the population in the US and UK are vitamin D deficient (4). Studies conducted thus far, like the one I've referenced, have struggled from the fact that they are simply observational, with subjects continuing with established cancer-causing behaviours such as smoking, the eating of fatty foods and drinking alcohol... and exposure to the sun.

The Classic Bait and Switch

"We’ve been made to fear the sun, and, as a result, adults and children are choosing to drench themselves in a bath of toxic, hormone-disrupting chemicals."

The claim that sunscreens contain "toxic, hormone-disrupting chemicals" is unsupported by any evidence in any form. This claim is subject to an interesting bait and switch which underpins the deceptive nature of the article. Whilst not supporting this claim, the author does provide support for the claim that chemicals in sunscreens have been found to penetrate the skin and enter the body to some extent. 

"Multiple studies from across the world have examined sunscreen in particular, evaluating its ingredients and how it penetrates and absorbs into the skin after application... Results demonstrated a significant penetration of all sunscreen agents into the skin, meaning all of these chemicals are entering multiple tissues within the body,"
Checking the study cited (5) in support of this reveals that chemicals from sunscreens do indeed penetrate the skin, and research has been suggested to limit his absorption. But what the study liked does not state is that these chemicals are responsible for the type of tissue damage associated with causing cancers. Further studies have established that despite these chemicals leaching across the skin, there is no sign of associated tissue damage (6).

Another thing that should be noted about the study cited in support of the claim above is that it's badly dated. The study cited is now 14 years old and thus won't take into account changes in sunscreen ingredients in this intervening time. Later research involving sunscreens has shown no skin penetration of constituent nanoparticles (7). The article doesn't mention any of these more recent findings.

So as many articles of this type do, we have seen two distinct claims made:

1. Chemicals in sunscreens are toxic and harmful, potentially cancer-causing.

2. Chemicals in sunscreens penetrate the skin.

The author provides evidence, albeit extremely flawed, of the second claim and hopes the reader will not notice (or bother to check) that the first claim is also supported. Classic bait and switch.

Poisoning the Well; Corporations are evil!

Another common theme with articles of this nature are the claims that big-businesses are corrupt and will quite willingly harm their customers and clients. In this article that extends to not trusting the results of studies that have been funded by corporate bodies.

"The science given to us by the corporations who profit from the sale of sunscreen says no, but I think by now we have established how trustworthy such corporately-funded ‘science’ is."
How has this been established exactly? I'm no fan of big business and I too am suspicious of results from corporate-funded studies. That's why it's important to go over these studies with a fine-tooth comb. The source of funding shouldn't immediately invalidate research. To say otherwise is simply throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Of course, the author of this article is choosy in how they apply their suspicion of corporations. If they weren't they may well have questioned the veracity of the study they cited to support their earlier claim.  Hill Top Research Inc, who part-funded the study, is a company which works closely with the pharmaceutical, food and cosmetics industry. Exactly the kind of company that Collective Evolution would likely warn its readership not to trust!

The article then makes a specific claim about company Johnson & Johnson intentionally marketing a baby powder it allegedly knew to be "cancer-causing"

"It wasn’t long ago that Johnson & Johnson, for example, was found guilty of knowingly putting a cancer-causing baby powder on the market. You can read more about that here."
The link leads to another article on Collective Evolution written by the same author as this one (8). The article is well-worth exploring in more detail, but in short, it documents a successful legal challenge against Johnson and Johnson in regards to a case of ovarian cancer which was allegedly brought about by use of baby powder. The decision was made by a judge and does not reflect the current scientific understanding of baby powder ingredients as being carcinogenic. There is no strong evidence that baby powders lead to ovarian cancer, so to suggest that a company 'knew' that this was the case is completely untrue. Scientific consensus is not reached in courtrooms. Judges are not scientists, opinion is not evidence and trials are not clinical trials. Whilst the author mentions this successful case, they omit the cases against Johnson & Johnson that have been dismissed or overturned (9).

And in any case... even if Johnson & Johnson are as guilty as the author suggests, what does this tell us about their sunscreens? What does it tell us about other company's sunscreens?

If you said 'nothing' give yourself a biscuit.

A complete absence of self-awareness

Prepare yourself for perhaps the most ironic statement ever committed to screen or page, so completely lacking in self-awareness that you yourself may lose your own self-identity after reading it:

"(Referencing a Huffington Post article) Sarah Kallies shares how exhausted she feels trying to navigate today’s world and do the best for her children when everything, everywhere, seems to be killing us. For every purchase she makes for her children, there is science telling her it’s great on the one hand and toxic on the other, and so she highlights how confusing the consumer marketplace has become. We are dished a wealth of information that differs from source to source, on a variety of different topics, making it difficult to make even the simplest of choices without second-guessing ourselves."
But it's this author and this site creating that confusion in this case. By performing a completely disingenuous bait and switch, this piece indicates that sunscreens are unsafe, in complete opposition to the scientific consensus on the same. Articles like this are creating the confusion. It's not science to blame here it's the misrepresentation of science that is the enemy of the general public. To imply that you are adding clarity to the issue after purposefully obscuring the issue is absolutely disgusting.

The author again reiterates:

"Yet we know the various chemicals found within sunscreens are toxic, and we know that our skin absorbs whatever we put onto it."

A statement that is in complete denial of the fact that the author has made no effort to prove the most relevant element claim. They haven't cited a single study that shows the toxicity of sunscreen constituents. But wait... the author ends the article by discussing specific compounds. Could these the scary toxic chemicals they have been discussing in the article.

Scary Chemicals!

As usual with an article of this nature, it eventually descends into a demonstration of chemophobia. 

Are any of the compounds the article mentions as dangerous as it implies:


Collective Evolution says:
"This could in fact be the most troublesome ingredient found in the majority of popular sunscreens. Used because it effectively absorbs ultraviolet light, it’s also believed to cause hormone disruption and cell damage, which could promote cancer... one study done by the Department of Clinical and Experimental Endocrinology at the University of Gottingen in Germany observed regulatory effects on receptor expression for oxybenzone that indicate endocrine (hormone) disruption."
The article doesn't link to the study, so I had to search for it, thus I can only guess that the study referred to is this one (10). The first thing that is abundantly clear is that the study shows the effects of oxybenzone-2 and oxybenzone-3 on ovaries removed from rats. We can't extrapolate this result to humans for a variety of reasons.

Firstly rats have a different morphology to humans, even though there are similarities we cannot assume that a compound that has one effect in rats will have the same effects in humans. Secondly, the compound, in this case, is delivered directly to an organ. It isn't leeched through the skin and diluted in the blood. as such, the dosage delivered is much higher than that expected to be received via sunscreen.

None of this supports the declaration of oxybenzone as 'toxic' in regards to humans. The study doesn't conclusively demonstrate oxybenzone is toxic to rats even!

Retinyl Palmitate (Vitamin A Palmitate)
Again with the above compound, the linked 'study' involves animal cohorts and as such should be treated cautiously when extrapolated to humans. The link isn't a study at all but rather a governmental executive report requesting further investigations and human trials.

With regards to the idea that Retinyl Palmitate causes tumours in conjunction with UV radiation, Steven Q Wang, a dermatological surgeon highlighted the problem with studies in this area (11): "It is important to note that the mice in the NTP study are highly susceptible to the effects of UV radiation and can develop skin cancer or other skin abnormalities within weeks of UV exposure, even in the absence of retinyl palmitate," said Dr. Wang. "That is why extreme caution is needed when extrapolating these animal study results to humans."

The hypocrisy at the heart of this article and alternative medicine as a whole

The only other source offered in support of the toxicity of Retinyl Palmitate is one Dr Joseph Mercola, who may be familiar to readers of the Null Hypothesis. 

The link leads, not to a study of any kind, but to Mercola's website where the dangers of sunscreens are reiterated with no evidence what-so-ever (12). At the bottom of this linked page, there is a striking example of the hypocrisy that is inherent in this report and others that support alternative medicine. After a long spiel about the dangers of sunscreen, Mercola's website attempts to sell visitors a vitamin D testing kit for $65 (13).

So the author of this post warns us not to trust companies that simply want our money Their profit-driven attitude implies they don't care about our health. But the sources they trust don't offer their services for free do they? It's somehow acceptable when Mercola wants to make a profit, but other companies are monsters, driven by the almighty dollar.

Don't take health advice from such blatant fucking hypocrites. Exposure to the sun is a well-established cause of cancer. Compounds in sunscreens are not.


Friday, 25 May 2018

Superhero fatigue? Marvel has the cure... and it's horrific.

By the time you're reading this post, Marvel's Infinity War is likely one of the most successful movies ever made, and its run in the cinema is far from over. Whilst it faces some tough box-office opposition in the form of Jurassic World: the Fallen Kingdom, the predecessor of which outperformed the first Avengers movie in 2012, it is likely to sit at the 2nd or 3rd most successful films of all time by summer's end. But with the movie being touted very much as the first part of a two-part culmination of the ten years of Marvel movies, one has to ask, after the second part brings that ten years to a definitive close and with many of the lead actors departing, can a new chapter of Marvel movies capture audiences in the same way as the original chapter did? If not, Marvel has a horrifying secret weapon up its sleeve, a perfect antidote to the oft-predicted 'Super-hero fatigue'...

A wealth of horror-based characters to appeal to a more mature audience. 

Whilst the success of Black Panther earlier this year and the tantalising possibility of Marvel studios obtaining the rights to the Fox licenced Fantastic Four and X-Men franchises as a result of the Disney/Fox merger, seem to bode well for the future of Marvel's superhero fare, surely there has to be a saturation point, some stage at which audiences become somewhat tired of superheroes.

As much as I love the Marvel films thus far, with a couple of exceptions, I can't deny that these films have a formula. Few of the films diverge from the light humour, quipping antagonist,  third-act cartoon action and crowd-pleasing moments, perhaps other than Thor: Ragnarok which saw director Taika Waititi attempting to break into almost pure comedy at times. Marvel should take a lesson from that film, which I found to be, not to be the best Marvel film but perhaps the most refreshing, and experiment with a different genre. But rather than pushing into straight comedy, I suggest another route...


Marvel has plenty of horror-themed heroes and villains. Cinema-goers are likely familiar with Blade and Ghost Rider, but less familiar with characters like Moon-Knight, Man-thing, Daimon Hellstrom, Brother Voodoo and Werewolf by Night. These and others have loosely formed into teams before such as the Legion of Monsters and more recently The Midnight Sons. If you suspect that these names or concepts are too goofy for Marvel to make them work, consider that this is a company that has made Rocket Racoon a more bankable character than Superman!

Heck, Marvel even has its own version of Dracula who has harassed various heroes including the X-Men since his introduction in the seminal 70's horror comic 'Tomb of Dracula'.

Do what Universal did!

Ask yourself what the first shared cinema universe was, it wasn't Marvel. Nor was it that brief glimpse of an Alien head in the Predator throne room in the climax of Predator 2. Or the Kaiju of Japanese monster movies. It was the Universal monsters who met who met up in films such as 'Frankenstein meets the Wolfman' (1943), 'House of Frankenstein' (1944) and 'House of Dracula' (1945). Sure they also shared this Universe with Abbott and Costello, but by that point interest in these crossovers had wained.

Another question. What is currently the second most popular 'shared universe' is cinema?

Here's a clue.. its distributed by Warner Bros.

If you said the DC comics universe you could probably make an argument for that, but the commercial failure of 'Justice League' which should have been their tentpole movie likely does not bode well for that line of films. Nor does the fact that the films have been divisive with audiences but generally panned by critics. What else does that leave us?

A franchise that you possibly didn't even realise was a shared universe 'The Conjuring Universe'.

As much is it pains me to say, the universe that features hucksters Ed and Lorraine Warren as its Superman and Wonder Woman is probably the second most popular series of interconnected films currently in development. The four films thus far have garnered $1.2 billion dollars on relatively small budgets making them extremely profitable for Warners and New Line Cinema.

Previous horror crossovers have enjoyed moderate success too. For example, 'Freddy vs Jason' (2003) earned New Line $113 million, making it the most successful Friday 13th film and the second most successful 'Elm Street' film. It likely would have done much better had it been released when it was originally teased when Freddy grabbed Jason's empty mask at the end of 'Jason goes to hell' (1993) ten years earlier.

Don't do what Universal did! 

One thing that may cause Marvel to reconsider pulling the trigger on a horror universe is Universal's failure to launch their 'Dark Universe' last year with the Tom Cruise vehicle 'The Mummy'. This shouldn't be too much of a deterrent though as Universal made some terrible mistakes in the marketing of 'the Mummy'.

Universal confidently started hyping the film as the start of their 'Dark Universe' and the first of a ten-film series before audiences had even seen it. This was a rookie move that doomed the franchise early. Marvel didn't do that with 'Iron Man' (2008) they just dropped hints that this was the way in which they were heading with Nick Fury's appearance in the now standard post-credits sequence. This meant audiences could enjoy the film for what it was, a fun-action adventure without the pressure of investing in future films. Marvel played it smart and waited to see how audiences would react to the idea.

Likewise, the original 'The Conjuring', a perfectly enjoyable horror let the movie speak for itself if New Line knew they'd be creating various spin-offs they played their cards close to their chest. Even DC, at Warner's, who have made some pretty critical errors didn't telegraph their intentions early. This may well have saved their necks as the movie the studio intended to the first of their 'shared universe' was the disastrous Ryan Reynolds starring Green Lantern. If that had been heralded as the first of a shared universe it would have likely killed the franchise then and there.

Also, Universal specifically designed 'the Mummy' to be a Marvel-like adventure. It even had the city wrecking third act. This just confused audiences and failed to mark out any differences between them and Marvel and they suffered for it.

The third mistake... Universal started their universe with a property that audience was already familiar with. The Brendan Fraiser starring 'Mummy' series only ended in 2008 and audiences likely remembered its slapstick, lighthearted approach and were perplexed by the tonally inconsistent Alex Kurtzman effort that sat before them.

Universal would have been well-advised to start with a less well-recognised property, 'Creature from the Black Lagoon' or 'the Invisible-man' perhaps and worked hints to other characters in gently instead of ramming their planned slate of films down audience's throats with Russell Crowe appearing in a narrative-halting scene as Doctor Jekyll mid-movie.

And it's a relatively unknown property that I think Marvel should start their horror universe with.

Marvel's Hidden horrors...

I wouldn't suggest starting with those characters I named above. Ghost Rider maybe too familiar at this stage and Man-Thing a step too odd for a first experimental foray into horror.  I'd suggest a character who was first introduced as a Spider-man villain, Morbius, the Living Vampire. Morbius has the potential to be an archetype that both the horror and super-hero genres thrive on, a tragic character with a self-inflicted curse, fighting a darker nature and a striking, creepy as hell appearance.
In his comics iteration, Morbius is a brilliant scientist inflicted with a terrible blood-disease, whose attempts to cure himself turn him into a 'pseudo-vampire' with an unquenchable blood-lust. It's that blood-lust that causes him to murder his lab assistant and numerous others. If he doesn't consume blood, he transforms into a more feral, more monstrous form which he can't control. This leads him to consume the blood only of criminals and the guilty, a pledge that has brought him into conflict with Marvel's heroes and villains alike.

Including Blade.

Blade, horror and superheroes: a proven success.

It may be hard to imagine, but there likely wouldn't be a Marvel cinematic universe without Blade simply because, before the release of the 1998 Wesley Snipes-starring New Line original, comic book movies simply weren't considered financially viable by studios. As laughable as it now sounds with a comic-book movie in cinemas poised to take in excess of $2bn. Only Batman and Superman had successful film franchises at the time and both were on the wane, to say the least. A Tim Burton-helmed, Nick Cage-starring Superman reboot had failed to get off the ground and 1997's 'Batman and Robin' all but killing that property. No one really wanted to touch superheroes.

Blade, a film starring a Marvel character barely heard of since the 1970's, changed that. Even though its financial success didn't set the world on fire, it showed that superhero movies were worth the risk. Even more obscure characters could be profitable. This spurred Fox on to develop their first 'X-Men' movie released in 2000 and Columbia to start work on a Spider-man project which had struggled to get off the ground for decades.

After Blade, the horror/superhero mantle was seized by a non-Marvel property, Hellboy, played by Ron Pearlman and helmed by Guilmero del Torro, who also directed the Blade sequel. The franchise which spawned two films and enjoyed moderate success is set to be relaunched this year with a strong horror angle.

At this point, isn't it worth a try?

Look, I love Marvel films and superhero films in general, and I want to see the studio to produce them for a long time, but the key to prolonged success is variety. One formula isn't going to sustain Marvel for another ten years, no matter what properties they re-acquire. There's only so many times we can see the original Iron-Man rehashed in a slightly different context as we arguably did with 'Doctor Strange' (2016). As a final example of why this is a good idea, consider 'Deadpool' (2016) and 'Logan' (2017). Whilst I haven't really been a fan of Fox's Marvel-related output, these movies reflected genuine attempts to do something different with the Superhero genre. They proved that audiences would accept other genres infiltrating and influencing their superhero films. One could argue that neither film went quite far enough in trend breaking with their respective third acts slipping into familiar tropes like 'hero fights a darker version of themselves' which has plagued the genre since 'Iron-Man'. The genuinely affecting 'Logan' especially plays more like a western in theme than a superhero film and it's much better for it.

Blade shows us, they'll accept a horror blend too.

Marvel, bring on the Monsters! 

Thursday, 17 May 2018

A look back at "I Was Raped By A Demon": Ed and Lorraine Warren on the Sally Jesse Raphael Show (1992)

I'm pretty certain that almost everyone reading this post is familiar with the "Haunting In Connecticut" case investigated by Ed and Lorraine Warren back in the early 1990s. The incident was documented in the 1992 book "In A Dark Place" (left) by horror author Ray Garton, who has spent his time since the novel's publication declaring that it was a complete fabrication. Garton tells of Ed demanding that he make the book as scary as possible, even if it meant completely inventing elements of supposed haunting. Garton states:“Elements of Carmen Snedeker’s story clashed with elements of Al Snedeker’s story, and it seemed everyone was having a problem keeping their stories straight. Frankly, I didn’t notice until I had nearly finished all my interviews and began going over my notes, then I started having trouble matching up the details. Ed told me 'make it up and make it scary'”

I highly recommend listening to Garton's interview with MonsterTalk here, it's a doozy. You're also very likely to be familiar with the 2009 film based on the case.  You may even be acquainted with the 2002 documentary produced by the Discovery Channel, also named  A Haunting In Connecticut. But what you may be less familiar with is Carmen and Al Snedeker's appearance with Ed and Lorraine Warren on 1990s daytime television show Sally Jesse Raphael. The show truly has to be seen to be believed. 

The title alone "I Was Raped By A Demon" should tell you the level of discussion on display here. A major part of the show's focus was the idea that both Carmen and Al were sexually abused, and even sodomised by demons. Ironically, Garton tells us in the above-linked interview, that Carmen hated that feature of his novel and petitioned hard for its removal. Yet here she is the same year, with her husband happily climbing on to a bed to demonstrate and recount in some detail how she was abused. Money talks and bullshit walks I guess.

The show begins with Sally giving a rundown of Carmen and Al's story (or Garton's depending on your position I guess) with stock doom-laden music and creepy images. If this gives you the impression that Carmen and Al's account will be accepted wholesale, you're mistaken, The Audience is loaded with local residents who strongly dispute the Snedeker's tale and boy are they going to tell them so! Remember, this is a 90s daytime talk show on US network TV, two factors dominate these shows. Sex and conflict.

In addition to Carmen and Al, the family is represented by son Michael and niece Kelly who lived with them at the time. Kelly, in particular, looks less than thrilled to be present, and there's very good reason for this. I'd actually say she is collateral damage in this whole tale. Carmen's son Stephen, the main focus of both the book and the film, who was said to be suffering from Hodgkins Lymphoma at the time of the haunting. This is hardly a surprise, firstly "Stephen" is actually Phillip, there is no Stephen Snedeker. Also, whilst researching his book Garton says he  was only allowed to speak to Phillip once on the telephone. During the conversation, Phillip revealed he was the first in the house to see ghosts and that these sightings ceased when he began treatment for schizophrenia. Garton claims that the phone was quickly snatched from Phillip by Carmen who immediately ended the call. He was not part of any publicity for the book, film and documentary after this. To my knowledge, to the day of his death in 2012, Phillip had never talked publically about what occurred at that time. Unfortunately, there's a more serious reason for this and his exclusion from the show than his simple failure to toe the line with regards to the haunting.

During the show, Kelly is asked to recount her experiences being sexually abused in the house. Unlike Carmen's claims of being sodomised as she washed dishes and ran down the road, which are delivered rather sterilely, Kelly is clearly uncomfortable and upset as Carmen talks about cold hands under her bedclothes and pulling at her bra, on Kelly's behalf. The reason for this may well be because Kelly WAS sexually abused in the Snedeker household.

Unlike with the demonic assaults that Carman and Al claim to have suffered, there's corroborative evidence for Kelly's ordeal. This abuse wasn't perpetrated by a ghost or any demon though. Phillip (left), the Snedeker's eldest son, was removed from the Snedeker home at some point during the "haunting" by the police. He was accused of sexually abusing Carmen and Al's two nieces, including Kelly, and confessed to the abuse and also attempting to rape his 12-year-old cousin. He was placed in juvenile detention where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. When questioned about her son leaving the house, Carmen claims he was hospitalised, she also claims she had him diagnosed by a psychiatrist. This is patently untrue. 
Knowledge of all this makes Carmen's urging that Kelly "tell her story" on the show, and her then stopping Kelly to tell her version of events for her, even more disgusting. Carmen seems nervous when other members of the family talk, and this is most notable when Kelly speaks. In my opinion, she's concerned that Kelly may slip about Phillip's role in her abuse.

I wonder if Carmen actually managed to persuade this young woman that it wasn't her son that abused her, but the black mass that she describes. During the show, and a subsequent investigation by Joe Nickell (more on him in a moment), further details of Phillip's activities emerged, including drug use and criminal behaviour including breaking into neighbour's homes.

Carmen's demeanour during the whole interview is off somewhat, she seems angry and defensive from the offset and as a sceptical audience member points out, both her's and Al's stories seems highly rehearsed, for example, Carmen frequently refers to her son Phillip as "the eldest boy" careful not to name him. She's also very quick to interrupt other family member's accounts to elaborate or correct them. Throughout the interview, she clutches rosary beads. She handles the audience questions with abject and outright hostility. When questioned if she sought medical attention after being raped by a demon, Carmen snaps "No. Why would we?" Why indeed? Carmen also contradicts herself at several points, For example, she insists she sent Phillip to a psychiatrist because she didn't believe his story, yet she too claims to have not only seen spirits by this stage but to have raped by them!

Legitimate concerns with the Snedeker account are raised by residents of the area, including the present residents of their home. Carmen laughably pounces on the current residents, insisting they too had an exorcism, which they deny. She then has them confirm that there are hardwood floors in the building, which they do as if this somehow confirms the Snedeker's story. Carmen tells the couple to dig into the walls 12" to discover "exorcism metals" and "other stuff" which will prove their story is true. The most common complaints brought to the Snedeker's are that stories of problems with the home, including the "demonic presence" and claims they were unaware of the home's history as a funeral parlour, only arose when the Snedeker's fell behind with their rent. Also, the quite ridiculous idea that despite being frequently raped and sodomised by demons, Carmen and Al remained in the house for almost two full years!

One neighbour, rather brilliantly, has kept a log connecting the events that the Snedekers reported to the papers and local events occurring in the neighbourhood.

It's now time for Ed and Lorraine Warren to appear. This is when Ed makes one of the most disgusting claims I've ever heard made concerning the paranormal, the reason for this haunting was that bodies had been subjected to necrophilia whilst the house was a funeral home. The funeral director who had operated in the home was a well-known and much-respected member of the local community. Many of the local resident's loved ones had passed through that home at one time. Ed cared nothing for this or the potential upset and harm that could've arisen from this completely false and disgusting allegation. When people ask me why I loathe Hollywood's portrayal of Ed and Lorraine so much, I frequently point to this show. Ed is an absolute bully of a man, completely without class. There's none of the quick wit or charm displayed in Patrick Wilson portrayal of him on display here. He shouts down critics of the Snedeker's story, even going as far as accusing them of being "paid off" be the owner of the house, and claiming money and fame as their motivation for attending the show. One sharp young lad responds to this by asking Ed if he is there in the studio for free, which fails to silence him for even a moment, he continues to bellow. 

You often judge people by your own standards, is it any wonder Ed prioritises money as a motive before any kind of reverence to the truth?

Ed claims that a priest conducted an exorcism at the home, as if that is any real validation of the events have actually occurred, but refuses to name him other than calling him "Father A". When a neighbour asks him to provide more information he angrily shouts "Why should I? Father A is the name I give you." as he angrily gestures at the young man in question. Perhaps so your account can be somewhat corroborated Ed?

 Ed's response to almost all this criticism is "were you in the house?" He laughingly attempts to invalidate the questions and opinions of anyone who wasn't in the house, and therefore isn't complicit in the hoax!

Ed also makes the claim at this point that they have "the proof" of the occurrences in the home. That's a question which Ray Garton also asked Ed during his research for "In A Dark Place". Ed told Garton that there were videotapes of "evidence", but they had rather inconveniently been destroyed. Presumably, why we see not a jot of evidence on the Sally show. 
Don't worry though, Ed has brought along an eye-witness to the occurrences in the house. Unfortunately, he fails to mention that this "eye-witness" whom he refers to as "that gentleman" is well-known to him, it's his apprentice and nephew, John Zaffis.
Zaffis has since made a killing, and career, on the Connecticut case. He has authored a book with Chip Coffey regarding the story and has worked with Carmen Snedeker, now Reed, in retelling her experiences in book form. Zaffis is often, also credited with being the lead investigator on the case, but it's clear from his appearance here that he has no real sway in the case. Ed refers to him only to offer back up and corroboration and he is never made a part of the main dialogue.
An audience member comes to the Snedeker's aid asking why they would fabricate this story when there are other ways of making money, a ridiculous argument, imagine that being deployed as a defence in a bank robbery case: "Your honour, why would my client rob a bank. There are other ways of making money!" The truth is, the Snedekers were following the advice of Ed Warren, who admits moments earlier he urged them to write a book. Ed and Lorraine were always envious of the success enjoyed by George Lutz and the Amytiville case, they'd attempted to cash in on that case and when that failed, had attempted to emulate it repeatedly. This was their latest and most successful effort. I believe the Snedeker's started this nonsense as an attempt to blackmail their landlord into dropping the arrears in rent they owed. When they involved the Warrens, the blue touch paper was lit. Secondly, Carmen had tried to make money other ways, as the book was being written she was, according to Ray Garton, running an illegal interstate lottery scam, which she was, understandably, keen he not mention in the text.

Now we come to the final five minutes of the show, or as I like to call this point: And now a word from our skeptic. TV shows rarely give skeptical voices much air time, and Joe Nickell's contribution here is also burdened by the fact that Ed Warren constantly shouts over him. Ed clearly does not want Nickell to be heard, and even urging from the show's host cannot curtail his angry shouting. The exchange is actually immortalised in the Conjuring 2, with Nickell (left) replaced with a pudgy balding "scientist". Of course, Ed comes off the better in that fictional exchange, but Nickell takes him to the cleaners in the real version, correctly decrying Warrens as a loud-mouth. 

Nickell also has to deal with the hectoring of Carmen Snedeker, who seems to believe that denouncing Nickell as an atheist is a blow to his credibility. "This man doesn't even believe in God. What would he know?" she cries, somehow winning the argument that exists in her own head.
Whilst being hectored, Nickell makes excellent points about the case, highlighting it's inconsistencies and it's similarities to the Amityville Horror amongst other cases and it's scheduling for release around Halloween.  Of course, one thing Joe misses possibly due to time constraints or even the fact that this wasn't common knowledge at the time, that killer blow to the credibility of this tale is the fact that the book's author is absent from this promotional appearance, for reasons we are now all too aware.

I see this 48 minutes of schlock television as somewhat important in view of the current reference in which the Warrens are held. Ed comes off as a brutish bully, unable to express any ideas without aggression, In fact, he frequently gestures right in Lorraine's face as she sits and blankly stares ahead. Lorraine simply doesn't speak. She actually seems apart from the debate raging around her, so much so that I have to wonder if she was medicated at the time of the show. The show also leaves little doubt as to how we should view the Snedeker's claims. Local residents simply demolish their story. Many elements of the show were seized upon by Nickell in a subsequent investigation into the case which is essential reading for skeptics and believers alike.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Reviewing 'Haunted Tours. With Stephen Erikintalo.'

If you cast your minds back to May 2017, you may remember I talked about a prospective ghost-hunting television show called 'Haunted Tours' (1) that was to feature one Stephen Erikintalo. Erikintalo distinguished himself from other paranormal investigators with 'extreme' antics such as lying on disused train tracks with a Ouija board on his stomach. Whilst he and the producers of the show, the Jalbert brothers (2), enthused about how revolutionary this ghost hunting show/ Jackass hybrid would be, with Erikintalo even branding other investigators "pussies" on his Facebook page, I worried what effect reckless disregard for safety and bullshit machismo would have on the paranormal community at large. We're talking about a community here that is built on copying TV shows and rampant 'one-upmanship'. I don't want to see someone hurt replicating the actions of Stephen Erikintalo, especially the utterly stupid act of lying down on active railway tracks.

I also cast some doubt that the show would appear on Amazon Prime, Hulu and Netflix in October of that year as Erikintalo and the Jalberts claimed. Well, I was wrong. Kind of. The show has been released to the public, albeit only on Amazon Prime and much later than October 2017, with its European release on the service occurring in March 2018.

I was informed of this fact by one of the producers, Brian Jalbert. The Jalberts seem extremely happy with the show's performance thus far, posting figures of watch times on Amazon to Facebook.

Unfortunately, Brian seems to have cropped the y-axis off his graph and the values column on his table. This means we have absolutely no idea in 2,038,485 are watch minutes (as Jalbert says) or watched seconds. He also claims the table states a total of "2,038,485,00 million watch minutes"!

Just a slight exaggeration there boys!

As Brian was kind enough to reach out to me, I decided it would only be fair to reciprocate by watching a couple of episodes and giving you all my thoughts on the show. I took a look at three episodes of the five-episode first series, episode 1: Mr Nasty, episode 2: I killed them and episode 4: Gunsmoke.

The Format: Tried, Tested, Tired. 

Each episode of the show begins with a warning to the audience as is standard with paranormal shows of this kind. Unlike other shows, the warning makes no mention of the fact that the show is for 'entertainment purposes only' but rather focuses on the 'extreme' nature of the show. Something tells me earlier on I'm going to get very tired of the word 'extreme' very quickly.

There's a fantastic moment in the first episode when an on-screen graphic and voice-over asks the audience "Do you believe in ghost" Clearly they spell check the later episodes as the graphic is corrected but the voice-over remains "ghost" rather than "ghosts".

The episodes follow the standard established in US ghost hunting shows. The team arrives at the location, receive a daylight tour by someone familiar with it who also relays some suitably spooky stories and highlights points where activity is alleged to have taken place which will be revisited later during the investigation.

Another commonality the show shares with others in its genre is the over-bearing production style. Camera filters are used frequently during the course of the episode to add a sepia tone to the screen. In addition to that camera shakes and static is added, as well as camera status bars for some reason. It's frustrating and definitely indicates that the show favours style over substance. This sepia overlay with the grainy 'film-like' effect is so pointless, it's meant to invoke an old-fashioned, antique feel, but immediately takes you out of the show when you consider that Go-Pros are a fairly recent invention.

Likewise, the soundtrack of stock 'creepy' music is overbearing and obnoxious. At one point in episode 1, Victoria and the crew claim to have heard a noise from above in the property. We don't hear it though, as at the moment it supposedly occurs there's a loud music cue. These things are meant to invoke a mood, it's the adequate establishing of this mood that has led to the success of paranormal programming and certain horror franchises. But when it's done clumsily, it just takes you out of the programme.

We are introduced to the team. Our 'extreme' investigator Stephen Erikintalo, our host and 'skeptic' Victoria Catherine and the Jalbert brothers, Brian and Jake. During the course of the episode, we also meet Nick, the camera-man, who presumably doesn't have an introduction despite being a key player in episode 4 especially.

Victoria Catherine: Skeptic?

The idea of Victoria's role as a 'skeptic' becomes quite ludicrous within the opening moments of 'Mr Nasty'. During the trip to the team's first location, the May-Stringer house in Florida, Victoria discusses her history with the paranormal.

During this discussion, Victoria reveals that during her childhood she'd lived in a house built on an 'Indian burial-ground'. Yep. That chestnut. This is our skeptic remember. This kind of thing continues during the course of this episode and the subsequent episodes. She seems almost unsure of her role in the show at points and swerves from screaming to cooly assessing events at a later point. Almost as if the Jalberts are having to remind her "You're the skeptic..."

What's interesting is Victoria also makes a couple of Freudian slips during the episodes I watched. One, in particular, is so revelatory that I can't believe the Jalberts left it in the show!

During the investigation in episode 1 whilst in the May-Stringer attic, Victoria claims that she is experiencing a burning sensation in her arm. It's quite clear at this point that she is offering a performance and not a particularly convincing one. There are moments when she is quite visibly corpsing and suppressing laughter. And then she seems to stop panicking and says "...I think it's more realistic if I cuss...."

If this incidence was real and not purely for the cameras, why would Victoria care whether it seems "realistic" or not? It seems to me that Victoria is breaking character here and checking her performance against the Jalbert's expectations.

The role of Victoria Catherine over the episodes seems not to be the skeptic at all, rather she seems to be the one most emotionally affected by the proceedings. It also becomes clear the Erikintalo wants to goad our host into an emotional response. During the episodes, Erikintalo frequently urges 'the spirits' to grab or harm Victoria in some way.

During episode 4, Gunsmoke, filmed at the Cuban Club, Stephen encourages Nick and Victoria to role-play a violent incident in the location's history. During this Nick grabs Victoria's hair, yanks her head back and shouts in her face.

It's not extreme.

It's weird, uncomfortable, unnecessary, upsetting and exploitative...

Stephen Erikintalo: Extreme or extremely stupid? 

As for the promised extreme content, episode 1 is most notable for how mundane it is. I was seriously bored by the time Erikintalo showed up at 19 minutes and was surprised when he does very little performing two EVP sessions and two-spirit box sessions which are completely uneventful.

Episode 2 sees Erikintalo determined to make something happen. It seems the crew want to avoid the possibility of another wash-out. Victoria even predicts, in another veil-lifting moment, that Erikintalo will try to "Pull out some scary things."

This prediction seems on the money, as it's during the course of this 'investigation' that Erikintalo leaves the building to lie down on nearby train tracks. We're told these train tracks are active, and indeed we have already seen a train on them. This act is completely and utterly stupid and marks Erikintalo out as nothing more than an attention seeker as it achieves literally nothing of value. Frankly, he comes off as a complete prick. It seems that at least one crew member agrees. Nick the cameraman repeatedly tells Erikintalo to get up and seems quite angry and upset by the incident.

Erikintalo seems lacking in any kind of actual expertise. His explanation of how spirit boxes work is vague and incorrect for the most part. When he makes statements such as "mirrors trap parts of you as you turn away. The dead is trapped in the mirror" he just seems to be making his explanations up as he goes along. And he's not particularly good at improvising. It's garbled and hardly gives the impression of knowledge in anyway shape or form.

All this reinforces the fact that I can find virtually no information about Erikintalo before the filming of Haunted Tours barring an unsuccessful Kickstarter project in 2015 (3) and a smattering of internet radio interviews.

The only other trace I could find I could of Erikintalo was as a male model with the agency model mayhem (4).

All this is odd considering Erikintalo's claim to be the most "controversial investigator in the field". Surely if he were so controversial people would be talking about him?

The conclusion. 

The greatest fault of Haunted Tours is that the promotional material for the show promised us that this would be something different and yet the show does nothing to distinguish itself from the pack. I didn't find it the least bit entertaining and I can't really see many people concluding differently.

Both Catherine and the Jalberts come across as likeable. It's clear Victoria is not suited to the role of skeptic and seems to be uncomfortable and unsure what she should have been doing at times. I think cameraman Nick would have better suited the role.

Erikintalo fails to live up to his 'extreme' label. When he performs his stunts they seem sophomoric and immature and he comes across as deeply unlikable. Most worryingly he doesn't seem to display any real expertise at all. Any equipment he brings is carried in his pockets. It's amateurish and gives the impression of someone who thinks attention-grabbing stunts will distract from this aura of vagueness and bluster.

It fails to rescue the show from the mediocrity it shares with its peers.






Saturday, 10 February 2018

The 'JAMES H RANDI' Framework: Assessing Science Reporting.

It's vital to acknowledge that most people do not get information about the sciences from peer-reviewed papers, instead relying on the media to disseminate information to them. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this, but most journalists are not qualified in the sciences, this includes actual science correspondents and content writers for science periodicals like New Scientist and Scientific American. Headlines are often vastly exaggerated or outright false. The articles in question may not reflect the findings of the paper or study they concern because the journalist failed to understand what they were reading, they took the information in their article from a secondary source that was incorrect or they've blatantly misrepresented the findings of the research to fit some other narrative or belief. Of course, there's another possible reason for the article being wrong, it may accurately represent the study it reports, but that study may itself be deeply flawed. So it's vital to review how to assess a news article that relates scientific findings.

In what follows I'm going to draw heavily on the work of Kevin McConway and David Spiegelhalter (1), two statisticians, who after getting tired of hearing bogus medical claims on the morning radio, developed a framework to assess the reporting of medical studies in the press. At points, I'm going to generalise to make the points apply beyond the medical sciences. My adapted framework contains eleven questions divided into two categories, study quality and the standard of reporting.

Scoring your article

All the questions in the framework can all be answered 'yes' or 'no' but you'll notice that they are sometimes worded in a quite ungainly fashion. This is because one point is awarded for a 'yes' and zero points are being awarded for a 'no'. Thus the higher an article's score the less trustworthy it is. An article with a score of seven or above should be considered deeply flawed, an article with 10 or more, utter bunkum.

Quality of study.

1. Just Observational? 

Have the researchers made any attempt to control for other variables or have they simply observed a process without interference? Whilst a lack of experimenter tampering may sound like a good thing, failing to apply proper controls make it extremely difficult to link a cause to an effect. Imagine testing a medical intervention but failing to control for other treatments. How can we tell which medical intervention caused an observed improvement?

2. Another Single study? 

What journalists often fail to realise is that scientific consensus cannot be built upon the outcome of one study. We should establish if the study in question has been successfully replicated, or if the results found reflect those found in other, similar investigations into the same phenomena. 

3. Might there be another explanation for the observed effect?

Is there a confounder that might explain the found results? The experimental controls should allow the researchers to eliminate plausible alternative explanations for an observed effect. Imagine experimenters are testing a new cold remedy. They select two groups, men and women. They give the women the new drug, but not the men. They find that the women in the group administered the medicine tend to recover more quickly than the men and report less extreme symptoms. They conclude the remedy is successful, but they have failed to control for gender. The experiment is confounded.

We should also consider any systematic bias, have the researchers introduced an element into the study that will skew the results in favour of one particular outcome? A striking example of this would be a recent survey issued by the Trump administration comparing voters opinions of the first year of Trump's first term to the first term of Obama's first term (below). You'll immediately notice that the first question has an element missing. Subjects are unable to rate Trump poorly whereas the option is available in the second question which asks subjects to rate Obama's first term(2). This quite laughable omission means that a side by side analysis is unsuitable.

4. Extrapolating Small sample sizes?

We should be extremely wary of studies with small sample sizes, especially those with subjects numbering in the tens rather than the hundreds or even thousands. There are mathematical ways to calculate appropriate sample sizes, but often it's easy enough to do this intuitively. You can't draw conclusions about millions of people based on a study of tens.  For example, consider Andrew Wakefield's withdrawn Lancet study which attempted to establish a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Wakefield's study group contained five children, clearly not enough to draw conclusions about millions who had received the MMR vaccine. We need to be even more concerned when the conclusions of a series of tests are extrapolated to a much larger population

In relation to sample sizes, it's important to be wary of larger of studies of rare events. For example, a study of a rare illness may involve following millions of people but only an extremely small number of that sample develop the illness in question.

5. Samples not varied enough? 

Related to the previous point, it's not suitable to draw conclusions about a large population based on a sample that isn't varied enough. A good example of this is the study I looked at with the Spooktator crew early last year. The study proposed to show that individuals with strong religious or supernatural beliefs have poor cognitive abilities. The problem was, not only were the sample sizes extremely small but the vast majority of those studied were aged under 25 and female. It's not possible to draw conclusions about millions of believers of all ages and both sexes from such small, unvaried sample sizes. 

Standard of reporting.

6. Half (or less) of the story?

Are the reporters telling you everything? If they are reporting on the harmful effects of a medicine are they pointing out the benefits as well, or vice versa? Are they highlighting a small part of the research and ignoring the bigger picture? Researchers will normally point out flaws with their studies and suggest avenues for further research. Are these elements being covered in the report?

7. Representing risk in a misleading way? 

Watch out for the phrase "higher risk" in a report. If you are told that exposure to a substance doubles your risk of a certain ailment or illness it sounds quite bad. But what if your risk was incredibly low, to begin with? Unfortunately "X doubles the risk of Y" makes a fantastic attention-grabbing headline. This can also be true when considering a stated effect. If some variable makes the chance of a positive outcome more likely, we need to know how likely that outcome was in the first place to know if that is significant or not. To combat this we should be looking at absolute numbers as a sign of good science reporting.

8. An Exaggerated headline? 

Headlines for articles can be difficult to construct, this sometimes means important details are omitted, worse still they can be abandoned in favour of hyperbole. Does the headline of the article actually reflect what is said in the actual report, or is it misrepresentative or manipulated?

A great example of this would be a study published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reflecting the decision to list the radiation from mobile phones as “possibly carcinogenic to humans” or in specific terms to place classify it as a group 2B carcinogen (3). The 2B category is used when there is no specific evidence of a substance or material posing an actual risk, but there have been correlations made in the past. Some other 2B carcinogens include; fuels, laundry detergents and aloe vera.

The Daily Express clearly weren't interested in these details when they reported the IARC's report with the headline: "Shock Warning: Mobile phones can give you cancer" (4).

This headline complete strips the subtlety of the IARC report in favour of hyperbole and blind panic.

9. No Independent Comment?

When considering a scientific study it's vital to remember our first point, single studies do not make the scientific consensus. That means that we should be looking for independent comment from someone in the field of research not involved with the research in question to put our study in context. If an article omits this, it's likely based on promotional material issued by the institution that produced the research, one that has vested interest and may well not be as even-handed as one could hope. This doesn't mean these comments have to be negative, but they should be present.

This leads us to...

10. Does the report rely on public relations puff pieces, or are there considerable personal interests involved?

Are there elements of the report that imply the study is just PR? Who sponsored the research? What was the ultimate aim of the study? Does it fit into a wider scientific context? The answers to these questions are likely to tell you whether you should take the report with a pinch of salt or a shovel. This isn't to say that research that has been paid for by a company or corporation should be immediately disregarded, but it should be viewed with some skepticism. Likewise, research conducted by individuals with considerable personal interests in the research should be considered with suspicion.

For example, Martin Pall's research (5) on the dangers of electromagnetism should be weighted alongside the fact that he sells a range of supplements that he claims to strengthen the biological systems which his research claims EMF 'attacks'(6). Is this conflict of interest mentioned in the report, or in the original paper even?


11. Is the original research unavailable?

A great deal of the time, you'll find that the article you're reading doesn't even link to the original study. This means you're going to have to do the legwork yourself. The original study should be searchable by title if this gets you no results try searching by selected keywords. When doing your search, you may be far more likely to find success searching using an academic search programme such as Google Scholar (7). When you find your paper, it may well be hidden behind a paywall. Don't despair, even if this is the case, the abstract will be available for free. You will more likely than not find that this alone is sufficient to find errors in sloppy articles, especially if the author didn't even bother to read the abstract as often is the case!


If you're slightly worried that all that may be difficult to remember, fear not, I've formed it into a handy mnemonic, JAMES H RANDI after my skeptical hero. You could always rework the framework to spell out the name of your own hero of science or skepticism. I've also formed the questions into a rudimentary scorecard which you can see below and download by following the link in the sources (8). Hopefully, it should make assessing science articles much easier.