Sunday, 15 May 2016

Anomaly Hunting: An Open Letter to team PSII Part 1

This is an open letter response to paranormal investigation team PSII, I previously commented on a news story featuring a video and a photograph the team claim is evidence of the paranormal.
they responded to me here, I'll comment on some elements of this, plus I'll also be referencing comments made by the PSII team on my facebook page Skeptic's Boot: The Rational Paranormal and the suggestions made by a few of the patrons of the page.

Firstly, I want PSII to know, anything I write here is not personal. I like to be forthright and I believe in openness and frankness. The team's response which I linked to  above was presented on their Facebook page in a rather emotive way.

Criticism isn't always nasty. Sometimes it's necessary. In the case of the paranormal, it's vital. Paranormal teams don't get to pick and choose which parts of scientific method they like and which they don't. Which principles they use and which they can ignore. Generally speaking, teams want to use scientific equipment, albeit often incorrectly, and they certainly want the respect amongst their followers that a hastily slapped on scientific label brings. PSII are a prime example of this. Here's how the team describe themselves on their FB page:
Paranormal Searchers Ireland is a non profit team of investigators located in Ireland with the key objective to scientifically prove the existence of the Paranormal , i.e. Ghosts/Spirits/Legends/Demons/Angels and everything supernatural.  
Great, but if PSII wants to tell their followers that they use scientific methods then they have to accept the "nasty" stuff too. That means, amongst other things, peer review. That's what I and others provide. We examine ideas, methodologies, hypothesis and data and highlight flaws. This isn't done in academia out of pettiness and spite, why should it be the case in the paranormal? Peer review is in a large part responsible for building the edifice of subjects as diverse as science, history, and philosophy. It's the buffer that protects the sciences in particular from slipping into dogma and blind belief. Is this why so many teams react so badly to it?


You don't like peer review, stop claiming to use scientific methods. Stop using this to claim legitimacy you aren't prepared to earn.

Want an example of how criticism, contrary views, and peer review is handled in science from Richard Dawkins' book the God Delusion:
I have previously told the story of a respected elder statesman of the Zoology Department at Oxford when I was an undergraduate. For years he had passionately believed, and taught, that the Golgi Apparatus (a microscopic feature of the interior of cells) was not real... Every Monday afternoon it was the custom for the whole department to listen to a research talk by a visiting lecturer. One Monday, the visitor was an American cell biologist who presented completely convincing evidence that the Golgi Apparatus was real. At the end of the lecture, the old man strode to the front of the hall, shook the American by the hand and said - with passion - 'My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.'” Dawkins
Do you think Dawkins would still be telling that story still if his Professor had instead said to his visiting colleague "Why are you being so nasty? Academia can be an ugly place." He may, but it wouldn't be in admiration. 

The author of the team's response tells us at one point: "Technology simply does not exist that will 100% completely prove the paranormal in any form..." Without getting into a discussion about the impossibility of absolute truth, the author simply doesn't understand the concept of proof. We aim to prove within a margin of reasonable doubt. What PSII provide in this video and photo leaves open far too many alternative explanations and those alternatives are within our current understanding of the laws of nature. Ghosts are not. Any knowledge of the concept of parsimony, or Occam's Razor would tell PSII that the ghost hypothesis is based on too many assumptions and mechanisms that are unverified to be favored over a naturalistic hypothesis or the null hypothesis. As a commenter on my previous blog pointed out, Occam's Razor is only a guideline in selecting a hypothesis when data is inconclusive, it's not fool proof. But that is when we are considering two or more similarly weighted ideas, not when one is loaded with assumptions that can't be granted.

Also, PSII does claim absolute certainty. Take a look at this grabbed from one of their videos. This clearly demonstrates that the team begins an investigation with the assumption ghosts exist. This isn't an application of the scientific method in which the null hypothesis is the default position until shown otherwise. Also, if they are so certain that Comgalls is haunted why do they continue to conduct investigations there. I'm sure their answer would be "To collect evidence stupid" proving the point that their assumption is their conclusion! They are looking for evidence of something that they are already certain of.

To reiterate: PSII engages in investigations for one reason: to look for evidence of the paranormal. Beginning with the assumption stated above guarantees they will find it.

What the team is actually engaged in is the process of anomaly hunting. Kenny Biddle, a long time critic of the practices of ghost hunting groups, highlighted this last year:
"Personally, I think the majority of ghost hunters are not "ghost hunting"... they're Anomaly Hunting. They're looking for any anomalies that they can't understand. ... Anomaly hunting is not investigating, nor is it science. It is cherry picking, and self-deception... You must consider ALL of the data, and allow ALL of the data to lead you to a conclusion.Anomaly hunting is based on the idea of starting with a conclusion, then picking out the bits of data that support it...while throwing out the data that refutes or explains your conclusion in a way that doesn't fit with your beliefs."- Kenny Biddle. 
This is exactly what we see PSII doing repeatedly on their Youtube channel videos, they find things they struggle to explain and then assign an unwarranted  paranormal explanation. The photo offered by the team in the Mirror article as evidence of the paranormal is a perfect example of this anomaly hunting in action. The white object can't be identified so it's assigned a paranormal explanation.

The person who took this photo actually pointed out to me, again on my facebook page, that he has never claimed the photo was that of a ghost, but that it was simply unidentified. Why I appreciate and applaud his open-mindedness on this, frankly someone on the team most certainly IS doing this as seen below in the screen capture of a pinned post on the group's facebook page. Groups generally pin a post that they want all their followers to read. Sorry, but someone in the team really wants us to believe this is an image of ghosts.

The author continues "...this is why a team works hard gaining the trust of people so that they can judge for themselves if the presented evidence is authentic or not..." Are we seriously to accept this data, to be paranormal in nature based on reputation? 

What would one of the world's foremost physicists and awesome bongo players say about this? It's Feynman time:
"It doesn't make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it's wrong. That's all there is to it."_Richard Feynman. 
If it's science PSII are doing, and they claim it is, then reputation is meaningless. Of course, PSII wants their evidence to be considered in the court of public opinion only. And why not? Who doesn't like to have their ego massaged? I'd ask PSII if they have considered how unhealthy foisting an echo chamber would be to the paranormal community? It's part of the reason I and others vehemently oppose, so-called "para-unity" it's an agreement between groups to remove challenges and criticism. Unsurprisingly, team PSII are fans of para-unity.

The author continues:
"What I can say is that Team PSII have never faked evidence, in fact , we do not capture evidence in abundance as the paranormal is not some toy we can turn on and off , it will happen when it happens and we simply need to be really lucky to capture it."
I took a look at PSII's team history and the above is pretty much true. Barring a photo where a ghost app has clearly been used (right). PSII don't appear to have many outright "fakes" on their page or website. The question is, how much credit should we actually give them for this? Surely not faking should be a given? Add to this out and out fakery isn't the only form of deception available to paranormal teams. What about willfully ignoring possible rational explanations? 

I'm not saying PSII are guilty of this but I find the "we're not fakers" argument laughably naive to say the least. As is the author's suggestion that no teams in Ireland fake evidence.

The author can't possibly know this for a fact, and we can't take his word for it as not only is paranormal fakery a global phenomenon that isn't geographic in nature, but also we have to doubt his ability to actually identify fakery.

Let's leave deception to one side for the moment, it will rear it's ugly head again shortly, and point out that not faking evidence in no way validates the evidence PSII do present, I've already stated perhaps PSII's greatest failing is their lack of willingness to consider natural explanations for their evidence. Imagine a failing student barging into to his principle's office and demanding credit because his term of straight F's in all subjects  prove that he isn't cheating.

He's still failing regardless.

During a discussion with team member Eoin, who I also believe also wrote the rebuttal I have been referencing, on my Rational Paranormal page, I requested the original undoctored and edited footage that the team recorded. Eoin obliged and I'm grateful for that. Unfortunately, it's abundantly clear that PSII members haven't been totally honest about the video.
Here's the claim they make in the version passed to the press, the footage was recorded in April 2016

In the aforementioned video, the bottom right is dominated by the PSII logo, PSII do occasionally brand their videos in this way, but this is the only one I've found with the brand in the bottom right. The majority aren't branded at all. So why this one?

The undoctored version shows that PSII's reason for doing this was more than just harmless publicity. They were hiding the fact that the footage seems to have been recorded three years ago in September 2013!

You can view this unedited footage for yourself here:

PSII claim in the video's description,  that the time stamp was wrong in the video, but I'd question this claim as from viewing PSII's youtube footage I can see most of their cameras also time stamps. This one (above) does, it's in the same location and has the same font, so I'm pretty sure this footage was taken from the same camera which as you can see from the screengrab below, taken from a video posted in November 2014. 

Again the team claims that the time stamp is wrong, but are we to seriously believe they haven't corrected this in the intervening two years? Also, if these two pieces of footage were recorded two years apart why has only 3 months passed on the inaccurate time-stamp? Could this simply be an excuse they use when they post old footage and pass it off as new? Both myself and another user, Gary, asked Eoin on my facebook page to explain this inconsistency, Eoin has yet to respond.

This seems like a direct attempt to hide details of the origin of this video.

I suppose the question now is, does any of this impact the validity of the video? I'd say yes for two reasons: It shows that PSII isn't particularly diligent in their methodology. They were clearly aware that the time stamp was wrong in 2014, why not correct it? If they did correct it, they are aware of the possibility of the error, why aren't they checking their equipment thoroughly? Plus, the date being wrong prevents us from looking into the circumstances surrounding the investigation in question such as weather conditions at the time. The area the camera is placed in is hardly environmentally isolated when placed in front of large, poorly insulated windows.

The team asks us repeatedly to take things on faith, they claim that the footsteps and coughing heard on the video,could not be a team member, as they were all elsewhere at the time. There's no attempt to demonstrate this. The team claim that a further video clip proves this:
"Team PSII – This clip was the 4th clip in a series of six taken by this camera, the clip before shows the team heading to the basement area, one floor below, so no members of the team are in this area."
They haven't provided this clip of course. Plus even if we have the clip of the team heading from the area this wouldn't demonstrate none of the team then headed back up. Nor would it prove that was the complete team heading down the stairs, or less likely but possible, there wasn't someone else in the building. Also, we can't confirm that the videos are concurrent because.... all together now....
the bloody time stamps won't match!

When most of us hear footsteps and a cough we assume that is connected to proximity to another human being, Why should we adjust this, sensible assumption on nothing but word alone?

Whilst discussing the video footage, Robert another visitor to my FB page asks why there wasn't a camera covering the camera that moved and why more of the area isn't covered. A member of the team responded that it would be ludicrous to expect them to be able to cover the entirety of a massive building. I agree, but I don't think that's what Robert is suggesting. The team could select a small area such as we see in the footage and isolate it as fully as possible from the surrounding environment and ensure this small test area is fully covered by cameras.

The above criticisms I've made are in no way exhaustive. I've attempted to be brief, unfortunately, there's more to come. During the course of my discussions with PSII many questions have been asked regarding why I do what I do and how I do it on this blog and my other pages, as have questions of ethics in both my approach and theirs.

I'll address these factors in part 2.