Friday, 27 January 2017

Tabloid Fame Seeking Exposes The Cynicism Of The "Paranormal Detective"

Remember Mark Vernon, the self-proclaimed paranormal detective? I wrote about him back in August last year with regards to his ongoing quest to prove various historic buildings in the UK are haunted. What was most striking about Vernon, a self-professed paranormal investigator was how unimpressive his "evidence" was. If you don't remember that perhaps you'll remember one of Vernon's recent tabloid appearances. These include "Ghostly Monk" In the Sun (18/06/16), a "spectre" following him around a stately home in the Daily Mail (09/08/16), the "ghost of Jack the Ripper" in the Mirror(06/09/1) amongst others.

We'll come back to the "Jack the Ripper" case shortly.

It's clear that Vernon has created something of a cottage industry in producing paranormal evidence for the tabloids. It's pretty clear that Vernon is enjoying the limited fame and financial gain that providing the tabloids with these stories provides as he's back in the local press today, the Wakefield Express 27/01/17, the article describes Vernon's capturing what he describes as "something impressive, big and fast". He tells us:
“There had been some strange noises coming from the cellar. “The lady who lived there couldn’t understand what was happening. “I can detect paranormal things and as soon as I arrived I knew something was down there. “I spent some time sat in the corner waiting and watching. “You see me get up and walk towards the camera, as I was going to replace the batteries and the ghost comes out from the wall behind me. “It’s quite impressive what I got on film. Whatever it was, it was quite big and fast."

Upon watching the short video, it's immediately obvious what the cause of Vernon's apparition is. Follow the link above and you'll probably immediately see the cause for yourself. As Vernon walks to the camera to replace its batteries he's holding a lit cigarette in his left hand.

As Vernon bends down by the camera, his "ghost" moves across the bottom from the right of the screen to the left. It's clearly just smoke from his lit cigarette!

Likely the easiest thing I've ever tried to explain. It's that simple.  Vernon tells us he can "detect paranormal things" I suggest he sees paranormal things, without a hint of critical thinking, in the most mundane of occurrences, making him a terrible example of a paranormal investigator. He may well "detect paranormal things" but I wouldn't trust him to detect his nose with both hands. Frankly, the fact that Vernon frequently sits smoking in front of his recording equipment, a fact various videos on his Youtube channel attest to, whilst looking for evidence of the paranormal implies to me he doesn't give a damn about possible misinterpretation of environmental factors or contaminating areas he's investigating or footage he's recording. 


In fact, I mentioned above the "Jack the ripper ghost" Vernon showcased in the Mirror last year. I think that this phantom can also be attributed to cigarette smoke, check out the image below in the upper right-hand corner.














In Vernon's account of how the Wakefield Express footage was captured, he describes being "called in" to the property by a lady. Street view of the location reveals that these are private properties, terraced housing, not public buildings. This means that members of the public are putting faith and trust in Vernon. If these people are vulnerable or afraid, Vernon is using the assumed authority a title like paranormal investigator brings to persuade them their homes are haunted. Some may be comfortable with this, others not so much. The "Jack the Ripper" case I've alluded to already above, gives a striking example of this. The lady in question called Vernon in after years of being afraid in her own home, she tells the Mirror:
"The ghosts have been here for as long as I've lived here - the man that used to live here told me they were here before me too. One in particular is very violent and aggressive. We've had priests and exorcists and all sorts over the years, but nothing makes a difference - so I've just learned to live with it."
She also describes living alone after her partner suffered an accident that left him paralysed. If this lady is as vulnerable as she seems, Vernon isn't helping her by describing photographs of cigarette smoke as "anomalies" and promptly selling the story to the press. Nor is he helping her when he makes aggrandizing claims like this about the house:
"It's the nasty ghosts I really like to go for - Gaynor has countless ghosts, but one in particular is really violent.... I don't deal with fakery but I have been to Gaynor's before and I can say 100 per cent she is genuine (yeah, but are you mate?-SB).... I feel sorry for what she has gone through, I have never seen a house with so much activity going on....This is one nasty ghost. It could be Jack The Ripper, it could be a relative of his, or it could just be a spirit telling lies."
 
Investigating public spaces is one thing, but Vernon is clearly not displaying the care and professionalism one should expect from someone conducting an investigation in a private residence. The fact that right-clicking Vernon's image of the supposed physical harm this ghost allegedly did to him in his lady's home you get the photo's tag "PAY-jack the ripper ghost" tells you almost everything you need to know about Vernon's interests in the case. Almost...
I actually think Vernon, enjoys the attention these stories bring him as much as the limited financial reward. His drive to get stories published is clear from the sheer amount he has sold to the press in the last year alone and the relative ease at which the "evidence" he presents is debunked.

Frankly, Vernon is going to continue to ride this paranormal gravy train regardless of the fact that the exposure he receives in the tabloid press gives paranormal investigators a bad name, and it's a reputation that's already severely tarnished. Nor is he stopping to consider the potential harm he's causing to the individuals who become aware of him due to his media exposure and call him in to "investigate" their homes.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Devils And Monsters.

The past few weeks have seen a glut of demon/possession related articles in the tabloid press and on social media. Most feature common themes and lack any substance. Others show a worrying trend of the use of the concept to facilitate dehumanisation of those with opposing ideologies.

On December 28th, 2016, the New York Post published an article with the headline "The World Desperately Needs More Exorcists". The title struck a particular cord with me as I've written many times on this blog regarding the dangers associated with the popularisation of ideas of demon possession and exorcism, pointing out that I'm yet to be directed to any solid way "demon possession" can be differentiated from mental illness. Unsurprisingly, these factors are missing in the post article too.


The article begins:
"A New York woman who levitated six inches off the ground, mysteriously spoke in foreign languages and demonstrated paranormal powers made medical history in 2008 because a panel of doctors from New York Medical College agreed she was possessed by the devil."
Once again as is common with reports of this nature, we are told of supernatural feats surrounding an individual presumed to be possessed. Despite hundreds of thousands of documented and recorded cases, these feats have never been demonstrated. Funny that. We always get the growling, shaking and contorting but the extraordinary evidence always manifests when the cameras are switched off leaving us with only anecdote as evidence. What isn't common here is the allegation that a panel of doctors concluded this woman was possessed.


It continues:
"In presenting the case of “Julia” in the New Oxford Review, board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Richard Gallagher cautioned that religious practitioners should be on alert for what he called a “rapidly growing worldwide phenomenon.”.."
Dr Gallagher (above) is indeed a Yale-educated psychologist, well respected in his field, He writes that the Julia case as a genuine case of demonic possession among a wealth of fraud and misattribution. When Gallagher tells us about the case he gives no details of the medical review panel, which the New York Post piece alludes to. We can likely dismiss this as a flourish added to that piece. What Gallagher does give use is a collection of the usual tropes associated with the "possessed" and as a result of this he never quite manages to highlight what exactly sets this case apart from others which he dismisses as "counterfeit". Dr Steven Novella examined Gallagher's claims and the Julia case on his NeuroLogica blog and concluded:
"Richard Gallagher is now a classic example of how even a highly trained professional can fall prey to bad logic and the desire to believe. He nicely demonstrates why basic skeptical knowledge is necessary, even for scientists and professionals..... like every snake oil salesman who says they are too busy treating patients to do proper research. This is not an excuse for lack of skepticism, but all the more reason for it. I can easily turn the tables on his logic – what if these are all just mentally ill patients with firm delusions, who happen to be smart and clever enough to do a decent cold reading? By accepting their delusion, you are reinforcing it, making it even harder to treat. You are victimizing the people you are supposed to be helping, by failing in your primary duty as a professional to be detached and evidence-based."
In Gallagher's own biography he describes his close associations with an organisation of exorcists "...Dr. Gallagher is the only American psychiatrist to have been a consistent U.S. delegate to the International Association of Exorcists, and has addressed its plenary session."  When "Julia" needed a doctor, a psychologist, what she got was an exorcist. The NYP implies this was revolutionary as a medical practitioner concluded she was possessed, but Gallagher approached the case not as a medical practitioner but as a believer in possession.

The NYP article continues:
"exorcists... claim there are now so many devils out there, the Vatican can’t recruit enough exorcists to chase them away. The Rev. Vincent Lampert, the head priest at St. Malachy’s in Indianapolis, Indiana, reports... the situation is dire, he said, because rampant pornography, illegal narcotic use and the occult have made it easier for Satan to cast his net."
Maybe the situation is dire because priests such as Lampert are working overtime to scare the public into believing the devil exists and possesses people. At a time when the Catholic church seems to be working harder to be more progressive, these archaic ideas work in direct opposition to that ideal. Clearly, some in the Church believe that the way to get people back into church is by scaring them there, perhaps recalling the claim that there was a surge in church attendance after the release of the Exorcist, something that has never actually been verified, although requests for the ritual of exorcism did rise at the time.

Don't worry though, the scientific advisor to the exorcists' association, Victor Cascioli is on hand to offer a much-needed dose of logic and critical thinking.

“... demons across the world have multiplied and there aren’t enough priests to fight them.The lack of exorcists is a real emergency,” 

Really? In the spirit of you allegedly being a scientific advisor, how about proving that? Or attempting to prove that demons exist at all. As with Dr Gallagher above, it's clear that when approaching topics of faith Cascioli's role as a scientist takes a backseat, relegated to a title alone, and that title is a ruse to gain unwarranted credibility.

Whilst these Priests seem to essentially blame the internet for the rise in possession, a New York chaplain Marcos Quinones, who also works as an "occult investigator", feels there is another culprit:  
“Many drug traffickers practice forms of the occult. They incorporate voodoo or black magic that gives them the power to succeed. It makes the product more powerful and creates a stronger addict. In essence, they’re doubling the curse the drugs cause anyway.... The original word ‘pharmacy’ is derived from the Greek ‘pharma,’ which literally means sorcery.” ”
Yep. Completely nuts.

The whole article is completely nuts.


And this topic is one the New York Post returns to frequently. On January 13th they reported that the priest on which the lead character in the Exorcist was allegedly based, Malachi Martin (seen above somberly not revelling in his fame as his calling requires) also the subject of the aforementioned Netflix documentary series, died "after a possessed child spoke to him..."Malachi Martin went to perform an exorcism on a 4-year-old girl in Connecticut in 1999 – but mysteriously died soon after when he was pushed by an invisible force." The only thing that truly stands out about this story is how unextraordinary it is. Martin died sometime after the child spoke to, and in the meantime, I imagine he spoke to many people. Also, Malachi was 78, sadly elderly people fall sometimes, rarely that fall proves fatal. Why are we to suspect an invisible force? Because Martin allegedly "told a friend" who isn't named or quoted.

The Post was banging the demon drum on 23rd January, reporting on a priest who has allegedly exorcised 6000 demons. Something which scares me for completely different reasons than the Post probably intends. As with the articles above the story quotes heavily from a report in Catholic News Agency and gives us lurid details of supernatural strength and occurrences without a jot of evidence.

I've tried time and time again to elucidate just how harmful I believe the propagation of this medieval superstitious rubbish is, and I will continue to do so. I'll never be short of examples of this belief, this backwards religious practice, being used to hurt the innocence and the ill often by the misguided, but too frequently by malicious abusers.

The following story wasn't featured in the New York Post, but the Daily Post in Nigeria. It's not lurid clickbait. It doesn't feature an elderly Priest warning of the diabolical dangers of weed or porn. Instead, it documents another way the spread of these ideas can be used to hurt innocent people.
"A Kenyan head teacher identified as Willy Kiprop, has been disgraced openly for allegedly defiling three school girls under his care in Kapsaos, Uasin Gishu area of Kenya."
Kiprop, uses as his defence that at the time of the abuse he was possessed by the devil. Would a lack of belief in the supernatural in the area have prevented the abuse suffered by these girls? Likely not, but we can't rule out the idea that Kilprop self-justified his actions being a result of possession.

Only days before various news agencies featured a disturbing video of a young couple in Peru being dragged through the streets by their families to attend an exorcism. The youngsters aged 18 and 16, are crying and growling, and I strongly suspect they are under the influence of Brugmansia. The couple's family indeed seem to acknowledge this when they tell the press the incident was a result of some kind of "pollution". This was after an exorcism was forcefully conducted of course.

Closer to home, ideas demons and allegations of possession were recently used by televangelist Jim Bakker (left) used to condemn participants in the Women's March and protests against Donald Trump. Bakker describes critics of Trump on both the left and the right as literally possessed by the devil:
“I’m telling you, there are some people that I’m concerned are demon-possessed. They’re just going crazy. Their eyes look like demons [are] coming out of them. I’m scared.”


It's a disturbing use of religious rhetoric used by Bakker to dehumanise people he is politically opposed to, in a similar vein to the rhetoric spouted by Alex Jones (above) during the election campaign. Jones frequently referred to both Hilary Clinton and Barrack Obama as being literally demon possessed. Even going as far, in the bizarre rant I've posted above, as to describe the foul stench of sulphur allegedly emitted by Clinton, and to cite footage of flies landing on President Obama proves his demonic nature.

It's easy to write Jones and Bakker off as complete lunatics or accuse them of cynically holding positions that appeal to their audience for financial gain. But, when public figures engage in the dehumanisation of their opponents it concerns me greatly.

Every time I speak or write about this topic I link to the What's the Harm page which details an uncomfortable and tragic number of cases of children and young adults killed and injured during exorcism attempts. But, it seems clear that the dangers presented by these ideas extend beyond immediate physical harm or mental abuse.

In my opinion, the World desperately needs less superstition, fear and bullshit right now. The World needs more critical thinking, skepticism and education.

In other words: More exorcists are the opposite of what the World needs.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Acrylamide: FSA Concerns May Well Be Half-Baked.


I arrived at work today to encounter several colleagues discussing the risk eating roast potatoes and overcooked foodstuff like toast posed to developing cancer. I jumped to an immediate conclusion that a tabloid news outlet, likely the Daily Mail, had misrepresented a study in some way. As the day went on I discovered the BBC were also running the story without a hint of cynicism and was shocked to discover that the source seemed to be the UK food standards agency (FSA) themselves. The elevated cancer risk is attributed to the concentration of acrylamide in foods cooked at high temperatures, with foods such as burnt toast and roast potatoes being of particular concern. This isn't the first time the compound has been linked with cancer, but it's usually by alternative health websites such as Daily Health Post. For a serious and well-regarded organisation to be repeating these claims, there must something to them... Right?
The New Scientist gives us this description of acrylamide:
"Acrylamide is made by something called the Maillard reaction, which browns cooked foods and gives them their pleasing flavour. As sugars and amino acids react together, they produce thousands of different chemicals. Particularly high levels of acrylamide are found in starchy foods, like potatoes and bread, when cooked at temperatures over 120 oC. In the body, acrylamide is converted into another compound, glycidamide, which can bind to DNA and cause mutations."-New Scientist
Acrylamide has been considered a potential cancer risk for some time so one may ask why the sudden concern? What evidence does it have that acrylamide poses a more serious health than previously believed?

The FSA website states:
"Biological effects of acrylamide exposure include cancer and damage to the nervous and reproductive systems. Most of the evidence is based on effects seen in experimental animals or cells studied in a laboratory. Whether or not acrylamide will cause these effects in humans will depend upon the level of exposure."
The strongest link between acrylamide and cancer thus far, has been found in studies concerning rodents, not humans. This is an area of confusion to the public and concern to science, as it's very tricky to extrapolate results from animal studies to human beings. Firstly animal research is often very poorly conducted and reviews and summaries of methodologies and results have been found to be inadequate in many cases.  Key problems with animal studies are summarised in a 2004 study by Pandora Pound et al published in the BMJ:


  • Disparate animal species and strains, with a variety of metabolic pathways and drug metabolites, leading to variation in efficacy and toxicity
  • Different models for inducing illness or injury, with varying similarity to the human condition
  • Variability in animals for study, methods of randomization, choice of comparison therapy (none, placebo, vehicle)
  • Small experimental groups with inadequate statistical power; simple statistical analyses that do not account for confounding; and failure to follow intention-to-treat principles
  • Nuances in laboratory technique that may influence results, for example, methods for blinding investigators, being neither recognized nor reported
  • Selection of outcome measures, which being surrogates or precursors of disease, of uncertain relevance to the human clinical condition
  • Variable duration of follow up, which may not correspond to disease latency in humans
    -(Pound, et al, BMJ, 2004)
So there's a very pertinent question of whether animal research can be extrapolated to humans based on both biological differences and methodological flaws in the studies themselves, but even putting this aside, do the studies that FSA reference even suggests what the body has inferred?
" EFSA published its first full risk assessment of acrylamide in food, which confirms that acrylamide levels found in food potentially increases the risk of cancer for all age groups."
The FSA statement above seems to be based on one study from the European Food Safety Authority, Scientific Opinion on acrylamide in food (Working Group on Acrylamide in Food, 2015) does indeed show a higher risk of cancers in rats and mice exposed to acrylamide, but the level of exposure is far greater than that in the human diet. The paper gives us relevant levels of exposure. High human consumption is stated as up to 3.4 µg/kg b.w. per day, whilst mice showing signs of neoplastic effects were exposed to 0.17 mg/kg b.w. per day. In other words, the rodents were exposed to up to 50 times what even a high consumer of acrylamide, referred to as AA in the report, would be exposed to.

The report concludes
"The Panel concluded that the current levels of dietary exposure to AA are not of concern with respect to non-neoplastic effects... the epidemiological associations have not demonstrated AA to be a human carcinogen..."
But also the margins of exposure may mean a greater risk in the industrial uses of acrylamide. The paper also suggests the need for more research into the human effects of dietary consumption of acrylamide.
"Evidence from human studies that dietary exposure to acrylamide causes cancer is currently limited and inconclusive."
Contrast this with what the FSA are telling the British public the study and the EFSA conclude about acrylamide and it's actually quite shocking.

 Have any studies been conducted with regards to acrylamide and cancer occurrence in humans and what have they found, if we are disregarding animal studies? Yes, in Sweden in 2003 and the FSA reference that too. And again they don't exactly get the contents of the study correct.The study, Dietary acrylamide and cancer of the large bowel, kidney, and bladder: Absence of an association in a population-based study in Sweden (Mucci, et al, 2003) published in the British Journal of Cancer states in its conclusion:
"We found reassuring evidence that dietary exposure to acrylamide in amounts typically ingested by Swedish adults in certain foods has no measurable impact on risk of three major types of cancer. It should be noted, however, that relation of risk to the acrylamide content of all foods could not be studied."
The FSA are conducting their own research regarding acrylamide and it all pertains to studying which foods contain the highest concentrations and how to reduce this factor in cooking. None of it seems to be focused on establishing a strong causal link between acrylamide and cancer. They tell us, in their "Go for gold" initiative, for instance, to toast our bread to golden rather than brown, but give no indication of the different concentrations of acrylamide in the different states of toast. I doubt there's a difference of a factor of 50 in a golden piece of toast and even a charred piece, the factor which the study they cite is indicative of elevated cancer risk. That's if we're to take that study at face value which they clearly have!

So, what's the issue here? Acrylamide may well cause cancer and more research is definitely needed, maybe cutting down isn't such a bad idea. The problem is that scare stories such as this turn the public off to science. There's a general perception of scientists as lofty, aloof and removed from the general public, passing down decrees about what foods should and shouldn't be consumed. Scares stories like this are also used to downplay the risk of factors which have been conclusively shown to cause cancer. In her statement to the press regarding this issue Emma Sheilds of Cancer Research UK attempts to refocus the debate on these issues:
“Although evidence from animal studies has shown that acrylamide in food could be linked to cancer, this link isn’t clear and consistent in humans. It’s important to remember that there are many well-established factors like smoking, obesity and alcohol, which all have a big impact on the number of cancer cases in the UK,”

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Paranormal Teams Must Stop Using Physical Injury As Evidence Of "Ghost Attack"

In my last post, I discussed one of the effects of a boom in paranormal investigation teams being formed which are either heavily or solely inspired television ghost hunting. So it only seems fitting that I tackle another aspect of that same phenomena in this subsequent post. This time it's an element that is more worrying than poor investigation techniques or a fundamental misunderstanding of how equipment operates. I find the explosion of paranormal investigators using physical marks and scratches as evidence most concerning. The phenomena seems to have grown in response to its popularisation on shows like Ghost Adventures, now there are few paranormal teams whose social media page doesn't include images of team-mates bodies adorned with scrapes and scratches. (Please note, barring the example below and the one at the foot of the post, I've used very few examples of these scratches and welts presented by paranormal teams throughout what follows. This was a conscious choice, as whilst many of these images would strengthen my case and I do normally like to present examples, I don't want to garner further attention for the practice, which I find pretty abhorrent.)

Here's an example from Greg Newkirk of Week In Weird. Gregg claims that scratches occurred during an investigation at Ohio State Penitentiary. 



In the "raw footage" offered by Newkirk, he expresses feeling pushed, the camera cuts and when footage resumes we find three finger marks dragged down Newkirk's back. Clearly, Newkirk doesn't understand what raw footage is, the edit here distinctly prevents this from being considered "raw". It's just footage. Nor is it footage of an "entity attack" as Newkirk describes it on Week in Weird. As is common in paranormal TV the marks on Newkirk's back are unveiled "live" on hard camera. This is done to give the impression that the marks must have occurred recently and thus isn't faked off camera. It's an element that's negated here by that edit. This element of immediacy is also neglected in the volume of images produced by Paranormal Investigation teams. The reason that paranormal TV shows present this as "evidence" is it's presented as happening right on camera. This doesn't transfer to static images. I'd describe what these Tv shows do as something or a crude conjuring trick. It's not difficult to explain where or when the scratches occur, immediately before filming or possibly as some sleight of hand on camera which goes unnoticed. These images aren't even a crude conjuring trick. It's akin to the magician revealing the card in the inside pocket of his jacket and expecting applause when he tells you he assures you it was in the deck and it is the card you would have chosen if he'd given you the opportunity to do so!

Newkirk and the paranormal teams also neglect another element of paranormal investigation shows: they fake evidence all the time and this is the easiest thing to fake. Blemishes and easy enough to produce, especially in areas of sensitive skin such as necks and backs, coincidentally where these things always seem to occur. 

So why should we consider these scratches and blemishes as anything remotely non-naturalistic? Newkirk (and I use his arguments as an example of wider held justifications) is again on hand to explain why skin abrasions such as the one he received are distinguishable from ones received from more naturalistic in origin, i.e:- one's own fingers/fingernails and the finger/fingernails of a co-investigator:
"When someone is scratched by a stray nail, a girly-fight, or their own hand, there’s often the tell-tale remainder of white, ashy skin flakes and traces of blood, but in the case of “supernatural scratches”, the wounds seem to fit a different set of criteria. They’re free of blood, lack the powdery remainder of skin cells scraped off by fingernails, and appear as something much like burns or welts."
Skin flakes and blood traces? Aren't such things extremely small? It would take a detailed examination to ascertain that such things were absent from supposedly paranormally induced marks. Also just because red marks appear doesn't mean the skin has been broken. Pressure applied to the skin can cause blood vessels to burst under the skin. It's like Newkirk doesn't know what a bruise is. Even when bruising doesn't occur pressure applied to the skin can cause blood to rush to that area to deliver clotting factors.

Greg continues:
"...Even more interesting is that the scratches disappear shortly thereafter, usually within hours of their appearance. These kinds of criteria aren’t simply limited to scratches either, but manifest as many other physical marks allegedly inflicted by supernatural forces..." 
Again, one would expect any red mark on the skin to fade, in the latter case which  I outlined above without any visible signs of any physical trauma. So why do these red marks appear so red? I think back to your childhood. Ever been hit by a football in the cold? Hurts a lot much than in the warm. It also leaves a more intense red mark. This because in cold environments the blood in your body is withdrawn from extremities to maintain body temperature. This includes the skin in a process called peripheral vasoconstriction. Thus when some pressure is applied to the skin and blood rushes to the area to deliver clotting agents that area appears much redder than surrounding areas. Couple this with strong lights sources against dark environments which can blanch the appearance of the skin anyway, making the red welts appear far more pronounced. Where do ghost hunters do their work predominantly? In the cold and the dark.

You may well be thinking now "why should marks made by ghosts applying force appear any different from force applied by the fingers?" Is it surprising the body reacts in a similar way, which is opposed the differences Greg lays out above. There's a very crucial argument from physics similar to the one I made here. The force would have to be applied by some form of matter, which should be detectable in other ways. It should have mass. Most ghost hunters would insist this isn't the case. Or they'd attempt to invoke energy mass equivalence, as they don't understand what "energy" is, or the deeper implications of E=mc^2, most tend to view energy and mass as some currency which can be exchanged in an easy non-violent fashion. Cue Greg's energy argument, and an instant display that he doesn't really understand at least one form of energy.
"Upon closer inspection, marks left by “ghosts” don’t conform to wounds left by physical force. They more often appear to have been left by energy, like stray electricity moving through the air, leaving behind burns and welts in its wake,,,"
Stray electricity doesn't just wander through the air until it strikes a hapless ghost hunter. Electricity moves between areas of differing potential. Stray electricity describes a system where some form of isolation has failed and a potential gradient has been created. More pertinently when "energy" causes a mark on flesh it isn't shaped like fingers. Newkirk and others who use similar arguments to justify want us to focus on the details so we miss the obvious. These marks and welts are almost always in the form of finger marks, they almost always reflect the normal spread and positioning of fingers. Often one can even differentiate the typically stronger fingers from the darker welts and find they conform to the positioning on the hand.

Conclusion

When I first wrote about this topic it was in response to evidence of the paranormal offered by an Irish paranormal investigation team. I took particular exception to an image of a female team member with welts on the side of her neck which appeared self-inflicted. The team member in question became very upset that I had implied that she had self-harmed. But I'm sorry, that's the most obvious conclusion that the evidence points to. That or that someone else did that to her. Or she has a rare undiagnosed dermatological condition. Paranormal teams who offer these images as evidence cannot point to anything that suggests a non-natural explanation, all they tend to offer is anecdote around the circumstances under which the marks occurred, and anecdote doesn't constitute a high enough level of evidence to overlook our everyday experience of how these marks occur, not to mention the wealth of evidence from physics and biology. By sharing these images these teams and individuals encourage others to self-inflict wounds upon themselves in the name of "evidence". They are encouraging people to hurt themselves. Even if they believe these marks are genuine, that's deeply irresponsible.

I'll leave you with some images that deeply coloured my opinion of this topic. It's a "paranormal investigator" from a team I won't name. He's sat in a chair nursing the wounds of a supposed "ghost attack" and what looks like an alcoholic beverage and he appears drunk. The marks don't appear to have been made by fingers but by a sharp object. Next to his chair is a small child who lives in the house the is under investigation. This child likely believes that something unseen in this house physically harmed this man.

This subject speaks deeply to the ethical responsibility of paranormal investigation, and many teams come up lacking to a shocking degree, and responsible teams must consider speaking up in comdemnation.

Monday, 16 January 2017

A Trifecta Of Turgid Tabloid Toss! Ghost Actresses! Thermal Cameras! Elves!

I guess the British tabloid press is tired of Brexit and Trump news and has decided to "treat" its eager readers with a glut of genuine, "unquestionable paranormal phenomena" today (15/01/17). Let's take a look at three bar-lowering examples.

Our first story comes from the Sun (and various other tabloids) courtesy of ghost hunter Caroline Mezoian of EVP paranormal. The image (below) taken in Bidford City Theatre, Maine, purportedly shows the ghost of actress Eva Gray who died at the location in 1904.


The image was taken with an infra-red camera, and immediately presents two questions: "Is that it?" and "Was Eva Gray only a foot or so tall?". as the body of the alleged phantom stretches only a few steps in height. The team's facebook page features many other images taken with Infra-red cameras showing similar blurs which are taken to be human-like forms or phantoms. The example to the right was allegedly taken on the same night.

The Sun declares breathlessly and without hint of ambiguity "Infared images taken at the theatre last month show a ghostly white figure in an evening dress standing on the stairs appearing to walk out of the building." I guess that settles it then!
Whilst many commenters have accused the team of faking the image, I'm feeling slightly more charitable. I think the images they are getting here are a result of one of two things, either a failure to properly maintain their IR camera, or a failure to understand how the technology actually works. In the first case, it's possible that the images could be caused by smudges on the camera lens, a fingerprint for example or a smudge on the lens. Far more likely is a common failure to understand how the IR technology works.

 It is intuitive to view images taken in the IR spectrum in the same way we view images in the visual spectrum. All we are talking about after all is a downward shift in the electromagnetic spectrum, but the whole reason IR cameras are popular in the paranormal field is because they will show things that aren't visible to the naked eye. Before we jump to the conclusion of something paranormal we have to eliminate more mundane things which can't be seen with the human eye. As IR cameras are presenting a picture made up by heat gradients, it's quite plausible that all we are seeing is an area that is slightly warmer than the surrounding environment. In a 2010 article for the Skeptical Inquirer, Ben Radford explains how misattribution due to a basic misunderstanding of this technology arises.
"Heat is of course far less transient than light; if we turn off a light switch in a closed room, the area goes dark almost instantly. But if we turn off a source of heat--including body heat--in an area or room, the heat may remain long after the source has been removed.... At an investigation I carried out last year for the TV show MysteryQuest, one of the ghost hunters used a forward looking infrared (FLIR) camera to detect a foot-long vertical warm spot on a pillar. No one in the room could explain what caused it; one person suggested it was a sign that a ghost had been watching us. In fact I had seen one of the ghost hunters leaning against the pillar a few minutes earlier, and the warm spot matched exactly the height and shape of the man's upper arm." Radford. 2010.
 I think that's the explanation here frankly. As Caroline herself states in the article “’I didn’t really believe it at first, but when you look at the images how can you deny that’s not something?” I agree, but as often happens with paranormal investigation teams who closely emulate the methods seen on ghost hunting television shows, "something" can't be extrapolated to "something paranormal" without a much higher standard of evidence than these images present.

Which leads us into our second paranormal story, which shares some similarities and, I believe, can be explained in a similar way.

The Daily Mirror (15/01/17) reports on more images presented by a ghost hunting team, this time it's East Drive Paranormal. The team are presumably named in connection paranormal tourism location 30 East Drive in Pontefract, made infamous by various ghost hunting tv shows, most notably Most Haunted. You would be forgiven for suspecting that the named the team have selected indicates their inspiration in investigating the paranormal comes from such programming.

The Mirror tells us:
"The team were summoned to the Italian restaurant after scared staff reported seeing a glass flying off the bar. Jason (a psychic apparently) immediately sensed the spirit of a disgruntled man in his 50s, who had been disturbed by recent decorating work... " 
The only evidence we're given of paranormal activity prior to the team's visit, barring anecdote of course, is a glass falling across the bar and shocking a member of staff and patron chatting at the other end of the bar. Of course, we see no surrounding events to suggest why this should be unusual in any way. Things stacked improperly or in a precarious equilibrium can easily be disturbed, and the glass skitters across the bar simply because it initially bounces a little.


So what about the teams actually footage? Go and watch the video if you like, but I'm going to provide a couple of screen caps that show East Drive Paranormal really don't have a clue about the equipment they're using and conducting an investigation in general.

Image 1: So here we see vaguely human shapes formed on the infrared camera. Could it be a ghost, or is there a more obvious explanation.


Image 2: Our camera operator whips around presumably to see if he can capture the image of whatever the thermal camera is picking up. In doing so he reveals that the area being recorded isn't isolated in any way shape or form! In all likelyhood, the thermal images are a result of the body heat of the other occupants of the room. As Ben out lies above, the body heat remains after the team members move on.

 Image 3 and 4: As if to compound this massive cock up, we are shown an image of at least two people walking through the exact area where the thermal images were! In fact, there are so many people walking about I have to question if the restaurant is even closed! It's busier than in the footage we see whilst it's open for business.



I'd say "It doesn't get much more inept than this." but someone at the Daily Star would likely consider that something of a challenge. In fact, given this story they published today (15/01/17), they already have. In the story, reporter Jesse Bell tells us of a heated Reddit debate in which users debate whether the image on the right below represents an elf or a dwarf....


Jesse tells us
"One user said: “I’m picturing the black part as being the back of the head, kind of sloped upwards and maybe wearing a little hat.... Honestly the only thing I can see it as is a little elf.”.. Another wrote: “I’ve heard about dwarfs a bit growing up."...“They are on the paranormal spectrum and judging by the size and stature that's what I might take this to be.”..."
I suppose this should be funny, but it's not really. It's just awful and sad. I know not dealing with this critically makes me a bad skeptic or a cynic, but.... I'll ship to my final point.


So what have we learned from today's tabloid paranormal output? Some paranormal teams are inept, as are some journalists, and the Daily Star really doesn't give a flying fuck what they publish.

Hardly news.


Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Lies and Dolls? Macabre Interest In Haunted Dolls Can Easily be Converted Into Cash.

Haunted dolls. I just don't get the current fascination. I understand dolls are creepy but the morbid fascination they hold escapes me really. Of course, if we've learned anything about macabre interests there are two benefits to be reaped: a modicum of fame and cold hard cash.

Whilst browsing through my facebook news feed I came across a familiar face, Jayne Harris of HD Paranormal, who you may remember from my spat with her over her "paranormal diploma", which I felt was exploitative and a blatant attempt rake in money for little in return. Jane was making a recommendation for a website called "Dolls with Souls" which Jayne claims she has been using to source haunted dolls for many years.


Of course, I visited the site, and I've found it to be one of the most potentially worrying paranormal selling sites I've come across. Whilst electrical equipment missold as ghost hunting equipment is still likely to fulfil it's primary function, albeit one that doesn't in any way justify the huge mark up the printing a clip art image of a ghost on it brings. If it doesn't fulfil that function it can be returned. The consumer is protected in the event that an item doesn't meet its description. How can the same be said for a haunted doll? I can't see a trade watchdog carrying out Randi-style tests to determine if an object has a "spiritual attachment" and even if they did, there's too much room for special pleading. Does "Well, spirits/psychic abilities/magic doesn't just perform on demand you know!" sound familiar? And that's assuming that the purchaser doesn't persuade them self that the doll is "possessed" by attributing events surround it to some paranormal cause. Dolls With Souls is hardly the first outlet to sell "haunted" paraphernalia. There's quite a cottage industry on E-bay and the like and stories in the press like Jayne Harris brush with fame and the recent poltergeist/doll video only feeds the fad.

One of the most troublesome things about the Dolls With Souls' site is many of the legitimate concerns I have with it are addressed in vague very non-specific ways on the site. Almost as if the creator was prepared for potential objections and wove get out clauses into the fabric of the site. Here are some examples of the concerns I had with the site.

Who is Jayne Baker?

Generally, if we're buying something from someone, especially if we're laying out a large amount of money. £120 for a haunted doll? I'd like to know who I'm dealing with. In addition to lacking a buisiness address, or the slighest indication of where the operations are based, Jayne Baker's site doesn't feature a single image of the lady herself. We are also very expressly told on the about page:
 "I DO NOT SUBSCRIBE TO SOCIAL MEDIA AND MY DOLLS CAN ONLY BE OBTAINED DIRECTLY FROM MY WEBSITE."
Jayne Harris tells us in her recommendation that she and many other paranormal investigators have been using Jayne Baker as a supplier of haunted items for many years, and Baker's website reiterates this claim:
"When I began collecting in 1972 I was part of an exclusive group of just 8 people, known as the Elite Order of Roses... our work was conducted very discreetly.  Over the past 10 years I have built a wide professional client base including some of the worlds top paranormal investigators, celebrities and TV personalities who have relied on me to keep their identities confidential."
Ok, so she's discreet. But not a single hit appears on Google for "Jayne Baker Haunted Doll". Ten years and zero internet footprint? The tag-line of the site, "the paranormal's best kept secret" seems to make a positive about the fact that there's no information about Baker available anywhere else.

In fact, not even Jayne Harris has mentioned Baker before. Harris has conducted many interviews in the tabloid press in the UK and for various internet sites and normally cites her source for the dolls she possesses as clients she has assisted. In fact in this interview with Broadly from September 2015, Jayne appears to warn against purchasing haunted dolls from sites such as E-Bay:
"We get called out all the time to people's homes to help them with objects. For every item we take, we reimburse people.... I'm against eBay sellers because there comes a level of responsibility in what you're doing. You're effectively passing something onto someone to have in their homes that could bring about paranormal activity. That's why we use the word 'adoption'..."
Strange that Harris doesn't mention that there are reputable sellers, such as baker, even if she doesn't mention her by name.

So potential buyers have almost no idea who they making a purchase from. The e-mail address attached to the associated E-Bay account is also unhelpfully anonymous.
Well... Maybe, there is a small clue as to the identity of Jayne Baker.

The elephant in the room, is Jayne Baker actually a pseudonym of Jayne Harris?

Now, what follows is pure conjecture. We can't ignore the fact that Harris could well be operating as Baker, she herself highlights two of the coincidences surrounding the two identities. Firstly the rather unusual spelling of the first name Jayne. Harris seems aware this may draw suspicion and clumsily highlights it in her endorsement by stating "great name". This smacks somewhat of hiding in plain sight. Speaking of sites (sorry) it wouldn't escape the most casual observer that both Harris' HD Paranormal and Baker's Dolls With Souls sites were built with Wix and are incredibly similar design and colour scheme. Now Harris does acknowledge this as well in her recommendation but did Baker have no input? Or do the ladies in question just have very similar taste? That might also explain that fact the decor in the background of images posted on both sites are almost identical.

The images on the left are taken from HD paranormal, specifically a blog post published on February 8th 2016, the image on the right and the one below it is taken from Dolls With Souls.



Look at the paintwork and also the grain of the cabinet the "haunted objects" are placed on. The photographs on both sites are very similarly shot too. Conclusive? In absolutely no way, shape or form. As Harris is Jayne's married name it would be interesting to know if her maiden name was Baker though.

Of course, the biggest question in this pseudonym argument would be, why would Jayne assume a pseudonym to sell these dolls? She has previously "adopted dolls" to clients for a requested donation, something it seems she doesn't offer on the HD Paranormal site anymore for some reason, and as you'll see from the image below she has no moral objection to selling absolute tat under the banner "paranormal" on her HD Paranormal site. Psychic drawing anyone? A snap at  £20. Or a drawing of your spirit guide perhaps? Who can refuse at a reasonable £30. Quite why there's an extra £10 of value to the latter escapes me. I guess spirit guides are harder to encourage to sit still.


Let's table the question of identity and highlight one of the sites most blatant and shameful claims.

 A Man Walks Into A Major High Street Electrical Outlet.... and inquires about a television. The sales assistant highlights his employers guarantee and the man plops down his £120 (it's a small TV ok) and there's a sale. After a few days, the customer realises his TV isn't working and calls the store. The sales assistant assures our hero the TV does work. "You just have to have faith!" he states before hanging up the phone.

Ridiculous right? 

That's exactly the kind of sales process that Dolls With Souls is conducting. Here's the guarantee offered on the site.
"My dolls are guaranteed to be paranormally active, and are limited in number. Once gone, they're gone."
Wow! A guarantee of paranormal activity is quite bold. One has to wonder why Jayne is selling these items at all. If she can guarantee paranormal activity then why not take Randi's Million Dollar challenge instead?


Surely such a guarantee should offer peace of mind to anyone making a purchase that if they are dissatisfied their money will be returned? Well, first if the burden of proof rests on the consumer to proof an item doesn't match its description or isn't fit for purpose, the people who purchase these dolls and assorted bric-a-brac have no chance. Nor will they have an intervening company like E-Bay or Amazon to uphold any claims. That leaves their only hope in the hands of the owner of the site to offer a refund. The site offers a clear indication of the get out clause, and it's a theme we've touched on already:


Despite the guarantees on offer,  the owner of this site is very clear that if your item does nothing, it just sits on a shelf looking creepy as dolls are want to do, then the fault is yours. When you handed over your cash you should have handed over your inability to think critically too.

Monday, 9 January 2017

"Post Truth" Wasn't Born In 2016, It Hit Puberty.

Normally at this point of the year, I'd be putting together some of the most humorous, interesting and embarrassing paranormal images and photographs from the last twelve months and loosely presenting it in the form of my annual awards blog "The Caspers".  It's been the highlight of the blog for me from the past two years and it tends to be the thing that attracts the most readers and positive feedback, so it may seem a bit odd that I won't be doing that this year. There's certainly been no shortage of face palmingly bad ghost images in 2016, Hayley Stevens has collected some of them here as she also does each year.

When people ask me, infrequently though it may be, what I write about on this blog and the select other places I post, I rarely mention the words paranormal, ghosts or pseudoscience. What I write about are misapprehensions, misunderstandings and the misrepresentation of the truth in various mediums. That's what concerns me about paranormal reporting in the tabloid press. That's what concerns about with the circulation of "ghost" images on social media. It's what concerned me about the creeping infiltration of creationism and the rebirth of presuppositional apologetics a few years ago. It's what concerns me with the spread of alt-right ideas and their counter balance the ideology of the progressive left. I haven't changed the things I write about, I've just moved the lens to focus on different things from time to time. If my main concern is the misrepresentation of the truth I can't in good conscience end 2016 and enter 2017 laughing about ghost images, fun though it may be.

Many major media outlets have declared 2016 as the birth of the post-truth era, the Oxford dictionary made "post-truth" their word of the year, even though it's existed as a concept for at least a decade.



post-truth



ADJECTIVE

  • Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief
 I would suggest that the journalists who have made "post-truth" the narrative of the past twelve months haven't been paying too much attention to the tabloid press, especially the sillier, more clickbaity output churned out by the Mail, Sun and Mirror. I doubt they've been looking too hard at paranormal groups on Facebook and other social media sites. They may well be aware of "science" sites like IFLS, which regularly publish stories that are vastly exaggerated or patent misrepresentations of actual research at best, and present findings from nonsensical online surveys as actual research at worst, but they certainly aren't fact checking the output shared by millions on social media. As serious journalists and commentators ignore and dismiss the legions of cranks who believe nonsense like ghosts, UFOs, conspiracy theories, without evidence because it conforms to their own beliefs, they fail to grasp that the underlying cognitive failings displayed by these people plague all of us. Much like a well-educated, intelligent respectable professional who repeatedly visits mediums and psychics to indulge their fascination with the afterlife or in search of comfort, we will all ignore evidence and facts to follow what we want and often need to believe. Many of us will believe a lie, even if we know it's a lie if it conforms to our beliefs, and further, many of us simply won't do the most modest amount of research to confirm what we are saying or sharing is accurate. None of us, atheists, skeptics and critical thinkers are totally free of this tendency. For exampIe. had a discussion with the founder of a moderately successful atheist group on facebook in September regarding his belief that the result of the UK referendum on membership of the EU should be upheld and actioned immediately. I pointed out to him that the referendum was an advisory, non-binding referendum, all UK referendums are because they aren't actually part of our democratic process. He stated that the only people who knew that had read some arcane document regarding referendums, the general public couldn't be expected to know that fact.












I found the information on Wikipedia.

I often find myself often repeating the idea that my children are playing up because of the amount of sugar or colouring they've consumed. I know there's no study that confirms this relationship, I just believe it. It gives me comfort when my four-year-old has crayoned every wall in the house, to believe that better dietary choices could've prevented this atrocity. It's harder to admit, even to myself, that I should have been supervising her better or that my beautiful angel can be a bit of a brat sometimes. 

Over 40 million people with an avid interest in science were tricked in October into believing they were watching a live feed from the International Space Station broadcast across social media. Sites like Unilad told them it was live and they, for the most part just accepted it. Even when the actual origin of the footage was revealed, many became angry not with the sites that deceived them, but the naysayers who weren't blindly going along with the narrative. I myself was accused of being a "flat Earther" several times whilst trying to explain the footage wasn't live. The sites that prepatrated the hoax for profit escaped with very little criticism.

The general public didn't become "tired of experts" in 2016 as one of the leaders of the Brexit campaign and haunted toby jug Michael Gove, famously stated in an interview earlier this year, the general public never wanted to listen to experts.

Don't believe me? Know any smokers?

The fact is that we all have the opportunity to avail ourselves of information instantaneously and we just chose not to do it. When a public school buffoon stands in front of a bright red bus suggests that £350 million pounds a week is being sent to Brussels, why not check? When a bigot with clear mental health issues tells you that his opponent supports a completely open door policy on immigration, or that doctors rip healthy babies from their mother's wombs days before birth, why wouldn't you check if that's true? If you're a rational, reasonable person there's only one reason not too. You want to believe them. You want them to be telling the truth. Researching these ideas is taking a pin to the balloon of credibility these liars have inflated in their mind. It's too fragile to question. We all see exactly the same when we post a skeptical response to faked ghost image on any internet forum. Most people will simply ignore it, those less confident in their beliefs will request it, and you are blocked or removed.


2016 wasn't the birth of "post-truth" it's the year that the training wheels came off. Post-truth moved from the realms of the cranks on the internet and flooded the mainstream and politics in 2016, those of us who practice skepticism should have known this was bubbling under the surface waiting to erupt. Some of us did. The psychological factors and failings we've seen all these years in the audiences that lap paranormal TV shows, those that buy and recommend alternative medicines and talk about the risks of vaccines and GMOs have influenced the course of western history in a major way. Indeed, as of January 20th, the most powerful man in the Western world will be a global warming denialist who has publically stated he believes that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese and that vaccines cause autism. Much like the setback Trump represents to campaigners for racial, gender and sexual equality, scientists and skeptics face an equally difficult fight to ensure that the progress made over the last few years isn't lost.
The following words taken from Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted world have never seemed more prescient.


So what do we do? We work harder. Offer clarity where and when we can. We don't let anyone tell us that debunking something is a waste of time, only idiots believe it. We talk about critical thinking, show how we find good reliable information, show the difference between bad sources and good sources.

I'll leave this post with a personal story, something I rarely do. In September 2015 my son's primary school asked parents to make suggestions of how their children's education could be improved, what elements could be added that were not present in the curriculum. I suggested critical thinking, teaching the children to examine claims and in the light of given evidence, assess them. Teach the children not what to think, but how to think. When I asked my son's teacher how the idea was received she told me, quite bluntly, that the headmistress didn't really see the point in the exercise. The school decided to introduce meditation sessions instead. Maybe I'll pursue the idea again when suggestions are solicited, maybe by September 2017 the "point" will be patently obvious.