Monday, 29 January 2018

Giving up the Ghost: Why I've debunked my last tabloid ghost article

Let's address the elephant in the room. The last post I wrote on the blog I came to certain conclusions regarding an alleged ghost image which was published in the Daily Record and then spread on to the Mail and other tabloid outlets. My conclusion was wrong. The image couldn't be accounted for in the way I suggested. The reason for my failure was two-fold. Firstly there was a pure quirk of coincidence that I thought was too convenient to call a coincidence. That I can't help. Secondly, I didn't research my explanation carefully enough. I found a reasonable explanation and then went looking for evidence to support that explanation, ignoring data that didn't support it. You know, that thing I accuse ghost hunters and creationists of doing all the time. I got caught NOT practising what I preach, and whilst I appreciate that everyone makes mistakes. This whole episode is pointing to something I've suspected for a long time.

I'm done debunking ghost "evidence" presented by the tabloids.  




I was lucky enough in this case, that someone who still has a modicum of respect for me was the one who caught me out and worked overtime to privately show me that I was wrong. If it weren't Kenny Biddle that caught me out, it could have been another skeptic, perhaps one I've burnt bridges with (there are plenty of those believe me, even if I have no idea what I did to piss these people off) or someone with a new blog or vlog who doesn't care about stepping on toes and exposing his peers. Someone not as decent as Kenny, someone... well, like me. I've got to add at this point, I've no hard feelings towards Kenny. I actually appreciate that he took the time to privatively explain my mistake to me before going public with his own explanation, which I will link in the article in question as soon as Kenny publishes it.

I've always made the point that there is only one thing worse than no skepticism, and that is bad skepticism. Bad skepticism gives an 'in' for pseudoscientists and woo-merchants, they use mistakes made by skeptics as a weapon against other skeptics. There are lots of other skeptics out there doing great work in this area (see sources for some of the best), I don't want to be impeding their work by offering, lazy, rushed and inaccurate 'debunkings'.

When you produce a post or an article you attach your credibility to it. The same is true essentially everytime you communicate anything to anyone. The internet holds that information forever, and if you've made a grave error that is immortalised too. You continue to do this because it's an endless cycle of risk/reward. You can justify your mistakes by saying "I got this one wrong, my credibility got hurt, but the next one I may nail and I'll be back". Essentially, you're only as good as your last debunking. The problem is I feel the risk-reward ratio is completely unbalanced when commenting on ghost stories/evidence published by the tabloids. The reason for this is, the tabloids aren't ever going to change their approach to publishing ghost articles that people click-on. As such, they don't have any credibility at stake. As long as they keep earning revenue the papers will publish them. At this stage, it doesn't even matter what the content of the story is, the UK tabloids will publish it regardless.

An example of this, on the 20th January 2018, the Mirror published a story entitled "Moment 'poltergeist' spooks ghost hunters by letting them know it is in the room"(2). What spooky evidence was provided? A video showing a K2 meter placed on an uneven carpet falling over (below: image taken from the 'chilling' video). This is the kind of story I'd have once devoted 800 words and an evening to.


The tabloids just don't care what they publish anymore. Not one shit. All they care about is whether people visit the site. Heck, they don't even care if the majority visit just to tell them how fucking stupid the story is, I'm devoting my time to debunking this stuff, often linking to the original post and thus sending extra traffic their way. I used to think that what I do is part of the solution, now I see it's just part of the problem.

As for the risk. As result of writing for this blog and the negative and positive feedback I've received other the years, I've found myself in the position where I can actually be a science communicator. I never thought this would ever develop into an endeavour that I could possibly use to help support my family. A piece I wrote on dowsing helped pay for my daughter's school shoes. That might not seem like a lot, and financially it isn't, but it's a lot symbolically. For the first time, something I wrote made my little girl's life incrementally better.

The only thing about this is, the one piece of advice I've received from every science writer/blogger/journalist whose writing I've read on the subject is that in order to be an effective science communicator your audeince has to trust you implicitly. Mistakes like this 'monk-y buisness' from last week may well whittle that trust. Google will hold that error against my name for the foreseeable future. I can't afford to make too many mistakes, that means I can't afford to write articles debunking things that crucially don't matter, won't make a difference and potentially helps the organisations that spread the misinformation in the first place.

I've been thinking this way for some time. Since way before I dropped the Skeptic's Boot moniker. The rough guide to debunking ghosts videos was an attempt to put a lid on this sort of post. I kept doing the low-hanging fruit, the tabloid ghost junk because it's the stuff I write that connects with the most people. I like my audience and I want to keep them, but I'm not sure this kind of post is my ballpark anymore. I may lose my audience by saying "I'm done with tabloid debunkings" but I'll lose them anyway if what I write is sloppy and wrong.

I spoke to a fairly well-known skeptic last year about a particular element of the paranormal that he'd become heavily associated with. He had got to the stage were he approached the subject with utter disdain, he hated writing about it and had lost all reason to talk about it beyond "It's what people want". I found this a pretty sad situation and resolved never to get stuck in that rut.

Of course, the Null Hypothesis blog will continue, and I'll continue to write about pseudoscience and the poor application of the scientific method, meaning the odd ghost hunter will pop up from time to time. I may well even review the odd Ghost Hunting show or book.

But as for debunking tabloid dross...

Always leave 'em wanting more, not wishing you'd go away. 



Great skeptical resources that focus on tabloid and viral ghost stories, follow these and you won't be missing anything, they were always better than me anyway.

The Spooktator podcast/ Hayley Stevens

Hayley Stevens, Ash Pryce, Paul Gannon, Charlie Revelle-Smith and others look at a month's worth of ghost tales from various sources and discuss them. The great thing about this podcast is you can to hear a variety of viewpoints and the team has a great rapport. 

Follow them on

Youtube

Soundcloud

and like them on Facebook.

Read Hayley's blog here.

Doubtful News/15 Credibility Street

Sharon Hill's Doubtful News covers plenty of dodgy tabloid junk from both sides of the Atlantic. As well as ghosts and UFOs, the site is particularly good for those with an interest in cryptozoology. 

Website

Soundcloud

Facebook page

Mick West

Mick mostly focuses on debunking conspiracy theories but also dips his toes in other elements of pseudoscience. He operates the website Metabunk which is a brilliant go-to source for debunkings.

Website

Metabunk



Kenny Biddle.

Kenny assesses the latest viral and tabliod ghost stories and 'evidence' with a strong emphasis on the scientific method. This work features attempts to replicate phenomena to assess if they can be achieved through natural means.

Facebook

Youtube

ParaRationalise

A new one, but a good one. As well as producing his own articles and posts, Kev Kerr has brought together an assorted collection of other people's work in his Debunking lounge. In a field that is filled with people dedicated to promoting their own work, it's refreshing to see someone promote other people as they realise that information trumps ego.

Facebook


Debunking Lounge.


Sources

(1) http://skepticsboot.blogspot.co.uk/2018/01/a-hole-in-his-storythe-unexplainable.html

(2) https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/moment-poltergeist-spooks-ghost-hunters-11882141