Wednesday, 30 March 2016

I'm Quite Happy To Refer To The Paranormal As A "Field". Here's Why.

So I've come across a couple of interesting posts on Facebook this morning questioning whether those involved in paranormal research, who are unqualified in science, are justified in referring to it as a field or not. Here's an example from the excellent investigations team, Military Veterans Paranormal's facebook page (which you should really go and like, the investigations they've conducted, which I've read, have been commendable).

Whilst I don't necessarily disagree, and no one can deny that the majority of people engaged in paranormal research aren't qualified scientists, there are a couple of points I think we should consider this before we throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Firstly, this may all just be semantics. Can we legitimately refer to paranormal research as a field? Technically, yes.  If you took the official definition of the word "field" i.e- "a particular branch of study or sphere of activity or interest." then paranormal research definitely fits. There's nothing strictly preventing hobbies from being described as fields. For example Stamp collecting describes what it takes to become an expert in the field of stamp-collecting. I doubt there is much complaint of how few scientists and professionals are involved in the endeavor.

That only covers the loosest definition of the term "field" of course, what about the stricter sense, the "field" of scientific research? The fact is the majority of those involved in paranormal research are hobbyists, lacking both a profession qualification or demeanor and more often than not the word "field" is adopted by an unqualified team or individual to appropriate an air of authority which can't be seen in groups methodology or approach.

Yet I'm still happy for them to use the term. Why?

Because it means these teams can be held to a higher standard. If they want their research to be considered part of a greater "field" of science, then they must submit this research to the rigours of that area of study. This means, amongst others things, peer review of findings and research. It means methodologies can be assessed without teams having the recourse to claim "well it's only a hobby". Allowing these teams to cry "just a hobby" lets them off the hook, it excuses shoddy practices and research. "Why should we have controls, or collect baseline readings at a location. This is just for fun."

For example, what was it that allowed me to review the "research" of David Rountree? It was the fact that he was claiming legitimacy for his research and "paper" and as such left himself open to robust peer review. It meant that myself and others could legitimately call foul and expose Rountree as a fraud when over 70% of his paper was found to be plagiarised. If Rountree had claimed it was a hobby piece, such an endeavour may well come across as overwrought and unnecessary. It's been my approach that teams claiming to be doing "research" as part of the "field" are fair-game. Its the claims of legitimacy that hold them to scrutiny.

Also, let's make no mistake: calling paranormal research a "field" will never make it part of academia and science isn't on such poor footing that doing so risks sullying its reputation. And if these groups dropped the term altogether then would that make a difference to how seriously believers take their claims? Would their findings be treated with less credulity? No, very likely not. I say let teams claim the paranormal is a field of research, then we can actively uphold levels of scrutiny, we can continue to press the importance of peer review and crucially we can keep scientific skepticism alive in a field that sorely fucking needs it without coming across as petty-killjoys.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Whatever helps you sleep at night....

It's two in the morning. Two a.m. I can't sleep. Whatever I try my mind won't switch off, this is paradoxically, despite the fact I am exhausted.  And I have work in the morning, and I know my two beautiful children will not sleep past six, they never do. Never. Looks like a day propped up by Lava Java again (other coffee brands are available). The things that keep me awake at night now tend to be very different than in the past. My childhood was cursed by night terrors of ghosts and vampires and the like. I'm over that stage, to say the least. Bumps in the night now are more likely to bring thoughts of rodents, or my three-year-old falling out of bed. There are no bumps tonight. Nor are there any particular work stressors, money worries or the other things that tend to keep peers of a similar age up at night.

I know from experience that the only way I'll get any sleep is by occupying myself somehow. I search the internet for potential blog topics. Nothing particularly jumps out at me. Frustrating. Paranormal stories are thin on the ground, plus what there is out there has been covered by other bloggers. There are topics I want to cover, but they require far more research than my tired brain can handle.

Maybe some TV. I haven't watched the last season finale of Doctor Who yet.

So I start to watch. It's fairly enjoyable and has a happily upbeat and nostalgic, if somewhat low-key, conclusion, but there's something distracting about it. At one point the Doctor meets a young girl, Ashilidir, played by Maise Williams, who became immortal earlier in the series, at the end of the universe.As the episode concludes Ashilidir leaves in another Tardis with departing companion, Clara Oswald. But what if that hadn't been available as an escape route?

The Doctor, being compassionate, wouldn't leave Ashilidir to be eradicated with what remains of the universe. His only option is to return her to the creation of the universe to continue her life. As he is making a fundamental change to the initial conditions of the universe, the Doctor labels this universe 2. As he leaves in his Tardis, a worrying thought occurs to the Doctor. He travels to the end of universe 2 to confirm his suspicions: and finds two Ashilidirs waiting for him. He concludes that one is the initial Ashilidir, whom he left at the beginning of the universe and the other is the Ashilidir who he will make immortal during the course of that universe's history.

This leads him to his first two assumptions:

1.The Ashilider I place at the beginning of each consecutive universe is unable, or unwilling, to change the course of that universe's history.

2.Also, Ashilidirs are truly immortal  any created  or deposited during that universe will survive until it's endpoint. 

He returns these two Ashilidirs to the beginning of the universe, naming it Universe 3, and decides to travel back to the end of the Universe to confirm his first assumptions. If it is incorrect he will find less than three Ashilidirs. The Doctor is shocked to find not three Ashilidirs at the end of Universe 3 but four.

This leads him to a third assumption:

3. Each subsequent universe begins not with the initial conditions of  Universe 1, but with the initial conditions of the universe which preceded it. 
Therefore, when he dropped the two Ashilidirs from Universe 2 into Universe 3, there was already an Ashilidir from Universe 1 present. He chides himself for the error, quickly drops the four Ashilidirs in Universe 4, predicting that if assumption three is correct he will find eight Ashilidirs at the end of Universe 4 and indeed he does.

At this point the Doctor he can formulate some simple relations between the number of the universe (n) and the number of initial Ashildirs (Ai) and number of final Ashilidirs (Af). The relationship between the initial and final Ashilidirs is very simple, and should be immediately clear;

Likewise, the formula relating the Universe number (n) and the final Ashilidirs is pretty simple. 
From these formulas, the Doctor decides to find out in which universe the total mass of the Ashilidirs at the end point will be greater than the mass of the Earth ( Me = 5.98 x 10^24 kg). He estimates the mass of one Ashilidir is 51 kg, and uses this to find the number of  final Ashilidirs equal to Earth's mass to 3 significant figures:

So to find n he rearranges the formula relating Af  to by taking the logarithm of both sides of the equation to base 2.

So rounding this to a whole integer, as there are no partial universes, the Doctor sees that by Universe 78 the mass of the Ashilidir's will be greater than that of Earth itself. At this point, he begins to panic. At what point will there be more Ashilidirs in the universe than there were atoms in Universe 1? Taking the estimates of 21st century Earth cosmologists of atoms in the visible universe, the Doctor uses the value of 4 x 10^79 atoms. Using his above rearrangement and this value for final Ashilidirs:

So by Universe 266, matter will be dominated by Ashilidirs, he reasons, deciding perhaps to come back to his endeavor of shifting Ashilidirs back to the origin of the universe at another time... that's the beauty of time travel I suppose.

As for me, figuring out that dark matter, the dominant mass in the universe, is likely composed of free-floating, immortal Maisie Williams is enough to persuade me it's time for bed.

Friday, 18 March 2016

The Prime Minister, the paper and the faker: The Mirror fails again.

Guess who is back in the British tabloids? It's "ghost hunter" and bus driver Craig Cooper. He was previously featured in my column, "Don't get your Hampton's Court part 2" back in December 2015, alongside fellow ghost hunter/bus driver/faker Trevor Tye. But Cooper isn't the only bad penny returning in this Mirror story from 17/03/16. He's also recirculating this, frankly woeful faked ghost image, which first appeared on Haunted Earth's Ghost World back in May 2015:

Apparently Cooper is now claiming this to be an image of Winston Churchill taken in the London Underground, who apparently, and perhaps unsurprisingly seems to have lost some weight since his death in 1965. The Mirror, of course, treat this claim with typical credulity.

Quite rightly and commendably, the Metro, a free tabloid paper aren't as convinced, labelling the picture as the worst ghost ever. But before heaping too much praise on them:

A) They've published worse and B)  they didn't bother to actually find out the origin of the image.

Thankfully in December I did. I took it to Anna Hill who quickly identified it as being from the image manipulation suite 27 Ghost Brushes. Here's the image Anna found laid next to Cooper's original.

I have to say, Cooper, you've got some brass to take money for such blatant fakery, and to the staff of the Mirror.... Keep disgracing your paper's name and the profession of journalism in general, you really are the drizzling shits. 

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Demonologist or dangerous and deluded?

On 13/03/16 the Daily Mirror featured a report  regarding one Kelly Angel, real name Bebbington, who purports to be a "demonologist" and "demon hunter" entitled "Meet the woman who sends demons back to Hell for a living after realising she could see ghosts" Stories such as this are ten a penny as are individuals making such claims, the reason this one caught my attention is the seeming disregard both Kelly and the Mirror seemed to show towards the dangers of propagating the harmful mythology of demons and exorcism.

Before tackling that, it's interesting to note that this isn't the first time the paper has featured Kelly. on October 29th, 2016 they ran a story entitled "'I work in Greggs by day but I'm a demonologist by night'" the title of which alludes to the fact that, at the time Kelly was dividing her time between banishing demons to hell and serving tepid baked bean and sausage slices in down market pastry shops.

The only seeming change in Kelly's story between these articles is the elaboration of her connection to the paranormal before discovering her gift. In October 2014, she states: "I was 19 when I discovered I had The Gift. A medium had told me I was very clever and suggested I got myself a set of tarot cards. It was the first time I'd been to see a medium and I'd only gone along with a friend. I've always been into spooky things so I decided to give it a try."-29th Oct 2014

As of March this year this interest in "spooky things" had become a full-blown ability to see the dead! All of which leads one to question why she needed the medium to tell her about her gift at all. Surely it should have been self-evident to Kelly?
"I was “taken” into demonology. As far back as I can remember, I’ve been interested in the world of spirits. I’ve always been able to see ghosts, but it wasn’t until I visited a medium when I was 19 that I realised I had this special ability."
That doesn't make much sense to me. There are likely to factors at play here: Most people who claim to have this kind of abilities tend to add new elements to the origin stories of their "powers" as time goes on. Kelly has probably ran through the tale so many times that she's failed to see her embellishments have resulted in a story that no longer makes sense. Another possibility is that the ever ethical journos at the Mirror have dragged the ghost element out of Kelly in order to enhance the "click-bait" strength of the piece.

In the article Kelly expresses her frustration in the article at those that don't realize she is a demonologist not an exorcist, the difference being, she says: exorcists remove demons from INSIDE people, whilst she removes demon attached to people's outsides!

So far so what... I'm sure you're are thinking Kelly sounds like something of a harmless crank. The first hint of irresponsibility from Kelly comes when she boasts of her lack of training:

"I didn’t need to read up on the subject, be trained or learn anything. I knew how it all worked because 80 per cent of my past lives have been connected to spiritual work, I have been a Satanist, and into Devil worship, which is how I got to know how Satan works and how the demons serve him. Because of that, I can now deal with them in my present life."

Perhaps this is the major difference between her and an exorcist for the Catholic Church, presumably, despite it being two forms of the same bullshit, they are at least trained! Kelly claims to have despatched with this thanks to experience in her "past lives". Imagine a doctor making such claims, unlikely you'd lie down on the operating table. It also separates Kelly from most so-called demonologists, who protest the title is more than just self-appointed. Kelly seems almost proud of this point.

Another major difference between Kelly and the Catholic Church, the latter have a strict selection process, not everyone who requests an exorcism is granted one. Kelly, on the other hand, sees demons and negative energy almost everywhere:
""I’d say nine out of ten houses are inhabited by bad energy, so I get a lot of work! And usually, once I start working on the person’s house, I can sense if the inhabitants have demons attached to them too...They usually do, as the bad energy sticks to people. It’s rarely just a building that is affected."
This reminds me of a quote Joe Nickell once made about Ed Warren which I'll paraphrase, like Ed, Kelly has probably never walked into a house she didn't think was haunted. But unlike Ed, she thinks the owners are likewise afflicted too.

All this leads to the same concerns I have with many paranormal groups, Kelly really doesn't seem to have considered the psychological effect of telling a believer, someone who is possibly quite afraid of such things, that they are literally surrounded by demons.

""It can manifest in several different ways," explains Kelly. "Many people feel tired and depressed – suicidal even."
The fact that Kelly makes above statement about the people she "helps" only makes it more damning that she has seemingly never considered the damage her bullshit could inflict in these people's lives. Kelly should not be dealing with people she feels are suicidal. She should be ensuring they get the correct help. There's nothing more disturbing than when people such as Kelly can't pull themselves out of the "paranormal hero" narrative long enough to see what might be harmless fantasy to her, could have serious ramifications for others with mental health issues that she interacts with.

Of course, Kelly spends a fair proportion of the article talking about the negative effects of her "work" on her:
"This is the scary bit because they then try to attach themselves to me. But I’m usually OK because I protect myself, using the help of my guides and various angels, well in advance.... I can get really sick and actually vomit. Once, I was violently sick for two hours. It’s caused by all the negative energy the demons hurl at me. Sometimes after a session I sleep for 24 hours; other times, I get insomnia and can’t sleep for days. If I do five or six clearances in a day, it’s pretty exhausting and I feel drained."
This focus on Kelly's problems in battling demons, I'm sure in her mind, mark her out as a self-sacrificing hero, but when I consider the plight of children killed during exorcisms all over the world, she seems naive and thoughtless.

And what about the journalists at the Mirror, why isn't someone at that paper putting two and two together. On February 26th, 2016 the same paper reported on the murder during exorcism of a baby boy by his mother, Irene Mbithe, who believed he was possessed by demons. Two weeks was all it took for the paper's editor to forget the terrible conotations of the last "demon" story they ran. The potential causal link was lost. Do the staff at the Mirror believe that the perpetuation of the demon/exorcism myth isn't connected to that death because it occurred in Nairobi? This sort of thing is happening increasingly in the west too, and the media have to consider responsibility.The propagation of ignorance, superstition and fear knows no geographical or cultural boundaries. I doubt that the staff at the Mirror believe demons exist, they are still feeding that dangerous belief to the vulnerable, susceptible and the mentally ill.

Kelly may be deluded and thoughtless, perpetuating this rubbish from a need for attention or self-worth. The Staff at the Mirror are positively callous. They perpetuate this horseshit for greed and advertising revenue.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Blown out of proportion: Rats to the tabloid press.

If there is one thing the Daily Mail loves more than inaccurate science reporting, cancer cures/causes and thinly veiled bigotry it's giant rats. Between April 2015 and today, the paper has ran with at least five prominent stories about plagues of over-sized rodents. The latest regarding a rat found in a playground in East London, being of particular interest to me as it's now been picked up by most major news outlets and is burning up a storm on social media with very few people picking up the obvious flaw in the tale (snigger).

The rodent dubbed "the hackney rat"(pictured below) was found by gas engineer Tony Smith who photographed  his electrician pal James holding the carcass in a litter picker. They were, from what I can tell from most versions of the story, the only two who saw it. Tony has also neatly copyrighted the photo. No wonder James is smiling.

See if you can immediately spot my issue with this supposedly monstrous beast.

Let's have the excellent Dermot Morgan as Father Ted Crilly explain the crux of the issue:

Most reports are claiming that it was four feet long, but the only verification of this comes from Tony and his mate James... as they stand to profit from this attention they are not likely to downplay the size are they?

The Mirror concedes that perspective maybe an issue, as do some of the other reports:
"In the picture, the rodent is being at arm's length and close to the camera, making it hard to gauge how big it really is."
But they really don't go far enough. James is holding the rat in a litter picker the lengths of which  range from 75 cm to 100cm which is also around 3ft. Factoring in his arm length, James is stood, potentially, up to five feet away from the camera! Due to the angle of James' arm to the picker the distance is likely less than this, but you get the point. Arm's length doesn't cut it.

Also, Tony claims it weighed 25 lbs, which is around 11 kg. I very much doubt that the litter picker could have held that kind of weight. Also held out like that, James should be finding it difficult to keep upright. The largest rats in the world weigh between 1 -1,5kg. Are we seriously to believe this specimen is up to ten times the size of the largest known individuals of the largest species of rat? It's almost twice the weight of the largest prehistoric rat species even!

 Here's how Hackney council brilliantly responded to concerns about the "hackney rat" on twitter:

I for one wish the tabloid press and social media would forget this kind of nonsense and focus on more pressing issues, such as the spate of two-headed dinosaur sightings on our beaches.

Let's get real people...