Thursday, 28 April 2016

Pseudoscience or "The New Science Of Afterlife Research." A Response to Stafford Betty.

This is a response to an article published by the Huffington post, April 27th, 2016, entitled "The New Science of Afterlife Research and Its Benefits to Society" by Professor of religious studies, Stafford Betty. In the article Betty heralds new research into the afterlife and the benefits it poses to humanity. Let's look at Stafford's argument and some of the latest breakthroughs in one of the areas he mentions.

Before moving forward, it's interesting to note that despite this article claiming to be about "new science" it was published in the Huff Po's religion section. Also, Betty is, as noted above a professor of religion not of any scientific discipline. Stafford's quotes in bold.
"One of the most revolutionary ideas ever conceived is that we are more than our bodies and that our true home lies beyond our physical planet... But the idea has an entirely different face today. Evidence for it is not based on traditional religious teaching, but on secular research into the mysterious depths of human consciousness."
There is secular research into this topic, as we'll tackle below, but that research hasn't provided any evidence supportive of any kind of afterlife. The best we can say these studies have provided is interesting data.
" Researchers as diverse as physicians studying the near-death experience and engineers setting up electronic equipment through which the deceased can communicate are the new high priests telling us about what to expect when we die." 

Near death experience research is notoriously difficult to apply controls to, sample sizes are typical very small and thus far researchers have failed to dismiss the fact that NDE can arise from naturalistic causes such as tunnel like structures resulting from the effects of prolonged oxygen deprivation on the eyes and brain. While I dismiss the claim it has provided evidence of the afterlife, I will accept that much NDE research is well conducted and therefore, it's probably unfair to outright dismiss it as pseudo-science. That's in stark contrast to the second line of evidence Betty cites, ITC. Is he serious here? Has he actually seen the quality of ITC research? It's laughable and easily dismissed and debunked. If Steve Huff is a legitimate researcher then I high;y recommend he checks out Tom and Jerry's important work in Fluid Dynamics!

Let's take a look at Huff's new "research" which Betty would likely see as evidence. His latest trick is to play the phenomes he snatches for scanning radio channels backwards, and claims that because they still form words this is evidence of spirit interference. 

Phenomic reversal is a well-understood phenomenon and it's not surprising that it creates sounds still subject to the effects of  audio pareidolia. Also, Huff clearly hasn't heard of the similar phenomena of backmasking, or he has and this is simply another way of pulling the wool over his follower's eyes.

Whatever, at least I can legitimately say Steve Huff is backwards now.

Of course, Betty doesn't cite Huff specifically, but I can't refute the actual work he cites, as he doesn't cite anything at all.... well he does cite one thing.... it's a doozy.and refutes almost everything he goes on to say... as you'll soon see. 

I've some bad ne
ws for Stafford, the new science he very quickly passes over in the article is nothing but pseudoscience and of as much worth as the spiritualist methods developed in the early 20th Century to investigating the spirit world. Zero.

In his conclusion Betty boldly states about these methods:
"Authentic channels through which the “dead” speak are the closest thing to the voice of God that our planet has."
And who authenticated these? Betty himself and believers in such channels? Science isn't self-authenticating. It's clear from this statement alone that Betty isn't really all that interested in science, it's a means to an end to disguise belief as knowledge. Truth in science isn't found as easily as stating something is so.

Betty continues:
"Missing, happily, are those primitive theologies of eternal damnation for some and divinely favored fates for others."

Really? ITC proponents frequently recourse to Christian mythology with messages from heaven and hell and demons and the like, and NDE cohorts frequently describe meeting theological figures such as Yahweh, Allah, and Jesus (all according to their own cultural influence of course)! Let's say that modern after-life research does forgo aspects like heaven and hell, so what? The whole idea of an afterlife is based on ancient theological concepts, you don't get to claim modernity because of the lack of a moralistic sorting system! Especially when believers will insert their own theological foundation when they process this research anyway. In Fact, we'll read Stafford do this himself in a moment.

Let's look at some of the benefits Betty claims Afterlife research brings, then I'll address the unwritten benefit I think he enjoys from this:

"We would see why it is rational to give play to the near universal instinct to pray, and through prayer help alleviate loneliness and despair in the face of personal tragedy."
After praising afterlife research for removing the old tenants of religion, Betty immediately reinserts one! After all, what is the point of praying if there is no deity to pray to? Also, that instinct to pray is often borne out of desperation and an inability or unwillingness to tackle problems we face. Praying solves nothing. In fact, one of the only studies into the effectiveness of intersectional prayer, conducted by the Templeton Foundation seemed to show that praying was detrimental to terminally ill patients life span!

"We would find strong support for the conviction that good actions meet with a happy destiny and selfish or criminal actions with the opposite. This “law of karma” has through the centuries provided the glue that helps societies stay more or less law-abiding, and it is affirmed over and over by spirit sources....The growing perception of a link between loving service to one’s neighbor and a happy outcome following death would gradually change society for the better."
Wait.... what? So after re-inserting a deity to the afterlife research Betty now sticks a reward system and implications of heaven and hell back in the mix! The hypocrisy of this absolutely staggers me, but I thank him for categorically nailing my earlier point for me. How about this revolutionary concept: perhaps we should partake in good actions and avoid the selfish and criminal because these things tend to negatively affect others? Perhaps, without notions of an afterlife, we could look at all of our lives as short and shared, and realise that is the fundamental reason to alleviate the suffering of others?

As for change "society for the better" let's look how the idea of a reward in heaven is bettering society right now.... actually... let's not you get the point.

"A deepening, widening belief in a plausible, attractive afterlife would discourage rampant greed and encourage a spirituality of compassion....  the enormous contrast between the wealthy and the impoverished of the world would be attenuated."

Yes, I totally agree with this, and just to emphasise the point here's an image of the previous head of the largest afterlife promoting organisation the world has ever seen sat on a golden throne and two of his followers...

Great attenuation going on there. Just great.

Sarcasm aside, many of Betty's arguments focus on the idea that society would benefit from more people accepting the existence of an afterlife, but common knowledge simply doesn't bear this out. Society wasn't generally better when ideas of the afterlife were more prevalent, nor are women and gay people treated any better in areas of the world where this is currently  the case, as he suggests.

"Fundamentalist religion would lose much of its appeal as the more spacious, inclusive worldviews opened up by this research replaced the divisive ideologies of bad religion. Resort to war based on these ideologies would wane, and world peace become more achievable."
Betty would argue this is the result of the particular religious systems in place at those times and in those locations, but those accepting the existence of the afterlife as a result of this research will stamp their own personal beliefs atop of the template he suggests it provides.

This isn't an argument to ignore evidence,  of course, that's not an issue we have at the moment, there is no evidence.

There's an even more outmoded theological concept to be trotted out though:
"Certain forms of mental illness would be properly diagnosed as having a spiritual etiology and would be appropriately treated. This treatment would bring relief to thousands of patients locked up in mental hospitals and to their families."
"Spiritual etiology" Betty isn't seriously talking about possession as a possible explanation for some mental illness here is he? This highlights a huge problem with  Betty's approach: he isn't waxing lyrical about a new paradigm at all: he is advocating the return to primitive beliefs and superstitions, but this time supported by what he believes is science.  That's his hidden benefit if a supposed branch of science supports his religious worldview, perhaps that worldview can be considered more than a throwback to less enlightened times. He as much as states so here:

"It would attract materialist-oriented scientists to a worldview devoid of supernatural absurdities and replace them with one governed by natural law—a natural law encompassing not only our physical world but our environment on the other side of death as well. Perhaps a new science of astral matter, already begun, would ripen."
Betty wants a scientifically supported religion but fails to realise that the concepts are mutually exclusive. The supernatural isn't an aspect of the natural world and most likely never will be. Details of the afterlife are outside what we view as the natural world because they simply can't be known.

As for this science of astral matter he's talking about, of course, he doesn't cite any references for this science, and I can't find any actual research on the matter. In fact, I can only assume that Betty has mistaken research in "astral matter science" as meaning astral as in the astral plane when what it actually means is matter created in supernovae and stellar events! Work on the kind of astral matter Betty eludes to is simply speculation and nothing more. Drawing any kind of conclusion about the astral plane requires more than just dumping materialism, it requires the presupposition that the damn thing exists in the first place without a smidgen of empirical evidence!

This isn't science, new or old. One can't apply the scientific method to speculation alone.

One of Betty's greatest problems is, I don't think he actually knows what science is. I find the idea of him describing researchers as "...the new high priests..." utterly terrifying. Science isn't religion, nor should it ever be, the scientific method finds it's main strength in the rejection of dogmatism, the sustaining force of religion. High priests were unquestionable, they had a direct line to whatever deity they claimed to serve, scientists are never beyond critique and never should be.

Betty concludes:
"Many of us hunger for a reliable revelation telling us that life here and now is meaningful and good, that each of us has an important part to play in its proper unfolding, that we are accountable for all we do, and that the spirit-denying materialism all around us is a mistake."

Just because you hunger for something doesn't mean you can fudge the truth, ignore evidence and pretend that data supports your wishes. Betty seems to think that without belief in the afterlife one must adopt some nihilistic worldview, This is utter nonsense. One can even find an close paradigm spirituality in a life without life after death. Consider this marvellous quote from physicist Lawerence Kraus for example, which perfectly sums up the wonder of life itself.

To me that's a more inspiring message that could ever be delivered by Steve Huff or a hundred years of NDE research. It gives us meaning in the here and now.

And if you think I've been a bit harsh to Betty and think that he isn't using supposed scientific research to legitimise his own theology, take a look at the only source he cites. His own most unfortunately titled, work:

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Love and Lighter wallets.

So what were we talking about? Oh yeah, grief vampires and those that exploit the precious memories of the deceased to turn a profit... On that subject...

I came across this charming lady on my Facebook wall recently, Lillyanne Psychic medium, doing a live stream in which she offers readings to several of her facebook followers. Fans of Lillyanne's page were encouraged to pick one of the following four images and were given a reading based on the image selected.

I'm sure you are already seeing the major flaw in Lillyanne's "reading technique". Her page had 161962 followers at the time of writing. In Lillyanne's live stream, reproduced below, she states that each of the readings given will have "something for everyone" (boy are those words going to bite her in the arse in a minute) who selected the corresponding picture. This means that for a short reading, they are all roughly a minute long, to apply, even in part, to 40491 people it's going to have to be extremely vague and generalised.

This is a technique used by those in the physic industry, especially astrologers who as above have to have their reading apply to vast numbers of people, called Barnum statements. Otherwise known as the Forer effect, it acquired the Barnum statement moniker due to PT Barnum's quote: "We have something for everyone". Sound familiar?

 Here's the Skeptic's Dictionary's definition of The Forer Effect with an example. bare this in mind when you watch Lillyann's video beneath it (skip to the readings at -8.40):
"The Barnum effect is the name given to a type of subjective validation in which a person finds personal meaning in statements that could apply to many people. 
For example:You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself. While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them. You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage. At times you have serious doubts whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing."
 To summarise:

Reading 1: "Relationships are not as good as what maybe they should be... could be intimate relationship, family relationship or family... but it will be fine"

Brilliant hedging of bets here, and it's the broadening of the term relationship that means this could apply to almost every human being on the face of the Earth. Can any of us say we don't have at least one close relationship that couldn't be better? Also, the spirits have awful fucking grammar...

Reading 2: "Dreaming of loved ones. Are they visiting in dreams.... could be passed friends, family or pets..."

Again pretty common experience. More hedging by including pets...

Reading 3: "It's not been brilliant.... at a crossroads changes coming... go with the flow..."

Again could apply to any situations in the sitter's lives, who can say there isn't one aspect of their lives that isn't great and desires that to change.

Reading 4: "Taking a risk... risky business... could be a house move, or a business venture or anything..." 

Lillyanne assures us that this simply can't be a coincidence that these readings fit so many. I agree it isn't a coincidence because by definition a coincidence is "a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection." and there's nothing remarkable here: she's simply described some very mundane facets of human experience!

I don't know about you, but all four of those readings are so vague that they could pretty much apply to me. I'm betting that most of you could fit those to your life too. So on that basis should we be blown away as Lillyanne's fans are? Not so much, because like you lot, I don't have anything riding on the reading. From reading her page it's clear to see many of Lillyanne's fan's clearly vulnerable people, quite a few post messages about being recently bereaved for example. For these people, these readings transcend the reading itself and provide assurance that life isn't a series of random events punctuated by loss and bereavement. In the "evidence" of psychic phenomena, they see the cruelty and randomness of nature given reason and meaning. Whether you agree with Lillyanne's activities or not at this point may well hinge on whether you believe the ends justify the means, that it's acceptable to mislead those receiving the readings, even if it is deception by omission, in order to provide false comfort.

The answer to that moral quandary may become somewhat clearer when you delve deeper into Lillyanne's page and discover it's a front for a psychic reading via text service, promoted on almost every post added by Lillyanne:

Lillyanne is part of Allstar Psychics Ltd, which is a pretty shitty network ran by Justin Toper, an astrologer for "Fate and Fortune"magazine, designed to milk every penny out of the vulnerable and grieving. Need further persuasion that Lillyane's page and public profile is little more than exercise in advertising this text service, check out the multiple endorsements, she posts on it:

PT Barnum had another quote attributed to him, though he likely never said it himself, which neatly sums up the endorsements and praise Lillyanne receives:

"There's a sucker born every minute"

Friday, 22 April 2016

Grave Robbing 21st Century Style...

My friend of mine queried today how long it would take before some shyster claimed to have contacted the recently deceased singer Prince using a so-called spirit box. I think she knew the answer was less than 24 hours after his death was announced, and I also think she knew exactly who it would be.

Step forward Steve Huff of Huff Paranormal, who, unsurprisingly is using a celebrity death to once again sell some piece of shit device to "contact the dead".  I'm not going to spend any length of time debunking the "V2 Wonder Box" or whatever, as far as I'm concerned it's core operations aren't far removed from his last hokum technology, which I commented on here.

As for Steve's comments. As you can see in the screen grab above, Huff can't even keep this own claims straight, between creating the featured video and posting it on facebook the 90% of original words have increased to 99%. Apparently this "proves" that spirits are at work. Huff clearly doesn't understand what the word proof means.

The methods used by Huff are identical to  those I exposed in my review of his "Impossible Box", the device pulls phonemes or fragments of language from radio samples, randomly sampled the meaning is provided by the listener's own mind. Audio pareidolia in other words. Once again, listening to the samples before reading Huff's onscreen transcriptions reduces the samples to nonsense or gives completely different context.

You can listen to the footage on Huff's FB page here. Try to do this without viewing Huff's captioning.

If you have an ounce of decency all this is probably leaving a bad taste in your mouth, of course, Huff has an answer to this.

"As for those who say this is disrespectful I have to 100% disagree."

We know you disagree, you've pulled this shit several times in the past.  He did the same when Robin Williams and Joan Rivers died and also when Debbie and Mark Constantino died, an act which brought him a huge amount of condemnation and cries that he should be expelled from the paranormal community. As with the Constantino case, Huff once again claims his refusal to allow a period of mourning for these celebrities before picking over their bodies is because their spirits are "easier to contact" within 24-48 hours of their death, Of course, Huff provides no evidence of his claim or even justification beyond "It's this way because I say so".

"...if they have something to say, it is much easier for them to say it within the 1st 24-48 hours (from what I have found over the years of research I have done). I am a researcher, and this is what I do..." 
He's a "researcher" so I guess we should just take at his word, right?

Hey Steve. Steve. You know what researchers provide in order to be taken seriously? They provide research. Evidence. Studies. Peer-reviewed papers. You're not a researcher. You're a fraud.

A pretty fucking despicable one too. Of course, he doesn't let that stop him from adopting the moral high ground, it's those that call him tasteless that are in the wrong:

"....anytime someone tries to take a voice away from anyone, living or dead, I question their motives."
Huff is trying to persuade us he's giving the dead a voice. He isn't. He's putting words into their mouths, an insult to those that actually knew those people. This is nothing new in the paranormal, physics and mediums have been making similar claims of public service for years. Like Huff their protestations of moral certitude are often accompanied sounds of coffers being filled.

These are modern-day grave robbers. Picking over corpses of the dead at the expense of those that loved them, pilfering not the physical trinkets left behind but something more precious, the memories they leave those who loved them. They exploit and pervert something that can never be replaced.  The most insulting thing about what Huff does, and what physics and mediums do, is they strip all the character from the people they claim speak through them. Listen to Huff's messages from Robin Williams for a case in point. The messages Huff claims to have received could have come from anybody, or crucially, nobody.

In the video above Huff exposes himself in a rare moment of honesty, at 3:18 Huff admits that he has no way to verify that this is Williams he is speaking to. That being the case all the bullshit falls away. This is horseshit, in awful taste.

You know my comparison of Huff and his ilk to grave robbers is very unfair.... at least grave robbers never  had the audacity to claim they were doing the dead a favor when they defiled them.