Thursday, 16 March 2017

The Lowdown on Paranormal Lockdown. Season 1 Episode 5 "Hinsdale House" Reviewed

Paranormal Lockdown is the new darling of paranormal investigative TV, or so I'm told by people who actually know about this stuff. As it begins airing on UK television on 16/03/2017 I think some young, intelligent, up and coming skeptic based in the UK should review a few episodes!

Until they do here's my take on an episode I recently viewed.

Hosted by the team of Nick Groff, previously of Ghost Adventures and Katrina Weidman one time star of Paranormal State, Paranormal Lockdown has a gimmick in order to distinguish from the slew of other similar shows. In this case, Groff and Weidman (below) lock themselves in an allegedly haunted location for 72 hours in search of "groundbreaking evidence" of the paranormal. Another interesting factor is the inclusion of recognisable figures from the paranormal field in each episode. Guests thus far include John Zaffis, Steve Huff, Tony Spera and Lorraine Warren and Gregg Newkirk and Dana Mathews of Week in Weird "fame."

The show aired its first season between March and April 2016 on Destination America, with the second season which aired on TLC completing its run in March 2017.

I was first introduced to the show in preparation for the Spooktator episode 18, and as I simply wouldn't have anything to contribute if I didn't watch an episode, I viewed season one episode 5 "Hinsdale House". Watching the episode pretty much confirmed the presence everything I thought I'd find in the show. More than that, however, it actually allowed me to crystallise much of what I find vexing about this form of paranormal research, or what is better termed "ghost hunting", both on television and in the practice of many teams across the US and UK in particular. If you want a snapshot of why the modern idea of "ghost hunting" is becoming farcical you could do worse than view this episode of Lockdown.

What I'm going to put on the table here isn't a straight review of lockdown as I did for Demon Files. Rather, I'll view the show through a lens of the commonly occurring tropes and problems I find with this genre of reality television. The problems listed are by no means conclusive or exhaustive, but I'm going to use the framework to review future and past "ghost hunting" TV in the same way.

Enough inside baseball. Let's crack on.

Paranormal Lockdown, Season one: episode five, Hinsdale House. 

Before moving on to the details of the specific episode itself, it's worth mentioning the complete rip-off of House of the Rising Sun that operates as the series' opening theme. Which is laughable. In fact the whole opening looks more like some mid-90's Angel/X-Files rip off.

Problem 1: "Feels Over Reals" The Over Reliance On Subjective Evidence

Aww... Nick "feels sadness." I feel nauseated.
Most paranormal investigation TV shows place an emphasis on the "evidence" collected and presented during the course of an episode, but I've noticed that so much of this is in the form of the "feelings" of the on-screen investigators. These feelings are subjective and shouldn't be considered evidence at all. Statements such as "I have an oppressive feeling" or "I feel like something wants us to get out" may add a sense of dread to the show when not much else is happening, but they add nothing else.

Viewing this episode of Paranormal Lockdown allowed me to quantify just how reliant these shows can be on presenting subjective feelings as evidence. To do this I counted the number of times Groff, Weidman or the episode's guest "star" Tony Spera, son in law of Ed and Lorraine Warren, issued a statement that began "I feel..." or implied some unnatural sense which could not be verified. I also included times when Groff claimed to have "heard" sounds which were not recorded by the crew's equipment.

The total number of subjective statements made the team: 33.

Statements include:

"We all feel something dark."

"I felt a burst of energy."

"I feel like I'm being dragged back." and "I feel like I'm being strangled."

"I feel like I'm being punched in the head." 

"(I feel) a negative overwhelming energy."

And most laughably:

"I feel confident in the evidence we've collected."

Ok, that last one is a bit cheeky.

That's all in 42 minutes, so a subjective statement on average every 76 seconds! Consider I've not included the show's numerous recaps in that count, and that the running time includes the lengthy intro song.

Compare this with the number of pieces of objective evidence offered by the show: 2. Both EVP samples, which are, ironically, highly subjective in nature themselves!

"there's no heaven" After learning Paranormal Lockdown has been commissioned for season 3 I tend to agree
Unsurprisingly, these samples are presented with on-screen captioning so there's no possibility of the audience hearing anything that Groff doesn't want them to hear, or worse case scenario, random noise. In fact, this is so widespread in ghost hunting let's call that:

Problem 2: EVP and ITC methods presented in a highly suggestible way with no mention of the various equipment flaws, such as the auto gain circuit, which can lead to anomalous data.

Which all leads to:

Problem 3: Scientific Equipment as window dressing.

Many fans of ghost hunting television are commending Lockdown for its use of scientific methodology and equipment, that fact that absolutely stuns me, as in the Hinsdale house episode, barring the use of what seems to be a simple dictaphone and night vision cameras they don't actually use any equipment! I was expecting the usual tropes of K2 meters, thermal cameras or at least laser thermometers but Groff and Weidman don't use any of it. They do appear to have this stuff with them on the investigation, but it isn't directly referenced.

It's for this reason, I've decided to review a second episode of the show, I was going to do it immediately but this post is likely to be lengthy enough. I know Groff and crew must resort to this kind of bunk at some point as Steve Huff has been involved with their show and bullshit paranormal technology is his bag.

What I've noticed is the technology that is featured in these shows is mere window dressing, employed to lend an air seriousness and credibility to findings. Of course, this credibility instantly disappears under the scrutiny of anyone who can actually use or understands the equipment in question. I'd go even further, in the case of the TV shows in question, the equipment used is a MacGuffin, a device required to move the plot along. Easy to conclude when you see a hapless ghost hunter waving an EMF detector around like Harry Potter with his wand.

During a section where Tony Spera explains the swarm of flies in the window is due to a strong electromagnetic field produced by a demon (presumably a tiny demon sat on the window ledge) I expect Groff to whip out some form of equip to detect this. He doesn't, perhaps because he knows flies swarm in windows because they tend to be pretty warm during the day, also some species of flies lay their eggs in window frames. Also, there is no evidence flies are attracted to electromagnetic fields despite Groff laughably telling us that "many believe" this.

As for the claim that demons give off electromagnetic fields.

Problem 4: Unverifiable Statements about entities not proven to exist given as fact.

A statement like the one above by Tony Spera that demons give off electromagnetic fields in patently nonsense, as are any similar comments made in these shows about ghosts. As these things have never been shown to exist, and as of yet, there aren't any phenomena that occur in the natural world that can only be explained by something with attributes of demons or ghosts. So not only have ghosts and demons not been shown to exist, there isn't any NEED for them to exist. It's shocking how casually ghost hunters slip in facts about paranormal phenomena and the qualities possessed by the same.

Include in this:

"What we're getting in... all adds to to demonic."

"Their overall goal is to break you down..."

"These physical effects... are warning signs of a demonic possession"

All mentioned in this episode, and which lead to:

Problem 5: If ghosts and demons haven't been shown to exist.....

....Then there's no way to distinguish between a "demonic haunting" and a regular haunting. Again, Groff, Spera and Weidman's justification for making this differentiation in the class of haunting is how they all feel about the house. This cuts down the drama of the paranormal investigation show, a genre of TV that has been used "demons" increasingly over the last decade as a device to up the ante with a public desensitised to ghosts, which can often be presented as placid or even well meaning. Demons are always evil, dangerous and menacing, the mention of such, especially in more fundamentalist Christian areas of the US is likely to increase the audience's cathartic sense of fear and titillation. It's more likely to keep them watching.

This means that big moment when one of the investigators turns to the audience and says "I think... it's demonic!" is essentially a damp squib if any thought is actually given to what they propose. "Well, we don't actually know if demons exist. or ghosts, so we've no way of actually knowing if our location is haunted at all... but if we did, I've had a headache since lunch....and was roughly the time we entered..." may be more honest, but it isn't going to fly with viewers.

Crinkly old shill Lorraine Warren menacingly warning Groff to go to Church for protection, I can see that working with both Bible belt Americans and thrill-seeking movie goers.

Problem 6: How Dangerous are demons again?

This isn't necessarily a major point, but one thing that strikes me about shows that wax lyrical about the dangers of demons, ghosts and negative entities is that on occasion when these beings to manifest physical harm, it's normally a superficial scratch or welt. In this episode of Lockdown, for example, we hear from Groff. Spera and Warren how dangerous demons are. Spera warns Nick he may be battered physically (with some glee too). Warren even describes being strangled in the house, but when it comes time for Nick to be assaulted he receives a small scratch on his hand. One that doesn't even leave a mark.

Problem 7: An Over-emphasis on a location's history.

Groff and Weidman, during the course of the investigation, tell us numerous accounts of Hinsdale house's history, fleeing families, brothers shot in the woods and boys killed in bandsaw accidents, amongst other anecdotes we'll cover in problem 8 below. This is a common theme with ghost hunting TV which has carried through to pedestrian teams, a great deal of research is conducted in the history of a supposedly haunted location. These anecdotes of past events and encounters are frequently linked by these teams to current events with little or no reason to do so. Investigations should be conducted without the risk of a prior knowledge of a location introducing bias to collected data.

Local history is often added in these shows for "flavour" who doesn't love a ghost story? And ghost stories need a narrative beginning, in the case of a ghost story the beginning comes in the form of a death. Unfortunately, real-life teams have taken a blatant story-telling element from these shows and integrated it into their work.

Speaking of "story telling".

Problem 8: Complete fabrication and wild speculation.

The only thing worse than the use of historical events introducing bias to an investigation is the introduction of completely fabricated events, to which a framework of wild speculation is built.

During the course of the episode Groff and Weidman, with Spera in tow, set from into the woods surrounding Hinsdale house. Groff tells us the woods have been a site of satanic rituals for some time, quite how he knows this is unclear. If there is a secret cabal of Satanists performing black masses in American forests, isn't the keyword "secret"? This becomes part of the haunting narrative when Groff later claims to hear "chanting" in the same woods.

He also tells us the house is built on "native Indian burial grounds" that old chestnut. He later adds "supposedly" to that assertion. And who exactly is asserting this? Where has Nick got this information from? We're never told. Just that clearly this has something to do with the hauntings.

We are also given the story of a woman, allegedly hung in the woods around Hinsdale. "Over 100 years ago, a woman was said to have been hanged in these woods..." Groff suggests. Again we get no indication of where Nick acquired this information, who this woman was, who hung her, who found her. Nothing. What we do get is a laughable sequence in which Groff and Weidman, and I'm not fucking joking here, go looking for a tree that "looks old enough" for the woman to have been hung from. Of course. they find one that fits the bill and conclude that it very likely is the correct tree. A few supposed EVPs confirm this is the right tree, as does Weidman's feeling of unease.

Looks creepy enough... this is definitely the location of our imaginary hanging

On the journey to the tree, Weidman speculates that the woman was an unwed woman, pregnant with child. Nick agrees "she could be pissed off" he adds, later speculating that this is the reason the Hinsdale spirit has targeted him. It doesn't like men. Again wild speculation is built into the show's narrative.

Problem 9: Investigating in the dark

Again a staple of both paranormal television and real ghost hunting groups, no investigator who uses this technique has been able to explain to me why ghost hunting is more likely to bear fruit when conducted in darkness. Surely investigators should be seeking to emulate conditions in which past sightings have occurred? Of course, ghost hunting in a well-lit environment isn't half as tense. The investigators themselves may not be as frightened and thus lessen the catharsis experienced by their viewers. Also hunting in well-lit environments may cause dissonance in a general public conditioned by television and film to expect ghostly occurrences in darkened enviroments.

Problem 10: The "Lockdown" premise is faulty

In a similar theme to the one above, no ghost hunter has yet to explain to me satisfactorily the purpose of locking down a location during an investigation. Many suggest that this is a form of control as exercised in scientific experiments. Here's the problem with that thinking. Firstly, as ghosts are yet to have been quantified as possessing particular qualities or causing particular environmental effects, how can one put in place "controls" for these effects.

Secondly, if we speculate that ghosts do, for example, cause cold spots, or anomalous electromagnetic fields, simply preventing people from entering a location isn't going to protect that location from drafts or electromagnetic fields generated by cameras and other pieces of equipment.

Finally,  these locations are rarely ever truly "locked down", in the episode in question Weidman wanders in and out of the house with a cameraman as Groff is conducting EVPs in an upstairs room. We are told there are no other crew members in attendance, but we can't be sure of this. In most ghost hunting shows we see different members of the crew split into teams to investigate different areas within a location, surely causing environmental disturbances.

Problem 11: Where's the baseline?

As with every other ghost hunting television show I've ever seen, the Lockdown team make no effort to measure baseline readings in the target location. As a result, they simply cannot know what constitutes a normal reading for that location. This means they can't suggest what is an anomalous reading is for that location!

For me, this is one of the main factors why I simply can't take most "ghost hunting," again delineating this from legitimate paranormal investigation, seriously.  If paranormal occurrences are suggested by anomalous data, it's vital to know what constitutes an anomaly.

Conclusion and Problem 12: The lack of originality in ghost hunting TV.

During the show Groff suggests that what he and Weidman are doing is "hardcore investigation", I legitimately don't see any investigation happening in this episode. A stark example of this is the image of Groff "investigating" by lying on a bed talking to himself. Shouting "I need answers" does not constitute looking for answers. The only thing Nick is investigating here is the comfort of mattresses in haunted locations!

Nick investigating Hinsdale house in a similar style to the investigation Goldilocks conducted in the three bears home.
The most striking thing about Paranormal Lockdown is how nonstriking it is. It's so similar to what has gone before, I was able to use a sample episode to define problems with the genre as a whole. Sure it has a gimmick, one which happens to be commonly employed in many other shows of this nature. But, it's otherwise indistinguishable. In fact, I'd say the most distinguishing factor is that Nick and Katrina seem strangely unmoved by what they are doing. Almost bored even...

Problem 13: When the stars of your ghost hunting show seem exhausted and bored maybe it's time to find a new format.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Shut that Door! Brazilian Poltergeist Video Debunked.

I'm currently working on a review of Paranormal Lockdown, whilst I do that I've got time for a quick debunking. Yet another ghost video is doing the rounds. Allegedly filmed in a Brazilian morgue, although later iterations of the story place the footage in a children's hospital in the same country, the video shows two security guards or janitors again depending on the source, approaching a rapidly opening and closing door.

Take a look.

Creepy right?

But, the footage raises a few questions. Why is the torch kept on a very narrow beam? Why does the person filming the incident give us a good view of the corridor EXCEPT on the left-hand side?

As always the key to debunking this one is ignoring the typically low-res versions offered on tabloid news sites and going to the original source on Youtube, where we can examine the footage on full screen and in glorious X0.25 speed.

There we find, during the handy examination of the door by the janitor/guard, our old foe... FISHING WIRE! This time it's been ingeniously attached to the inside of the door.

Yep, nice try, but got ya. Hook, line and sinker.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Science is not the enemy: A Response to "Limits of science, trust and responsibility"

Brian Cox' comments regarding the limits of physics and the supernatural certainly have opened some old wounds in the paranormal community, but let's not pretend that anger and mistrust of science and scientists is anything new. It's especially prevalent in the psi-supporting pockets of said community.

I suspect this is due to some of Psi's leading figures, Rupert Sheldrake especially, making a nice career in book sales and on the lecture circuit presenting science, the modern edifice of academia and scientists in particular as the enemy of psi research. Claims of rejected papers, silenced and ignored researchers and nasty skeptics abound. I will hardly be the first to point out that much of Sheldrake's ire seems a result of his perceived rejection by the scientific community. The truth is amongst the many facets of the scientific method is the concept of replicability. If results of an experiment are to be accepted they should be replicated by independent researchers and yield similar results. Experiments in psi suffer from a huge replicability crisis. Positive results disappear when experiments are conducted by independent teams of researchers, especially when these teams tighten up on the methodology used by the original experimenters. A great example of this would be Daryl Bem's Ganzfield experiments hailed at one time as a breakthrough in psi research, many teams attempted to replicate Bem's results and met with abject failure.

I recently came across an article written by Tom Bulter (above), Co-Director of  ATransC, an organisation which collects various ITC and EVP "studies" and "evidence." Butler also served as an advisor to Michael Keaton horror film "White Noise". The piece, entitled "(An) Open Letter to Paranormalists: Limits of science, trust and responsibility"  couldn't more reflect the mistrust and anger at the scientific establishment that I discussed above. In showing just how wrong the author is, I hope to also show that science isn't the enemy of the "paranormalist" but should be wholeheartedly embraced by anyone with the slightest hope that paranormal research will ever have a shred of credibility.

The letter is directed to "paranormalists" a term Butler uses in much of his material, which he defines as:
"paranormalist(s) are people who experience, study or have a more than casual interest in psychic ability (psi functioning, remote viewing, healing intention), healing intention (biofield healing, distant healing, healing prayer) and the phenomena related to survival of consciousness (mediumship, visual and audible ITC, hauntings)."

Did butler really intend to use "or" here rather than "and" as by his definition, I as someone who has never experienced anything remotely "paranormal" still qualify as a paranormalist because I have more than a casual interest in the same.

Before the letter begins Butler gives us a preamble that contains information that provides context to the letter itself:

"The “science” practiced by parapsychologists is not necessarily good. Much of it is done to prove paranormalists are delusional. You and I know that, to prove we are delusional, they must ignore or falsely represent our evidence...scientists are supposed to be our friends. Some are, but the majority consider the average paranormalist inferior in many ways … as second-class citizens that are not as smart, as well educated or as wise as people with a Ph.D."
The point of any research isn't to ignore or falsely represent evidence, it's to collect data that may eventually be considered evidence. Bulter's letter has barely begun and the antagonistic tone is established. I also get more than a touch of bitterness in Bulter's words. Sorry, but if you don't have a PhD you are less educated than someone that does, in the field that the PhD has been earned at least. This doesn't make you "inferior" but it does mean if you're arguing with a professor of biology about the theory of evolution, you are somewhat deluded. Arrogant even.
"If you want to see these phenomena properly studied, if you want informed scientists to help you understand your experiences, if you want to see this field of study evolve into a well-understood science, then it is important that you know who to trust, who to believe and with whom it is safe to trust your phenomena.... It is for you to be aware of the differences, because many of those who have not been aware of the difference, have regretted ever volunteering to be research subjects."
This is a very worrying and devicise rhetoric. Implying that believers shouldn't trust some scientists, predominantly those who don't pander to their beliefs, is simply a way for people like Butler to push bad ideas like EVP without the intervention of nay-saying skeptics or others who endorse critical thinking. OK, let's agree with Butler but go further. Don't trust scientists blindly, any of them.  And don't trust me or Butler. So check out studies, check that the methodologies used in these studies are sound. Don't trust scientists.

Trust the scientific method.

Butler goes on to discuss the model he uses to describe the paranormal in the letter. I find his use of the word "model" most interesting. Generally speaking, when scientists propose models of reality they use existing theories and data to construct them. The aim being to describe, analyse or quantitfy some complex element of the natural world. In physics models are often over-simplistic, mockingly referred to as "spherical cows" because of a joke frequently told by physicists.* Despite their simplicity, these models have utility. I wonder if Butler's model will meet these criteria?

Early indications in the preamble suggest not:
"The model is based on currently understood mainstream and parapsychological science. Unlike more widely accepted models, it is greatly informed by lessons learned from mediumship and Instrumental TransCommunication (ITC), especially Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP)."
Hmm... so Burton's model isn't based on a pre-existing framework of laws and theories, but based on the anecdotal evidence of mediumship and highly subjective and frankly suspicious evidence provided by ITC and EVP.

The first part of Butler's letter divides parapsychologists into three distinct categories. I'm not going to detail this part too much but you can follow the above link and check it out for yourselves. The outcome of the division is clearly stated: Parapsychologists who have a materialistic world view are "debunkers" and presumably the scientists Butler suggests paranormalists should not trust. What Butler fails to grasp, or aims to ensure his audience fail to grasp, is that the scientific method is employed to ensure that experimenters world views don't taint the outcome of experiments. This does fail, but only when the experiment has a methodology that isn't robust enough- that's why transparency in science is so vital. It's also why science has peer review and replicability.

Hey, don't most psi-related studies with positive results fail replicability tests? Funny that.

Butler then gives an account of how "paranormalists" experience paranormal phenomena, involving cartesian duality. I'll be frank what follows is word salad to me. Possibly I'm just a bit thick. Also, Butler's description of our minds becoming entangled with our bodies at birth sounds suspciously like L. Ron Hubbard's crazy "thetans" story upon which Scientology is based.

Here's the full pitch:
"The avatar model seems to best describe what we know about our etheric-physical nature. The idea is that a person is the conscious self of an immortal etheric personality which becomes entangled with a human body at the moment of the human’s birth. The conscious self experiences a lifetime from the perspective of the human....

In a very real sense, you create your world. It only exists as your mostly unconscious perceptual processes assign meaning to sensed environmental psi signals. Those psi signals come from your loved ones, your collective of fellow personalities, thoughtforms, your body’s self-image and your physical body’s five physical senses.

A model that is useful and may as well be correct is that a person is necessary for a psi influence to manifest in the physical. Put differently, you, or an interested observer, provide the channel for trans-etheric influences such as EVP, remote viewing, precipitation and haunting phenomena."
 What we "know" or what Butler believes? It's a vast understatement to say there isn't any evidence of what Butler suggests, it's wild speculation. Don't worry if didn't understand a word of what Butler says here a diagram will clear things up surely?
"Here, I will explain that all the functional areas in the Life Field with Avatar Diagram (below), except the human body itself, are etheric. If you take a little time to contemplate the implications of this point, I think you will see that conscious self has experiences, and by convention, assigns physicality to experiences encountered from the avatar perspective."

I actually think Butler is unnecessarily adding complexity to the idea of Cartesian duality, this too conflicts with one of the core principles of creating a scientific model: elegance. A 2010 paper published in Nature Nanotechnology describes elegance in scientific models as follows:
“When a theory or a model explains a phenomenon clearly, directly and economically, we say it is elegant: one idea, easy to understand, can account for a large amount of data and answer many questions.” (Chris Tourney, Elegance and Empiricism 2010, Nature Nanotechnology)
Butler's model and its description do seem to meet many of the criteria of pseudoscience. Take a look at this description of how to spot pseudoscience taken from website relatively thinking and see how many points I've highlighted in Bulter's model already:

I make it the first five, plus I know this model hasn't been peer reviewed, so that's six. And Cartesian duality is frequently refuted.... full house?

The letter continues.
"Our experience in the ATransC has shown that a person tends to record EVP that confirms mostly unconsciously held beliefs."
Or could it be that a person's unconscious beliefs inform what they think they hear in those EVP responses? Much like paranormal teams that present their EVPs with screen caps, the element of suggestibility is a major factor in visual and audio pareidolia which is often overlooked. Sometimes purposefully. Apparently, key to Butler's model of the paranormal is the placement of the cart before the horse.
"This science is still evolving and these points are still only indicators, but the message to us is that what we experience tends to agree with what we believe. We tend to more often have possibly genuine paranormal experience if we believe in the paranormal. Conversely, if we do not believe in the paranormal, we might not even notice such experiences."
Again, you tend to believe you've had genuine paranormal experiences if you happen to believe in the paranormal. This isn't any form of revelation, believers are less likely to search for a rational explanation for an experience if they preemptively believe that paranormal phenomena exists and therefore IS a rational explanation.
"Research has shown that people who believe in paranormal phenomena are more apt to think a picture is paranormal then those who do not believe. This is true of all forms of phenomena. It does not mean there is no paranormal phenomena, only that some of us are not as discerning as we need to be. 
This tendency to error on the side of paranormal is used by Anomalistic Psychologists to prove that all reported phenomena are errors in perception. It can be difficult to know, when reading Anomalistic Psychology research reports, that the intention is to debunk rather than to understand." 
I'm not trained in psychology, so I can't even begin to speak about the field, but I'm as certain as a layman can be that the aim of anomalistic psychology is not to debunk anything. The aim surely, in the study of the paranormal by anomalistic psychologists and parapsychologists is to understand through study psychological causes for reports and experiences of paranormal phenomena. The fact that this endeavour inadvertently does debunk some reported paranormal phenomena can hardly be held against science. To suggest otherwise smacks of sour grapes.

Speaking of which.
"It is understood that scientists hold a Ph.D. in the field to which they apply the scientific method. Yes, anyone can conduct science, but the system is designed to filter out all but academically trained people. I hold a BSEE and it is acceptable for me to say that I study a subject, but saying that I am researching a subject is not technically acceptable. "

There's a reason that PhDs and those working towards PhDs tend to be considered qualified to perform research because scientific subjects are incredibly dense and complex, so much so that it's necessary to diversify and specialise in a very specific area. A deep understanding of a specialised field of study takes years to achieve. It's this level of knowledge and dedication that is required to perform research in science where new knowledge should conform with existing laws and theories.
"Remember I said that Anomalistic Psychologists deliberately ignore evidence of paranormal phenomena. To make their point, they must find ways to conduct research with practitioners that will show the practitioner is delusional or cheating. From experience, there is a good possibility that, even if you produce phenomena under controlled conditions, the resulting report will be written to suggest that you did not or in some way may have been cheating. For instance, there might be ten words acknowledging the phenomena and a hundred words explaining it away."
It's often claimed by proponants of psi research that methodologies are designed to eliminate positive results, but if the rigorous application of the scientific method eliminates positive results then they were probably an artefact of the poor protocol. This seems to be unfair to Butler, clearly from his letter he takes the application of science personally. He blames scientists for the failure of well-conducted studies to show positive results. They're out to discredit him and other "paranormalists". Or maybe science doesn't hold much stock in EVP and ITC, Butler's personal area of study, because there's nothing scientific about them?

Butler's model of mind/body duality makes one prediction:
"If I did the work correctly, the model should be reasonably close to what you believe..."
Butler has designed a scientific model with the sole purpose of conforming to his own beliefs. Science and scientists will never and should never accept this blatant sophistry.

*There is this dairy with cows and everything. The dairy farmer wants to increase his production of milk. To do this, she hires three consultants – an engineer, a psychologist, and a physicist. After a week, the engineer comes back with a report. He said: “If you want to increase milk production, you need to get bigger milk pumps and bigger tubes to suck the milk through.”

Next came the psychologist. He said: “You nee to make the cows produce more milk. One way to do this is to make them calm and happy. Happy cows produce happy milk. Paint the milking stalls green. This will make the cows think of grass and happy fields. They will be happy.”

Finally, the physicist came to present her ideas. She said: “Assume the cow is a sphere….”

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

The Mirror Missing The Mirror.. And The Investigative Team That Didn't Investigate!

I say this a lot, but prepare yourself for a new low in paranormal tabloid reporting AND the methods of paranormal "investigation" teams... 

The story "Mysterious 'spectre with face, hand and CLAWS' floats at unsuspecting woman's shoulder in chilling photo taken at homeappeared in March 3rd Mirror and marks their very real effort to snatch the title "fake news" outlet of choice, as well as the title "most ungainly headline imaginable 2017." The "news"paper tells us of a "terrifying apparition" which appeared in a photograph next to mother Lou Johnston, 44, from Hull.

The Mirror quotes Lou as follows:
"Some see the picture and automatically think it's a mirror behind me and that is a reflection - but there is no mirror behind me. I don't even own a mirror of that size... I've had so many people get in touch and say that it is something paranormal and it can't be explained at all. Lots of people see the shape of a figure stood next to me with a hand and claws. I have always been a sceptic so I just let people offer their thoughts on it.""
That's what this strikes me as glare created by the flash of a camera or other light source reflecting off something highly reflective. A mirror being chief suspect. But Lou tells us she doesn't own a mirror that size. Hmmm... so if that's the case why has the Mirror felt it necessary to crop the image in such an extreme way. They don't normally exclude heads and feet.

The answer is abundantly clear, they've cropped the image to hide what appears to be a mirror behind Lou. Need convincing you skeptical bunch?

Well, the Star ran the same story, and being generally a bit thicker and/or lazier than the Mirror they ran the picture uncropped... right above Lou's denial of owning a full-length mirror.

Take a closer (right), you'll clearly see it appears to be light reflecting from the Mirror Lou doesn't own. I actually think it's a shaft of sunlight rather than the flash, as you can see the sunlight on the carpet by Lou's feet. I know Lou claimed the image was taken at 10pm but let's face it, she's already lied to cover what she know is the blatant cause of this apparition.

The Star and the Mirror both handily (pun intended) help debunk another element of Lou's tall tale. The "claw" of the manifestation is blatantly Lou's hand. But again if you're a fan of hard evidence Lou helpful replicates her original hand on hip pose. The Star even provide a side by side comparison (below)!

So, what's the upshot of this? What does it mean for bloggers such as myself who cover this kind of tripe. Clearly, these papers don't give a fudge about what they're printing. Why the hell should we?

(continued after image)

For me, stories like this and the Star Chilean poltergeist story have done nothing but made me more resolute to continue my debunkings. This kind of blatant fabrication by the press must be called out. Make no mistake critical thinking is under attack right now. I may not be on the front line, but I'm at home selling war-bonds at least.

As long as there are people out there who take these stories seriously there has to be someone prepared to show them how false they are. As skeptics or even skeptical believers, we can't resolve to leave people behind because they're more susceptible to this rubbish than us.

Whilst I have sympathy for believers who are taken in by this rubbish, my softer side quickly evaporates when I see "investigative teams" failing to do a modicum of research. Case in point: It was shared on Facebook by paranormal group Marston Vale Paranormal investigations. 

Now frankly MVPI should be ashamed of falling for this crap, and doubly ashamed that they copy and pasted the Mirror's story to their own site. In fact, they've done this copy and paste with several recent ghost stories in the press. MVPI proudly brag about being investigators since 2009, but couldn't do the five minutes research that it took me from my couch to expose this story?

Let's compare the work they did on the recent "fishing trip selfie ghost" to the work the awesome Kenny Biddle did. Once again MVPI simply copy and pasted the story from a tabloid source, this time the Mail. Now go to Kenny's page and see what he did, he stripped the photo performed various analysis and other stuff I'm way too thick to understand (left) and got a plausible answer. There should be no reason MVPI aren't working as hard as Kenny, or me, or any number of investigators and bloggers.

As if only to compound my frustration at the team, this is the "mission statement" on their website:
"We strive to find reasonable explanations behind paranormal experiences and this is done by going to locations and using our equipment. We gather evidence of any phenomena and examine it hopefully finding a plausible reason behind our findings."

Well, you didn't do much "striving" here did you guys? And you want people, potentially scared and vulnerable people at that, to invite you lot into their homes and conduct investigations?

Further investigation on their site reveals the team's alleged dedication to rational explanations, the scientific method and identifying dismissing natural phenomena.
"We at Marston Vale Paranormal investigate to the best of our ability and the capabilities of our equipment, and using professional computer software suites we attempt to find a reasonable explanation behind anything captured either via photograph, video, audio or electro-magnetic. We take during daylight hours control images for comparisons so we have something to work with in trying to find plausible reasons for capturing light or audio at locations... Some images show capture of rain (although you are asking for trouble taking flash photos in the rain, everything turns into orbs!), insects, dust, or other organic matter, not everything on film is a 'ghost', however we prefer to use the term 'paranormal'. Paranormal is a general term that designates experiences that lie outside "the range of normal experience or scientific explanation" or that indicates phenomena that are understood to be outside of science's current ability to explain or measure. "
I guess that doesn't extend to the content of your website.


Monday, 6 March 2017

Meet The New Skeptical Heroes Of YouTube: Cult Leaders, Global Warming Denialists and Conspiracy Theorists.

What do you think of when you think "skeptic" or "skepticism"? For me, the term means someone who applies the scientific method to claims, someone who values empiricism and objective evidence. I picture conjurer James Randi challenging James Hydrick with styrofoam pieces on TV. Instantly breaking the deceit of an up and coming woo-merchant with nothing more than a couple of cents worth of packing foam (below), or behind the scenes derailing Uri Gellar's appearance on the Tonight Show simply by instructing the Johnny Carson's crew not to let Geller anywhere near the cutlery. Or carefully exposing Peter Popoff's scam ministry with the aid of a radio scanner. 

I picture Simon Singh standing up up the British Chiropractic association who
attempted to sue him regarding his description of the chiropractic method as "bogus". Singh risked ruin to stand by his condemnation of chiropractors. He and his supporters, including the charity Sense about Science, help reform British libel laws for the better as well as bring accurate information about a potentially harmful medical practice, arguably no more effective than placebo, to the attention of the public.

I picture freezing cold skeptics in 10:23 tee shirts and inspired by Randi and a group of Belgian skeptics who preceded them, overdosing on Homoeopathic remedies outside the Royal Albert Hall in an attempt to influence major British retailers and health organisations to questioning the efficacy of homoeopathic interventions. A stunt which worked. Since that mass demonstration organised by the Merseyside Skeptics Society and matched by skeptical groups all over the country, NHS support for homoeopathy has steadily dwindled. The battle is by no means over, the Good Thinking Society now carries that mantle in the UK and do great work in presenting accurate information regarding the efficacy of homoeopathy to the general public.

Finally, I picture Richard Feynman. Nearing the end of his life confronting NASA regarding their failures in preventing the Challenger disaster. Brave and uncompromising, Feynman exposed the disconnect between NASA heads and their engineers with nothing more than a glass of ice water and a rubber O-ring.  Feynman refused to toe the line of the Rogers commission and conducted his own investigation into the disaster, resulting in Rogers referring to Feynman as a "pain in the ass". Feynman couldn't give a shit about politics or massaging egos. He wanted the truth. And he got it.

My description of a skeptic isn't universal of course, nor should it be. But, some people's descriptions are so far from mine that I wonder if we're even speaking the same language. This was never more true than when I read a recent Facebook post by Michael Shermer. No one can doubt the impact that Shermer himself has had on the skeptical movement, his book "Why People Believe Weird Things" is one of the seminal works of skepticism, standing alongside Carl Sagan's "Demon Haunted World" and James Randi's "Flim Flam". His legacy is assured. What I'm less enthused about is Shermer's recent hailing of Stefan Molyneux as "one of the most important podcasters for reason" in regards to his discussion with Molyneux "why skepticism is important".

Molyneux, in case you weren't aware, is a blogger who is also a prominent figure in men's rights activism and operates the Freedomain radio (FDR) community, a group which has been repeatedly accused of cult-like tendencies. This includes encouraging members to "De-Foo" (Foo being Molynuex's term for member's families Family Of Origin). This is absolutely no different from Scientology's attempts to have members "disconnect" from family member's and friends who aren't part of the organisation, one of the key factors that has led to many skeptics demanding they are labelled as a cult. The British Cult Information Centre is currently monitoring FDR and a representative of the charity states of the group: “(FDR are) symptomatic of a worrying trend. I’ve seen these families torn apart by loved ones first of all accessing the Web sites of this group and then being influenced in some way by the leader and becoming—from that point on—alienated from family and friends.”

If that isn't enough to suspect that Molyneux isn't exactly prime skeptic material, consider his recent platforming of global warming denialists (no don't call them skeptics) including their googly-eyed provocateur in chief, Lord Christopher Monckton (left). I agree that skeptics should hold open and frank discussions and debates with pseudo-scientists, but I don't hold they should roll over and let bullshit flow unchecked. During Molyneux's almost two-hour conversation with Monckton, Shermer's "important voice for reason" fails to call out one single inaccuracy. Nor does he pause for a second to point out at Monckton doesn't have a single science qualification to his name. He doesn't point out that Monckton's data is sourced from a single satellite source, the RSS, the outlier in seven independent sources of global temperature, all of which show a similar increase in global temperature over time. Molyneux didn't point out that the authors of the outlying RSS data, have explained why it shows no overall increase in temperature, going as far as to publish a paper explaining their errors and presenting the corrected data. Neither does he point out that the Chinese science journal, in which Monckton claims to have had a scientific paper refuting climate change published, is indeed peer reviewed and well respected. But the paper's online repository, where Monckton's paper actually appeared is "pay to play" and therefore not peer reviewed and not well respected. David Roundtree could have his "Wormhole theory of the paranormal" published there if he stumped up the cash!

In addition to these sins of omission, Molyneux also helps Monckton out by describing legitimate feedback factors in the calculating of global temperature as "magic multipliers." As a legitimate skeptic and frequent critic of Monckton, Potholer 54, points out in the video linked below, Molyneux is using "magic" here as a place-holder for something he doesn't understand.

Shermer isn't alone in lauding a very questionable individual as a bastion of skeptical principles.

Youtuber Computing Forever recently published a video on his channel entitled "The Third Phase of The YouTube Skeptic Community" in which he recants his definition of skeptics' victories, not over crooked pastors, millionaire woo-merchants or bogus medical interventions, but over "SJW" and feminism bloggers and vloggers. He talks about the "skeptic community's war" on social justice, linking to moronic vlogger Andy Warski who laments that the driving of SJW channels and content creators from youtube is depriving him of material. Clearly, it isn't apparent to Computing Forever that this lament is tantamount to an admission that Warski is not a skeptic. For actual skeptics there will never be a dearth of material. If these individuals gave a shit about skepticism, rather than just criticism of those not in political alignment with them, they'd find another focus without too much effort.

Nor does Computing Forever mention the method by which these progressive-left content creators have been driven from Youtube. How exactly have these "victories" have been achieved? Doctor Phillip Moriarty is a physics professor at the University of Nottingham, he was a part of the excellent physics Youtube series Sixty Symbols and also a vocal supporter of feminism and social justice. I didn't always agree with his political opinions but I respected the way he presented them and enjoyed his physics and science output. He left youtube after his personal information was revealed and threats were made to his family. The same happened recently to vlogger the Wooly Bumblebee after she dared to criticise alt-right luvvie Bearing. Computing Forever laughably describes the left's "assault on free speech" clearly failing to view threats and intimidation from the right as similar affronts.

Is this a victory for skepticism? Or "another trophy in the cabinet of Skepticism" as CF puts it?

Well, I have to wonder if I would have held Randi in such high regard if instead of exposing Popoff, Gellar and Hydrick, he'd anonymously informed them if they didn't disappear he'd grind up their kids in a wood chipper? Would Feynman's legacy of critical thinking above all else stand if he'd threatened to strangle the kids of NASA executives with those O-rings? What if the Merseyside Skeptics Society had stood outside Boots shouting "Cuck" at anyone who purchases homoeopathic products? Think that would have influenced the public, or governmental policy, even slightly?

Warski, who CF hails as a part of the new phase of skepticism has a channel filled with anti-SJW rhetoric and nothing else. I don't see any application of the scientific method in the sample of his videos I've watched, I don't see any opportunity to apply skepticism throughout his catalogue. When you are critiquing an opinion or a political stance there isn't much room for a scientific methodology. Sure you can use this method to undermine source materials, but Warski doesn't attack studies or their misrepresentation. He critiques people and their opinions. The same can be said for many of the other individuals CF lauds as the new bastions of critical thinking on Youtube (pictured below). Note too, that Computing Forever humbly includes himself in his collage of the preeminent figures of "phase 3 Youtube skepticism." He's represented by the cartoon with the ginger beard.

As with Warski, most of the individuals pictured above focus their content on the critique of opinions and political positions. It doesn't matter whether we agree or disagree with them, critiquing opinion alone is not skepticism. Nor is mocking and trolling those who hold opposing positions. This is all the Kraut and Tea, Bearing and Chris Ray Gun do on their channels. I wouldn't describe them as skeptics at all.

Conversely, Jeff Holiday, the guy with dreadlocks in the above image, creates some great debunking videos. He is a skeptic without question. Similar to the situation with Prof Moriarty, I don't always agree with Holiday's politics, but I do enjoy his science related content. He's done some great anti-vaccine and anti-GMO debunkings and I really recommend his channel, go follow it.

As for the others. Sargon of Akkad (left) has attempted to critique social science studies and papers in the past, which I suppose equates to "skepticism" in some form. Said criticism relied on berating a study's methodology for being survey based, whilst simultaneously using another survey based study to question the results!

Sargon has also offered suggestions that he suspects there is "no evidence that Pizzagate ISN'T true" seemingly offering support to the crazy Alex Jones supported theory that Hilary Clinton and several high-profile democrats operate a pedophilia ring from a pizza restaurant (yes really), in such a weak-willed way that he was clearly certain that he'd have to do a u-turn in the future when people actually attempted to hold him to his opinion. Sargon has it this point been suspended from Twitter several times. His supporters will tell you it's the liberal elite who run twitter trying to rob him of his free speech. It's actually because Sargon, a darling of the English Defense League, has a habit of tweeting hardcore gay porn at his critics.

Similarly, Black Pigeon speaks has also tweeted about believing Pizzagate may be credible, as has Bearing. In addition to this, BPS has published a video entitled "spirit cooking with the Clintons", alleging that Hillary Clinton was involved in various satanic rituals. This is a claim based on the fact that Clinton associate John Podesta, once attended a dinner with performance artist Marina Abrahmovic (below). Also, the Clinton foundation may also have made a donation to the same artist at some point.

As Marina once held an art installation in which she painted "666" and an inverted pentagram on a wall in semen and blood, she must not only be satanist and Clinton must be involved in her rituals. Oh. And John Podesta has odd hands... Conclusive stuff! I suspect BPS will one day make a follow-up video alleging Obama is also a satanist because a cousin of his once listen to Slayer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, "voice for reason" Stefan Molyneux has also vlogged about "spirit dinner" and Clinton's alleged satanic practices. (On an unrelated note, I know a few Satanists and they are genuinely quite lovely, easy going people. I've never met one I didn't like. Can't say the same about Christians.)

Also in Computing Forever's lovely collage are Lauren Southern and Steven Crowder, mouth-pieces of alt-right channel "The Rebel" and "Louder with Crowder" respectively. Further examples of individuals who shouldn't ever be considered skeptics by any stretch of the word. Southern has produced several videos supporting the idea that climate change is a myth. "Scientists have been wrong in the past" she argues "they must be wrong about climate change" she claims in a video so littered with errors I'd have to produce a separate blog to cover a fraction of them. Crowder is also a noted climate change denialist. Again I point to Potholer 54 who has provided an excellent critique of some of Crowder's claims.

These two idiots attempt to win over an audience presumably so feckless that they no longer accept that research and findings of actual scientists but instead want their alternative facts delivered from the blogosphere via an easy on the eye Ken and Barbie. Is this what we really want from our skeptical role models? Individuals to whom science can be manipulated and distorted to fit political rhetoric?

I have often said the only thing worse than no scepticism is bad scepticism. Make no mistake this proposed "new phase of skepticism" is no skepticism at all.

So, are there any great skeptical youtubers left?

Unsurprisingly, I highly recommend Potholer 54. His content is released extremely sporadically, but that's because he puts a hell of a lot of research into it. Find his channel here. Martymer81 has been producing consistently excellent debunking videos for some time, his series on spirit science a particular highlight. Find him here. Likewise, Myles Power's content is excellent and highly entertaining both on his solo channel and in the form of his input on the League of Nerds podcast. Also, try Logiked and IsetheoriginalCaptain Disillusion, is new on the scene and will be of particular interest to fans of paranormal debunkings as will Oskar Jungell. These guys, and a few others, I believe are the true next phase of skepticism on Youtube, even though some have them have been around for ever. simply because they've never swapped skepticism for drama, denialism, bullying or descended fully into partisan identity politics because that's were the money is.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Another Haunted Local Pub?

I don't really do haunted pub stories anymore. The reason being, at this point it seems that almost every UK public house has a resident spook and a tabloid tale of some mundane incident being held up as evidence of said phantom. The problem is, the story in focus here features a pub about five minutes from my home and we skeptics are a territorial bunch. If another skeptical blogger debunks a ghost tale on my local patch, I will f*ck them up. Seriously.



The Liverpool Echo reports today (4/3/17) on a "spooky" incident in the Derby Arms, Knowsley. The report tells us of an exploding glass of Carling, speculating that it may be the act of pub ghost. The CCTV footage seems to bear out the idea that the glass explodes with no outside inference.

Landlord Dave McGinn had this to say about the incident:
“The customer is a regular in the pub and he comes in most Wednesdays. He ordered two pints of Carling and went and sat down and next minute he says it’s just randomly exploded.I thought he might have knocked it or something without realising so I checked the CCTV and you can see that he’s just sat texting. He doesn’t touch it...Over the years a few cleaners have said they’ve seen people walking past or felt things moving. And we’ve had the odd glass fall off the shelf but we’ve never caught it on video... There is a story about a ghost called Hartley, who’s apparently the resident ghost, but I’ve never really thought anything of it."
Exploding glasses like this are commonly used as examples of paranormal activity in haunted pubs. Here's another example from  March 2016:

As landlord Dave says:

“I really don’t know what’s happened. There’s no explanation for it but I don’t really know to be honest. It could just be one of those things.”

Very few things have no explanation, and fewer still have the explanation "a ghost did it". So what's going on here?

I'd hazard a guess that the glass in question had recently come out of the pub's dishwasher. It was then filled with a chilled liquid. The result of this is the inside of the glass begins to cool at a quicker rate than the outside of the glass. As it cools it also contracts, whilst the outside also contracts, but less rapidly. This creates tension within the glass. Pint glasses used by public houses tend not to be particularly high quality. Couple this with the fact that any weakness and flaws in the glass are likely to expand and fracture under said tension, and you've a very explainable reason glasses explode in such circumstances.

Here's a demonstration of the effect by Youtuber The Fluffy T-Rex:

So there you go. Perfectly explainable. Once again we find the only spirits in our friendly local are bottled.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Daily Star and The Chilean Poltergeist: Upping The Ante On Fake News.

At a time when everyone is talking about "fake news" and which news sources and stories should be deemed "fake" The Daily Star has taken the bold move to claim the title in perpetuity. Their stunning effort to capitalise on the fake news phenomena comes with this story from 28/02/17, entitled "Chilling video of family home so HAUNTED it was evacuated by police." 

The report tells us of a Chilean family allegedly forced to flee their home after calling the police to investigate an alleged haunting.
"Officers were called to the property after reports of a fire but when they arrived the residents admitted they had actually called because of the strange activities happening inside. They claimed objects had begun floating and moving. Video of the alleged poltergeist has been published online."
The Star links a video at the top of the page and gives a description of the events that take place in the video.
"In the clip a light fitting seems to sway all by itself before a broom in the corner moves. Objects on the kitchen counters including a frying pan then move before a cupboard door flies open. Finally, a bucket flings itself across the floor. While the authenticity of the video cannot be guaranteed, officers who were called to the house in Puerto Montt, Chile, claimed they were attacked by a knife that jumped out of nowhere."
So far, so fake right? So what makes this one stand out from the average piece of ghost "news" offered by the Star or any other tabloid?  Perhaps the fact that the video the Star links and describes in the article was not filmed recently, nor was it filmed in Chile. It was actually filmed in Cork, Ireland and was uploaded to facebook by user Ashy Murphy in September 2015. As of yesterday, the original video had received over 23 million views.

Let's play spot the difference!

Facebook, Sept 2015.

The Star, 28th Feb 2017.

Here's that original version:

The beauty of the original "Ashy Murphy" version of the video is that not only is the original sound is present, but the video is clearer and far less pixelised. This makes it child's play to spot the wires that Ashy has used to achieve her "poltergeist" effect. The final shot of the video being particularly striking.

Now let's play spot the fishing wire!

Wire or thread is also visible on the cupboard door that opens, but it's far less striking and glimpse and you'll miss it.

You can watch Oskar Jungell replicate the effects of Ashy's video below:

There is an actual video (below) that represents the story the Star is reporting on, and the story itself isn't a complete fabrication. It's clear why the Star didn't use the correct video from watching it, as you can below. It's remarkable only for how unremarkable it is.

Essentially all we see is a pillow fly across a room, not convincing in any way. I believe that the Star reporter intentionally attached a more interesting, more eventful video to this article in an attempt to "spice it up" for the simple reason that would illicit more shares, more clicks and more revenue.

It's not every day that you can highlight the Star as lacking even their usual bar lowering standard of journalistic ethics.

I recently appeared on the Spooktator podcast to discuss this story and others with Hayley Stevens and the crew. It was a great discussion if you'd like to watch that discussion it's here: