So it all started with a rather romantic notion. I have often joked that I will give up spook investigation and take up Mermaid Investigations; let’s face it, the field is less crowded. And then it occurred to me – were there not in 19th century America reports of real live flying Pterodactyls over Texas, originating as journalistic yarns and in the infamous lying contests? I vaguely recall having a book as a child in which there was a picture, daguerreotype style, of some cowboys holding a shot pterodactyl by a barn. Actually I soon found out, chatting about with friends on Facebook, that I may have be suffering from a False Memory – lots of other people remember the same picture, or something similar, but no one has ever been able to find it again. It seems the photo is as mysterious as Live Pterosaurs. In fact a photo that seems to be the one mentioned is doing the rounds — but it is nothing like my recollection. Then you can easily find a shot that was staged for a recent documentary (scroll down the page to see it though worth enjoying whole article) — again clearly not the mystery photo. After much reflection I have come to the conclusion the book I read in the 1970′s probably referenced the alleged photo, and I came to believe I had seen the actual photo in the book – I think that entirely possible. Still it is all rather interesting, if only in demonstrating just how questionable memory can be.
Anyway, do these things really still fly? I want to believe in big flying dinosaurs roaming the skies, but experience and common sense argue against it. So far I have never been chased by one as I wander through town. Still, I figured I knew a bit about them — as a child I was rather obsessed with dinosaurs, as many young boys are, and read everything I could find on them, and I thought I knew about Pterodactyls, Pteradnodons and a few others like the Rhamphorhyncus. So I recalled they were all Pterosaurs, and looked up the Order. First surprise is technically they were not dinosaurs at all (and neither were plesiosaurs and various other marine reptiles). Secondly there were incredibly diverse, and many of them looked nothing like the beasties I think of when I hear the word “Pterosaur”. And thirdly, they are very definitely extinct, dying out 65.5 million years ago, but already in decline by then. So sayeth the Wikipedia article – I did not research any of this throughly.
Interesting, but rather lacking emotional satisfaction. I wanted to read about people who had been chased by pterodactyls! So I started to Google for any eye witness testimony, uncovered a funny but utterly unconvincing YouTube video, and then suddenly found that there actually was a “Living Pterosaur” research community, a fringe even within cryptozoology. Even better, there were several books. Most of the research appears to be on “Ropens”, allegedly living Pterosaurs in Papua New Guinea. Now I’m afraid I have not read anything on that, and can’t really comment, for as I browsing I spotted a book “Live Pterosaurs in America” by Jonathan David Whitcomb, a nonfiction analysis of actual sightings in the USA. This I had to own, so I immediately ordered it from Amazon, and a few days later it was mine! And you know what — I’m glad I bought it, and have enjoyed reading it.
The book contains 35 contemporary eye witness accounts from the USA of what appear to be live pterosaur sightings, and a great deal of analysis. Undeterred by the intrinsic seeming absurdity of believing that Pterosaurs can remain undetected in the USA (which as Whitcomb points out is a fallacious argument: they have not remained undetected at all, or he would not have eyewitness testimony — “largely undetected” perhaps?) the author has actually taken seriously and tracked down people who claim to have seen these things, talking to them on the phone and by email. He is not alone – as well as the various expeditions to PNG to look for the alleged pterosaurs there, there appears to be a small but very active research community looking for live pterosaurs in the USA. I get the impression form the book it is rather competitive, and political, and perhaps as backstabbing as any other part of cryptozoology seems to be — but then again maybe not. You see Whitcomb, and the majority of the researchers are Creationists, and not shy about proclaiming the fact.
So here I am, a very convinced “Evolutionist” who has written a great deal on Darwin, Chambers, Russel Wallace etc reading a book on Live Pterosaur sightings by an out loud and proud Creationist. And you know what? It really makes no difference to the case. So Whitcomb believes in living pterosaurs? The sceptics who attack his research are equally convinced they are extinct. It’s an issue it is rather hard to maintain a strict impartiality on. To be honest, I have no problem with people holding strong beliefs on any issue, so long as they are aware of them and their potential biases, and so long as they declare them openly. I worked out Whitcomb was a Creationist by a third of the way through his book, but the last couple of chapters make it totally explicit. I was rather amused that he agrees with Dawkins that it is impossible to hold a considered Theistic Evolution viewpoint, and I was too tired to really get what he thinks of I.D – it is a good thing I gather, but not Creationism, as far as he is concerned — but I am convinced that the Creationist beliefs of the living pterosaur folks are going to stop a lot of people in the UK at least from even bothering to look at their stuff, which is a shame. You see I think you might have to be a Creationist to actually stick your neck out and look for these wonderful flying beasties, and if they do exist it would be no surprise if only the “Creation Scientists” went looking for them. Creationism actually does not play much of a role in the theories in the book, and I’m still very vague about what exactly a living Pterosaur would prove from a Y.E.C perspective, but I am happy to put away any prejudices and read the book on the strength of the evidence and argument provided, and lay aside my philosophical and scientific differences with these guys. If they can convince me of living pterosaurs, I guess they might convince me of other stuff Let’s face it, convincing me pterodactyls are swooping over California as I type is going to take a lot.
And ultimately, I am afraid I still doubt it is true. However, I am more open to Pterosaurs in other parts of the world than I was before, and I am much more open to the possibility of live Pterosaurs. I actually find it hard to type those those three words together “possibility” + “live” + “pterosaurs”, so strong is my ingrained prejudice against the case. After all, during my dinosaur phase (aged 5-10 roughly) the one thing I knew absolutely was that they were all extinct. (and watching the USAF fly overhead, and listening to the Cold War sabre rattling, I gloomily pondered as a very young child how soon humanity might join them; vague fears that still manifest sometimes today )
Whitcomb’s eyewitnesses don’t really convince me greatly, though they are at the heart of his case. 35 is really not very many, and given there are radio controlled Pterosaur models out there, some of the sightings do seem to be questionable. The testimony given is rather bare, culled from emails, but it could be that Whitcomb’s writing style (generally readable, occasionally jars, perhaps a cultural thing) without all the usual journalistic fluff like “Ada was just putting the kettle on as sunshine played across the blinds…” — none of that in Whitcombe’s reports, just his questions asked and the answers rendered verbatim — doe snot really sell the witnesses. He is definitely sceptical of the testimony he receives, and shows critical thinking about testimony issues, and I must say is an intelligent bloke by the sound of his book.
Nope, my problem is that thousands of Americans have reported being abducted by Flying Saucers. Dozens of people in the UK in the last decade have reported seeing leprechauns or fairies. Bigfoot is still big in the USA; and mystery black cats, usually pumas, roam across the British countryside. As to ghost sightings, well they are so common as to pass without remark. Now I’m not a priori dismissing any of these ideas, and I have certainly spent a good part of my life working on the ghosts issue. My point is that people seem to have a huge range of high strangeness encounters with very odd entities. I would be rather more surprised if no one at all was seeing Pterosaurs in the USA. I do wonder if any have been reported in the last century or this in the UK? The fact people experience something,and it seems very real to them, does not necessarily tell us anything about its ontological status. While Whitcomb addresses hallucinations as an explanation for experiences and dismisses it, well I’m not so sure as I know hallucinations can be surprisingly common in the sane from the medical literature, and ultimately I agree with Whitcomb it does not explain collective cases (ones with multiple witnesses) well. Note I’m not actually proposing any mechanism for the weird Fortean encounters – people have proposed all kinds of explanations from ultraterrestrials to demons to irruptions of the unconscious in to normal life (I guess all three might be the same thing!?) — I’m just noting that it seems hard to accept the evidence for living pterosaurs as more compelling than say the evidence for alien abduction or phantom black dogs. In terms of quantity, and richness of the testimony offered, I must say it seems rather less, by an order of magnitudes in the first case and a great deal compared with Black Shuck. Still, if one of Whitcomb’s witnesses was right about what they saw, and it was a physical real living beastie, well his case wins. I really want it to be true, because — well living Pterodactyls, how cool?
So if I am not that impressed by the individual witness reports, why do I think Whitcomb’s book is worthwhile and interesting? Because while the individual cases are perhaps weak, he draws a good statistical case that something is going on from his tiny sample. Put simply, the physical traits of the pterosaurs described by the witnesses do not seem to reflect the Hollywood stereotype of the pterodactyl we all know. There are different types of creature which emerge from the data, and the majority have attributes which are surprising. I won’t discuss what these are here, because it makes faking easier, but you can find out by buying his book. Unfortunately the descriptions could be just down to a misremembered mismatch of picture of pterosaurs in books, and yet if you accept his hypothesis that not one but two and perhaps several species of Pterosaurs have survived in the USA, well then I guess it’s a good argument. However witnesses vary greatly in physical descriptions – wing spans he cites in the stats section range from 2 to 30 feet, with a bizarrely even distribution. I say bizarre because I would have thought hoaxes and hallucinations would have been clustered more in the larger range, and ditto if common sources like movies or dinosaur documentaries informed the sightings. The even distribution may well be down to the actual problems of identifying the wing span of a bird in flight – try it, I’m rubbish at judging height, and you have little to compare it with. Misidentification of birds or bats is not ruled out by the data, and some of the sightings were close and on the ground, but still I am rather surprised at the distribution of estimated wing spans. Something that Whitcomb does not address is the range of colours seen – browns, tans, greys and black predominate, but one brightly coloured alleged pterosaur stood out as fairly convincing for exactly this reason. As no one knows what colour they were, the lack of agreement among witnesses is worrying if these are real creatures.
Another interesting feature is that witnesses reported they either definitely did not have feathers or probably did not have feathers. This may be down to Whitcomb’s selection criteria; he states he does not investigate reports of feathered sightings, leaving that to bird watchers. Now recently I have read in the media reports of new fossil pterosaurs with feathers, but tracking down the reports has shown these are proto-feathers, the bristles already known to be a feature of pterosaurs, just more evolved. It may provide some evidence for the currently heretical idea that birds may have evolved from pterosaurs not dinosaurs, or it may be an interesting case of parallel evolution (or Creation, if you are a Live Pterosaurs investigator ) but it is not a fatal objection – pterosaurs were not feathered, though with 65 million years to evolve they might not look much like the fossils we have (Whitcomb interestingly holds an Old Earth, Young Life model of Creationism, not YEC). He makes the rather good point that a lot of witnesses actually were not sure if the thing had feathers or not, but were inclined to say not. I think that certainly does reduce the likelihood of hoaxing – a hoaxer’s story or a hallucination would surely definitely not have feathers, but it does not rule out genuine misidentification of big birds.
I still have not really made much of a case for why I found the book engaging, but the answer is that Whitcomb surprised me. A number of the sightings suggest bioluminescence. I really did not expect that. Glow in the dark pterosaurs in the USA? It just gets weirder. I was not particularly convinced by the chapter linking pterosaurs to the Marfa Lights, but they hypothesis linking bioluminescence to bat hunting activities made sense I guess, and this very unexpected aspect of the sightings really did make me think he could be on to something. I found this feature by far the most intriguing: if I was going to invent a pterosaur story it would never occur to me to say the creature glowed, flickered or shone in the dark! It is apparently a feature of the PNG reports, so I guess people who have read Whitcomb’s book on that may add such a detail, but it really is rather odd.
I think by this time if you have read this far you will want to see an actual witness report. here are a couple of extracts from Whitcomb’s blog, the first from Virginia, the second from Georgia. They give you a pretty good feel for Whitcomb’s terse style, and his rather short reports on what was seen. I am delighted howver to see he has set up a game camera in a Southern California site, and is getting lots of shots – maybe one will show the elusive pterosaur seen by the witnesses in their backyard. I certainly shall follow his Live Pterosaur blog in the future. However again we see another niggling problem for me — if all the sightings were in say Nevada, I could buy it much easier than I can the idea these things live all over the USA but never get photographed. OK, there are rare big animals like as Whitcomb points out mountain lions that are rarely seen, but they don’t flap around in the sky! If nocturnal predators, maybe, just maybe. I would not stake my money on it, but I’m not the expert.
So in conclusion, what do I think of the book? It’s not polished, it’s not gripping at least in style (though the accounts are fascinating and Whitcomb makes some clever arguments) and it’s all way beyond my boggle threshold: I’m slightly more inclined to believe in live pterosaurs in the USA now than before I read it (which is to be fair not very surprising at all, given my ***almost*** complete disbelief before I read the book) , but I’m afraid I think the possibility is still very very remote they exist, but it certainly is worth investigating, and I must applaud all the work Whitcomb and colleagues put in. I fear many sceptics won’t even bother to go look for themselves (unless we get sightings in the UK that is not an option for me) or bother to carefully read Whitcomb’s book and look at his case. It is definitely worth reading, and well argued in the main. I would recommend buying his book available from Amazon.co.uk here for under £9. I’m humble enough to admit my opinion on the matter is pretty worthless, as I have not read the literature, have not investigated a single sighting, and know almost nothing about pterosaurs living or fossil. A sceptic of living pterosaur claims who does know his stuff is palaeontologist Glen Kuban and has his critique of living pterosaur claims can be found here. I found him from Whitcomb’s book, and I still think you should read the book as well as Kuban’s page, just in case you were planning some lazy debunking.
I may be a sceptic at heart, but I have no simple answers to what people are experiencing. The 35 cases Whitcomb gives may be the tip of the ice berg – he has estimated I believe 14,000 sightings in the USA, but I think that is extrapolation based on the fact most witnesses won’t come forward. You don’t hear a lot about local newspaper reports of pterosaur sightings though, and one thing that would be really interesting is if anyone could search archives for such, and link them on a web page. I respect the work and dedication of these chaps, and one thing I am certain of.
I still want to see a living pterosaur, because it would be a mindblowing thing to witness! I just hope they are real
Right, a quick post today, which will cheekily incorporate in the second half a re-post of some material I posted years ago on this very topic, because let’s face it, no one is going to click on a link to read another entry. Many of you know I have great respect for the sceptic writer/researcher Hayley Stevens, especially as she constantly manages to actually get out there and do real research, and to write more than I can. I put it down to my age – “it’s never how it used to be/what happened to all that energy?” Today Hayley has written an interesting piece on a site for young atheists, skeptics and freethinkers, The Heresy Club. I had to have a nose, despite being neither young, nor as it happens an atheist.
As usual Hayley’s article is excellent, well written and informative, and deals with real issues – an issue I care deeply about, the damage that poor research ethics in amateur ghost groups can do when they are let loose in private houses or even businesses and upset or scare people badly. Now I’m not going to quote Hayley’s article in full, because I want you to go read it for yourself. Do that now. No summary I give would be fair, because she makes several points.
However I am notoriously contrarian (freethinking?) so I’m going to disagree with one fundamental thing Hayley wrote, which is at the heart of the article for me, as an Anglican and a “ghosthunter” of sorts. She writes –
Looking back now, on those early years, I can see that the whole culture surrounding ghost hunting that I became involved with was a mish-mash of religious practices and beliefs that were all geared towards convincing the people involved that their very soul was in danger from evil at all times, and that invisible enemies were around us just waiting for us to mess up so that they could attack us psychically.
Now given in the past I have suggested that ghosthunting groups do sometimes take on the attributes of a religious group, and in fact enjoyed once a great discussion on the phone with Jeff Belanger where we talked about this, I can’t disagree too strongly. However, s always I’m going to raise issues.
Number one is the fact that in the sociology of religion defining what a religion or religious group is really proves difficult. Patriotism, political parties and ideologies, even perhaps scepticism or atheism are defined by some as having the same kind of principles involved, and hence “secular religions”. I don’t mean by this the people who used to turn up to sneer on Richard Dawkin’s forum and say “Atheism is a religion: he is your guru.” I’m talking about serious academic sociologists desperately trying to pin down what defines something as a religious behaviour. I happen to have spent a lot of my life as an academic studying religion: so I’m not going to get sidetracked in to a huge discussion of this, which would bore everyone. However it raises another point, which Alex Gabriel has already highlighted in the comments much better than I ever could! We can clearly see the Roman Catholic Church, or the CofE, or various other religions denominations are “religious” because of what they do and their detailed creeds. Yet those groups inpose really strict behavourial codes and ethical requirements on their members, and while I may claim to be an Anglican, many Anglicans might say “hey CJ you are not – you don’t go to Church enough/have shabby morals/dabble in the occult” or whatever. We know what these groups stand for – they are authoritarian in a real sense, and people who don’t do the “right” things get kicked out, or told they are “bad” members of the group.
Now some religions have very little in the way of formal dogmas, theology, doctrine and imposition. Hinduism is incredibly diverse, and hard for me to comprehend as a religion cos I’m used to this rather more authoritarian structure, but there are core beliefs, and social measures to ensure consistency of practice as far as I can see. Wicca is perhaps the best example of a theological anarchy – the various “wiccan denominations” have core theological beliefs, but those outsoide of the formal coven-structures, which in the 90′s I think though do not know comprised most of the self-proclaimed adherents of the Wiccan religion could believe an incredible diversity of things about the nature of the divine, afterlife, and karma etc. This “folk wicca” ran the risk of being mistaken for the coven traditions, and just because a complete loony did something vile in the name of the religion, well it was not in any way the fault of any other adherents of that faith. As Alex Gabriel wrote
“You hear a lot from New Agers and ecumenicals, don’t you, that the coercive and oppressive elements of religion are all from the institutional structures? But this is a brilliant example of how bad beliefs themselves can be oppressive.”
Yes I agree totally, well said Alex, and I’m no fan of heavy authoritarian religion, but I am painfully aware of the dangers posed by liberty of conscience. I absolutely hold the principle of freedom of religious belief and non-belief, but as anyone who knows me know I distinguish between beliefs and practices/behaviours. If a practice is illegal, and damaging to others, your freedom of belief does not make it right in my mind. Still we could disagree on this and still we are no closer to my actual issue with Hayley’s article.
Many ghosthunting groups do adopt a sort of “folk spiritualism”, and in some cases other religious beliefs, In the USA we see a lot of very religious ghosthunters – they often term themselves demonologists, and look at things in terms of a very religious paradigm, because the base culture there is profoundly religious compared with the UK. Yet in all my ghosthunting experience nearly none of the participants have been Christian believers, or held to any of the other mainstream faiths — with the exception of David Carter-Green, and on the social and academic side David Sivier. And in fact, belief in the paranormal does not seem to map well to what most people would see as “religious belief” in any way — in fact quite the opposite.
Now years ago I wrote a piece I consider one of the most important ton this blog, called “Are Education and Atheism Enemies of Reason”. The title was half joking half serious, but it’s so directly relevant to what we are talking about here i’m going to reproduce it before moving on to discuss the implications…
“The majority of Britons believe in heaven and life after death, new research suggests.” The BBC News story here is well worth reading, and shows some interesting things. Firstly we are a lot less sceptical about New Age ideas and certain fringe practices like astrology and tarot cards than we used to be – what Randi’s people categorize as “woo”. However we are more sceptical about certain aspects of the supernatural than a decade ago in 1998 – in short popular belief in the supernatural is constantly waxing and waning; I think I could have told you that. The popular culture of the 1970′s was far more sympathetic to parapsychology say than the 90′s were – and yet the 2000′s saw a sudden interest in Spiritualism connected with certain TV shows.
I have a rather heretical thought about ‘paranormal’ beliefs, and their relationship to atheism. I originally posed a question on Professor Dawkins forum as it was inspired by his show The Enemies of Reason. I am sure the Professor has better things to do than answer my questions though, (and he didn’t) and so I have revised it and asked it here.
I had been reading The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (1983) by noted mathematician, science writer and skeptic Martin Gardner. In 1976 Martin Gardner was a founder member of CSI(COP), which has done a great deal over the years in debunking paranormal claims and fighting the rise of superstition. Many readers of this blog may have his enjoyed his Fads & Fallacies In the Name of Science.
In Chapter 3 of The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener – “Why I am not a Paranormalist” – Gardner mounts a blistering attack on superstition. It contains many of the themes touched in Dawkin’s The Enemies of Reason, and one curious disagreement.
Martin Gardner, 1983 wrote:
As always with such manias, causes are multiple: the decline of traditional religious beliefs among the better educated, the resurgence of Protestant Fundamentalism, disenchantment with science for creating a technology that is damaging the environment and building horrendous war weapons, increasingly poor quality of science instruction on all levels of schooling, and many other factors…
I found that first bit fascinating. Now Gardner is not Fundamentalist obviously, he is not a Christian, though he is a Fideist rejecting all special revelation, but remaining a theist. Like most scholars he sees Fundamentalism as arising recently (within the last century pretty much) and a bad thing– but he regards the “decline of traditional religious beliefs among the better educated” as a key factor in the rise of pseudo-science, cults and superstition?
It in no way justifies religious belief, but it is very interesting as a claim. OK, so I doubted. Gardner is a theist – he must be biased. What are his sources? Luckily he references them. It is the article Superstitions Old and New by William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark in The Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 4, Summer 1980.
Gardner says they
…reported on their surveys of how beliefs in certain aspects of the current occult mania correlated with religious faith. They found people with no professed religion were the most inclined to believe in ESP and extraterrestrial UFOs. Paranormal cults were strongest in areas where the traditional churches were weakest.
Never trusting anyone’s opinions I have just been through the Sheep/Goat tests from my 1993 Paranormal Beliefs Survey of attendees at a lecture series in Cheltenham. The test used by the group was an early Sheep/Goat test which measured some religious claims as well as paranormal ones. Later we adopted the 1979 New Australian Sheep/Goat Test by Michael Thalbourne, but this earlier version suited my purposes. There were 83 respondents, and while I have not had time to perform a proper statistical test – the data is on stapled questionnaires, not in electronic format and it’s too late to type it all in tonight – there does appear to be a very strong correlation between non-belief in God and belief in UFOs as alien visitors, and between non-belief in Jesus as divine and belief in both ghosts & magic, to give a few examples. I recall now being once asked asked if many parapsychologists were Christian – and I said none at all that I knew of, they were all atheists. I have just looked at my “psychics” who I sometimes work with on testing – only one identifies as Spiritualist, two as atheist (Atheism is VERY common among Spiritualists following the example of Arthur Findlay – indeed Roll’s Campaign For Philosophical Freedom is an atheist organization which makes Dawkins look like a vicar) and seven “none”; six more are unclassifiable.
Not one professed belief in any “orthodox” faith. Now I’m sure Dawkins would regard my Anglicanism as just as much superstitious woo as does say crystal power, so this is a false distinction to him: but the evidence seems to suggest to me that the modern irrationalist supernaturalism is inversely related to traditional (non-fundamentalist) religious beliefs. I think whoever misquoted G.K. Chesterton was right, even if as is possible Chesterton never actually said it “when a man stops believing in God he does not believe in nothing: he believes in anything”. Correlation is not causality – and of course the better educated college students are more likely to believe in ghosts etc -
assuming the Skeptical Inquirer is cited correctly! So perhaps the increase in woo is just a by product of the decline of traditional religious belief, increased secularism and atheism, and better education? The evidence certainly seems to point that way???
I find this both interesting, amusing, and deeply ironic.
So I wrote a few years back, and I have discussed at length elsewhere the issues. What concerns me is that actually while Hayley as a rational sceptic may be an excellent investigator, “atheism” as a non-belief does not actually necessarily imply scepticism of any claim but the existence of a God. There are plenty of loony and not bright atheists, just as there are plenty of loony and thick as two short planks Christians out there. Furthermore, rationality does not always map to good personal ethics, as I think we all recognize, and even rational people make mistakes – though like the Christians who confess they are crap at it by definition (we are all sinners), they may spot the problem and be able to do something about it.
Still, it’s peoples right to believe what they like, and no one has a monopoly on how to investigate spooks etc, or say what we should believe. The actions/behaviours/practices which are damaging to others should however clearly be subject to scrutiny, and I’m absolutely in favour of higher ethical standards in the field. I just don’t think that religiosity, in the normal sense, is much to do with a lot of this — and I hope I have somehow made that point. Yes my personal research ethics may be terrible, as I often joke, but that stands completely independent of the actual religious framework I exist within (Church of England liberal, in case you wondered.)
So as Martin Gardner said, I think the decline of traditional religious belief may actually underlie, rather than be the opposite of, this explosion of popular ghosthunting. Still a great article by Hayley, and got me thinking as normal. Now I really must go do some work!
I often get invited to events through groups I have joined on Facebook or my membership of email lists, and have only the very vaguest idea of who it was who asked me. Tonight was one of those – my Facebook page announced that I had said I would attend a free lecture on “What has Philosophy Got To Do With Religion?”, and given that one of my standard responses to people asking me “what do you do?” is “er, philosophy of religion” (– it makes them go away I find, and sounds better than “hunt ghosts and argue on the internet”) — well I felt kind of obliged. The fact the lecture was taking place within a gentle stroll of my house probably helped too.
“Why do I go to lectures?” would be a more useful session for me to attend, given that I invariably fall asleep, or become incredibly bored, or gaze out the window and think about when this room was the SU Bar, and Roger Puplett used to rip his shirt off while playing Van Halen’s Jump as last record of the night, and … see?!! I have the attention span of a newt on uppers: I find it hard to sit still for 5 minutes, and almost impossible to go two minutes without asking a question. It’s bad enough when I’m lecturing, I get bored by my own lectures, and tell the audience that frequently.
Well given I hate sitting through lectures, was stuck by a hissy radiator turned on full blast that slowly baked me and the room was too full to sneak out to get a drink, I should have hated this. Given Mark Vernon announced that his talk had three parts, and would last 45 minutes, and that after two parts were on 45 minutes and he stopped to ask if he should proceed, hell I should have been crawling up the walls. Yet so effective a speaker is Vernon that we all asked him to continue, and I’m sure would have stayed much longer if it was not for the heating stuck on (I crept out to the SU bar and got a drink at the beginning of questions, but returned to loudly ask more as is my nature )
Vernon read his presentation: a long introduction on Aurignacian art, which I was confused a little by the relevance of, then a rather succinct but fun critique of EvoPsych stuff on religion, and Hyper-Sensitive Entity Detection stuff like Dennett’s ideas, and those of Bruce Hood – he has more time for Scott Atran, but still regard him as wrong from what I can make out — and a short but well aimed attack on over generalising modular mind theorists (folks like Steven Mithen?), with some interesting research cited. I would hesitate to use as Vernon appeared to (in passing, as a minor point) Developmental Psychology as a way to judge how early human psychology evolved; but compared with some of the problems with the Evo-Psych approaches, that is easily forgiven, and I may have misunderstood. It was really hot, and the radiator was annoying me with its hiss, burble, hiss, while slowly cooking me. I wished more of my friends from Skeptics in the pub were present (any of them actually) — some Skeptics often seem to buy wholesale highly questionable EvoPysch “just so” stories without any real effort at critical analysis or awareness of the problems with them in my experience, just as earlier generations of rationalists embraced Frazerian and Comptean ideas of Religion with equal fervour. (Occasionally one sees all three argued in the same forum thread on certain New Atheist sites… ) Mark Vernon’s objections would have perhaps made it clear that these theories are not just contested, they are highly controversial, even among Evolutionary Psychologists and evolutionary biologists and morphologists, let alone cognitive scientists.
I found it hard to concentrate because of the heat, but Vernon kept me listening, and I was particularly interested in some of the paleontologist Simon Conway-Morris’s ideas. Graham Budd had mentioned him to me recently, and I will definitely look up his work, and would have by now if Wikipedia was not down today in protest over SOPA. Vernon acts as a great introduction to others ideas: he seems astonishingly well read, ad his reading particularly showed in the second part, which was on being good without God.
I have long been of the opinion that one can be good without God – inevitably the Euthyphro Dilemma came up in the questions, but agree with Vernon the best modern explorations of the issue are by Richard Holloway. It was in this section the temperature finally proved too much for me, and I began to think about a question the friendly gentleman from the Bible Society sitting in the row in front of me had asked me before talk began about how authentic a lot of ‘Celtic Spirituality’ was to the historical roots. Not sure how we got on to it, but I’m quite sceptical on the issue, and I started daydreaming about writing a blog piece on it, only to reconnect with the talk somewhere about Iris Murdoch on morality, God and Truth and have no idea what was going on. Fortunately as part 3 commended I was on safer ground – for now Vernon turned to the soul, and the question of post-mortem survival.
Vernon made some excellent points about afterlife in various religious traditions, and the development thereof, but this will be very familiar to anyone who has read my review of Christopher Moreman’s Beyond the Threshold and hence lost some of its force which I think lay in how surprising these things are to most people. Ditto with Vernon’s emphasis on Reconstituitionalism, the merging of the soul with a new body at Resurrection, as being the New Testament view of afterlife. (As I remarked in questions, one of them. I think there are at least two, if not three views of life after death in the New Testament writings, by no means necessarily incompatible). There was a brief discussion of the odd character of the resurrection appearances, which always reminds me of a wonderful passage from Tyrell’s Apparitions I think, but I will leave that to a later post as I have been planning to explore it for years. Anyway I don’t agree Reconstituionalism is the only viable reading of the NT texts on afterlife, but it is certainly a strong theological tradition, and the great sceptic and CSICOP founder member Martin Gardner (who hoped for life after death himself) gives an excellent overview of it on his The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener. as I recall. Vernon gave a good overview of Aquinas I think, not that I have ever managed to really grasp Aquinas on the Soul or Life after Death, not least I suspect because some of his ideas are actually contradictory, or divergent. This has inspired me to take another look.
Anyway I had never heard of Mark Vernon before tonight, but excellent speaker, and I will check out his books, such as his latest “How to be an Agnostic”. His website is here, do go take a look. and do catch him at one of his upcoming event s listed there – well worth seeing.
As an aside, I was shocked to learn that despite the Premises and Services Agreement between the University and the Student Union that was agreed when I was there, the SU has now lost control of the bars at the University of Gloucestershire, which are now run by a third party company. None of this was reported in the local press or even on the uni website as far as I know; I have been assured by a friend that a deal was struck to protect the Student Welfare aspects of the SU’s work, which was always funded by the profits from the bars and Summer Balls in the past. I won’t mourn this change, it may be for the better, and my loyalties lie with the College of St Paul and St Mary and CGCHE, predecessor institutions, but I was very surprised to hear from the staff the SU bar was no longer that, while getting a drink.
Ah well, the room TC007 where we had the talk was once the SU Bar, before it moved upstairs to its present location, so change can be good I guess. I recalled sitting there tonight walking in there in 1987, and being hit on the head by an ashtray and nearly knocked out when I first entered the room; and then 1992, and watching the news coverage of the LA riots which was playing on the big screen, Hugh and I (with severe sunstroke) danced 17 minutes to Sister Ray by the Velvet Underground before I vomited in a loo that once stood roughly where I was sitting tonight, and collapsed there with a terrible headache. Now it’s a bland lecture room. Such are memories – inappropriate, intrusive. Years ago I taught in a uni classroom that had previously been a female friend’s dormitory room – that jarred, and was almost awkward. Who says there are no ghosts?
In a recent post I bemoaned what seemed to be a general ignorance of the literature of Religious Studies and Religious Experience among parapsychologists; I suggested this originated in the emphasis on studying religion as part of sociology these days, and of studying parapsychology as a subset of psychology. I was horrified to attend a mini-conference where terms as basic (to someone like me from a religious studies background) as “gnosis” seemed unfamiliar; and in my review of Christopher Moreman’s excellent book Beyond The Threshold I praised him especially for his willingness to cross-disciplinary boundaries here, where I feel there is a great potential for research, in how these different unusual states correlate. I concluded my review –
This books importance lies in reminding and introducing psychical researchers of the huge amount of work by scholars of religion, and in particular religious experience, since William James seminal The Varieties of Religious Experience (James 1902). Given the overlap in subject matter between some of the research conducted in parapsychology units today, the work being done by religious research units such as the Alister Hardy Trust, and the worrying extent to which the discipline of Religious Studies appears neglected or even unknown by many parapsychologists, this book is both timely and important.
Well I now see that critique was far from justified – having picked up my copy of the JSPR Vol75.1, No. 902, January 2011 at last I find that ironically that review is carried alongside three papers which demonstrate exactly what strong work has been recently done in this area, and is ongoing. While I was aware of David Luke’s work on psychedelic consciousness the papers by Paul Marshall, and Gerhard Mayer & Rene Grunder came as a delightful surprise; and the irony of the review I wrote with those harsh words being published in a special edition of the JSPR being dedicated to such matters has not escaped me!
Furthermore, two of the papers come from the annual Exploring the Extraordinary conference at York which I have long wished to attend; this is run by the Anomalous Experiences Research Unit (AERU) and I actually met many of the lovely folks from there at the conference where I developed a misguided sense of lack of knowledge of the field of religious experience amongst psychical researchers. So I owe them an apology, a big thumbs up, and have revised my opinions — it seems there is a strong research in this field after all: something I knew formed part of the MSc at Coventry University (Hume & Lawrence) but which I felt was generally neglected. As so often I was wrong, and I withdraw my critical remarks. I have not so far read completed reading the papers, but they look very interesting indeed. I just felt an apology to those whose research I had accidentally overlooked was clearly in order first!
I’d also like to take this opportunity to recommend the fascinating blog by Jason Wingate, Lightning in an Oak Box. It’s a thought provoking, well written exploration of many themes related to this area, and the transpersonal. Do take a look!
There are few things more annoying than Christians in the USA who claim to be a tiny persecuted minority; but it’s an idea that goes back a long way, to the Apostolic age, when persecution was real and rife. There are three things that annoy me about “we are victims” claims by American Christians – firstly, they tend to originate from sects who hold almost everyone else, even their fellow Christians, to not be “True Christians” ( I let God decide who is on His side myself); secondly Christianity is still overwhelmingly dominant in the USA, and can be oppressive to non-Christians; and thirdly there are still Christians in many other parts of the world dying in significant numbers, being imprisoned or tortured, for their faith. The so called “culture wars” of the USA pale in comparison. I’m not saying Christians are not persecuted in the U.S. note — some may well be — but the Christian majority there has done it fair degree of shin kicking and hate-mongering over the years, deplored by the vast body of believers as it may be.
The UK is VERY different from the USA in this respect — a mere handful of my friends hold any religious faith, and Christians are actually probably a minority, not that you could tell by the census data. At least the type who go to church on a Sunday are — three out of my immediate circle meet that description, and I think in that respect I may be unusual — I may know more practising Christians than most of the readers of my blog here in the UK. Still this post is actually about the “UK Skeptic Movement”, not about religion, and therefore I won’t dwell on it too long. The one thing I will say to my US fellow believers who yearn for a return to religious education and school prayer — look at the USA, where these things do not exist, and the UK, where they are still mandated by law? Which is the more secular country? By far the UK: we may know more about religion, but we are far less likely to practice one?
So what has all this got to do with Skepticism (yes I know that is the American spelling, but it’s what most sceptical groups here use) in the UK? I actually think British Skeptics may end up like American Christians, complaining of a persecution that does not exist, and with messianic and apocalyptic motifs in their thinking and writing, unless they realise a very simple fact. They won many years ago — the battle for the public’s mind is over, done and dusted.
Now let me be clear – that does not mean that scepticism is pointless, or not urgently needed. The battle in the medical world for evidence based practice, the need to fight the false marketing claims that permeate our culture, attack media hysteria, and continue the brilliant sceptical research in parapsychology, anomalous experience etc is pressing and real — I still think Skeptics in the Pub etc do a great deal of good, in exposing people to new and useful information — but gals and guys, you are not the persecuted minority. We do not face an imminent dark age of woo and superstition. We face a declining health system, economic misery and appalling poverty, educational standards and public health problems, but we are fighting to get them fixed. Crystal power, reincarnation, and people frittering away their life savings on quack cures is not about to cause the end of all we know. Because most people in the UK are fundamentally sceptical, cynical, and questioning nowadays, or so I believe.
Yes we all know people who embrace some outrageous woo – sadly it goes hand in hand with the end of institutionalised religion. What we have to remember though is that the battle has been hard fought, but rationality and scepticism have often won. I’m not a fan of much of what passes for Skepticism these days — too often I find myself wondering about what seems to be ideologically driven denialism, rather than actual research or fair critique — but I have seen both sceptics and believers in various things frothing with anger at each other. Hey dudes, we all have our biases, and our idea of prior probability, and often we get angry when deeply held beliefs are challenged and stop listening. That’s true of human beings – it’s a human thing. But Skeptics are supposed to question and doubt, and I think sceptics are just as prone to in-fighting and argument as any other group, so the believers need not fear some monolithic ideology of ridicule developing to crush them – there will always be intelligent sceptics in the “Skeptic Movement” who will question allegedly sceptical research as much as they question “woo”. It’s why I put “Skeptic Movement” in quotes – because really it’s just a bunch of people who share some interests, and who talk to each other, and have a kind of loose tribal loyalty that falls apart as soon as you put them in a room together. It’s a social phenomenon, not a cult. There are no rules, doctrines or dogmas, just a lot of Doubting Thomases who enjoy critical thinking, and sadly all too often mocking those whose ideas they don’t understand and whose research they have not read. But on the whole they are decent, kind, and intelligent folks – much like most of our age group in the UK?
Now most of you will be shaking your heads by now – my believing friends wondering if I have lost the plot, given how fiercely I argue my corner for various beliefs against the “Skeptic Movement”: my sceptical friends thinking I have lost the plot, because the battle against woo remains white hot. Well stop and think — when did you last see major woo on TV, on any of the terrestrial channels? In my case it was some nonsense talked about the non-existence of a Davidic Kingdom on a Biblical archaeology show — sure it may not have been much of a kingdom, but it existed as even minimalist like Finkelstein admit — we have some archaeological evidence for it. I’m sure I have seen tons of crap about new wonder beauty treatments on the adverts, but on the whole, you have to go to cable to get real woo these days, to the ghosthunting and paranormal shows that even dedicated ghosthunters and psi-researchers like me, and let’s face it even the Little Woggle Spiritualist Ghost Group or whatever, think are utter nonsense, though occasionally entertaining!
OK, so why do I claim the sceptics have won the fight for public consciousness? Let me quote myself from comments on a previous post “However market forced DO influence what is produced, and Wiseman signed a five figure book deal at Frankfurt. Good for him! However I fail to see how we can argue that sceptical books outsell paranormal ones now. Let’s take two excellent sceptical books — Paranormality and Bad Science — both Amazon Top 10 bestsellers. Currently it is at 206. the wonderful Bad Science, two years after its release is at 281. The best selling psychic woo book is at 1,206! The first actual parapsychological book I find, on NDE, is at 43,319, and though much woo can be found before, and the first hard core academic parapsi book is Irwin & Watt’s Parapsychology (despite heavy plugging by me) which comes in at #13,472. I think this tells us something about the influence and market for sceptical books in the UK, as opposed to the market for woo and academic parapsychology??? The fight for sceptics to be heard has long since ended, and I would say among readers is done and dusted?”
So let’s try an experiment. Let’s look at books by Goldacre, Wiseman, Dawkins, Randi and Shermer – sure all heavy hitting public intellectuals — and then look at books by the household names of the paranormal — Derek Acorah, Colin Fry, Most Haunted, TAPS (the American ghost group who have their own popular TV show) and Lord help us Sylvia Browne. Who will rank highest in this top ten? I’ll take the first book listed by each, and use today’s sales rankings.
Richard Wiseman, Paranormality, (2011), #202
Ben Goldacre, Bad Science, (2009), #285
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (2007), #481
Colin Fry, By Your Side, (2010), #8,955
Sylvia Browne, Life on the Other Side, (2004) #29,835
John Edward, Infinite Quest, (2010) #67,128
Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things, (2007) #78,740
TAPS, Seeking Spirits, (2009) #94,292
Derek Acorah, The Psychic World of …, (2005), #146,886
Most Haunted , Official Guide, (2005), #213,332
James Randi, Flim Flam, (1994), #261,312
Look at the sales rankings. Now the problem is the way publishers work books sell in volume initially, then tail off. I can’t do a proper analysis of total units sold, as Amazon do not give away that data — but we can try dividing the sales ranks by number of years since published? Still the picture is clear – bear in mind the huge gap between the highest ranked book sales and the lower ones — scepticism sells in the UK market??
I’ll write more on this I am sure, but I’ll throw it open to discussion now…
Well snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow. The roads were impassable, or so the media said, in large parts of the country. Panic buying has set in in some places, as the tabloids helpfully said, reassuring the public with useful headlines about food running out in the shops and causing much more. In short much like last winter!
So it comes as a relief to hear that the Church has at last decided to lend a hand, and the following rather fun story from the BBC last week made me smile.
The Bishop of Lincoln will bless Lincolnshire’s gritters in the hope of cutting the number of winter crashes.
The Right Reverend Dr John Saxbee, who retires in January, has blessed the county’s fleet each year since 2003.
He said past ceremonies had been followed by a reduction in road deaths, which was “perhaps not a coincidence”.
The blessing takes place at Sturton by Stow on 7 December, with church leaders simultaneously carrying out ceremonies at the county’s other depots.
Bishop Saxbee said: “These annual ‘Blessing of the Gritters’ events have coincided with a dramatic reduction in the number of fatalities on Lincolnshire’s roads.
“Perhaps that is not a coincidence, and as I look to my retirement in January I hope and pray that driving carefully and arriving safely will continue to matter to all who use our road network in the years ahead.”
Well, I’m all for the Bishop! Such a blessing, regardless of his rather hedged comments on whether it is efficacious or not – and let us face it, it raises so many theological questions I’m not even going to start – does something to make the Church relevant, and if it does have a positive effect on road safety statistics then even better! On sceptic forums however the response has been a bit more reserved, even unkind. I think the issue is that people have read the service as some kind of magical rite, and felt that it was supposed to have a definite effect. I think if it did, we would all be out praying right now.
Amusingly a lot of folks have pointed out that correlation is not cause, and have looked for other reasons for the decline in road traffic fatalities in Lincolnshire; the truth is that the picture there is similar to the general decline across the UK, for which we can all be thankful. Being CJ I set about investigating.
Ok, from the Department of Transport figures to 2008, being all I have easy access to, Lincolnshire Road Deaths, and after the slash / Norfolk road deaths and then the / third set are Suffolk road deaths. I chose Norfolk & Suffolk as similar terrain in part, and as far as i know the bishops there do not bless the gritters!
1999 – 104 / 71 / 48
2000 – 71 / 75 / 56
2001 – 84 / 75 / 53
2002 – 91 / 77 / 43
2003 – 104 / 62 / 60 * blessing starts winter 2003
2004 – 77 / 63 / 42
2005 – 69 / 53 / 36
2006 – 66 / 66 / 47
2007 – 79 / 56 / 39
2008 – 51 / 38 / 31
I have no later data. What is clear is a) Lincolnshire has a higher rate of fatalities than East Anglia does, but all three are in decline.
Not wanting to try and work out which 2003 deaths were before the blessing and which after, I just did the obvious simple maths – average of deaths prior to 2003, and post 2003.
Drop of 22%
Now the two un-blessed counties!
Drop of 26%
Drop of 22%
Conclusion: Blessing, while admirable and worthy, has not resulted in any effect on road deaths as far as I can see in the county. Still good publicity for road safety awareness.
Well, I guess my research is a bit coarse – one would not expect gritters to have much effect on road deaths except in the winter, and I could therefore say take fatality numbers in November, December, January & February for each county. I only note this because my methodology is a bit crude, and could in theory be masking an effect, as I’m testing total RTA fatalities per annum per county, rather than the actual “claim” made, in as far as there was one.
So as a prayer experiment a negative, but I still thank God for Bishops like Lincoln who actually do something and care about real issues, and long may he be blessed.