OK, so it all started with the radio show The Infinite Monkey Cage (and you can listen to it from this link). It was quite funny, and as normal irreverent. Ince and Cox were funny, and joined by Wiseman, Bruce Hood(whose book Supersense I keep meaning to review) and Andy Nyman. As such there was clearly no attempt at balance or actually addressing the pro-paranormal perspective, but I’m not sure this is required for comedy. Still this walked a thin line between humour and science, and the naive could easily be misled by simple assurances like Hood’s opening claim that ghosts were scientifically non-viable.
Andy Nyman talks about ghost narratives as they developed over time – and surely they do, though his claim that ghost stories start with Pope Gregory is laughable to anyone with any knowledge of Classics (and I was fairly shocked by his apparent ignorance of the earlier ghost narratives – see Ogden for an instant refutation, or Felton ) and his claim that ghost stories exist for purposes of religious control pre-Reformation, and become secular afterwards is so laughably over simplified I felt this show may take several diazepam to listen to, doing to History what Most Haunted does to academic parapsychology…
I think anyone who has ever studied Hamlet is aware that ghosts hold a peculiar position in the Early Modern period, and anyone with a knowledge of theology would be in tears at this misrepresentation of a horrendously convoluted issue. Oddly almost nothing in Nyman’s account reflects anything in the academic literature on the development of the ghost narrative. The audience are hardly likely to appreciate this, but maybe I am too harsh on Nyman for a throw away explanation on a radio show. At the end of this piece I list a few excellent books for those interested in the area. Unfortunately I am incredibly boring in this respect, usually describing myself as a cultural historian of ghosts if someone asks me what I do. I start to quote the Bylands Fragment and they go away. And anyway, the detective genre and detective story narratives have evolved over time. Do detectives not exist?
Richard Wiseman was as usual hilarious. His discussion of sleep paralysis and incubi had me laughing out loud — but long therm readers of this blog will know that his proffered explanation is a rather drastic over simplification of a horrendously complicated issue with no agreement on the physiological or neurological factors involved — it was basically the usual sceptical place holder “sleep paralysis”, and while Richard does offer the old idea that we are paralysed in (REM, though he did not say so) sleep to prevent injury, I’m not sure how many sleep researchers still hold this true. I have seen it questioned in my recent review of the literature. I fear the truth, while as Richard suggests probably located in mundane causes, is actually rather more mysterious than he leads us to believe, with several competing models vying as explanation and none currently empirically demonstrable. And you know I’m going to mention Hufford here don’t you? Well maybe not if you are not as obsessed by actual parapsychological/folklore studies as me, but there ya go.
No the problem is I feel like a tosser making these carping critiques of a comedy show, but when public intellectuals spout bollocks, even in a humourous light entertainment show that should clearly not be taken seriously at any level, up and down the country people think they are being informed and educated, when really they are being sold a rather glib and very superficial treatment of a complicated and intriguing area of academic debate. In short it’s a lot like the pop science pot boilers one finds in Waterstones – fine for ignorant peasants like me, but no substitute for the real journal stuff. If my fellow sceptics did not so often but uncritically accept anything that meets their prejudices, and actually questioned what they hear from even big names with honest-to-God PhD’s, it would not be a problem. If people read deeper in the issues, that would be fine. But life is short and love is always over in the morning – oh sorry that’s a Sisters of Mercy lyric — anyway we don’t have the time or the inclination a lot of time to go read Prof John Beloff or Prof Archie Roy or some other eloquent defender — we just take the bloke on the radios word for it. As I commented this morning on Twitter, the irony of modern life to me is that Sceptics appear full of certainties, while “believers” like me are assailed by doubts at every turn.
Still, this is a comedy show. I have a sense of humour. Critiquing it feels wrong. As I said, it makes me feel like I’m missing the joke, have no sense of humour, and I’m somehow being a bully. I hope none of these are ever true. One of my friends, and academic from the same institution as Bruce Hood was horrified by the show, as he pointed out it was full of holes. I laughed at him gently, and reassured him no one would take it seriously, hoping I was right. Anyway I am less than seven minutes in, but should I keep breaking a butterfly on the wheel?
Hood made a interesting point suggesting (in line with his oversensitive entity detector hypothesis) that ghost experiencees are more likely to find order in random patterns – type I errors — I’m not sure that is the case. I think the papers he is citing suggest paranormal believers are more prone to Type I errors, and that may be true – and although there is a correlation between paranormal believers and people who have seen a ghost the two are just not the same. But I have not yet checked, so this may be an unfair critique. Anyone out there know?
Anyhow enough! I have a sense of humour. Some nonsense is inevitable in any pop-science treatment, but I’m not going to sit here and rip in to the remaining two thirds. I can cope with nonsense being spouted even on a show that claims to be a “bastion of rationality” — some people have lives and have not dedicated themselves to decades on these subjects – well Wiseman has both, for which I am frankly envious. You should by now gather that a) I’m astonishingly critical, and sceptical of almost any claim I hear from an “expert” and b) this was a light hearted treatment with a condescending and at time close on sneering tone, but genuinely funny and entertaining — just don’t take it too seriously.
And there it should have ended, and I would have laughed, enjoyed the show, and never said another word about it.
Then it all got nasty. Some people suffered a sense of humour failure, and appear to have complained to the Beeb that the show was unbalanced, pitting five sceptics against, well no one. It’s not that you can’t find people with PhD’s who believe in ghosts, indeed heaven forbid people with PhD’s who research ghosts. Now I actually disapprove of the complaint, because the Infinite Monkey Cage is comedy, not a serious debate show. Indeed so crass were some of the errors in this show it was not just comic, it was bleeding laughable
But it does also masquerade as a) rational and b) scientific, and let’s face it if that is the case then having someone who could discuss the opposing case might have been fairer, and actually funnier. I can think of plenty of people, I’d have done it and been publicly crucified, I mean hell I did Ghost hunting with the League of Gentlemen (and very nice they were too), and certainly in the case of Reece Shearsmith astonishingly open minded and happy to read the journal stuff himself — despite his hard core sceptic beliefs — and they might have even found someone talented and funny to appear if they called the SPR? But calls for balance seem sadly misplaced in a light entertainment show, if only as I said rational sceptics actually bothered to check the assertions of big name sceptics as carefully as they examine the writings of Creationists for errors!
A few of my mates from Skeptics in the Pub mentioned it to me, and I am always happy to offer an alternative viewpoint (and pedantically jump on errors!). But I could not take it seriously. Some people did though, and called in the great God “broadcasting objectivity”, and while I sympathize it seems heavy handed for thirty minutes on Radio Four aimed at an audience who probably don’t care much either way, but want a good laugh. Still I don’t blame them, I blame the BBC…
Here is how the show was advertised – the emphasis is mine…
‘Brian Cox and Robin Ince are joined by actor Andy Nyman, psychologist Richard Wiseman and neuroscientist Bruce Hood to investigate popular claims of supernatural events, and debate whether a belief in ghosts and psychic abilities is harmless fun, or if there are more worrying implications.’
Investigate? Yeah maybe. Debate. Nope. A debate by definition requires some disagreement. False advertising by the BBC led to the complaints I think, from disappointed listeners, not the show itself. It never was a debate. In fact it was not really an investigation – it was a quick chat with a few intriguing suggestions, a few bizarre mistakes, and a rather superficial gloss for people who aren’t really keen on actual debate or the involved issues. Light entertainment, nothing more, nothing less — but actually fun, even though I’ll never take any other topic they handle seriously again.
And then Brian Cox made a mistake. He turned to Twitter in frustration, and the word “nobbers” was used. I mean really. Nobbers. Yes, Nobbers. It sounds like the playground taunt of a five year old.
Here is my official statement, which also has the benefit of being a fact. There are no ghosts, so it would be silly to believe in them.
“There are some utter nobbers out there!”
So ran Professor Cox’s reasoned dismissal. Now actually I understand his frustration, because I think the complaints were misjudged, because of the appalling way the show was advertised. I assume he is referring by utter nobbers to people who complained, but I secretly hope he meant ghost researchers like myself, as pretty much every other commentator on “Cox and Nobbers” seems to think. Why?
People have called me far worse. and to be fair, I quite like “utter nobber”. “That CJ is an amazing nobber!” might count as false advertising, but its the kind of reputation I would like to have where young ladies are concerned. Professor Cox has been voted one of the sexiest men alive, and why parapsychologist Cal Cooper and a few others might give hm a run for his money, well I need all the help I can get. So yes, I have to admit, I am an utterly amazing nobber…
And if this playground smut offends, then be grateful I have not made all the other puns I could on the unfortunate juxtaposition of bollocks, cox and nobber. In deference to my dear friend Richard “Dick” Lay I won’t go there. Because I am big and grown up, and don’t resort to playground name calling and making puns on people’s names, which with mine might be throwing stones in glasshouses.
Instead I did the adult thing, and tweeted Prof Cox, asking him if he was familiar with the peer reviewed literature on apparitional experience. I thought maybe he had read say Dewi on the Hallucinations of Widowhood from The Lancet, or was familiar with the Report on the Census of Hallucinations, Tyrell’s Apparitions, Evans Seeing Ghosts, or Hornell Hart’s Six Theories of Apparitions. I jest of course, I was pretty sure he had no clue what he was talking about. But if he responded I was ready to reply with at least Public Parapsychology’s excellent pdf An Apparitional Experiences Primer.
He didn’t, but he is busy with a book, and let’s face it this is not really his field, so I don’t blame him for not being drawn in to a discussion. But at least I git something better than a mildly funny radio show from all this — now I can proudly tell all that I am an “utter nobber”. And that has to be worth something?
Davies, O (2009), The Haunted; a social history of ghosts, London, Palgrave Macmillan.
Felton, D. (1999) Haunted Greece and Rome: Ghost Stories from Classical Antiquity, Austin, University of Texas Press
Finucane, R.C (1982) Appearances of the Dead: Cultural History of Ghosts, Junction Books
Finucane, R.C. (1996), Ghosts: Appearances of the Dead and Cultural Transformation, Prometheus Books
Hood, B.M ( 2008) Supersense: why we believe in the unbelievable, New York, Harper Collins.
Hufford D.J. (1982) The terror that comes in the night: an experience-centered study of supernatural assault traditions. Philadelphia:University of Pennsylvania Press, – Still by far the best book on sleep paralysis, night terrors, and the phenomenological study of the same.
Ogden, D (2002) Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in Greek and Roman Worlds: A Sourcebook, OUP USA.
Wiliams, Wilson, Ventola (2010) An Apparitional Experiences Primer (pdf)
Schmitt, J.C (2007), Ghosts in the Middle Ages: Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, Chicago, University of Chicago.