On Thursday I’m Talking Ghosts At Skeptics In the Pub, Cheltenham Science Festival Fringe. Controversy May Ensue :D
A quick update seems in order. It’s Tuesday 12th June and The Times Cheltenham Science Festival is under way. I’m still wondering why the brochure appears to feature a perspex butt plug though? Or is it just Global Melting, like Global Warming but hotter? Anyway so far I have seen no events, simply because I have not yet got up and gone out except for a quick trip to acquire breakfast. Secondly, I have a talk to write!
No, the Festival organisers have not gone mad. Every year however Cheltenham Skeptics In The Pub run a wonderful Fringe programme – last year I saw the Festival of the spoken Nerd and Dr Harry Witchell on the Science of Dating. This year the programme looks just as exciting, and while it gets little attention the Fringe Events are excellent and well worth attending if you are in town for the Science Festival. I was thinking of going through the whole run down, from Dark Matters to Science Show Offs on Saturday, but the website does that better than I can. Also these events are all FREE, with a donations bucket being passed around if you want to give (Being Skeptics it’s a bucket not a collection plate – there may be some subtle symbolism I’m missing?)
So I am trying to write my talk on The Science of Ghosts for Thursday night…
Now most of my friends so far seem to respond with “there isn’t any!”. Given I have spent twenty five years studying it, I think there is — but as a recent row on the Rational Skepticism forum suggests, a lot of people think that when I say “ghosts” I mean “Dead Guys” ( & Dead Gals too). This is unfortunate, because it is all a lot more complicated than that. I could say I take a phenomenological approach, rather than making an ontological claim, but I think people would just look at me funny, and I don’t mean phenomenological in the sense of Philosophy they might also think I’m nuts. So just to be clear, I’m looking at how we study two things: the ghost experience, and the causes thereof. (“Tough on Ghosts, Tough on the Causes of Ghosts”? If you want to be really bored you can read my ASSAP conference talk here: this one will be faster, funnier cover very different ground and have more “science” whatever that means!
Anyhow this year my talk will be mercifully free of asides on the philosophy of science, epistemology and other big words too. In fact it will be a) light hearted, b) loud, c) visual (I’m using a lot of video or whatever you call the digital equivalent) clips and also very hands on. Yes I’m running some little experiments and audience participation events, because well, why ever not? So be prepared for Circle Dancing, Knocking On Wood, learning the Power of Expectation and Suggestion, and I’m even doing a little jokey tribute to Bem’s precognition research, which sounds deadly dull, but isn’t at all, at least in my version I hope.
So is there any Science of Ghosts? Yes, way, way too much to even just list the areas covered in the time I have, unless I over run by a week. I think the best way to go is to keep the first half light hearted and fast moving. I have been through loads of topics I could cover, and have thought about presenting on a little of everything, but in the end I have chosen just two topics for the first bit that I can present well upon and have never given a talk on before, one of which is very suited to hands on experimentation.
One thing that seems to confuse a lot of people is why I am talking at Skeptics In The Pub. Paranormal Believers often seem to regard Skeptics, or as us non-Americans usually call ‘em, Sceptics, as the enemy. (Why do we use the American spelling? Is it to prove we know Greek or something?) Skeptics/Sceptics think people like me who spend our time on parapsychology are all woos, unless they have heard of us (Chris French and Richard Wiseman are exempt from this it seems. Stuart J Ritchie probably still gets called a woo, as he is not yet a household name?). I’m desperately hoping that Professor Brian Cox might show to run a picket line and to tell people I’m an utter nobber, but sadly feel that highly unlikely.:D
Anyway why am I talking at a Skeptic’s meeting? Well I have always regarded myself as a sceptic. Yes I’m a methodological sceptic, and sometimes I come to conclusions that sit uncomfortably with other sceptics, but I do believe firmly that doubt and “rational sceptisicm” are the only way forward and are central to the scientific method, or rather most scientific methods, as I don’t think there is only one. It often amuses me that I am far less certain of many things than self-proclaimed forum sceptics who are absolutely rock solid in their beliefs where I have little more than an ever expanding list questions, a lot of data, and a few tentative, provisional conclusions. I encounter this time and time again on the JREF and other forums: people whose faith is stronger than mine.
Anyway, enough rambling. I have a talk to write. I’ll let others decide if I am a Fake Sceptic or not. Whatever you think about ghosts and parapsychology, the questions it raises for Science, how we do Science, how we communicate Science and what constitutes real Science are vital, or so I am inclined to think. I hope some of you will come a long and heckle, whether sceptic or believer!
Here are the talk details
Thursday, June 14 2012 at 7:30PM
40 Clarence St
What’s the talk about?
Ghosts don’t exist, all skeptics know this, right?. Yet even a skeptic can experience a “ghost”, and when one does all kind of awkward questions arise. That was what happened to CJ, and the story of how he became involved in parapsychology, spent twenty five years investigating hauntings and became embroiled in working in paranormal television for a decade before ending up with far more questions than when he started may amuse and hopefully cause you to question your own deep seated beliefs on the subject. Learn the inside view behind shows like Most Haunted, and why despite everything for CJ at least the serious research must continue.
So can Science really address the ghost experience? For 120 years scientists have wrestled with the question of what is really going on when people think they see ghosts, and in this talk CJ promises to present a whistle stop tour of the science that has been published in the field, good, bad and bogus. Can science finally exorcise our ancient fears of the unquiet dead, and explain the night hag? Are buildings haunted, or is it people? And what should you do if you actually see a spook? If that seems unlikely, come along, and find out how you could
The event is FREE, but we will be shaking the Skeptic-Bucket to cover costs
I wrote a little Christmas ghost story, which may amuse some of my friends. It’s a story I have been trying to write on and off since the Most Haunted days, when it came to me one Christmas Eve in a dream. It’s a little unfair, because to really understand it relies on you getting the joke, and spotting the references — which I suspect very few of you are likely to know. Still if you do it may amuse, and even if not I hope it is mildly spooky. This is in lieu of a Christmas card or Christmas message, and yes I know it’s not very good, but some stories just demand to be written…
Ethel – A Christmas Ghost Story
There has been much speculation in the press over the disappearance of my dear friend, while in the act of “ghost hunting”.
While sceptics groups have taken the tragedy as a warning to the curious of the hazards of engaging in the infantile pursuit of the impossible, and believers have made many strange and curious speculations about spontaneous combustion, the police have taken the line that he left, perhaps deranged by his recent illness, of his own accord, and will turn up somewhere.
It seems quite probable he did meet a young woman holidaymaker, and has set off to make a new life for himself. Those of us who knew him knew he was at the time of his disappearance both financially burdened and saddened by the end of his media career, but do find it out of character he has not been in touch with anyone.
Temporary amnesia, a romance, or perhaps sadly severe illness seem more likely explanations than the foul play suggested by sceptics or the paranormal end suggested by the woo crowd.
Whatever the truth, his possessions were found by myself when I arrived, two days after his last email and concerned by the rambling bizarre nature of his last message to me.
All of his possessions barring his wallet, clothing he was wearing, laptop satchel and mobile phone were found, as his email suggests, neatly placed in the pantry.
Enough time has now passed for me to share with the interested public his last emails, in the hope they may shed light upon the curious case,and help bring him back to his friends and family. Do contact me or the police if you have any idea of his current whereabouts – young and romantic, he showed great promise in the field of psychical research, and was a good friend to me for many years.
Here are his emails, in order.
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. I stepped off the train in to a scene from a Christmas card; snow had fallen, snow on snow, and while miraculously it was exactly the right kind of snow, everyone had made tracks for home. I walked down a few steps to view the tawdry holiday lights of Marley High Street. An American might have been taken by the quaint charm, but I just felt light headed – my recent flu has not quite left, and the wooziness flushed from my floaty brow to my tingling toes. I felt like I was walking in the Christmas of my childhood, in a magical world, where the ghosts of Christmas Past were near.
A few folk wrapped staggered by, hard wrapped against the winter cold; even The White Horse pub appeared to be a derelict floating on a sea of ice, despite the chalkboard promise of big prizes for the pub quiz tonight. Yes, Marley really was dead tonight.
Still, I’m not here for the holiday spirit; I’m here to work, and the very fact that the place seems to be little more than a dormitory town with all the charm of off-season Great Yarmouth makes it all the more appealing. The icy wind actually seemed to clear my head, and the walk through the centre (a rather wonderful art deco cinema – you really should check it out!) and then out along Compton Lane to the house did much to improve my spirits.
It’s about three miles from Marley town centre to the house. Seems that until the ribbon development of the thirties led to houses growing out along the roads, it was a separate village, and the district still holds its old name of Compton. Not a taxi to be had in this Christmas Card scene, so I trudged the whole way, rucksack on my back passed shiny new build estates filled with delightful children and advert-ready families. Or so I imagine: I did not stop to peek through whatever-has-replaced Laura Ashley curtains.
By the edges of Compton I was dizzy and tired, and despite the cold had broken a most unseasonal sweat. I think I told you in my last email; the Letting Agent had three tenants leave, citing “ghosts”, and the landlord who lives abroad finally agreed to my visit, on the understanding there is no publicity. I expect damp or noisy neighbours are the real issue, but a week over Christmas to get over the flu and think about where my career would take me next. Downhill fast probably, without brakes – is that not the definition of “career”? Still my reputation as a “ghost expert” has finally got me something worthwhile, a little holiday not far from town.
When I saw the house I was a little taken a back – on the train my feverish fantasies had been of a little thatched cottage, roof pristine with glistening snow awaiting only the soft thud of Santa’s sleigh, or a crumbling gothic manor set back from the road. In fact there is such a place – Bott Hall, once the home to a man who made his fortune manufacturing some condiment considered quite delicious in the inter-war period – big enough to get a mention in the guidebook, devoid of any charm, it now serves as a conference centre or some such.
Anyway the house I had come to evict the spooks from is quite ordinary; Edwardian middle class home, according to my notes once home to a successful stockbroker, since the early seventies owned by the current landlord (who now lives in France), and let to a succession of tenants, none of whom complained until he had some much needed renovations done a couple of years back. Since that time no one had stayed long, and some had fled well within the six months they were required to pay for. The stories seemed hazy, contradictory – voices, the roar of a motorbike when none could be seen, a black almost shapeless “thing” that scurried around the kitchen, and much more besides.
I passed the village school, now yuppie apartments, the Norman Church and the bookies – which still preserved the antique sign in glistening gold paint of a former occupier, “Theobald the Barbers.” Nothing about the tiny suburb of Marley suggested spooks, and as I walked up the path I was ready to put on a lemsip and settle down for an uneventful week of reading – I brought the book you bought me on Roman religion along, and Simpson & Westwood too.
Suddenly my attention was drawn to something quite ordinary, yet strangely unsettling. I can’t put my finger on why I found it worthy of attention at all, but across the snowy fields I saw an old wooden barn, broken down, indeed barely standing. Something about the silhouette of the ancient structure seemed malignant, like a hunched beast waiting to creep, as son as the curtains were shut, close to the house, and reach out for…
The milk bottles on the doorstep broke my reverie – empty of course, but as I slid on the icy step I kicked them, and cursing struggled to find the right key. And then I noticed something odd – one was not empty, but contained a murky grey liquid, not frozen despite the temperature. I fumbled with mittens, and picked it up, and the secret was revealed – someone had dropped a stick of licorice in it, and seemingly shaken it. Odd, but hardly eerie, so I left it there and went in.
OK, the layout is prosaic enough – a sitting room, dining room, what used to be called a “morning room” and a bookshelf lined study on the ground floor, the kitchen and pantry and a couple of small rooms, perhaps once servants quarter in the basement, with a coal hole and a kitchen door opening on to steps. There are four bedrooms – one was clearly the master bedroom, one had a vaguely feminine air, and their was a smaller room, probably a child’s, overlooking an ancient tree. Cosy enough, I turned on the electric, fired up the boiler – pilot lit first time, and placing a Carbon Monoxide meter in position (could the answer to the ghosts be that simple?) I set out looking for the best place to sleep. Given the fact it’s let unfurnished, I chose to place my sleeping bag in the kitchen, and thanked the landlords foresight in installing gas central heating, even if it had stirred up the ghosts. Anyway I have managed to get a wifi connection, and have fixed some food – there is both a kettle and microwave down here, together with a lot of other stuff seemingly half packed. I’m thanking the ghosts for scaring the last tenants away so well they could not be bothered to collect their possessions!
Have a good night, and if I don’t have time to write or get eaten by the beasties a great Xmas! Will email tomorrow if the Horrors have not got me…
I sent my last about twenty minutes ago, but something quite extraordinary happened. I ate a bit – helps with the fever, and then I thought I heard the sound of a motorbike pass by. I’m not sure what it is – probably just the central heating warming up – but it sounded for all the world like a really badly tuned bike driving in, coasting on the gravel, and being lent against the wall with a clank. I was looking at the boiler when I heard what sounded like the back door opening, and someone creeping in, wearing socks and trying to be stealthy.
I have been set up on ghost hunts before, so I slipped my shoes off, and quietly keeping to the sides crept upstairs. Nothing: except an old fashioned tennis racket leaning against a wall, just inside the back door. I never saw it on my first tour, but I neglected to take photos then. Yeah, I know, some “ghost expert” I am. Obviously it was there before and I overlooked it, but it was still a bit odd. I would have paid more attention, but I got a whiff of cologne, and convinced someone was in the house hiding from me I dashed up the stairs, only to freeze in terror.
In the door of the child’s room I thought I saw the thing – perhaps a giant rat, a beady eyed thing. On reflection it perhaps looked more like a dog than a rat, but the scruffiest most outrageous jumble of breeds you can imagine, a disreputable animal. I was standing there looking at it, and it was looking at me – but neither of us moved. Then suddenly it was gone, and I advanced in to the room cautiously, still clutching that absurd old tennis bat.
Nothing – bare boards, moonlight, and the swaying of the apple tree branches, heavy laden with snow. Suddenly I realized – it was just a shadow, and the glistening reflection of ice. How stupid I am! I went round the whole house just to be certain, and apart from a faint whiff of pipe tobacco in the study, which may well have just been my imagination, nothing. In the morning I’ll make sense of this place, and lay the ghosts for good.
I hope you are having a wonderful Christmas Day. I have had a fairly dull time, but that is how I like it. The fever has now nearly gone, though I think last night played a strain on my nerves, and I’m still a little shaky. I’m annoyed I shall miss Dr Who, but I’ll catch it later on I-Player. I hope you enjoyed The Ladykillers, and dinner was good and DC wicked, or vice-versa.
Not much of interest occurred in the morning – I woke after a strange dream, in which a woman’s voice called repeatedly to someone called Ellen to “get the pudding on to steam”. I did not open my eyes, but lay in a reverie in which I imagined a kitchen bustling with the clank of pots and festive preparation of a century ago. I wonder if they used Bott’s sauce? I seem to recall somewhere that if you consumed too much it was so rich it made you vomit!
The floorboards settled overhead, and I imagined a family sitting for lunch – a stern father, his head in The Times, a tired looking mother dealing with a tousled haired lad, forcing him to go wash his horribly stained hands, and an older boy and his sister filled with excitement about their holiday plans. After an hour or more of vivid dreams and fitful sleep, I forced myself up, had a quick wash, and emerged blinking in to the brilliant sunshine reflecting off the snowy garden.
I had intended to explore the village, but instead I slipped through a gap in the fence, and went off to have a look a look at that run down old barn, determined to exorcise the vague unease it had conjured up in me last night. As I approached I saw that the door had long since fallen, but someone had tacked a notice to the framework: I expected a notice advising demolition and an application for planning permission – it’s right on the edge of town, in unspoilt countryside, you know what barn conversions go for!
Instead I found the most remarkable document, a ink stained piece of paper apparently torn from an exercise book, and scrawled in the most awful hand. It read
Chrismuss Paygent here today 10am.
No Hubert Lainites.
By kind permisshun The Outlaws.
Stopping only to think what text talk and the X box have done to the new generation, I slipped in. Whatever had occurred, I had missed it – I realized it was nearly noon anyway. A smoky fire of wet twigs still burned, and a semi circle of ancient packing crates showed where the “audience” had sat, but of them and the performers there was no trace. Just a single discarded bottle, with a trace of grey disgusting water and a tiny piece of partially dissolved licorice. Something about the scene seemed wrong – I can’t put my finger on it – but for some reason I turned and hurried away, towards the village. I had the strongest impression I was being watched, and jeered at, by some local kids. For a moment I thought I saw them, four tousle haired youths crouched in a ditch across on the field boundary, with a small yapping dog, but when I looked again they were not there. Bloody fever.
I spent the whole afternoon in the house, and nothing untoward happened. I’m heading down the pub now – will email tomorrow.
I thought I saw those bloody kids again. They were following me, but all dressed up in suits, scrubbed pink and shiny, in best shoes. Was down by the church. The dog was skulking nearby, and it looked like the shadow I saw last night. If they are hoaxing me I’ll tell their parents. Getting to me, and my head is swimming. Pub lunch here. Merry Christmas.
Sent by Android
Of all the things I thought of when I cam here I never expected this. I have met a girl, and she is adorable. Not in the pub, as you might expect – as I was walking home. She is slender, adorable, has red hair, in a very stylish bob, and was dressed in old fashioned clothes. When I commented on her 1920′s outfit and how well she pulled it off she laughed and asked if I had been at the Christmas Pageant too, and then I understood! Fancy dress!
We met just outside the pub in the street, and she joked when I made a passing comment about how good she looked and she said I looked quite remarkable as well. She really is very attractive, and Ethel – that’s her name, rather sweet hey – Ethel Brown, well we stood and talked for ages, and eventually wandered down to the Churchyard, and sat and talked in the church porch. I mentioned what I had seen at the barn, and she said it was just a copy of the adult pageant put on by her dreadful little brother William and his awful friends. Apparently he is quite the little savage, and eleven years old. I thought by eleven nowadays kids were all about playing Skyrim, GTA or whatever else is fashionable on the consoles. I swiftly changed the subject, that boy gives me the creeps.
And then another mystery was solved – we heard the roar of a motorbike, and Ethel said it must be her brother Robert, on his way home, and she must go. We have agreed to meet again tomorrow, at sunset, in the churchyard. I hope to be invited to dinner by Mr and Mrs Brown, they obviously live nearby. I walked home light headed, and I’m not convinced it was the fever. Did I mention Ethel is adorable? I should have told her where I was staying…
Dreadful night. Voices kept whispering, and people creeping about. Ellen the maid nearly fell over me with a plate of pies, and leftover cabbage smells vile, I have moved in to the pantry so as not to get in the way. But Ethel is here, I heard her at breakfast above, talking to her parents and Robert. Oh and William, her little brother, and his gang. I was nice to him, gave him a fiver, but he just said it was funny “furrin” money. They took me to the barn, and I had to drink some of that licorice water and pretend it was the best thing ever. I keep promising William stuff, and I heard him tell Ginger, Henry and Douglas I’m “soft” on his sister. Jumble tore my trousers while trying to worry my sneakers laces. Awful mutt!
Still soon will be sunset, and I am meeting Ethel at the churchyard, and plan to be introduced to the family. I went in to Theobalds and got my hair cut, and boy I look like a freak, but judging by Robert and his mate Hector the ridiculous hairstyle is fashionable round here.
The sun is setting, and I’m sitting shivering, teeth chattering, whether with cold or fever I know not. Laptop is working again, was unable to get a signal most of the day. I’m sitting on the garden wall now and hope this gets through. Oh, one thing. As the sun sets, the chinks in the old burn make it glow red, as it slips below the horizon behind it. Did you not once tell me that the Red Barn at Polstead got it’s name that way, and in Suffolk such places are associated with the supernatural?
Anyway must go, signal getting intermittent, and soon will be with Ethel. She really is adorable you know…
OK, firstly a huge vote of thanks to all the readers of this my personal blog. The blog is not going anywhere: it will continue with exactly the same kind of articles as before, including the parapsychology and ghost ones. However, after much thought I have decided to launch a second blog, POLTERWOTSIT. Whereas this blog is entirely CJ (except an essay on poltergeist by Becky!) the new blog which will be covering current events in paranormal research, parapsychology, ghosthunting and especially poltergeist and ghost related stories will have many authors represented, though under the watchful eye of myself, Baldrick69 and Becky. I’m hoping to persuade a few others to join our merry band (Tom R, are you reading?) but we will see!
So far I have not even had time to sort out the links, or to get it properly set up. Eventually I may migrate a few of the more interesting articles from this blog (like the one about the SPR) across to the new blog, but at the moment i am going to start slow, and we are calling for reader’s own accounts t share ont he blog. If you have an interesting real life experience of a ghost or poltergeist type nature, or something to say on the subject, do email me or comment!
Anyway I’d best wrap up there for now. Hope you enjoy the new blog!
I wrote this update for Facebook fans of my little ghost research group, GSUK. I thought I may as well share it on my blog as well!
We maintain a quiet but social forum, and are always delighted to welcome new members. You can sign up here –
and it is the first place we announce new research or forthcoming events. Once you have signed up Becky or I have to approve you, so please do include an email – this is simply because we used to be besieged by SPAMbots who put some, er, interesting, links all over the forum!
If you have forgotten your password, just drop me a line at email@example.com and I’ll sort you out
or visit their website at http://www.spr.ac.uk/main/
Becky completed the MSc course in Parapsychology at Coventry University – http://www.facebook.com/search/?q=MSc+Parapsychology&init=quick#!/pages/Coventry/Coventry-University-MSc-Parapsychology/109629113877?ref=search&sid=642030568.4198790475..1 – highly recommded if you have the time and money.
She is now working on a PhD in anomalous experiences based on looking at peoples strange happenning and so forth. Last summer she and I conducted a trial piece of research, which we are currently coding, with one very interesting result straight off — http://jerome23.wordpress.com/2010/03/08/charting-the-unknown-ghosts-memory-the-progress-of-time/
I have been busy writing reviews for The SPR (one is in the current issue of the Paranormal Review actually: Tricia Robertson on psychic surgery, a most fascinating talk) and i’m keeping up to date on the latest in parapsychology.
Becky and i are now officially an item – we still have not moved in together, so we are commuting between Derby and Cheltenham at weekends, so things are a bit hectic.
The Next Event
No dates yet, as i’m still trying to sort out the best location, and what exctly we want to try. Our ghost nights are always a bit “different”, but I’ll keep you updated!
Please note all this is a work in progress: little more than a series of memo’s in which Becky and I are developing ideas we want to explore…
OK last night I posted on a topic that interested me, and seemed to suggest that we forget anomalous experiences quite quickly. Andrew has raised the possibility that the more recent experiences may simply be made up: I admit that is possible, but wonder why people would claim the fictional experience was situated in the last twelve months, rather than long ago, or just today?
This morning I am going to look at the data again, but this time look at age at time of the experience rather than time elapsed between the experience and the report. The first chart shows the ages of our respondents – by category, as we do not possess precise ages for most respondents, and many said things like “when I was living with my parents” or “twelve years ago”.
Table 1. Age of Persons Who Responded
As you can see, they cluster around the 30′s - unsurprising given the method of collection, as most of the people who viewed the question were in that age category! However the age of percipients does set an upper limit for both how long ago an experience can have occurred, obviously enough (people can not have anomalous experiences before they were born), so I have reproduced the data here. It is a shame we did not ask for more precise ages!
Perhaps more interesting is the following chart, which shows how old people were when the claimed anomalous experience took place.
Table 2. Number of INCIDENTS reported by age category
The sharp decline after 30′s is simply owing to the age of our respondents as shown in the first chart, os it is not safe to assume any falling off in experience as we grow older, and the data set is really too small to allow for any meaningful statistical analysis (which is why the study used Grounded Theory methodology). The 1894 Census saw a peak around the age of 21: however there were methodological problems in that Census which may account for this. The Census of Hallucinations (1894) discounted experiences below the age of ten years – we have reported on them and included them in our dataset.
Bear in mind these are experiences, not people. As we shall see in future reports, some people reported many incidents of allegedly anomalous experiences. Also note that continuing and ongoing experiences were not included in these figures. 42 incidents could be placed at a certain age in the percipient’s life from the accounts submitted.
However, some experiences (mainly those in childhood) were placed at a precise age: so here are the break downs for the under 20′s…
Table 3. Incidents in the Under-20′s
The number of experiences at age 18 to 19 appears comparatively high: not quite sure why that should be. Maybe moving away from home?
Anyway these figures are not as interesting as the last set to my mind, but if anyone has comment or thoughts on all this we would love to hear them!
OK something mildly interesting tonight – very much a preliminary set of thoughts on something Becky and I are still working on. Before she started her PhD we undertook some simple research on reports of “paranormal experiences” together, using a novel new methodology which is actually quite close to that used by the SPR in the 1894 Census of Hallucinations. And something has already come up that I find fascinating!
I don’t know yet if Becky is going to develop said methodology for her PhD, so I won’t talk about it here, but the important thing is with the help of a number of friends, including but not limited to Yvette Nicole-Hall, Axel Johnston, Rupert Scott-Ward, Miranda Cardew, Lynn Cinderey, Emma and Paul Tudor, Thomas Nowell and others (the full list will appear in the final paper if we ever finish writing this up: please drop me a line if you took part and I have missed you off the list!) we collected sixty “paranormal” type experiences. We then coded them, using a Grounded Theory approach, and I’m still looking at the data.
The question that was posed in our “accidental census” (Becky developed the methodology quite by chance) was
“Have you ever – when believing yourself to be fully awake and unaffected by illness, drink or drugs — had a vivid experience of seeing something or someone, or of hearing a voice, when there is nothing there and no ordinary cause you can find?”
or one of three other minor variations of the same, as we were playing around with the wording, experimenting with the original SPR form, DJ West’s, the MAss Observation Survey question and finally Becky’s own version (above). The only difference noted was in number of responses,
So what did we find? Well one thing I mentioned the other day leapt out at me immediately. Remember I said in the piece on Thetford Priory and my own ghost experience that I thought experiences diminished rather the grew in the telling, and that many events that seemed quite “paranormal” at the time are quickly forgotten? Well sixty cases is not a lot to base anything on, but here is a quick chart I just knocked up in Open Office Calc.
Bit blurry as I’m not good with the Export function. Anyway at first glance, it seems to show pretty much what we might expect in terms of a fairly even distribution of our experiences. Ah I hear you cry – there are only 49 percipients (people who experienced the event) listed here. Yep, in some cases it was impossible to work out exactly WHEN the event occurred from the narratives we received, and we also omitted repeated phenomena (as in “this happens to me every day” and continuing phenomena, as in “and it’s still happening…”) from this chart. If they were included the effect would be stronger I think…
So what is puzzling me? The garishly (and with no regard to red/green colour blindness: I should have checked how to change the colours) bars do not represent equal periods of time. Two people reported their event the day it happened, the first bar. The second bar is those who told us of something in the last week, the third the last month. The first 5 bars represent events that were experienced in the last year… But as we get further down the chart, well the fifth bar is four years (from 12 months to 5 years), then we go up in 5 year blocks, then ten years.
Here is the important bit: in the last twelve months, twelve people claim to have had an experience of the type we are interested in – including witnessing an apparition, seeing an object move in what appears to be a “paranormal” fashion, hearing voices, being touched by invisible presences, etc, while well and not under the influence of drugs or drink. So lets assume that people are more likely to recall and report accurately events in the last twelve months. Using that 12 months as a baseline; if that rate was the average (assuming that Dave Williams was wrong earlier tonight when he joked “it looks like Zuul is coming to the West Midlands!) then we would expect sixty reports in each of the 5 year blocks; the mean is actually 4.6 reports per five years. So where are the missing 275+ reports?
Well the age of the population reporting is obviously crucial. We only asked by decade of age, and though I have some precise ages, for most people I only know if they were say in their thirties or forties. I created a chart to show the distribution here. With the limited data I have I would estimate the average age is somewhere around 33. It is hardly surprising then that many people do not report events forty years ago — they were not born.
This leave three main hypotheses to consider to account for the issue
1. The one the SPR Report On the Census of Hallucinations put forward in 1894, and I mentioned to Wiseman & Watt at the Science of Ghosts event in Edinburgh last April, which seemed to surprise them – – people rapidly forget anomalous experiences in the main.
2. People are reporting the most spectacular events they can think of they have experienced, and ignoring minor recent experiences that would meet the Census question.
3. People are making up their experiences, and claiming these false experiences happened recently. I rather doubt this one for various reasons, not least the mode of collection for the data, and the fact the same pattern is found in Sidgwick (1894) – and I suspect in Donald West’s three studies.
I will return to this issue tomorrow, and talk more about the preliminary findings. For the moment I welcome any comment, in particular suggestion of appropriate statistical measures to employ on the quantitative data as Becky has returned to Derby to work, and I’m fairly rubbish at this sort of thing.
The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) are probably known to many readers of this blog: I first joined back in 1992, was a member for a couple of years, and after a fifteen year hiatus have recently once again become an Associate member. Some of you may still be storing SPR Journals and Proceedings for me – if so thanks! Perhaps some readers would consider joining up?
Founded in 1882 the SPR are still Britain’s (if not the world’s) leading parapsychological organisation, and hold regular monthly meetings in London as well as occasional Study Days which are always worth the effort. The London based nature of most events makes me an irregular attendee – London is about as accessible to the Moon for me with no car and no money, and Becky is based in Derby so it’s not much easier for her — but the excellent Journal of the Society for Psychical Research (JSPR), and a popular magazine The Paranormal Review arrive in the post four times a year and are never devoid of interest. (There are also irregular occasional Proceedings (PSPR). In fact these form much of the basis for my reading in what is going on in contemporary parapsychology, along with the excellent Journal of European Parapsychology (not an SPR publication). On top of these benefits, SPR members also receive a generous download provision from another independent project, LEXSCIEN, the online parapsychology library -- where one can search through, read or print as needed 150 years worth of peer reviewed psychical research and parapsychological literature. Unfortunately I had already joined LEXSCIEN before rejoining the SPR, but it really is a huge plus to SPR membership for anyone interested in the subject – you can take a look at Abstracts and a few bits and pieces for free anyway.
Of course the greatest benefit is the other members: I have been privileged to have the opportunity to meet so many people, from the late John Beloff, Manfred Cassirer, Maurice Grosse and Andrew Mackenzie through to the many wonderful people I have learned a great deal from and whose work I knew, such as Tony Cornell, Tom Ruffles, Alan Gauld, Mary Rose Barrington, Archie Roy, David Luke, Tricia Robertson, Terry White, Guy Lyon Playfair, John Randall and Eleanor O’ Keeffe and many many more interesting people through the SPR’s events. And we should not forget the offices and library in London where members can find a wealth or research materials and assistance!
Ghosthunters & The SPR
Recent years have seen an explosion of interest in “spontaneous cases”: that is non-experimental psychical research. (Mrs Sidgwick seems to have originated that distinction and the phrase “spontaneous cases” in the Report on the Census of Hallucinations in PSPR, vol 10, 1894 I noted yesterday!) So now we have ghost groups, often deeply committed and sometimes very efficiently run, all over the country. These “local groups” like Cheltenham’s PARASOC however always maintain a distance from the SPR, I suspect more through ignorance of what the Society has to offer than by design. Some people are just in to the subject for “legend tripping” – they enjoy a spooky night in a haunted house, but want little more from their hobby. Many are put off I suspect by the dry prose of psychical research literature, especially some of the papers which feature quantitative methodologies and page after page of statistics, or just by the fact that articles are very technical. Yet the Paranormal Review rarely features such papers, and even if one is not willing to fire up SPSS (a stats computer program) to check the stats for oneself, the peer reviewed nature of the JSPR means one can always learn something from an article and have faith that the numbers mean what the author states!
So why don’t ghosthunters from local groups join the SPR? You don’t have to be a brilliant academic with a brain like the Mekon – you can be a normal person, and don’t have to speak like you swallowed a thesaurus.
The SPR is far less stuffy than many similar academic groups, warm and accepting. From the earliest days the membership ranged from the brilliant and famous (and many were) through the mighty and powerful (Balfour was Secretary of the SPR while Prime Minister, and on some old Proceedings the address for correspondence is given as 10 Downing Street, London!) through the scandalous and eccentric (George Sand) to the humble – chambermaids, undermaids and grocer’s assistants appear in the lists of members. Nothing has changed (except you can’t send mail to number 10 any more!).
Now the SPR is not, and never has been cheap, compared with joining your local ghost group. What it does do however is you bring you in to the mainstream and give you access to what has gone before in psychical research, and give you a chance to contribute insights and research to the wider parapsychological community. Long term readers of this blog may recall my piece on “types of ghosthunters” where each category I jokingly discussed ended “and never publish their results.” Of course many groups do publish newsletters, or decent websites where they chronicle their findings, but if you don’t publish in a mainstream publication, and I suspect some of the cases people have studied would make great Paranormal Review articles at least, how can you say you are doing scientific work? Scientists publish their results, and share with each other. While the peer reviewed JSPR may prove daunting to many with a non-academic background to write for, that is the aim. (they were kind enough to publish something of mine, and I’m not brilliant!). Even if you don’t want to write up articles , you can file your reports with the SPR library, and providing they are readable I am sure the SPR will be willing to store them for future researchers.
On top of all this the SPR has a number of members with a huge amount of experience in investigating spontaneous cases, and a Spontaneous Cases Committee who can usually help you, and put you in touch with a local member who will provide valuable knowledge and experience in your investigation if you so desire. How else will you be able to say as Venkman did “Symmetrical book stacking. Just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947?”, if you don’t know the literature?
The SPR has been doing this research for 150 years, so why do so many groups stand apart? They do NOT affiliate with local groups, by long term principle, but they will still give you as a member all kinds of valuable ideas and information you can bring to bear on your own research efforts, and provide a forum to discuss and meet with genuine experts in the field. The new SPR updated website has for the first time an online payment form – current annual membership prices are (January 2010) £60/ £40 unwaged/ £30 student, but honestly, you would pay more for a lot of psychical research related books and events out there.
I’m sure many of us have signed up to a local group only to later find they have a secret mission – in the case of the old Cheltenham group (CPRG) taking over the world, but in the case of many groups simply finding the Holy Grail or defeating the evil minions of some dire satanic cult, like the Inland Revenue – anyway another reason people hesistate to join psychic research groups is in case they are thought to be committing to belief in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis, without even a steady paycheck to compensate. This is not an issue with the SPR owing to a very important rule -the SPR as a body has no corporate opinions on the phenomena it studies, all members owning their own beliefs. So even if you are completely sceptical of all alleged paranormal phenomena, you will find SPR members who share your beliefs. There are actually a few important guidelines for SPR members – you can’t use membership in the Society to promote yourself or product (blast there goes my psychic phone line – “Madame CJ speaks the future, only £20 a minute!”), ad so forth. You can read them here.
Anyway what occasioned these brief thoughts is that the SPR website at www.spr.ac.uk – note the ac.uk domain, I was always impressed they got that! – has just undergone a major overhaul, with a lot of new material. There is a guest essay, a form to report your experiences, links to some members research (hopefully as soon as Becky has her ethics approval through she can get listed) and a listing of recent books on parapsychology and related topics, as well as extensive revisions throughout. So stop reading this, go have a look!
Hope to see you at an event one day, and if you join do comment.