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.
Do try this at home…
I created this a few years back now as a light hearted joke on another forum, and we tried it on RD.net. Why not try it here?
Assuming that we wish to demonstrate a paranormal or supernatural claim first (they are not the same, but we have no effective way of distinguishing at this stage in the experiment) I think we should start there.
It won’t prove a God, let alone our Christian one, but I’m not that ambitious.
One thing at a time.
The Mustard Seed Experiment
(first suggested by me back in 2004 on Christianforums!)
Equipment:-- You will require two saucers, two packets of mustard seeds or cress (either – they are cheap fast growing, but do make sure both packets are one or the other!), some tissue or soil for them to grow in (follow the instructions on packet) and a window sill.
You want two locations, and heat and light and condensation etc to be the same on each – so the same windowsill?.
Mark the locations with paper, label A and B. Your seeds will sit in saucers here. You will also need a ruler, paper and pen.
Get the seeds. Now we don’t know what has happened to them in their packets, and they might be from different batches. Tip the seeds in to a glass, and mix them very thoroughly. Now divide them in to two piles. Next take your saucers. Add your tissue, flannel, soil or whatever medium you grow cress or mustard seeds in in your part of the world: they must be exactly equal in depth, water etc.
If you use soil mix it thoroughly then divide into heaps only after finely stirring it. Then add the seeds, and label the two saucers “annie” and “bob”, or “rhubarb” and “custard”, or — you get the idea… Next place the two saucers on the places A & B. The Experiment. Each day, you will do three things. Firstly, you will swap the saucers each morning or night so they move location. This is to average out any inequalities caused by the environment.
Secondly, you will have noted a “good” saucer, and a “naughty” one. You will think positive thoughts of, sing to, pray for, or otherwise encourage growth in the “good” saucer. You will just ignore the “naughty” saucer. You may feel a bit off sending “good vibes” to a saucer. I encourage you not to explain what you are doing to neighbours. Once someone is institutionalised it can be hard to get them released. No when praying/singing/thinking tenderly/asking God to bless your crop – stay away from it. Possibly in the next room? We don’t want the vibrations, heat, or some other natural factor effecting the growth!
Testing the Hypothesis
Null Hypothesis: given exactly equal conditions, prayer/positive thoughts/healing energy/asking God to bless it/etc has no effect on a crop. We set an exact deadline. 12 noon on day 8. We measure, an more importantly we get someone who does not know the good from the naughty cress, or even the nature of the experiment, to measure the height of the crop. If your seeds have turned in to a mighty tree, you take photos and post them here.
If one saucer, the naughty one was blasted like the fig, you pat the cat on the head, but some stuff from the vet to stop him spraying in the house, and post pictures here.
If the “good” crop is 10% taller or more bountiful than the “naughty one”, then it’s a success. Ensure the ruler measures from the saucer. Hopefully you will find the results are visually apparent.
It seems to work, and its cheaper than the Templeton Prayer Experiment (see TGD) by a factor of several millions. To give that authentic big money research programme feel, do feel free to paypal me some cash however.
Well it either works or it doesn’t. Either way, post your results here (negative results still vital – do post! No File Drawer here please…). Might be interesting to measure the crops each day and record their progress. If it works, what does it prove? It proves we need to try tightening the controls and trying again. Still it might be indicative of an effect, and if our thoughts or prayers can effect a small plant, well they might well effect many other things. Who knows? What it disproves potentially is the null hypothesis.
It gives us no positive evidence as to the nature of the effect, if any — it could be down to invisible pixies, or a unseen thermal current, or maybe ESP/PK, or experimenter error, or – but we can work on that later. Let’s get an experimental effect first! It’s along way from here to St. Paul and Jesus dying on the Cross for our sins… Anyway, there ya go. I have set out my version of the experiment. The question is, will a few of you try it? Let me know! Is it an improvement? It is less ambitious! So who is up to try this? Feel free to critique my experimental design, I just typed it up quickly… OH yes — I am interested in any result over 10% on either plant in variation, but I think 20% seems a fairly impressive margin and should be required to count as a hit. There you go, I have employed the extraordinary claims principle even though I don’t believe it personally.
Anyway, post your results, positive of negative in the comments here.
Another old piece from RichardDawkins.net, but an important one I think! For DCG… “The Professor” is a reference to Richard Dawkins, and this was another piece from the week before The Enemies of Reason show…
Now many of you know that I am twice damned as far as the Prof is concerned, for not only am I a dodgy Christian, I’m also by profession a dodgy ghosthunter. Yep, if you did not know, you read that right… It’s an odd mix I suppose. Most Christians don’t seem overly keen on running ESP tests, or researching poltergeist cases or whatever, but I’m really quite comfortable with it. Long term readers of this forum are painfully aware of how passionately I defend proper academic parapsychology against its critics, while remaining a skeptic and supporter of Randi and the JREF. Anyway, I can’t see Prof Dawkins taking kindly to my chosen path. I guess this series of essays may be nothing more than an attempt on my part to justify my own position: I don’t like the idea of being dubbed an ‘enemy of reason’ much!
OK, so tonight I’m going to talk about my problem with the paranormal. And here we have a problem straight away – what is the Paranormal? The term is used so loosely as to be almost meaningless. I tend to make a distinction between the supernatural – things above or beyond the universe and nature, and so presumably if they exist outside the scope of the naturalistic inquiry of science, or at least unfalsifiable – and the paranormal, which I would argue is simply a term used for those phenomena lacking any currently agreed hypothesis or theory as to their cause but which may one day be included in the scope of science, because they are part of currently undiscovered natural laws, or we understand the principles which govern them, but so far have failed to apply them correctly. So those laws may well include misperception, wishful thinking, or all kinds of naturalistic explanations. I think this is roughly what Professor Dawkins means when he refers to perinormal phenomena.
This is where Prof Dawkins and I are in some agreement. I personally think many “paranormal/perinormal” phenomena will eventually become part of our knowledge as science advances. Why?
Well when I was a kid, Arthur C Clarke had a TV show called Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World . It was actually probably rather good, and had a slightly sceptical edge, but I was never a fan as such things did not interest me – I thought what I know know to be Forteana, Cryptozoology, Parapsychology etc etc were utter bilge. Still I recall the episode when Giant Squid were discussed, and we were told there was some evidence in terms of sucker marks on whales. Yet Giant Squid back then were thoroughly “paranormal”.
That was what, thirty years ago? Nowadays Giant Squid are perfectly respectable, though i still would not take one home to meet mummy and daddy, well not unless you really don’t like mummy and daddy! And the same with high altitude blue streaks, ball lightning, and a few other phenomena which in the 70′s were considered paranormal, but now have made the jump over to scientific acceptance, if not yet full explanation.
Others, like the legendary Sasquatch and Nessie are not looking so good after thirty years of research, and may well end up finally be accepted as myths. UFOs, well after Cartman got his anal probe and the bizarre excitement of the 90′s Abduction craze, nuts and bolts ufology is well in decline, and Wicca and the Occult has suffered from over exposure and the harsh light of day – never a happy fate for a mystery religion. It end up less The Devil Rides Out and more Sabrina the Teenage Goth Wannabe Witch. Still my point is simple – some “paranormal” phenomena make it as science includes them, usually without any radical new breakthroughs or changes in our understanding of the laws of nature, others just fade away as they are explained as mistakes or fail to stand up to scrutiny at all, and swim away like Nessie seems to have done. The thing is to keep an open mind without your brains falling out.
Anyway, so far hopefully so good. The problem I have with the paranormal is not people being interested in it — even Most Haunted had the advantage of creating a generation of new skeptics and hard core researchers, so I’m not entirely unhappy with it (and won’t decry my short association with the show – they paid me well, and I enjoyed the work) — but the fact that I don’t really know if the Paranormal works at all.
Let’s starts with a list of “paranormal” claims –
- ESP, Ghosts, UFOs, Zombies, Ball Lightning, Nessie, surviving Thylacines, Mediumship, Spoon Bending, Dowsing, Crystal Power, Atlantis, Witchcraft, Astrology, Poltergeists, Curses, Synchronicity, Astral Projection, Vampires, Werewolves, Psychic Pets, Auras, The Bermuda Triangle, etc, etc…
Now that’s a pretty outrageous list, and I would not necessarily advocate the reality of any of those. However, what if say Poltergeists were real? The very fact they have been placed in this category makes them immediately suspect, and makes any decent scientist worth his salt (so not me) ignore them utterly. Guilt by association. And you know what? You try and do some research in to a poltergeist case, and suddenly people all link you with Auras, Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle – you are a nut. Why – because you study the paranormal! Yet my question — what do any of these things actually have in common?
What does Spoonbending tell us about Atlantis? How are Psychic Pets linked with Werewolves? (Er, don’t answer that actually – I don’t want to know!) This whole paranormal category si just a vast dumping ground for subjects we think lack credibility – and in many of the above examples, probably quite justifiably! However paranormal is just a term of abuse – it tells us nothing about the phenomena except they are not respectable. There are plenty of unexplained phenomena and anomalies out there which are taken seriously – its research on these anomalies, on the niggling problems with our best scientific models which leads to revisions and to the models improving, and hence scientific progress after all. Yet “paranormal” as a term? It’s meaningless.I’m even wary about “parapsychology”. It’s too close for comfort to the despised term.
I’ve just realized I’m in danger of rehashing an article I write in 1996, when Prof Dawkins last publicly spoke on these things, decrying the X Files as it happens. (Amusingly he admitted in The Times interview earlier this week he never actually watched the show!!?) Still back then I wrote a little piece, which I may well repost next in my ongoing collection of CJ musings…