Eight couples who had never experienced any ‘haunting’ activity in their houses and had no reason to expect they would experience ‘ghosts’ were asked by the author to keep a diary for one calendar month from 17th October – 17th November 2012 in which they recorded unusual experiences. 62.5% of the participant couples recruited completed the task and submitted the diaries for analysis. Of the five participant couples who submitted diaries, four reported at least some phenomena that met the criteria, and one couple reported no unusual activity at all. The study was a larger scale replication of Houran and Lange (1996). My findings are compared with those of the original study which featured only one couple.
UPDATE: Within 20 minutes of the first draft of this paper going live on my blog I was contacted by one of the missing research participants and was able to locate the couples data which had been submitted at the time but by Facebook message rather than e-mail. I have therefore revised the figures to take in to account the new material. It had no impact on the overall findings, fortunately.
Introduction: Houran & Lange’s 1996 Study
James Houran and Rense Lange have been the authors of a number of innovative studies in parapsychology. In this 1996 paper they were exploring if hauntings and in particular it would seem poltergeist cases were explicable in terms of a self-reinforcing-psychological contagion hypothesis. In essence the idea is that once one notices unusual anomalies in one’s home, and has ones attention drawn to it, more such anomalies are noticed. The paper is often cited (for example Wiseman 2011; Wiseman 2011b) as it provides an elegant psychological explanation for purported “hauntings”. The original paper is based on the experiences of one couple, mature students, who were requested by the researchers to keep a 30 day diary of unusual events in their home which was in no way believed to be ‘haunted’ before the study began. The small number of participants (one diary) troubled me: it seems dangerous to draw too many conclusions form a single innovative pilot study like this, and I could find no replications, yet the paper is repeatedly cited by sceptics without mention of this limitation. I therefore decided to replicate the study, on a larger scale.
The basic idea behind Houran and Lange’s paper appears simple. Imagine one day you come home and find your books are symmetrically stacked in the living room. You don’t recall doing it, and your housemate is never so neat! Later on, an egg starts to fry on your kitchen worktop, and then you hear an odd voice say “Zuul”. Your attention may now well be extremely focussed upon the weird things happening in your house – you probably approach the fridge with trepidation – and when the cat knocks over a flower vase later and the hot water system causes knocking in the pipes, you are only to quick to jump to the “ghost did it” conclusion. In short, ghosts are by this hypothesis merely a narrative we create to explain little mysteries (anomalies) in our daily lives. When my door keys go missing, I search and search and eventually find them on the shelf where I thought I had looked first, I may be more willing to blame a spook than my poor perception.
In the same year I suggested something similar (Romer; 1996); what did not occur to me was that such observations of purportedly paranormal phenomena would eventually die out. Houran and Lange argue this based upon
“the assumptions that (1) the environment provides a stable supply of events that can be interpreted as paranormal and (2) the probability of noticing an additional anomaly is directly proportional to the number of anomalies already noticed as well as the number of remaining potential anomalies. Under these assumptions, it can be shown that the cumulative frequency distribution of perceived anomalous events should follow the familiar logistic curve.” (Houran and Lange 1996: my emphasis)
So you notice something odd going on; you start to look for it as your attention becomes focussed on the “ghost” – that much seems straightforward. However I am slightly confused by the “number of remaining possible anomalies.” This implies there are a limited number of such events in the environment, and eventually you will reach a point where you have observed most potential anomalies, causing the number of new experiences observed to tail off. I am puzzled as to how Houran and Lange came to this conclusion. If perceptual mistakes give rise to some anomalies, and others are simple misunderstanding of mundane events, I see no reason for them to “run out” as suggested. What limits the “number of remaining anomalies”? Yet this is an important aspect of the paper, even if not explained within it. As has been pointed out, poltergeist type events usually run out if steam in a fairly short period – the “logistic curve” Houran and Lange hypothesise would explain this within their psychological explanation. Here is the graph of the cumulative experiences that were reported by one couple in their diary study. As we can see it neatly fits the predicted logistic curve.
Yet without understanding why the potential anomalies in any given environment (house) are limited in the time period, it is hard for me to understand. Why they predict the classic logistic curve above. I would have predicted an exponential rise in cumulative frequency: the problem is that while this neatly represents reports of ‘actual’ poltergeist cases, which trail off over time, I can’t see why it should be suggested in the first place. What limits the potential anomalies?
Replicating The 1996 Paper: A New Diary Study
Given the fact that people citing the original 1996 paper have at times drawn rather strong conclusions from this single diary study with only one couple involved, I decided to attempt a replication. I intended to recruit ten couples as participants, though that proved impossible. I wanted to see if the couples reported similar experiences to those in the original study, and if the puzzling logistic curve was borne out in the new data.
Recruitment was via volunteers through the authors Facebook account. 8 couples living in the UK volunteered to keep the diaries, and then again two days before the end of the study. Five couples mailed me completed diaries. No reason was given by the other three couples for failure to complete (though simple forgetfulness is one possibility). The couples were all aged between 30 and 50 years, though I did not ask for precise ages, marital status, or other personal information. Two of the couples have strong interests in the paranormal, and two in religion. This was not intentional selection, nor even a feature of the couples who initially responded to my request for participants, but it may be a reason why they stuck with the study till the end.
Of the four couples who submitted diaries, one had experienced nothing unusual which met the criteria at all in the time period, and a second had a relevant experience while staying in a place other than their own home (discussed briefly later.) So from the original eight couples, five participated and three had experiences that met the criteria. The fact three did not is in itself of interest. They were certainly aware of the study – Couple C reported several events which met the criteria, but which occurred while they were away from their home, hence were excluded. Couple D reported that no such experiences occurred in the time frame, though one partner had experienced anomalous experiences in the past. Couple E had one very striking experience.
Those who expressed an interest in participating were sent the following instructions (along with some introductory text and contact numbers for myself. No one called during the study). The instructions, and the 8 categories were based on those employed in the 1996 study – the categories they employed derived from an Lange paper on ‘Contextual mediation of perceptions in hauntings and poltergeist-like experiences’. (Lange et al. 1996) I attempted to replicate as faithfully as possible the original research. Here are the instructions I emailed out to the prospective participants.
“For the next month, until November 17th, please pay particular attention to any unusual occurrences in your residence. These occurrences may be emotional feelings, physical sensations, or environmental events in your residence. Please keep detailed and accurate notes, even if you know or believe to know what caused the occurrences to happen. I will need the gender and age of adult occupants, and who had each experience noting. If you have children please do not discuss this with them. I have no desire to upset children! The types of unusual experiences I am interested include but are not limited to
* Visual – seeing things not there
* Audio – hearing stuff with no known cause *
Tactile – the feeling of being touched with no obvious reason
* Olfactory – strange smells
* Sensed “presences”
* Intense emotion for no apparent cause beyond that you might normally experience
* Object movements with no apparent cause
* erratic function of equipment.
At the end of the month I would like you to send me the file with your notes. Obviously the experiment requires the full consent and participation of your house mates. I’m asking for volunteers on my Facebook because I want people who I can trust and know. My final report will be anonymized to prevent personal details being shared, and will credit you by name if you wish in the credits. You can end participation at any time.
You can always contact me if necessary on (numbers removed). This is a very important piece of research and I’ll be hugely grateful if you can assist.”
The Phenomena Reported
Only two couples (labelled A and B for ease of reference) provided phenomena that occurred in their own homes. Couple C reported phenomena that occurred to their car, and a phenomena that met the criteria but occurred while she was working elsewhere overnight in the period in question, and while of considerable interest this had to be excluded as not occurring in their own home from this study: however it was still of great interest. Couple D reported no phenomena. Couple A reported 19 events, couple B 10, Couple E 1 – compared with the 1996 couple where in the slightly shorter period of 30 days (as opposed to 32 days in this study) 22 events were reported.
In this study the five couples reported an average of 6 experiences that met the criteria and were in their homes, but of course 50% of the participants reported none – so the actual figures are 0,0, 1, 10,19. Only on the 7th November did three events occur to the same couple on the same day: No more than 3 events are reported on any given day. Halloween (October 31st) gave us only one event – which rather knocks traditional beliefs in this respect!
The nature of the phenomena can be classified by the eight categories used in the original study. There was however a new category that emerged strongly. “Sense presences” were inferred by both couples by the behaviour of there cats seemingly staring at things not there and behaving unusually. Given that this is not a “sensed presence” by a human percipient, but certainly can be seen as building towards the narrative of a psychologically induced haunting, I included these in a new 9th category (which might be called Unusual Pet Behaviour in any replication). The single human “sensed presence” was of a deceased cat, sensed by the owner on November 3rd, and appears in the Sensed presences category as the percipient was human. A visual experience reported was also of a cat where no real cat was; this was from the other couple.
|Phenomena||Couple A||Couple B Couple E||Total (Percentage)|
|Visual||0||2 0||2 (6.6%)|
|Auditory||5||1 0||6 (20%)|
|Tactile||2||0 0||2 (6.6%)|
|Olfactory||1||0 1||1 (3.3%)|
|Sensed “presences”||1||0 0||1 (3.3%)|
|Intense emotion||0||2 0||2 (6.6%)|
|Object movements||0||8 0||8 (26.6%)|
|Equipment Erratic||1||4 0||5 (16.6.2%)|
|Cat Behaviour||1||2 0||3 (10%)|
One of the issues when tabulating the data was what to call an “experience”. For example, on one experience a cat was heard to jump on the sofa, and the black tail briefly glimpsed out of the corner of the eye – and no cat was there. (A very mundane common hallucination, any cat owner must be used to). As the two events followed each other in quick succession, I recorded them as 2 events – auditory and visual. However for a strange noise heard coming from a bookcase one night, I recorded it as one experience, despite it recurring a few minutes later. Such subjective judgements are unavoidable in dealing with diary studies.
So as we can see “un-haunted” houses can appear surprisingly haunted once we pay attention to the anomalies, just as the 1996 paper said, and as I argued in my (also) 1996 piece a cumulative narrative can be composed from non-associated and presumably non-paranormal occurrences. (We will return to this seemingly solid conclusion later however.) What is also clear is that while there are commonalities the specifics of our two haunts vary considerably, with Couple B reporting object movements and classic poltergeist “small object displacement” or “jottle” effects while Couple A report significantly more strange noises and auditory experiences. So we appear to have a general confirmation of expectancy/priming effects and focussing awareness leading to the development of a ‘ghostly’ narrative – though it is important to note neither couple actually reported their experiences in those terms, and both were aware that the experiment led to them paying attention to the anomalies obviously. Just to confound matter further Couple B included with their diary a query as to whether I was familiar with Houran and Lange (1996), the paper that I was attempting to replicate. While I trust them obviously this could colour their dairy, as they were clearly aware of the hypothesis I was testing. In this day and age finding “naive” subjects for any experiment is increasingly difficult while meeting the needs of informed consent!
The Logistic Curve
So what of Houran and Lange’s hypothesis that the experiences would follow a logistic curve? Let us firstly remind ourselves of what this looks like in the original study.
As I currently lack the software to plot the logistic curve all I can note is this looks more like a straight line distribution to me: it levels off , but if we just plot the experiences the effect of the curve is far from apparent. I see less evidence of the purported “running out of anomalies” effect, and given the tedium of keeping up a diary study, it is just as possible the whole logistic curve tells us more about the enthusiasm of research subjects for participation in a project than the nature of hauntings.
Let us move to Couple B. Here are there results, presented the same way. Firstly graphed as in the original paper.
Again, despite the levelling off in the middle, there is no resemblance to the logistic curve. I am fairly sure that if tested the relationship between the observed values and the expected values would be non-significant. Just to be consistent, here are just the cumulative experiences depicted.
Again we see as I hypothesised a fairly straight line progression. The evidence does not seem to support a logistic curve, and hence does not support a “running out of anomalies” factor. There is no apparent reason why in 32 days the effect should tail off – which is an important criticism of the idea that it explains why poltergeist events are short-lived and episodic, if the psychological hypothesis theory is correct. Let us finally combine all three couples results (with single experience of couple E included) and examine them.
The Logistic Curve is nowhere to be seen. Our couples did not “run out of anomalies” – they continued to find new odd occurrences to remark upon. The very nature of a diary study where the research participants may strain to find things to comment upon to “do their homework” and feel they are justifying their participation may lead to this result, but then one would have expected it to show up in the original study.
Comparing the Experiences
The original paper gives relatively little information about the actual phenomena reported. Equipment behaving erratically was the most common experience, with 16 of the 22 reported events, followed by 5 counts of object movement and one subjective experience. So in the 1996 study the phenomena classes described were far more limited than in this replication. Furthermore it is surprising to read in Houran and Lange (1996)
“Further, in agreement with the focussing effect described by Roll (1977), three out of the five objects which were found to have moved were the same, and all of the erratic functioning involved the same piece of equipment.” (emphasis mine)
If I had the same piece of equipment malfunction 16 times, I would suspect that there was something broken with it, not spooks. 72.7% of the phenomena reported in the original study were malfunctions of this one piece of equipment, the nature of which is not specified. I find this quite incredible. The pattern does not repeat in this replication – all object moved were unique, and Couple B’s 4 cases of erratically behaving machinery only involved two the same, both involving the lounge lamp, several days apart. There is no evidence to support the kind of effect seen in Roll’s poltergeist cases as cited in the new study.
UPDATE: re-reading Richard Wiseman’s Skeptical Inquirer piece gives additional information cited as from the paper, but not contained within the paper.
“Reporting the results in the paper “Diary of Events in a Thoroughly Unhaunted House,” he noted that the couple reported an amazing twenty-two weird events, including the inexplicable malfunctioning of their telephone, their name being muttered by a ghostly presence, and the strange movement of a souvenir voodoo mask along a shelf.” (Wiseman 2011b)
I am not sure what Richard’s source is, presumably the author’s themselves: however of the ‘amazing’ 22 experiences 16 (72.7%) involved the telephone malfunctioning.
Nonetheless the replication provides greater diversity and similarly impressive numbers in some of the 5 diaries. While the original study found a significant case for a ‘focal person’ as often found in poltergeist-like cases, who witnessed 16 of the phenomena while by themselves (72.7%) no such effect is apparent in the replication. It is impossible based on the ambiguity of the records regarding who exactly was present or first discovered an object had moved to tabulate exactly, but the experiences are generally framed from the author’s perspective (in both cases a female) but seem to have involved and been witnessed by their partners (both male) on several occasions, and in some instances the males was the percipient. Again, an effect found by Houran and Lange and common to the case history of poltergeists does not appear in this replication.
The greater diversity of experiences reported seems to me to strengthen the case for a psychological contagion effect, but it is important to note that a) the participants did not come to the conclusion they were being haunted and b) for those familiar with the Census of Hallucination (1894) research, I do not think any of the experiences reported would meet the exclusion criteria used there: object movements were not included in that study. To compare these experiences with say the witnesses at Enfield (Playfair 1980) or Cardiff (Fontana, 1991) or Andover (Colvin 2008) appears unreasonable. These experiences may well lead some people to believe their house is haunted, but with the possible exception of the object movements (none of which were witnessed moving, and for 60% of which the participants offered likely mundane causes) none of them are likely to cause resort to paranormal explanations.
So What Have We Learned?
The replication has provided significantly stronger evidence for the psychological contagion case than the original paper does, in that it shows that a wider range of “paranormal-type” experiences can occur in everyday life, with the potential to be misinterpreted and develop in to a ghost story narrative. Yet we must note several things.
Firstly, the phenomena involved would not I fear withstand an objective external investigator. The participants themselves repeatedly “explain away” the phenomena – after all, as in the original study, they were instructed to report such things even if “even if you know or believe to know what caused the occurrences to happen.” Secondly, the study may simply show the priming effect of participating in the experiment.There is no reason to think the participants would have thought very much if at all about what occurred, let alone ascribed it to spooks, if they had not been participating in the diary study. It is important to note that 40% of those who responded, and quite possibly the other three participants who did not submit diaries, experienced no notable phenomena. If the three who had expressed willingness to participate but never got back to me had noticed anything similar occurring, you might have expected them to respond.
Yet I have no doubt that life is full of tiny anomalies: during the day it has taken me to write up this replication my partner has texted to say she had her sat nav come on while lying on her bedroom floor and make her jump by telling her to “turn right”; I myself thought I saw Cuddles my black cat sitting on top of a cupboard, but on looking again he was not there, and was still sleeping in my bedroom when I returned to the computer. Neither of us have jumped to the conclusion we are haunted: but I can see how it could well happen, and I think the psychological contagion hypothesis requires much more study, and am thankful to Houran and Lange for their pioneering and important work. Houran and Lange (1996) wrote
‘This resulting cumulative frequency distribution of event times closely follows a logistic curve… thereby providing strong support for our hypothesis that perceptions of anomalous events are an artefact of attentional contagion. This finding implies that explanations of anomalous events need not invoke such untestable notions as “discarnate agents” or “recurrent spontaneous psycho-kinesis”.’
This study found no evidence for the logistic curve – and the author is still confused as to why it was invoked, as it appears to be difficult to justify as a hypothesis. While the replication was relatively small scale, it was of course still larger in scope than the original study, and leads to the question as to why no one appears to have attempted to replicate it in the intervening sixteen years given the elegance and simplicity of the research design. Widely cited, and fascinating in its implications, the Houran and Lange study opens up new vistas for research in to people’s interpretation of ambiguous stimuli, but one must question whether it really demonstrates all that some sceptical proponents have made out.
Chris Jensen Romer, January 2013
Note: I would to acknowledge the kind assistance of Tom Ruffles of the SPR in helping me locate articles used in writing this piece. Participant Bryan Saunders has kindly agreed to be waive his identity, and I would like to thank him and Barbara for their faithfully maintaining their diary throughout the month and all their help. It is always pleasing to have some non-anonymous participants, as it it lowers the potential for fraud (I did not make up the results, but you don’t know that). I would also like to thank the SPR for their research grant support of my ongoing research.
Colvin, B (2008) The Andover Case: A responsive poltergeist, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 72, p. 1-20. Fontana, D (1991) A responsive poltergeist: A case from South Wales, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 57, pp. 385-402.
Houran, J. and Lange, R. (1996), Diary of events in a thoroughly unhaunted house, Perceptual & Motor Skills, 82, 499-502
Lange R, Houran, J, Harte T.M. & Havens R.A. (1996) Conceptual mediation of perception in hauntings and poltergeist -like experiences, Perceptual & Motor Skills, 82, 755-762
Lange, R., and J. Houran. 1997. Context-induced paranormal experiences: Support for Houran and Lange’s model of haunting phenomena. Perceptual and Motor Skills 84: 1455–58.
Playfair, Guy Lyon, (1980) This House Is Haunted: the Investigation of the Enfield Poltergeist, Stein & Day, London.
Roll, W.G (1977) Poltergeists in B.B. Wolman (ed) Handbook of Parapsychology, Jefferson, NC; McFarland p.382-413
Romer, C. (1996) The Poverty of Theory: Some Notes on the Investigation of Spontaneous Cases, Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 61, 161-163
Sidgwick, Eleanor; Johnson, Alice; and others (1894). Report on the Census of Hallucinations, Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research, 10.
Wiseman R, (2011), Paranormality, Macmillan, London.
Wiseman R, (2011) The Haunted Brain in Skeptical Inquirer 35.5 (available online at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/the_haunted_brain/)
I like James Randi, a lot. He has had a rough year, and I wish him well – and I have long supported the JREF, despite endless objections to some of Randi’s videos. Long time readers of this blog will recall my annoyance, near apoplexy, at woo in the Nazareth Never Existed one, and his sceptical piece on man-made global warming (strongly suggesting he did not believe in it) shocked me, but hell I guess it’s good to question. If a difference of opinion with another sceptic OR parapsychologist stopped me talking to them, and far more importantly, listening and learning from them, I’d be both ignorant and friendless.
The JREF staff I have spoken to over the years have been unfailingly polite and helpful, despite my tendency towards accepting some “paranormal” beliefs, and my strong commitment to investigating these issues scientifically. I’m particularly a fan of the JREF forum, where I have made many friends, and can promise that though there are some acerbic and rather strident critics there, there are also some excellent sceptics, critics and thinkers. I learn a lot there. I have respect for DJ Grothe and Phil Plait, who have both been JREF Presidents, and usually enjoy my reading there.
However, often the JREF videos can be wrong, or misleading. Today I finally saw this years Pigasus awards, ofter spotting a mention on the SPR Facebook page, and went and watched it. The Pigasus Awards are basically Ig Nobel Prizes for the worst in some paranormal, psychic or parapsychological related field, a mock honour that highlights the worst out there. And I tend to actually be pretty pleased with some of the choices, and irritated by others. There is a good wikipedia page on the Pigasus Awards
Anyway this years Awards make for fun viewing, so here they are
Video (c) JREF 2012.
Now, the bit I have a problem with this year is the awarding of the Pigasus for Science to Daryl Bem for his work on habituative presentiment, that infamous study I wrote about a few weeks back – if you have no idea what I am on about best read that first. Given I don’t actually believe in psi, and find it hard to see how it can work — though clearly there would be vast adaptive advantage in precognition if such a thing could exist, so yes in evolutionary terms it would make sense — why am I so irritated?
Listen to the speech again.
“The winner of the Pigasus Award for Science is Daryl Bem, for his shoddy research which has been discredited on many accounts, by prominent critics, such as Drs. Richard Wiseman, Steven Novella, and Chris French.”
I had not actually read Steven Novella’s piece before today, but I do in my previous piece refer to the research he cites — Wagenmakers et al (2011) — and link to it and Bem’s response. I am curious as to why Novella was mentioned rather than Wagenmakers here, and even more striking omission is that while two of the researchers who performed the recent failed replication of Bem’s experiment are mentioned, Stuart J Ritchie the other author does not get a mention at all. I have seen lots of theoretical criticisms of Bem’s work – here is an interesting thread on the JREF Forum, and here is Bare Normality’s recent blog post. However to me the most important critique remains that of those who have like Galak & Nelson and Ritchie, French & Wiseman actually replicated the experiments. As I commented in my last piece on spin in science and the Bem affair, there have of course also been successful replications.
Now the use of the word shoddy to describe Bem’s work is to me highly unfair, given that Wagenmakers critique, if correct, is that the methods used by almost all social scientists and lots of “hard” scientists too for dealing with probability are flawed, and these are inherent issues in our statistical methodologies. I’m not going to get involved in a discussion of Frequentist versus Bayesian analysis, because I’m not qualified to do so — but if Wagenmaker’s et als critique as put forward by Novella is correct then it is a common and widespread issue effecting a centuries research across the sciences, not something specific to Bem. How is that shoddy? I don’t know if it is correct – Bem has responded, and I encourage interested parties to go back and read the papers and discussion, which are linked in my last piece. The use of the word “shoddy” however really needs some justification.
Let’s move on. Randi continues –
“such examination, shows very strange methods used by Bem, which ends up unproven, though the popular media of course have chosen to embrace it.”
I have seen some suggestions of methodological flaws, which I linked above, but the paper was published in a major peer reviewed journal and has generally been positively commented upon by many of those who have like myself been through the paper looking for such flaws to explain the bizarre results. As anyone who has read my last piece knows, I am dismayed by the media spin: but plenty of popular science magazines have also reported on the affair, and the failed replications.
The biggest problem is if strange methods were used by Bem, the same software, and the same methods have been used in the failed replications. So why did they fail? A failed replication speaks far more to me than all the theoretical objections folks have raised, and is no real scandal. People do research, get funny results, others try to replicate and if replication fails we then start to try and work out what the hell is going on. Now in this case Dr Richard Wiseman is maintaining a “file drawer” registry of replications, and will publish a meta-analysis later in the year or next, which will finally clarify what exactly the experiments say. I have plenty of time for French, Ritchie and Wiseman — but this assassination of character by implication and slur just annoys me.
The truth is Bem performed perfectly good science, and while the media hype that followed was a bit odd, over the top and regrettable, he will be vindicated or be proven wrong by perfectly good, and normal, scientific methods. The Pigasus Award seems to be an attempt to place Bem’s research firmly in the pseudoscience camp; I think that is manifestly unfair. I can’t see Ritchie, Wiseman and French condoning this, and have drawn it their attention: all it does is widen the gap between parapsychologists and their intelligent critics, and it’s simply misleading. It does also make those who bothered like the above British team to replicate and seriously take on Bem on the issue look like fools.
And here is the thing: Randi appears to think that Bem’s work is worthy as a Pigasus because it can’t be right. He has made an a priori assumption it will not be vindicated (as have I to some extent, I just don’t claim to know that until the evidence is in, it’s simply a personal prejudice…) but by the award of the Piagsus he goes much further, belittling Bem for taking the subject seriously enough to research it.
Randi seems to think he knows what science contains, and psi is clearly absurd. He ridicules those who use science to investigate these issues – if they happen to disagree with his prejudice, while praising those like Wiseman and French (and the not-to-be-mentioned Ritchie) who use exactly the same methodologies, yet find results he personally finds acceptable. This is not uncommon in an ideological struggle like the parapsychologicalist-believers versus sceptic struggle has been since the days of William James at least, but it is ultimately far more damaging and dangerous to real scientific inquiry than Bem’s research. Science asks questions, tests them, and falsifies hypotheses — and is conducted not by sneering and cheap shots, but by hard work and real research.
As usual the Daily Grail beat me to the story, and did it better, but anyway, enough. As usual, it is science that is the victim here, and the war of spin continues…
UPDATE: Just saw that Stuart J Ritchie one of the authors of the failure to replicate experiment wrote on Twitter “Should put it on record that I think James Randi giving Bem the Pigasus award is unfair, unhelpful and disappointing.”
I agree totally.
You can say what you like about Professor Brian Cox, the guy has style. The discussion of the Infinite Monkey Cage episode on spooks et al. led to his Twitter postings that apparently caused outrage, and the amusing little spat that followed while distracting us from the more pressing issues of lift etiquette (if you are not a reader of PZ Myers, Skepchick blogs or Dawkins that might pass you by, but never mind) has continued on and off on Twitter, and Cox has now tagged it, you guessed it, #ghostnobbergate.
I have hugely enjoyed the discussion. Let’s face it, no one is actually interested in my opinions on the matter; well 15 people have commented on my blog, but almost everyone has been someone I know from the transpersonal or parapsychological community, or an old friend. I can’t really see why, what am I doing wrong? Roy Stenman’s blog Paranormal Review has attracted outraged Cox fans — and Hayley Steven’s get her blog post on this retweeted by Professor Cox? And what do I get? Ignored. I made specific critiques of what was said on the radio show, but no one has addressed them.
Perhaps it’s my fault for not taking it seriously enough. So here, to prevent this being another long and tedious blog post, here are five things that #ghostnobbergate showed me…
#1 People find it OK to comment on things they know nothing about.
And I agree, sort of. Everyone is entitled to an opinion. You don’t have to be an expert or have a huge knowledge of the research literature to hold an opinion, or we would all be agnostic on EVERY issue. Richard Wiseman and Bruce Hood certainly bring a lot of knowledge to bear on the issue of paranormal belief, and make an educated case against based on their reading of the evidence. Ince has perhaps wisely remained quiet, but he always struck me as deeply intelligent, and anyway I have discovered from Twitter he has excellent taste in music so I have nothing bad to say of him. Andy Nyman is doubtless brilliant, but I believe misinformed on some issues. And the hordes of slathering bloggers saying “it’s all crap”?
Well they are entitled to their opinions. However they denigrate mine, which is there is some deeply weird stuff here that really needs a lot more research before we can dismiss it. I have spent rather a long time, and read rather a lot of books and journals on the issue, and I have spent some twenty odd years pursuing original research. There are fundamental questions about the apparitional experience I can not answer, but that is I suspect because I am framing the question incorrectly. But I find the dismissive “it’s all crap” rather funny, because the people concerned are so often making an argument from ignorance. Hayley Stevens has looked at the evidence, and done a lot of investigations, and has come to a very different conclusion to me — that’s a fair and reasoned position in my eyes. But many of the twitter commentators would not know Gurney, Sidgwick & Myers if it bit them on the kneecaps, Rosenheim from the Evil Dead, think RSPK is something you due to a party invites and assume Houran and Lange is a Swedish sofa manufacturer.
So sure, everyone is entitled to an opinion. One based in ignorance of the subject matter is however not worth much, it’s just in the literal sense prejudice – pre-judging an issue.
#2 Many “skeptics” are not remotely sceptical and many “rationalists” are not rational.
In fact emotive responses have dominated a lot of the stuff I have seen. Prof Cox offered a rational critique when he apparently said ghosts violate the Laws of Thermodynamics – and if your theory does that, it’s dead. I’m not sure which Law was referred to as I have not seen Cox’s original comment. I seen to recall the Third Law is a statistical law? Anyhow, yep, that would be a rational argument. But it requires us to say what a ghost is, and he has not defined that for us yet? I’ll return to these problems further down.
Now I find few sceptics on this matter wh0 actually seem to doubt things, and question stuff. If they did they might actually bother to become informed about what has been written on the issue – say by reading the Apparitional Experience Primer and the Poltergeist Experience Primer. Of course campermon and the sceptics of RationalSkepticism forum have looked at the evidence closely, and I enjoy debating them, as with some of the JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation forum) members, but most of the Twitter stuff appears fairly ignorant with a few notable exceptions, like the chap or chapess who invoked Feyrabend and the limits of Popperian falsification!) Instead they have bought in to a dominant paradigm, and not even looked at the research on the issue.
To make a snap judgment on an issue like this, where we do not know what Cox means when he employs that notoriously slippery word “ghost”, seems profoundly irrational, and many people make a classic thinking error – an appeal to authority. That only works if the authority knows what they are talking about, and there is a consensus, or overwhelming agreement. If I said I rejected the Standard Model, people would think I was bat shit crazy, and if I said I rejected it because Sylvia Browne or Deepak Chopra disagreed I hope you would refer me for psychiatric evaluation. These people are not physicists, and hell I would not actually take their opinions on my area seriously either. But a lot of purported rationalists and sceptics are praising Cox despite his apparent lack of knowledge of the subject.
#3 I don’t know what a “ghost” is, or what it means
I study apparitional experiences and poltergeist cases — what parapsychologists call spontaneous cases. But as Andrew Oakley pointed out, the word ghost is horribly open to interpretation. In fact everyone in the field faces this problem. So what I study is experiences that people refer to as “ghosts” — and that can mean all kinds of things. I use a definition based on phenomenology: regardless of whether it was swamp gas reflecting off wires and the Planet Venus, or the shade of Great Aunt Nora, I call it a ghost if that’s was the percipient, the witness, calls it. and yes most “ghost” experiences have a truly straightforward set of explanations that cover them — hallucination, misperception, edge of sleep experiences, illness, wishful thinking, fraud (though that was pretty rare in my experience) and so forth.
I don’t know what Professor Cox means by “ghosts”. Without a definition their is no way I can meaningfully comment on his assertion belief in ghosts is silly. He has not defined his terms. I have before written extensively on the reasons one might doubt that all “ghosts” fall in to these categories – I describe my reasons here. But unless we know what he means by a “ghost” I can’t see any reason to be bothered by Cox’s opinion.
#4 Thermodynamics excludes ghosts
As I said, I don’t know where Prof. Cox said this. If he did, I’m baffled but I would actually like to see a brief explanation of his reasoning. The closest I can think of to this claim is Milton A Rothman’s version of it, which was that Thermodynamics excludes ESP, extrasensory perception. You can read about that in A Physicist’s Guide to Scepticism (Rothman, 1988). The reason Rothman makes the claim is simple; early parapsychological research in to ESP appeared to show that ESP was independent of distance and possibly time, so a card guessing experiment across the Atlantic would be as successful as one that took place from my room to my neighbours. This argument seemed fatal to ideas like Sinclair’s mental radio, and in fact if a physical process is involved is in fact going to violate Thermodynamics; so Rothman argued. But parapsychologists no longer are sure things work like this, and that ESP is actually entirely independent, and many of the assumptions that older psi researchers held have been questioned, so Rothman’s critique is arguably irrelevant. If you doubt me on this, take a look at two excellent essays; Paul Stevens ‘Are our assumptions more anomalous than the phenomena?’ and Jezz Fox’s ‘Will we ever know if ESP exists?’ both in ANOMALOUS EXPERIENCES: ESSAYS FROM PARAPSYCHOLOGICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES, edited by Matthew D. Smith. MacFarlane & co Inc. Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina and London, 2010. But ghosts? I have no idea what Cox bases his claim that ghosts are excluded by Thermodynamics upon. Until I see his definition of ghosts I’m not going to be much wiser, either.
#5 People Ignore Me!
Perhaps wisely, pretty much everyone refuses to be drawn in to a discussion of this. Which is to my mind a bloody shame. Because actually, I think I might have something interesting to say. The same people who denigrate ghost believers seem to be unaware of the interesting body of ghost research, even fascinating papers by Richard Wiseman like this and this. I spent much of the nineties chasing environmental variables for hauntings, much as Braithwaite and others still do; Braithwaite produces interesting stuff like this . I did a decade on this kind of thing before like Becky I moved on to phenomenological studies of the experiences, in the tradition of Hufford and DJ West. Yet the majority of the scathing Twitter commentators are never even going to take the subject seriously enough to actually read any of the science, and I think would be shocked (and dismissive) if they knew there was a large peer reviewed literature. I suspect “cognitive dissonance”, though I’m actually a critic of Festinger too, so maybe I really suspect good old plain ignorance. But hey, at least I’m enjoying myself!
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.
Well we come at last to my final review of the 2011 Cheltenham Science Festival, Richard Wiseman’s Seance at the Playhouse Theatre. Professor Wiseman was of course up to his old tricks — a despicable performance in which he tortured kittens, sacrificed goats to Dawkinsabub and then hypnotised the audience who compliantly became his slaves as he indoctrinated them against all that is good and holy — oh, sorry, no, that was my Paranormality review. Actually he was fantastic, and this was probably my favourite event of the week, though of course after over half a lifetime in psychical research I’m rather biased. Not many people can say this was there second (or actually fourth or fifth) séance they have observed this year at the Playhouse!
So what is Wiseman’s Seance? It’s a look at the phenomena of the Victorian physical mediumship scene (though of course such phenomena continues to be reported to this day, though less commonly – the Noah’s Ark Society produced some physical mediums I believe, and the Scole Group are the outstanding late twentieth century example). I doubt many in the audience today would know what I was on about it here, but it does not matter, as Wiseman provides a self contained, entertaining and actually rather informative narrative/experiment. Put aside your prejudices for a moment, and consider what Professor Wiseman has to teach us. I’m going to assume you know who Richard Wiseman is, because let’s face it apart from a few tribes living in the most impenetrable jungles of E17 who have never seen a Guardian readers face everyone knows who Richard Wiseman is, and if this week was anything to go by, regards him as a dear and bosom pal, have done several shows with him, and have taken deep personal offence to my Paranormality review (despite me giving it 5 stars on Amazon…) If you don’t know, flip back through my blog – he is the guy who gets mentioned more than my girlfriend, which has to be unhealthy!
So, to start with Richard shows a large picture of Houdini and asks the audience who it was. I was so tempted to shout Ehrich Weiss! (Houdini’s name, well actually that is the Anglicized spelling he adopted later, but close enough). Before I got the chance someone answered correctly. So how did I know? Well because I happen to be a fan of Mr Weiss/Houdini, and have a few biographies, and this may surprise many of you, a number of books on conjuring and magic. I think it was the influence of another psychical researcher and very young magician, Mike Rose (UK), who I knew in Bury St Edmunds when he was still a young but very talented boy that led me to get interested. I’m good at the patter, but lack the practice, practice, practice that makes one a magician — but I genuinely enjoy my amateur conjuring exploits . I hate card tricks as it happens, but mind reading tricks delight me. I’m rubbish, but I do also love the history of magic, and read what I can, and yes I’m well aware of Houdini’s crusade against the spirits and the Scientific American committee controversy over Margery (Mina Crandon). All this is pretty much by the by, for Richard gave a very brief but highly amusing history of physical mediumship, and Houdini acted as a framing device.
Before I actually stop digressing and start reviewing, two quick things. An excellent biography of Houdini which I found very readable if that of Kalush and Sloman — but if you are interested in the psychical research aspect and the infamous Houdini codes then try to find a copy of Rinn, which I do not own. For the history of magic I always recommend Hiding the Elephant, a great book by Jim Steinmeyer. Secondly, and even more of an aside, sceptics are fond of telling me that James Randi has clearly shown that all psychical research is flawed by trained magicians not being involved — which shows a colossal ignorance of the pioneers of psychical research, a surprising number of whom were actually talented amateur magicians, yes even Harry Price who had a wonderful collection of rare magic books, now part of the University of London’s Harry Price Collection. One day I plan to write an essay on psychic researchers and magic, but to be honest Richard Wiseman could do it a hundred times better. Anyway, before you quote Project Alpha at me, or mention Randi and conjurers being needed in the investigation of mediums or spooks, please, please take out life insurance, and/or check your facts. Rant over.
OK, OK, the review! Richard Wiseman is a genuinely funny guy, and his presentation was both factually accurate and hilarious as he did a rather iconoclastic (by inference) blast through Daniel Dunglas Hume, the Fox Sisters, Katie King, in fact all the usual suspects for a quick presentation on physical mediumship. Only Agnes Guppy and Eusapia Palladino deserved a name check and failed to appear, possibly because they are too funny even for Richard’s wicked wit. Still, I nodded approvingly – Richard had a fairly neutral tone I thought, given his well known beliefs, but he was setting the scene for what was to come.
Which was,as the name suggests, a séance. Now Derren Brown did a show called Seance, which I rather suspect Richard was involved with somehow, though I do not know that. That was as far as I recall about “mental mediumship”, that is talking to the dead, Derek Acorah/Colin Fry style. This was about physical mediumship, which I could easily spend the next couple of hours discussing, but for the sake of this review it will suffice to say that it involves the spirits doing physical stuff, that is, moving objects around, physically manifesting (usually but not always out of a substance called “ectoplasm”) and otherwise physically interacting with the world.
He then asked for ten volunteers from the audience; people were allowed to opt out by raising their hands, and I did so immediately, as I had read his write ups of his earlier seances using the same model, and let’s face it I have a bit of experience in investigating seances (I have sat in well over a hundred now despite my religious objections and general distaste for them, as an observer rather than a participant). So I definitely DID NOT want to spoil the fun. Anyway I was sneakily taking photos of the side of the theatre, for reasons I’ll mention later in this review.
A quick test for suggestibility, ten audience members were selected and taken off to the séance room. Now you could see Wiseman the psychologist coming through; he performed a process of open disclosure and informed consent which would pass any Research Ethics committee, and commendably so. They all knew what they were letting themselves in for, and commendably so! They were taken off to another room – the panelled room just to the right of the Stage door near the Playhouse Bar as it happens, and then with a melodramatic patter that would embarrass any TV medium with it’s gleeful over the top-ness, they sat in the Victorian style séance room in total darkness, holding hands and controlling the medium (Wiseman) by holding his hands. For us still in the auditorium, it was all rather fun — for the poor volunteers it may well have been spine chilling!
And we could see just fine, as a Night Vision camera (active IR I’m guessing?) gave us a wonderful look at EXACTLY what was going on inside the room. The objects on the table were marked with phosphorescent tape, so the sitters could see them move, and move they did! A wicker ball rose in the air, castanets rattled, and so forth. In fact the table even lifted up in the air and moved violently. And the method used? Exactly the same as that used by my fake seances in my freeform live action roleplaying game Last Flight of the Albatross, which a few of you may have played in! So what was the method?
Um. I’m not going to say.
I’m not a magician, I’m not bound by that brotherhood’s code of secrecy. That it was faked you know, and faked by methods that require no real conjuring skill by the fact you know I have done it in the past for tw runs of the aforementioned game – right down to the table rattling. In fact because my “sitters” were playing in character, and because the séance in my game lasted rather longer, it was I think arguably more effective than Richard’s, what with all the screaming. So why not say? Well because to do so spoils the fun here: it was not by any method that any sensible psychical researcher would not immediately spot. If you want to know, look up Richard’s JSPR article on the Fielding Report on the Naples sitting with Eusapia Palladino – because no one ever hits the donate button on this blog (this may count as an unsubtle hint!) I can not afford to rejoin the SPR yet and my LEXSCIEN account has lapsed, but if you look up the terms I just mentioned in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research you will find the article, and just assume it was a rather simpler version of that, requiring no carpentry!
The idea for the series of experiments was created by Richard with the wonderful Andy Nyman who did the West End show Ghost Stories, and like that is simple but remarkably effective. I thought it worked really well, and the audience (and I among them) loved it, but honestly, the science festival attendees while clearly nervous were just not primed to lose it half as much as people did during the real seances Ross Andrews ran at the Playhouse during the Paranormal Festival earlier in the year. No trickery was used there, and any phenomena were real, and heck, did people scream, shout, freak out and have intense emotional experiences — all real.
And here is my first critique. In all my hundred plus séance experiences/observations, at Derby Gaol, a couple of dozen other places, and here in the Playhouse Theatre, I never faked anything. Stuff happened, people freaked out, people were convinced. But it was real – which is not to say it was necessarily paranormal, indeed many times I am absolutely convinced it was not, but people had very intense experiences. Here the volunteers did not seem to come close, and the reason was Richard was working against the almost impossible problem they knew it was faked, and they were at a Wiseman show. Not completely impossible to overcome as I shall explain in part 2 of this review, but certainly difficult. For now I need a rest so part 2 will follow tomorrow…
I have a lot more to say,and most of it good!
So yesterday I managed to spend my first whole day at this years Cheltenham Science Festival. having no money is always an issue, but I still found plenty to do, and meeting up with three friends we enjoyed the sunshine and headed down to the Imperial Gardens to check out the stands behind the Town Hall.
Local educational publisher Nelson Thornes had done a discovery trail for children, and while I did not participate I did see some of their beautiful science books for young adults and younger children. I enjoyed an ice cream courtesy of a friend, and we tried to have a look at the Educational Lego tent but it was packed with schoolchildren and they had to turn some parents away, so we moved on to Area 42, a fascinating little tent with a number of really interesting displays about actual scientific research projects.
I chatted to two brilliant research students from the University of Southampton, working on non-titanium memristors, fascinating stuff on (I think) breaking the limits of silicon, but soon became lost! I then had a long chat about science, scepticism and religion with Jens Christensen, a Cambridge research student who is developing a fascinating mobile phone technology that replaces traditional touch screen technology with a much cheaper acoustic based system that uses a single microphone and a algorithm that detects where the signal is coming from on the screen by the shape of the waveform. Conceptually simple, it seemed a viable and very inexpensive possibility for future touch screen tech, but I expect the physics involved is far from simple! There were loads more display stands – these were just the two which immediately seized my imagination. It was fascinating to see the innovative cutting edge stuff going on in UK universities.
Jens seemed genuinely surprised by my religious faith — but that seems to surprise a lot of people! I joked with Jens about the Festival crowd: quite a few interested teenagers which was great to see, lots of pretty young women (far more than at the Literary or National Hunt Festival) and generally a much younger vibe than the other Cheltenham Festivals. There seem to be science journalists everywhere, which seemed a bit over the top, as cutting edge research is probably more likely to be found in the journals than here (though Area 42 proved me wrong!), but it was really nice to see them all running around anyway! anyway Area 42 is open till 8pm tonight and tomorrow so do go take a look, as it is free.
Also free was the Zooniverse demonstration. This is awesome; anyone from the very young to the positively ancient can help do real science, log in, create a profile and start measuring moon craters, transcribing weather reports from early 20th century ships logs, counting boulders on the moon or many other fun projects that work on the wisdom of crowds to self-correct. Awesome, I’d encourage everyone to take a look. They kept us entertained for a long while, and I plan to start playing with the site very soon, as it has so much potential to contribute in a more interesting way than the old “donate spare processor time” things: these projects use humans and the computer together to do some real science, and look highly entertaining. Recommended, go check out the link!
While I was trying to persuade my friend David R that the only way to chat up girls was to actually approach them, in a non-threatening manner, find a natural pretext and strike up a conversation, he seemed highly hesitant. As I talk to everyone irrespective of age, gender or number of tentacles this comes naturally to me, but Dave seems shy. So in the evening we went with Barby to another one of the excellent Cheltenham Skeptics in the Pub Science festival Fringe events, The Science of Flirting.
I had heard of Dr Harry Witchel, the physiologist, and associate him with heart problems of a different type (and I think amino acids and SSRI’s – his academic research is far ranging and impressive). It was really fun therefore to see him talk about something very different, “How to Flirt Effectively”. He has just written a book on music I wanted to pick up but sadly I was a couple of hundred short when my money finally came through today so I’m on bread and water this month, but I will do when I have cash again.
I did not know what to expect, but he was superbly entertaining, with a talk pitched at the popular level and illustrated with film clips, which should be compulsory for shy college kids. Body language, acceptable and unacceptable eye contact, the twelve mannerisms by which men flirt and the fifty plus that women employ, and so on. All delivered at great speed with wit and panache, I think that is the only appropriate word for it. Shame he did not have longer, and more of a shame that I did not take notes!
Despite having a vague interest in the academic literature of the subject, I learned a great deal, and wish I could pass on some of what I learned. Banter not sarcasm is one essential point: you can playfully insult someone in a backhanded compliment, but actual insults and sarcasm fail. The dance of body language, posture mirroring etc was really fun to see explored: body language is a horrifically complex subject, but this was truly fun to talk about. Witchel is a huge amount of fun – here is a reel of clips from his various media appearances –
I seemed to get on with Dr Witchel, and we talked about academic politics, the insanity of university life, how dating differs in the USA and Britain and how to pick up women (and men) and successful relationships till well past eleven. He seems to combine an excellent academic research career with a huge amount of fun pop media appearances! If you ever have a chance to see him, go — he is excellent fun. and also, if you are interested in flirting or dating, and at uni, well check out the academic literature — it won’t do you any harm and you may learn something, even if like me you are happily in a relationship.
Of course like everyone I seem to meet this week Dr Witchel is a huge fan and personal friend of Dr Richard Wiseman, who I occasionally mention on this blog. I had chatted to Dr Wiseman online the night before, and he seems to have taken my review of Paranormality with good grace, which is kind of him, but then I learned he is doing three Science Festival events, one tonight with Robin Ince, and two tomorrow. I will miss the talk with Jon Ronson on Paranormality — I need to eat somehow till I get money again, and I could not justify eight quid in the circumstances, but hey, I have got tickets to go to the Playhouse tomorrow and see Richard perform a seance. Ironically it will be the second time I will have observed a seance there this year, the last time being at the Paranormal Festival a few months back. I might check out where the ghost photo was taken that I featured on my blog earlier in the year, the ghostly diminutive figure. However in the morning I am up early to see Lord Rees talk on Life in the universe as David kindly bought us tickets, and then my Science Festival will come to an end and I will once again immerse myself in the thirteenth century.
I have really enjoyed this years Science festival, and hope to se emore of you there next year!
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.