On Thursday I’m Talking Ghosts At Skeptics In the Pub, Cheltenham Science Festival Fringe. Controversy May Ensue :D
A quick update seems in order. It’s Tuesday 12th June and The Times Cheltenham Science Festival is under way. I’m still wondering why the brochure appears to feature a perspex butt plug though? Or is it just Global Melting, like Global Warming but hotter? Anyway so far I have seen no events, simply because I have not yet got up and gone out except for a quick trip to acquire breakfast. Secondly, I have a talk to write!
No, the Festival organisers have not gone mad. Every year however Cheltenham Skeptics In The Pub run a wonderful Fringe programme – last year I saw the Festival of the spoken Nerd and Dr Harry Witchell on the Science of Dating. This year the programme looks just as exciting, and while it gets little attention the Fringe Events are excellent and well worth attending if you are in town for the Science Festival. I was thinking of going through the whole run down, from Dark Matters to Science Show Offs on Saturday, but the website does that better than I can. Also these events are all FREE, with a donations bucket being passed around if you want to give (Being Skeptics it’s a bucket not a collection plate – there may be some subtle symbolism I’m missing?)
So I am trying to write my talk on The Science of Ghosts for Thursday night…
Now most of my friends so far seem to respond with “there isn’t any!”. Given I have spent twenty five years studying it, I think there is — but as a recent row on the Rational Skepticism forum suggests, a lot of people think that when I say “ghosts” I mean “Dead Guys” ( & Dead Gals too). This is unfortunate, because it is all a lot more complicated than that. I could say I take a phenomenological approach, rather than making an ontological claim, but I think people would just look at me funny, and I don’t mean phenomenological in the sense of Philosophy they might also think I’m nuts. So just to be clear, I’m looking at how we study two things: the ghost experience, and the causes thereof. (“Tough on Ghosts, Tough on the Causes of Ghosts”? If you want to be really bored you can read my ASSAP conference talk here: this one will be faster, funnier cover very different ground and have more “science” whatever that means!
Anyhow this year my talk will be mercifully free of asides on the philosophy of science, epistemology and other big words too. In fact it will be a) light hearted, b) loud, c) visual (I’m using a lot of video or whatever you call the digital equivalent) clips and also very hands on. Yes I’m running some little experiments and audience participation events, because well, why ever not? So be prepared for Circle Dancing, Knocking On Wood, learning the Power of Expectation and Suggestion, and I’m even doing a little jokey tribute to Bem’s precognition research, which sounds deadly dull, but isn’t at all, at least in my version I hope.
So is there any Science of Ghosts? Yes, way, way too much to even just list the areas covered in the time I have, unless I over run by a week. I think the best way to go is to keep the first half light hearted and fast moving. I have been through loads of topics I could cover, and have thought about presenting on a little of everything, but in the end I have chosen just two topics for the first bit that I can present well upon and have never given a talk on before, one of which is very suited to hands on experimentation.
One thing that seems to confuse a lot of people is why I am talking at Skeptics In The Pub. Paranormal Believers often seem to regard Skeptics, or as us non-Americans usually call ‘em, Sceptics, as the enemy. (Why do we use the American spelling? Is it to prove we know Greek or something?) Skeptics/Sceptics think people like me who spend our time on parapsychology are all woos, unless they have heard of us (Chris French and Richard Wiseman are exempt from this it seems. Stuart J Ritchie probably still gets called a woo, as he is not yet a household name?). I’m desperately hoping that Professor Brian Cox might show to run a picket line and to tell people I’m an utter nobber, but sadly feel that highly unlikely.:D
Anyway why am I talking at a Skeptic’s meeting? Well I have always regarded myself as a sceptic. Yes I’m a methodological sceptic, and sometimes I come to conclusions that sit uncomfortably with other sceptics, but I do believe firmly that doubt and “rational sceptisicm” are the only way forward and are central to the scientific method, or rather most scientific methods, as I don’t think there is only one. It often amuses me that I am far less certain of many things than self-proclaimed forum sceptics who are absolutely rock solid in their beliefs where I have little more than an ever expanding list questions, a lot of data, and a few tentative, provisional conclusions. I encounter this time and time again on the JREF and other forums: people whose faith is stronger than mine.
Anyway, enough rambling. I have a talk to write. I’ll let others decide if I am a Fake Sceptic or not. Whatever you think about ghosts and parapsychology, the questions it raises for Science, how we do Science, how we communicate Science and what constitutes real Science are vital, or so I am inclined to think. I hope some of you will come a long and heckle, whether sceptic or believer!
Here are the talk details
Thursday, June 14 2012 at 7:30PM
40 Clarence St
What’s the talk about?
Ghosts don’t exist, all skeptics know this, right?. Yet even a skeptic can experience a “ghost”, and when one does all kind of awkward questions arise. That was what happened to CJ, and the story of how he became involved in parapsychology, spent twenty five years investigating hauntings and became embroiled in working in paranormal television for a decade before ending up with far more questions than when he started may amuse and hopefully cause you to question your own deep seated beliefs on the subject. Learn the inside view behind shows like Most Haunted, and why despite everything for CJ at least the serious research must continue.
So can Science really address the ghost experience? For 120 years scientists have wrestled with the question of what is really going on when people think they see ghosts, and in this talk CJ promises to present a whistle stop tour of the science that has been published in the field, good, bad and bogus. Can science finally exorcise our ancient fears of the unquiet dead, and explain the night hag? Are buildings haunted, or is it people? And what should you do if you actually see a spook? If that seems unlikely, come along, and find out how you could
The event is FREE, but we will be shaking the Skeptic-Bucket to cover costs
I 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.
I Have Seen The Future Of Science And It’s Spin All The Way: Some Thoughts On Daryl Bem’s Habituative Precognition Experiments, and Science by Media
Firstly, a warning. This is not an article on Daryl Bem’s experiments, and if they suggest precognition exists or not. I have no idea. This is an article on hype, spin, the media and lousy science reporting, and how some people base their conclusions on what they see on Twitter more than any consideration of the evidence. It’s long, but it has full links, and at the end there is a twist worth waiting for I promise, one you won’t see coming.
OK, so let’s start with what to some may be a shocking admission. I don’t really believe in psi, that is the parapsychological notion of a sort of ESP effect that we may all have. That is not to say that I don’t believe in some “paranormal” claims – I just find the whole notion of psi philosophically difficult, and am not convinced the psi hypothesis actually works: in fact I have at times stated that invisible goblins may be just as useful a hypothesis. If I was to write about my issues with psi, that would mean no one would ever read any further, so I’ll leave that for now — but I thought best to get that out of the way.
Secondly, and to be frank, since I was a young child psi research has bored me to tears. I am primarily interested in apparitions and poltergeists, and hanging around at night in dark spooky places with pretty young girls. OK, that’s a joke, but I am a ghost/poltergeist researcher, and if you talk to me about Ganzfeld or PEAR random number generator experiments for more than a few minutes my eyes glaze over and I try to shift the topic to Eastenders, which I last watched when Dirty Den threw Angie out in the snow.
Flippancy aside, I still find myself drawn in to discussions from time to time on ESP and psi. OBE, NDE and Remote Viewing I can (and largely do) completely ignore, but research in to ESP and Mediumship has a pretty direct bearing on my specialist area, and PK too, so I suppose I read as much as I find time for, in the peer reviewed literature. (This certainly makes me a freak as far as “ghosthunters” go: despite twenty years of personal effort, the gap between the ghosthunting community and the academic parapsychologists seems to me to grow wider each year.)
Now I appreciate most people don’t have time for this stuff, so I’ll summarize a rather complex story, and in doing so mangle it. I’ll link to relevant pages for those interested in reading deeper though, so if you want to you can be fully informed. I am in now position to judge the science behind these experiments — well I am, but life is short and I have not eaten yet, and I don’t know that I can do them justice, so instead here is the VERY QUICK version…
A famous American psychologist Daryl Bem, conducted a series of clever experiments based on a well known psychological effect (called “habituation”) to see if people could predict the immediate future. Some involved looking at erotic images, but rather boringly the one everyone is interested by was one of those experiments which seemed to show that if you had to recall a list of words, you recalled more of specific words if you actually were then subsequently shown the same words, than you did of the ones you don’t recall.
To be fair my immediate thought was “well maybe some words are just more memorable than others”; but the randomization should take care of that. Statistically there should be no difference between the two sets of words, those shown after the experiment, and those not shown. After I had dismissed this thought, my second thought was “this is chronically dull, I wonder if any exciting cat videos are on YouTube”?
Of course it is not dull: if Bem is right, it challenges almost everything we take for granted about causality, the nature of consciousness, and how the world works. Precognition, sensing the future, even by a few seconds, would have profound implications. And what is more, Bem published his research not in one of the peer reviewed parapsychological journals, but in a (peer reviewed) mainstream psychology journal, for maximum effect one assumes. Now I think if you really want to get a grip on all this, you will want to read the paper itself — and let’s face it, I don’t think many of those who have weighed in on Twitter today have, so here it is for you.
And the news media lapped it up, and it was hailed as a breakthrough piece of psi research, with everyone from New Scientist to pretty much every major newspaper running a piece on it. Parapsychology hit the news, and hit it hard. Yet I fear this just tells us something about the way science is reported, because I subscribe to LEXSCIEN, a journal database that specializes in psychical research.
Now as it happens I had previously reviewed for the JSPR (a peer reviewed parapsychological journal) a book of papers (ANOMALOUS EXPERIENCES: ESSAYS FROM PARAPSYCHOLOGICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES edited by Matthew D. Smith. MacFarlane & co Inc. Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina and London, 2010. 220 pp.) presented at a conference on Liverpool Hope which contained some earlier experiments (or possibly the same experiments later updated) by Bem on exactly this effect. This is what I wrote in that review –
The first essay, by Darryl J. Bem, outlines a series of experiments in presentiment, using the hypothesis of Precognitive Habituation. Habituation is the psychological process by which there is a decrease in response to a stimulus after repeated exposure over time; if we are shown a violent or unpleasant image, our response to it lessens with repeated exposure, and similarly with arousing or positive images. Therefore one might assume, if precognition was possible, that given two similar stimuli images, the one that was subsequently displayed (randomly selected) would be rated as less arousing than the other. The ‘habituation’, by which the photograph would be considered less horrific than the other, would take effect before the process of viewing that photograph repeatedly. So for example, given two photographs of murder victims, the subject would rate as less disturbing the photograph that they would subsequently be shown many times, if habituation can occur ‘backwards’ in time. The experiments reported a significant effect on negative images; further research is clearly called for. The experimental set up is relatively simple, and one wonders if the software is available, and if large scale trials might be conducted over the internet?
And of course, all this has come to pass. Still, the cynic in me noted that the experiments were reported completely devoid of context, and the earlier papers on the effect. So sensing this was nothing new, even if it was new to the news media, I searched LEXSCIEN for earlier papers. I have put the abstracts below, but that does not mean I expect you to read them all – the point is that this stuff, whether real or just down to methodological errors has a history, and has been part of an ongoing research programme…
JSPR January 2007.
CAN A SLIDE-SHOW PRESENTIMENT EFFECT BE DISCOVERED IN BRAIN ELECTRICAL ACTIVITY ?
by Thilo Hinterberger, Petra Studer, Marco Jager, Colette Haverty-Stacke and Harald Walach
The presentation of pictures evokes clearly detectable responses in the electroencephalogram (EEG). Here, the question is addressed whether people show an anomalous pre-stimulus response prior to a sudden appearance of pictures. Therefore, twenty participants were exposed at randomised times to affective and non-affective pictures, and to checkerboard stimuli. In a non-parametric statistical analysis the one-second pre-stimulus epochs were compared with arbitrarily chosen non-exposed pre-stimulus epochs. In a second step, the contrasts between the pre-stimulus responses of different conditions were tested for significance. Checkerboard stimulation revealed no effect, whereas the picture stimuli resulted in a significant increase of the EEG activity. For affective pictures as well as for the difference between affective and neutral pictures, significant z-scores greater than z = 2.0 were found. A control condition with a covered monitor did not show such an effect. The delta band power was only decreased before presentation of pictures. The results support the possible existence of an abnormal presentiment effect. As it is not visible in the averaged EEG curves, this effect may not be time-locked to the stimulus and may be different for each participant. The non – significant results for neutral pictures and checkerboard stimuli suggest that emotional affectivity is important for a pre-stimulus effect in the EEG.
JSPR April 2009
Moderating Factors in Precognitive Habituation: The Roles of Situational Vigilance, Emotional Reactivity and Affect Regulation
In this experiment moderating factors of the so-called precognitive habituation effect were studied. The precognitive habituation effect refers to the apparent influence of later shown pictures or words on participants’ choice and preference ratings, which seem to be biased by habituation effects due to repeated display in the future, and so might be interpreted as an instance of precognition. In this study a number of modifications were introduced in the classic precognitive habituation protocol: (a) words and pictures were used as stimulus material, (b) a new individual difference was measured as a potential factor (affect regulation), and (c) subjects were primed into a reactive mindset in order to highlight the affective nature of the choice task. Only low-arousal positive and high-arousal negative stimuli were used. There was no significant main effect, but in accordance with previous results, subjects who scored high on emotional reactivity displayed a significant precognitive habituation effect, but only with high-arousal negative stimuli. Subjects high on affect regulation also showed a significant precognitive habituation effect for negative stimuli. The strongest effect was displayed by subjects who were high both on emotional reactivity and affect regulation.
The Journal of Parapsychology, April 2010
DO SOME OF US HABITUATE TO FUTURE EMOTIONAL EVENTS?
From an evolutionary perspective, it may be advantageous not only to unconsciously react to emotionally threatening stimuli but also to habituate to these if they should prove harmless. A major purpose of the study was to test for the occurrence of this precognitive affective habituation at a subliminal level using emotionally loaded pictures. The design chosen here enabled us to evaluate whether or not participants habituated to emotionally loaded pictures and to see if they reacted selectively to just those target pictures that would later be repeatedly exposed, thus becoming potentially less threatening. It was further hypothesized that both the subliminal and the precognitive effects would relate to individual measures of emotional reactivity and transliminality. Fifty participants took part in the two successive computer steered procedures in order to respectively evaluate these aspects. A significant habituation effect was found for the negatively loaded targets. The overall findings failed to show a significant discrimination between those pictures than would be re-presented and those that were not. However, by selecting out the 34 individuals who showed affective habituation, a post hoc significant effect of precognitive habitation was found. Keywords: precognition, psi, subliminal, affective habituation, emotional reactivity.
OK, so here is point one. The publication of a paper on this in a mainstream journal provoked a flurry of media interest, but a quick check revealed something no one saw fit to comment upon — that the research was based on a lot more than one set of experiments, performed by just Bem. Now Bem had properly referenced with a full bibliography, but in all the hype it went pretty much unreported? So the research appeared divorced of context, and presented as if a something new and unique. Now yes I think Daryl Bem pioneered and created these experiments, and deserves the glory and the Nobel if it turns out to be good science, but the science reporting left a helluva lot to be desired, even in the science magazines.
Now Bem called for replications, and bent over backwards to make that possible, allowing the original software to be downloaded and anyone who wanted to to run a replication. So I did just that, and had a look at the software, and tried to find flaws in how the experiment was conducted. Of course I was way behind, and Richard Wiseman beat me to it, and Bem responded to Wiseman. At this point I pretty much completely lost interest, because as I keep saying psi is not my field. I’m by nature sceptical,and it is the only the fact that so many of my fellow sceptics jump on bandwagons and uncritically accept any criticism of parapsychology, no matter how flawed, that makes me pay attention at all to stuff like this.
I did consider running a trial: I was delighted when Richard Wiseman produced a registry for replications, where you could register your experiment beforehand to prevent filedrawer errors. I could not get enough people in to my basement to do it: I ran the software with myself and a housemate to test it, and we both scored negatively, against Bem’s hypothesis, and i wrote a few criticisms of the experimental design on forums, but I never actually ran an experiment. I knew plenty of others would – one major online replication is linked above.
Besides, I had by this time found two replications, published before all the media hoo-hah, but largely ignored in that. Alexander Batthyany had done a study at Vienna, which you can read here Retrocausal Habituation and Induction of Boredom: A Successful Replication of Bem (2010; Studies 5 and 7) and Galak & Nelson had failed to replicate experiment 8 A Replication of the Procedures from Bem (2010, Study 8) and a Failure to Replicate the Same Results Different experiments from the sequence, different results.
So I sat back and waited to hear more, if I had to, about the latest case for psi. Now so far I have been fairly scathing about the way this was all reported, but some good articles on how we handle stats etc did come out of it , though that was actually really partially redundant following a careful examination of a classical probability and Bayesian approach to experimental stats published in one of the last issues of the European Journal of Parapsychology. Bem himself has now responded to the linked article.
All went quiet, until a few months back when I had the great pleasure of hearing Prof Chris French speak at a Sceptics in the Pub event, and he mentioned that the original journal that had published Bem’s study had refused to carry an article by him Wiseman and Stuart J Ritchie with failed replications. My first thought on hearing of their trials was the population was small – fifty each I believe – but I looked forward to reading the paper. I could not really see what the issue was, as in parapsychology since 1981 there has been what some call the Honorton-Hyman concordat: an agreement to publish any failed experiment, to reduce the risk of file drawer effect (roughly what you get when people only bother to write up successful replications). Now a failure to replicate should be big news – it should be shouted from the rooftops, because after all the whole Popperian notion of Science methodology is based on falsification, for perfectly good philosophical reasons.
So while technically the failure to publish in the original journal was not a huge issue, because several peer-reviewed parapsychological journals would carry the article, there remains a huge issue. Peer Review is the reason we trust our science – but in fact referees do not replicate the papers experiments, they just read through them and concern themselves with any obvious flaws in presentation, analysis or methodology. Bad papers are picked up when other scientists try to repeat the experiments – replication. HOWEVER, and it is a huge HOWEVER, most papers probably never get tested this way. Replication means doing all the work done by the original researchers all over again, and if the results are not that interesting, or controversial, no one cares enough, can afford to, or wants to waste research time in these things, as it would be career suicide. If you do replicate at all, you are usually trying to build on the original findings, which means you tweak the experiment in some ways, adjusting the variables. So very few true replications occur, and journals don’t normally like to carry them, as they are just repeats of earlier work. Now one would have thought a falsification was of interest — but actually many journals appear to have “no replication” policies. As academic and science are publish or die environments, there is a HUGE disincentive to bother at all. I have written about this before, and I was gladdened when the excellent Ben Goldacre dedicated one of his The Guardian columns to the failure of the journal to carry Wiseman, French and Ritchie’s paper. This is not just a failure in this case: this is a huge problem in the way we do science.
Still, French et al had every chance to publish their findings in a parapsychological journal. Now many of the sceptical readers of my blog will think “why on earth would they do that?”. After all, parapsychology is bunk, right? Nope. I have in front of me Anomalistic Psychology, a book by the same Chris French himself, and David Luke, Nicola Holt, and Christine Simmonds-Moore. In the concluding chapter of this 2012 book we read the following
In the chapter on pseudoscience it was identified that parapsychology has all the hallmarks of a science, falling a little short on some of the benchmarks of good science, but performing better than mainstream science on others. (p.193)
Wiseman and French have both published extensively in the parapsychological journals. Nope, something far bigger was at stake here.
If Bem had not published in a mainstream journal this time, with all the ensuing media hoo-hah, this would have remained part of the ongoing parapsychological discourse. Previous articles had reached an audience of hardcore parapsychologists, book reviewers in that vague area like me and a psychic dog. (OK, I made up the psychic dog.)He didn’t. Bem’s article had reached half the world through the media: so to correct the assumption the research was unchallenged, French Wiseman and Richie wanted mainstream exposure, and failed to get it through any well known print journal. They have acted honourably enough, and academically soundly, but the failed replications are not as exciting as “Can We See The Future?” headlines. They wanted to reach the same audience Bem did. I fear by this point the people interested in science had long since lost interest – now we are seeing the beginning of a war of hype and spin, where parapsychological true believers and entrenched sceptics post tweets with details of the latest revelation, and any analysis of the paper flies out the window.
I’m not going to analyze the paper either – it was posted here, and you can read it yourself. They have got the coverage – Daily Mail, and @StuartJRitchie has just posted on Twitter they have made the front cover of Die Spiegel! Again, I’m not accusing the chaps of being shallow publicity whores — what they have done is respond in equal measure to the sensation that was provoked by Bem’s original paper. I doubt however they will welcome my comments and what I have to say, despite the fact I have tremendous admiration for them as hard working intelligent critics and parapsychologists. Anyway you probably want to read it now!
What concerns me is that throughout the UK, hundreds of well meaning sceptics, without the slightest knowledge fo any of the experiments, the papers, or the background will tweet this with an “ESP is Dead!” subtext (or overt sneer) and science culture will become even more hostile to this kind of research in the future. That’s not a rational considered opinion – well it might be, if there was no discussion, and Bem immediately conceded defeat.
Of course no such thing has occurred. Bem went immediately to work defending his research. The key bit is here…
Nevertheless I consider it premature to conclude anything about the replicability of my experiments on the basis of this article. First, in mainstream psychology it usually takes several years before enough attempted replications of a reported effect have accumulated to permit an overall analysis (often called a “meta-analysis”) of the evidence—20 years in the example described below. It usually takes busy researchers several months to find the time to design and run an experiment outside their primary research area, and my article was published only a year ago.
In their article, Ritchie et al. mention that their experiments were “pre-registered.” They are referring to an online registry set up by Wiseman himself, asking anyone planning a replication to pre-register it and then to provide him with the data when the study is completed. As he noted on the registration website: “We will carry out a meta-analysis of all registered studies…that have been completed by 1 December 2011.”
By the deadline, six studies attempting to replicate the Retroactive Recall effect had been completed, including the three failed replications reported by Ritchie et al. and two other replications, both of which successfully reproduced my original findings at statistically significant levels. (One of them was conducted in Italy using Italian words as stimuli.) Even though both successful studies were pre-registered on Wiseman’s registry and their results presumably known to Ritchie et al., they fail to mention them in this article. I consider this an important omission. (I also note that Ritchie et al., describe their replication attempt as three independent studies, but the total number of sessions they ran was the same as the number I ran in my own original experiment and its successful replication.)
Second, it takes several years and many experiments to figure out exactly which variables in an experiment affect the results. Consider, for example, an attempt to assess the replicability of a well-known effect in mainstream psychology known as the “Mere Exposure Effect,” first brought to the attention of psychologists in 1969: Across a wide range of contexts, the more frequently humans or other animals are exposed to a particular stimulus, the more they come to like it. Twenty years later, a meta-analysis of over 200 mere exposure experiments was published, showing a significant overall effect; it is now widely accepted as a “real” and replicable phenomenon. But the same meta-analysis reveals that the effect fails to replicate on simple stimuli if other, more complex stimuli are presented in the same session. It fails to replicate if too many exposures are used, if the exposure duration is too long, if the interval between exposure and the assessment of liking is too short, or if participants are prone to boredom. As a result, the meta-analysis included many failures to replicate the effect; several of them actually produced results in the direction opposite to prediction. In short, it many more than three replication failures to conclude anything about an alleged effect.”
You can read the rest of Bem’s reply here.
Now Bem’s langauge is measured here. You can read the rest of the statement at the link above, but he makes what appears to be a bizarre claim – that Wiseman French and Ritchie have failed to mention at least three studies they were aware and which were registered with Wiseman’s anti-filedrawer Registry. This sounds like heinous wrongdoing, especially as two of the experiments according to Bem actually were successful replications at statistically significant levels. So is Richard Wiseman really the pantomime villain some psi enthusiasts seek to portray him as, suppressing this research?
Nah. French Ritchie and Wiseman reported on their own experiments, nothing more, nothing less. Bem can post links to these successful replications – after all I have already mentioned one, and one failure to replicate (which admittedly slightly altered the methodology as I recall by omitting the relaxation sequence pre-trial, though that may have been yet another one in a recent JSPR, I’d have to check.) Bem begins by conceding that they seem to have made a good faith effort to replicate: but the omission of other studies, if they really were registered and they were aware of them can be seen as part of a a war of spin, or just the fact it is not usual to preempt others work by publishing their findings before they do: sheer academic politeness. Psi-advocates will believe the worst, sceptics who have read this far the best (as I do) but either way as the press go made for the story all sense of proportion, Truth and Science will probably get lost.
UPDATE: A few hours after I posted this Richard Wiseman replied on Twitter
Hi -re blog, we were just reporting our studies. The pre-registry meta-analysis is different and has been submitted for publication.
From reading Stuart Ritchie’s comments it is clear the studies Bem referred to our are not yet published, so they were not referred to out of academic courtesy as i opined above. The meta-analysis will (as I actually said in this pieces conclusion) follow in due course.
Don’t believe me? Have a look at The Daily Grail sites article on Live Sciences reporting of Bem’s statement. This is little short of scandalous, and LiveScience should be ashamed of itself. It’s nothing new though — I recall the nonsense New Scientist site posted on the reissue of a Sheldrake book, which was amusingly torn in to by commentators on their own site who saw it as the misrepresentation it was. I’m not a big fan of Sheldrake, but this was disingenuous at best, and New Scientist (one of the best science magazines) should be embarrassed they hosted it.
So what do I think of Bem’s response? I have written on Experimenter Effects before, and Bem invoked them in his original paper by referencing a famous paper by Wiseman, in fact two. I’ll post the abstract.
Journal of Parapsychology, Vol.63, 1999, p. 236
EXPERIMENTER EFFECTS AND THE REMOTE DETECTION OF STARING: A REPLICATION
RICHARD WISEMAN AND MARILYN SCHLITZ
ABSTRACT: Both authors recently ran experiments to discover whether people can psychically detect when another person is staring at them. R. W. is a skeptic regarding claims of parapsychology and M. S. is a psi proponent. R. W.’s studies obtained chance results while M. S.’s study obtained statistical significance.
The authors then carried out a joint study to help determine why their experiments had obtained different results. M. S. and R. W. acted as separate experimenters for two different sets of trials. These trials were carried out at the same time, in the same location, used the same equipment, drew participants from the same pool, and employed the same procedures. The data from M. S.’s participants were statistically significant while the data from R. W.’s participants were not. This paper describes an attempted replication of this initial joint study.
Participants were hooked up to a computer that recorded their electrodermal activity (EDA). A videocamera was placed in front of the participant and it fed an image of them to a monitor located in a separate room. Each experimental session consisted of thirty-two thirty-second periods. Half of these periods were randomly allocated to a “stare” condition and half to a “non-stare” condition. During the stare condition, the experimenter looked at the monitor and attempted to remotely influence the participant’s EDA. During the non-stare condition, the experimenter looked away from the monitor. The EDA of R. W.’s participants was not significantly different between the two conditions. In contrast, the EDA of M. S.’s participants was significantly lower during the stare than non-stare periods. The paper discusses competing interpretations of these results and possible future research in this area.
Perrott Warrick Research Unit
Now my understanding is that subsequent experiments have knocked the experimenter effect, and I may well write on this at some point soon, but really, Bem’s comments are hardly unfair. If psi exists, and is a by product of the human brain or consciousness in some way, we might expect exactly this kind of thing I guess — the experimenter as a variable.
For now, I’m going to avoid getting involved. I doubt, very much, that the habituative precognition effect is real: but it will take time, more studies, and Wiseman’s forthcoming meta-analysis of all studies to demonstrate it one way or the other. I’m going to end with a sobering thought though: I don’t think we can trust the science press, let alone the popular press, to give you a reasoned understanding of ANY scientific research, not just parapsychological stuff. Secondly, we live in a culture here in the UK where “sceptical” responses are met with huge enthusiasm, just as in the Mid-West of the USA “Jesus did it” type articles get huge applause and re-tweets, because our culture is defined increasingly by gut instinct sceptical denialism which can be every bit as dogmatic – not informed commentators like French, Wiseman and Ritchie, who I have every respect for doing all this work, but those who have abdicated their responsibility to critical thought and informed rational commentary by simply accepting media spin as truth.
But I would say that. I had to bore myself to death reading a whole load of psi articles: you should all suffer with me.
UPDATE 2: Last night Stuart J Ritchie kindly tweeted to draw attention to the authors reply to Bem’s reply which was just published. This has been the first opportunity I have had to update since, but please do read it. It clarifies and answers some of Bem’s criticisms. I was slightly confused as to why (psychology) Experimenter Effect was mentioned at all – it is the (parapsychological) Experimenter Effect that is relevant, though given how wrongly spelt words are handled by the researcher I guess there could be scope for both.
What was of interest was
However, even if the Wiseman-Schlitz experiments were conclusive evidence of experimenter effects, there is still no analogy from them to Bem’s experiments. This is because, in the Wiseman-Schlitz experiments – which investigated ‘the sense of being stared at’ – the experimenter was heavily involved in the procedure, being the ‘starer’ who directed their gaze at participants, who were to report if/when they sensed that gaze. Bem’s experiments, on the other hand, are run and scored entirely by the computer program, with experimenters only greeting and debriefing participants. In addition, the staring experiments measured an emotional/perceptual outcome, which is quite different from the basic word memory test involved in Bem’s experiment.
Finally, it is worth pointing out, as we do in our paper, that only one of us (SJR) personally ran their replication attempt; two of our replication attempts were run by research assistants. Thus, the participants in those samples did not encounter either of the two of us who are, to quote Bem, ‘well known as psi skeptics’ (RW and CCF).
Yep, so Wiseman and French’s personal involvement was limited: we might wonder if their research assistants are similarly sceptical, but from what I know of Wiseman’s PhD students (I only know one former student) they are an open minded bunch. I was rather disappointed in one thing – the Daily Mail misattributed Stuart Ritchie’s words to Wiseman, perhaps because the public know Wiseman, and fail to mention Ritchie at all. I have never met Stuart, but he is clearly an able intelligent and good bloke based on his twitter feed, and deserves full ecognition especially as he was apparently lead researcher on much of this. I did find his blog listing publications here. Given we have similar interest sin religion and psychical research I will watch his work in future with interest.
OK, a very quick post. I don’t know anything about stage psychic Sally Morgan, apart from having once seen her name on a poster. I looked her up on Wikipedia, and there was not much to say: she has received criticism for having lied about not previously knowing a Big Brother star she did a reading for, but replied she did it because “the director told her to”. Anyone who has ever worked in TV knows how easy it is to be inadvertently misrepresented or be set up, and how much the pressure is to comply — and how selective editing can make you look daft or dishonest. While I am as everyone probably knows by now no fan of mediumship, and automatically assume that celebrity psychics (with one strong possibility of an exception) are probably frauds or self deluding, well it’s hard to feel she was really deliberately deceiving there. Of course the SPR would probably say “caught cheating”, and break off any further investigation of her, as that was the historic rule, but I don’t think Sally Morgan is the type to step forward for controlled tests somehow.
Anyway Sally makes dodgy psychic TV shows that are the kind of thing I despise, along with the whole celebrity medium thing. “The problem with TV mediums if they are neither rare nor well done” — and they should be burned at the steak…
I woke up this morning to find Richard Wiseman tweeting about her being caught out; given it’s Richard, I have to obviously disagree. I am hampered by my almost total lack of knowledge of the facts of the case, but let’s face it that won’t stop anyone else having an opinion, including big name defenders of mediumship and big name sceptics. So in my obscurity I feel perfectly justified in speculating without all the facts, and Sherlock can slink off to Baker Street today and enjoy his 7% solution!
Yet, I have to question everything, including this…
How Sally Met Infamy
OK, briefly: she is doing a stage psychic show in a packed theatre, giving readings to the crowd. Everyone enjoys the first half. Then in the second half, a man’s voice is heard coming from the back of the room, through a window, and what the voice says, Sally says! This came to attention when RTE Liveline an Irish chat show ran a piece and several callers who heard the voices rang in. So let’s start there…
The whole thing came to light on Joe Duffy’s excellent show on RTE. Of the callers who rang in, two heard the mysterious voice coming from the projection room. They appear totally convinced of what they heard, and while they could be lying, why would they bother? No, I think the testimony may well be true. But as a sceptic I will question even that. Still it’s bloody convincing – here is the RTE Liveline show link…
The accounts are it seems pretty clear. Still ,let’s see what the Irish Independent has to say on the story! Their piece is pretty good, and well worth reading.
But the plot thickens, for an explanation is herein offered for what supposedly happened. The voices were real, but of theatre techs talking?
Stephen Faloon, the theatre’s general manager, last night denied anything underhand was going on and said the voice heard by the audience belonged to two ‘follow-spot operators’ working for the theatre, and not Ms Morgan.
“These two guys, Stuart McKeown and Mick Skelly, are professional light technicians who were working for us, and unfortunately because a window had been left open, were heard talking.
“But as soon an usherette heard them talking, and informed her supervisor, the window closed and the talking stopped.
“It was a slight distraction but that was the chain of events on Sunday night.”
The theatre stressed it would “never be a part of any scam”, or attempt to “mislead” its audience.
So says the Irish Independent. It seems entirely reasonable, the only thing I am surprised by is the naming of the two lighting techs – and I wonder if they will give statements at some point. Normally the theatre would juts say “staff members” in my experience, but the techs have been identified, the whole thing seems to be explained. Well maybe?
Yet Sue and Dorrie are absolutely clear this is not what they heard – they heard a voice saying things before they were said on stage, and many others heard it too. Sue even suggests the modus operandi- plants in the foyer relating what was heard there as psychic information to sally over a radio link.
Well if so, it does mean that all the people over the years who have accused Sally of Cold-Reading were wrong — she is actually Hot-Reading, using fraudulently obtained information. My first thought was that the Theatre managers account was entirely plausible – because as a sceptic I know how often human testimony can be mistaken, and the voice was a soft one we are told by Dorrie. Did they really hear two techs having a discussion, with a window simply left open cos it was so hot, and the annoyed usherette closed it gently for that reason? As the audience became concerned , if only a few words matched what was said on stage, then they could misheard and Sally be convinced of cheating — but is this what happened?
The issue for me as a sceptic is that I must be as critical of witness testimony that appears to debunk the paranormal claims as that which supports it. All too often sceptics fail this first test of objectivity. The witnesses COULD be wrong. Certainly they seem to have all discussed it and developed a pretty good theory as to the methodology: though perhaps not a method well known to the general public for psychic style scams, what they outline is a variant of one of the most famous exposes of all, that of Peter Popoff by James Randi. Watch this…
The method is known, has been used, and works pretty well, as we can see. It is also after “cold reading” the most popular suggested method for how psychic stage scams work. I still have my doubts though, for exactly this reason. It is so well known, and so easy to detect, that you really would have to be pretty crap to employ it. It relies on theatres and some of their staff being potentially aware and complicit in the set up, and those people never coming forward and denouncing the whole thing as a fraud. In this internet age where pretty much anyone could post anonymously, and upload video clips and recordings of the fraud as it happened, I’m surprised it hasn’t if this method is being employed extensively as often suggested.
My Tentative Hypothesis…
I am on record as saying that one does not even have to assume fraud to explain naturally enough celebrity psychic acts, though I’m sure fraud features in many. I believe psychics learn a language, a way of talking and expressing ideas, quite naturally, and that language actually includes many of the “cold reading” methods. I think it was Tanya Lurhmann’s superb Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (1989) that first alerted me to this possibility. Her PhD thesis published by Harvard the book gives an account of how she carried out research in to British witches, and learned how they learned to be witches by developing interpretative frameworks and language codes that build up and support their religious beliefs. I had been observing how the Christian Union at my university had a set of linguistic tools and expressions that performed theological and analytical work for them automatically, and had wondered if they were expressions of heuristic short-cuts; I later observed how sceptic groups also build their own linguistic communities,and protect their beliefs by similar devices. I think every sub-culture does it – we all do it. I can talk sceptic, talk Christian Union, talk parapsychologist, and talk roleplaying games geek. I probably can not talk medium very well though…
Years later I read Prof Robin Woofitt’s work on Conversation Analysis of Paranormal types, especially two books,The Language of Mediums and Psychics; the Social Organization of Everyday Miracles (2006) and Telling Tales of the Unexpected: The Organization of Factual Discourse (1992) and a couple of shorter but brilliant articles by him. Woofitt is not investigating of the paranormal claims are actually true, but how the organization of ordinary language conversation works, and in doing so I believe he shows ways in which even people who are not in nay sense remotely psychic could certainly come to believe they are, and learn linguistic methods (some similar to cold reading) that would certainly convince them and others of that. I’m not saying all psychics are fakes or deluded at all: but I certainly believe a lot are, and Woofitt has provided invaluable guidance for those interested in this area.
So even celebrity psychics could genuinely believe in their gifts. If so, then how do they manage to convince an audience, with rather wooly statements?
I have long offered my theory on this, and curiously enough it takes us back to something I mentioned Sally Morgan saying at the beginning of this piece. Remember she said she went along with her Director telling her to lie about not knowing the reality TV client? She complied, and tried to please.
Now imagine you are in a stage show, and the camera puts your face up on the screen. You have been singled out by the medium, and agreed you may know “Godfrey” who died of eating too many pickled onions. (Actually that would convince me!) Once you have agreed you may be the person the spirit is talking to, it’s really just you and the psychic – her on stage, your ugly mug plastered all over the screen. She makes a whole series of announcements, and “facts” about your deceased love one, and you nod, say “er not quite” etc – but even if they say something totally wrong, would you call them on it? And if you do, they will say either “go home and ask about it” – suggesting further research may show they were right about the fact – or “oh, I think this is another spirit coming through” – shifting to a new client, or ” I don’t think this message is for you after all, anyone else?” Watch some stage psychics in action: they have learned, probably unconsciously, how to do this. These are all strategies for avoiding the uncomfortable fact they are wrong — and yet there is more.
The audience member who is being spoken to and whose face is on the screen probably wants to believe, and has a vast emotional investment in receiving a genuine message from the deceased. There are enough people in most theatre audiences that almost all the time someone can identify with a “Dave” with a “bad back” or similar, but from here on in what is happening is a process of negotiation between the medium and you as they offer facts and you confirm or reject them. Not only have you an emotional investment, your face is on the screen – you are under immense pressure to comply, to please the believing audience. So you will probably “accept statements” even if they are questionably true, or perhaps even if you think they are false.
If my hypothesis is correct, when you go outside after the performance, you may start to question some of the statements you accepted in the theatre. I am surprised that no one has in the seven years since I first proposed this idea publicly as far as I know actually tested this by conducting research: maybe they have and I have not seen it.
Yet in this hypothesis, there is no need for fraud, sophisticated or simple. The whole transaction is a negotiated one; the medium still believes they are psychic, the client accepts some but not all of what they were told, and tends to remember the hits not the misses as much research has shown. Simple cold reading or the Law of Large Numbers may not be enough to explain the celebrity psychics, and Roy and Robinson have certainly thrown great doubt on it, despite my confusion over their third paper, but there are certainly good academic papers supporting paranormal cognition out there. Here I don’t see any need for fraud.
So What Happened?
I don’t know what happened with Sally Morgan on Monday night, but honestly, I think we need to be fair, critically minded, and accept that it all may be more complex than a Twitter message can convey . Perhaps she just researched local newspapers,as one might think from the final section of the RTE show, where it was noted most of the cases were of this type of “big story”; perhaps she is genuinely psychic, perhaps she is deluded, and perhaps she is dumb enough to use the Popoff technique, in which case she will be caught pretty soon.
I for one am not quick to judge, and will wait and see. I do feel a bit sorry for everyone involved – the poor lighting techs, the ladies who are rightfully outraged after what they heard through the window, and even I guess Sally Morgan. I doubt it will effect her popularity though, as these scandals rarely seem to have much effect in the face of people’s will to believe…
One of the biggest disappointments to me was when a few years back I had to turn down the option to do the MSc in Parapsychology at Coventry University, because I did not have the money for the course fees. It sent me in to a long depressive period, but at least Becky and my dear friend David Curtin got to do it, both completing the taught course (sadly the only other student passed away before the end of the course). Luckily Dr Tony Lawrence and Dr Ian Hume were extremely kind and got to chat to them after lectures, and even sat in on one or two sessions — but it was a real shame.
I was in Coventry recently and I had the chance to catch up with Dr Hume, and was saddened to hear the online version of the course has been put on hold as student numbers failed to make it viable — owing mainly to nothing more than a cock up that prevented many people registering and was discovered far too late I inferred from talking to others. I did not like to press Dr Hume on the subject, but it will be back that he did say. Anyway enough rambling about my life! A PhD or subject specific MSc is certainly not necessary to make a difference in psychical research, and maybe I would never have cut the mustard, and lack the talent and drive to succeed at PHD level — who knows?
If you are still with me after that mournful digression, have you ever considered studying parapsychology? Sceptic or believer, there is a vast literature and a huge host of technical issues in the field that make it hard to get to grips with, and it can be hard work — but I have always personally found it fascinating, not least for what it shows us about all kinds of other issues, from philosophy of science to human psychology and cognition.
And the good news is that you don’t have to commit to something as big as a PhD or MSc, and the course fees. The Koestler Parapsychology Unit at Edinburgh University are offering a short online course “An Introduction to Parapsychology” that while non-accredited really does look excellent. I would do it if I actually ever had the money, and really want to, but sadly even £200 is currently beyond my means
In fact, sceptic or believer, I would seriously suggest you consider taking the course. I just saw on Twitter that enrollment for the latest run has opened, so please do consider it. There is an excellent article by Sceptic Kylie Sturgess on her experiences with the course in a recent issue (and online) of the The Skeptical Inquirer you can read to see if it might be of interest.
Many years ago back in the mid-90′s in the early days of the web I ran a brief online course on parapsychology, and I did try again a while ago on my GSUK forum before we ran out of steam. This however is a professionally taught course by real experts in the field, so as Coventry’s MSc is no more, I hope some of you will enroll for this one. And maybe one day I will be able to afford it!
Hoping to meet many of you at the Seriously Strange conference at Bath Uni in just under two weeks time.
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.
I don’t mean Lisa, I mean my internet activities.
I just saw a friend has joined a Liberal Christian forum on Facebook, and it has brought to mind a few thoughts on what many people think is a rather perverse feature of my personality; given that I am a religious and ‘paranormal’ believer, with fairly strong beliefs that I express freely, why do I spend most of my on-line existence in atheist and sceptic sites?
Well firstly, as I have pointed out for many years now, I don’t see there being a dichotomy between ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’. The opposite of belief is disbelief: often a leap of faith in itself, and an opinion. Yet the notion of ‘belief’ and ‘disbelief’ is pretty meaningless unless we understand the context in which it is being employed. I know hard atheists who believe in life after death, hard Christians who have no belief at all in angels, and hard-core mediums who think psychic powers are bunk. If you are confused by any of those statements, just ask for clarification, but I think we can all accept that a believer in werewolves may or may not believe in ghosts, and a believer in a God may or may not believe in fairies.
Some atheist friends often remind me of all the gods I purportedly do not believe in (and then I like to argue henotheism awhile for fun!); yet often they seem to fail to apply the opposite notion — a disbeliever in deities (god/dess/es) may or may not disbelieve in all kinds of other things. There are plenty of virulent atheist spiritualists out there; and mediums seem pretty equally split on whether they do or don’t believe in reincarnation. Some of us may still believe in the Tooth Fairy; some may believe in Santa Claus, and some may believe Ipswich Town FC are a first-rate club. There is no necessary relationship between those beliefs.
The terms disbelief and belief are opinions on a specific issue: context is all important.
I see Scepticism as something very different – a process of understanding, by which one questions assumptions and truth claims critically. The sceptic may or may not believe in deities, ghosts or the Easter Bunny – that is an outcome of their enquiry, not scepticism in itself. One is a method, one a conclusion – the two should never be confused. As such one can believe sceptics believing in almost any hypothesis, given a limited set of data from which to draw their conclusions.
So scepticism is never enough – with scepticism must go work, research, and an attempt to apply the methodology objectively to as much pertinent data as possible. Any methodology applied to insufficient data will result in worthless results: sceptics must make an effort to make an informed and reasoned case, and that unfortunately is often a lot of hard work. Given the differing access to the evidence, it is unsurprising that sceptics often sharply disagree in their conclusions. Yet ultimately is hard for me to see any difference between a sceptical approach and a rationalist-empiricist synthesis scientific one. It’s almost impossible to define the scientific method, as long-term readers will appreciate, but scepticism comes pretty close. One critically examines claims, by a variety of methodologies – much as in the humanities actually.
So I regard myself as a process sceptic. I like to examine beliefs, including (especially) my own, and try to see if they stand up:and the acid test for doing this is surely in dialogue with those who have very different readings of the evidence, and hold very different opinions? One of the beliefs I hold is that “linguistic communities” who hold similar beliefs build them in to a way of interpreting reality in line with their paradigm — magicians learn to talk magic, Wiccans wicca, Atheists atheism and Hindus Hinduism, and by adopting certain linguistic ways of rendering or negotiating their lived experience they create a feed back loop that sustains and strengthens their pre-existing beliefs.
I’ll give the example I always give. Many years ago the Christian Union had booked a coach for an outing. The coach broke down, and by midday it was clear we could not get a replacement bus. I thought the bus had broken down owing to a mechanical fault: but I saw two divergent opinions arise among the Christians sitting around waiting for news. Some saw this as an attack by the devil: little imps had engaged us in spiritual warfare, and we were facing the opposition of the Evil One. Others, mindful that the devil has no power over God’s children, saw it as a sign from God – we were meant to stay and witness on this glorious sunny day to the heathens at the university, rather than take a coach to the sea-side. My comment on the bus probably being badly maintained and this being the cause of us being stuck there was passed over without any comment: yes that was the cause, but not the meaning of the events. Fair enough – what was fascinating to me was how this rather dismal outcome was negotiated in terms of existing theological and language structures to affirm Christian beliefs. It all felt a bit “heads I win, tails you lose to me” but of course if you believe that God is sovereign over all and intimately concerned with our lives that makes perfect sense: I accept the theology, but don’t process things that way, I have not spent enough time in Christian communities to interpret on those lines.
It’s easy to take cheap shots at Christians: I can imagine some of my dear atheist mates laughing heartily at this. Yet atheist communities, paranormalist communities, Lib Dem communities and for all I know Country Music fans do very similar things. They build consensus modes of interpretation, filters if you like, and they view the world through those lenses. Challenge the assumptions, and you may be ostracised, or ignored. In-group ways of seeing prevail: it takes a lot to upset them, because they are learned short-cuts for dealing with reality. Some one who has been unemployed a very long time will view the world radically differently from a bank manager, or office worker – but the difference between a Wiccan, a Spiritualist and an Atheist may be even stronger, as they have learned to read reality from utterly different perspectives. To a materialist the notion of a meaning beyond the cause of the coach breakdown is just silly. A spiritualist may find the idea of ESP bonkers: they knew stuff because a spirit told them, not because they psychically read Uncle Joes’ mind.
In fact we defend our communities beliefs passionately: we are annoyed when people question the common sense right to love as you will, live as you will, work as you will, in line with our concepts of what is right and proper. We form communities with like-minded people, and we pat each other metaphorically on the back, and only fight to establish OUR version of the party line. A fight between Anglicans is likely to be more heated than a row between a Baptist and an Atheist – the closer the conceptual closeness, the more the heresy hurts.
So maybe that is why I hang out on atheist sites: I am too annoyed by my fellow Christians to want to spend much time discussing with them, as they say things that challenge my own reading of Christianity, and I am too cowardly to defend and fight for my interpretation. Or more positively, because I see the value in learning a completely disparate mode of interpretation, so I read every communities I cans stuff, and try to self identify with te concerns and ways -of-seeing of that group, and engage in playful guerilla ontology, forcing them to question assumptions by mere existence at the party.
I don’t know: maybe I am just perverse, after all. I do know though that as a self-proclaimed sceptic it never does any harm to open yourself to other perspectives, and to listen to others.