"And sometimes he's so nameless"

Libelling Sally Morgan: the Hitler Connection.

Posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on June 20, 2013

OK, today Sally Morgan won a reported £125,000 damages from The Daily Mail in an out of court settlement. Those people who have said “The UK courts have endorsed psychic powerz!” are more out of touch than the wackiest woo-filled spoonbender — people the clue is in the “out of”!?! The settlement simply shows that what the Mail alleged about the facts on a certain occasion were untrue, or could not be shown to be true, and I suspect the actual bone of contention was the claim Sally wore an earpiece.  Now if you have no idea what any of this is about, firstly go read the  Guardian piece on the libel result. Then come back, and I’ll make it more interesting :)

Right, assuming you saw that, then you may wish to acquaint yourself with my first piece on the whole business here.  How Sally Met Infamy? 

The libel case appears directly related to the RTE radio broadcast and the accusations made on that day. Given it could have gone to court, and Sue and Dorrie could have testified, as I understand they made contact with Simon Singh – or did I get the wrong end of a Twitter stick here –  why did the Mail settle out of court?  I actually don’t get it at all, unless there was substantial doubt that the witnesses were correct and the earpiece ploy was in use. Maybe Stuart McKeown and Mick Skelly were willing to testify? I have been uncertain about the claims since the start, and have expressed my reasons for caution.  I’m not sure if we ever get tot the bottom of this now, and I am no closer to believing Sally is psychic, but not much more convinced than I was she is a conscious fraud either. I wish she would just do some actual tests: not Randi’s challenge, I mean something with Tricia Robertson and PRISM or the SPR.

So far I have not really libelled Sally Morgan, and the truth is I have no intention of doing so, but now Hitler enters our story, along with Derek Acorah (OK, not physically, though “Hitler, Acorah, and Morgan walked in to a bar…” could be the start of the second most unfunny joke in history. In 1939 Hitler could have saved us from the endless pain of the most unfunny joke in history.  And he tried, he tried.

Now physical humour can be repetitive.

That is still mildly amusing: however this isn’t. Last week Derek Acorah cancelled a show in a Scottish theatre, and rescheduled the venue, and the management put out the most tired, most unfunny joke I know “Psychic cancels show owing to unforeseen circumstances”.  Today pretty much every paper has had some “should have seen it coming” psychic joke, as have half the users on Twitter – the half not too busy frothing over Bieber to know Sally Morgan exists.

I hear a lot of righteous cant about sick psychics preying on the bereaved: folks you are missing the real problem. If only these folks would turn some of that indignant anger to hunting down people writing shite headlines like this with “seen it coming… psychic” and dealing with them as they deserve! These are villains who are fully deserving of adding to the sum total of bereavement by being hastily despatched. “Kill them all: Acorah conjure up his own!” to update Arnaud de Amaury’s famous words.

Why is this joke so bad? Because psychics are not mediums, (unless like Acorah they call themselves “psychic mediums”) and purported mediums like Sally Morgan are not supposed to be able to predict the future.

And that bit is actually Hitler’s fault….


In September 1939 Spiritualist circles all over Britain and America were predicting that despite the growing international crisis, war would be averted, and Hitler would back down. And guess what? He did, and a golden age of peace— oh no, sorry he invaded Poland and France and England promptly declared war plunging us in to World War 2.

This led to a bit of a theological crisis for Spiritualism. The spirits had spoken, at length, in detail, about “peace in our time”. They had been shown to be completely wrong, as wicked old Hitler had carried on exactly as he wanted and ignored their prophecies. In the UK both Two Worlds and Psychic News debated the issue, and eventually a new doctrine came forth – that Spirit has no certain knowledge of the future. So mediums are not fortune tellers, and are not able to predict what will happen to you.

Now one day I will write up a little history of Spiritualism, Spiritism, the Christian Spiritualists and all the other groups and denominations. I’m not a spiritualist, I don’t approve of mediumship and I am generalising wildly, and I do  not know exactly what type of medium Sally Morgan is. Furthermore, a recent statement has started to revise things back a bit —

An inhabitant of the Spirit World can, to a degree, predict future events with greater or less accuracy, according to conditions. This is done by reasoning based on observation of past and present conditions and events, and is more accurate than is the same process as used by us, because the Spirit reasoner is not hampered by a physical body, nor by the conventional and set ideas that go with the limitations of such a body — National Association of Spiritualist Churches

So they can’t actually see the future, just make a better guess than us, based on current conditions. That is really not very exciting, but it is  a lot further than some late C20th mediums would go.

So in short:  these Mediums and “Psychics” are not claiming to predict the future, or if they are they are not “orthodox” Spiritualists, and this “did not see it coming joke” deserves to die. No court has found psychics genuine, and for the first time ever I have seen the excellent Ben Goldacre talking utter shite – see Hayley’s excellent blog for the details.

Finally a little whine. The people talking about Sally Morgan on Twitter are generally not, with the obvious exceptions of Prof Chris French or Ciaran  O’Keeffe (or Tricia Robertson if she uses Twitter) knowledgeable about testing psychics. They do  not know the literature, have never read Robertson & Roy, and certainly have no idea of the wider issues. They don’t invoke Flew or Braude against personal survival of death – they say “it can’t happen because it’s rubbish”. This strikes me as the most dangerous fundamentalism of them all – when individuals decide all of their own unexamined beliefs are simply true, and use that naive world-view as a way to just say Sally is a fraud. I’m not convinced by her, but you need to do a lot better than this. Sure I’m an arrogant elitist tosspot who wants you to read books, do experiments and test and critically examine claims. I’m a real wanker in your eyes I’m sure to insult your fond fundamentalism like this  – yet I am also a real sceptic. If you are going to be a champion of science, rationality and warrior against woo take the time and effort to learn the facts and major issues in the field. Otherwise you are just another frothing fundie, albeit from a denomination of just one! So go read up a bit on all the issues. Here is a good place to start – Jensen & Cardena testing a professional medium (who failed the test) — great bibliography, free access. http://ejp.wyrdwise.com/EJP%20v24-1.pdf

And please, stop getting so angry about Sally Morgan, :D I’ll discuss why in a future post. It is not like it will make much difference for reasons I discussed last year. :)

Anyway life is too short to get angry about this. Have a great evening!

cj x

Where Is The Effective Sceptical Activism Really Happening?

Posted in Debunking myths, Social commentary desecrated by Chris Jensen Romer on December 14, 2011

Skeptics are a funny lot. I have jokingly in the past suggested that modern organized Skepticism follows on from what Charismatic Christianity was in the mid 80’s, Wicca was in the late 80’s/early 90’s and  ufology was in the 90’s and Ghosthunting was in the early 2000’s. It’s a popular movement that attracts intelligent people. They tend to also be White, Middle Class, and liberal-leftist in my experience. Nowt wrong with that.

Now I have many times touched on “effective skeptical activism” – I regard effective skeptics as those who interact with the wider community, and have an informed perspective — lots of examples of this, people like Hayley Stevens, the dudes at RatSkep, and many of the JREF forum posters. However if I ask about effective skeptical activism, people might think of Rhys Morgan, or more likely maybe james Randi, Michael Shermer, and of course the wonderful Ben Goldacre.

But, nah, my eyes have been opened.All these people reach a wide audience – but mainly middle class types I think. Working class types like Trystan and me are still pretty rare in skeptical circles – dunno if Hayley would consider herself one of us, but a lot of sceptical books seemed targeted at Guardian readers – maybe because they are among the few people who still go to Waterstones? ;)

Nope, my eyes were opened because my housemate had a job that required an hour long bus journey each way. So she started to buy Take A Break, Chat, That’s Life, etc, etc, to read  on the bus. These magazines are filled with terrible tragic horrible stories and make me realize just how lucky I am to live as I do, a life where people do not end up regularly end up being murdered, in prison, or with 14 kids or as in the harrowing account I read in one stuck on the loo for five days, paralyzed and too big to escape after a stroke :( It’s all a bit Jeremy Kyle, but there are some happy stories in there.

Now I suspect the average skeptic does not read these magazines, where a journalist interviews some unfortunate and tells their woeful tale. Some of the people I find really hard to sympathise with: other i genuinely feel for. Yet this is I think where a huge amount of mass appeal scepticism goes down.

Most of the British public have little interest in evidence based medicine, peer review etc, etc. What they can relate to is stories about people who ended up in hospital after trying a tanning treatment, a diet pill, a miracle supplement, etc, etc. And these little magazines are absolutely full of them, with terrifying before and after pictures. The MHRA and ASA do sterling work, but the first hand accounts in these magazines, along with the wonderful Consumer Affairs show Watchdog, that’s where the real Word goes down.

I’d encourage all skeptics to think carefully about the reach of these publications, what we can learn by looking at them and reading them, and consider buying them alongside The Skeptic and other worthy journals. It’s easy to be snobby: but one story in one of these probably reaches a lot more people whoo might be tempted by scams than a hundred SitP meetings will. Sad, but true.

Why Do Ghosts Go “Woo”? Part One.

Posted in Debunking myths, History, Paranormal by Chris Jensen Romer on September 21, 2011

OK, a light-hearted one this lunchtime. “why do ghosts go woo?” is an excellent question that was asked on Twitter by Ian Rennie to Hayley Stevens, and she, Kimberley Kendall and I discussed it for a while.  I always joke that in Denmark ghosts go “WØØ! WØØ!” (they don’t), but it does lead to the question of what noise the ghosts of other cultures and languages make. When Hayley referred the question to me I thought the answer would be easy to find; after all, I have plenty of books on the cultural history of ghosts, Actually it wasn’t, and i can’t find much evidence they do go “woo!” even in my children’s books, but I certainly had that impression. I think actually the real answer if this is a modern sound that beasties are meant to make is it may derive from the use of the theramin for making spooky sound effects for films and TV: but I could well be wrong. Steve Parsons of Para.Science responded to my Twitter query with a suggestion of early talkies (sound films) with white sheeted ghosts going “woooooo!” so perhaps some people can have a quick look? The Laurel and Hardy Society produced this, but the music stops us telling what the original sound if any was…

While trying to look it up I also found the etymology of “woo” as in the modern sceptical usage of a “woo” as a “gullible believer” discussed: the phrase was of course originally “woo-woo” and some have traced it back as far as the end of the 1960’s employed in this sense. I think we might be able to work out one possible source for it through that…

I think that may answer that, though I can’t of course be sure? :)

OK, so what noises do ghosts make? Well first we have to decide what is actually a ghost in our modern sense. What is often cited as the first modern ghost story. Pliny gives in his Letter to Sura: LXXIII) the following account —

Now the following story, which I am going to tell you just as I heard it, is it not more terrible than the former, while quite as wonderful? There was at Athens a large and roomy house, which had a bad name, so that no one could live there. In the dead of the night a noise, resembling the clashing of iron, was frequently heard, which, if you listened more attentively, sounded like the rattling of chains, distant at first, but approaching nearer by degrees: immediately afterwards a spectre appeared in the form of an old man, of extremely emaciated and squalid appearance, with a long beard and dishevelled, hair, rattling the chains on his feet and hands. The distressed occupants meanwhile passed their wakeful nights under the most dreadful terrors imaginable. This, as it broke their rest, ruined their health, and brought on distempers, their terror grew upon them, and death ensued. Even in the daytime, though the spirit did not appear, yet the impression remained so strong upon their imaginations that it still seemed before their eyes, and kept them in perpetual alarm. Consequently the house was at length deserted, as being deemed absolutely uninhabitable; so that it was now entirely abandoned to the ghost.

However, in hopes that some tenant might be found who was ignorant of this very alarming circumstance, a bill was put up, giving notice that it was either to be let or sold. It happened that Athenodorus  the philosopher came to Athens at this time, and, reading the bill, enquired the price. The extraordinary cheapness raised his suspicion; nevertheless, when he heard the whole story, he was so far from being discouraged that he was more strongly inclined to hire it, and, in short, actually did so. When it grew towards evening, he ordered a couch to be prepared for him in the front part of the house, and, after calling for a light, together with his pencil and tablets, directed all his people to retire. But that his mind might not, for want of employment, be open to the vain terrors of imaginary noises and spirits, he applied himself to writing with the utmost attention. The first part of the night passed in entire silence, as usual; at length a clanking of iron and rattling of chains was heard: however, he neither lifted up his eyes nor laid down his pen, but, in order to keep calm and collected, tried to pass the sounds off to himself as something else. The noise increased and advanced nearer, till it seemed at the door, and at last in the chamber. He looked up, saw, and recognized the ghost exactly as it had been described to him: it stood before him, beckoning with the finger, like a person who calls another. Athenodorus in reply made a sign with his hand that it should wait a little, and threw his eyes again upon his papers; the ghost then rattled its chains over the head of the philosopher, who looked up upon this, and seeing it beckoning as before, immediately arose, and, light in hand, followed it. The ghost slowly stalked along, as if encumbered with its chains, and, turning into the area of the house, suddenly vanished. Athenodorus, being thus deserted, made a mark with some grass and leaves on the spot where the spirit left him.

The next day he gave information to the magistrates, and advised them to order that spot to be dug up. This was accordingly done, and the skeleton of a man in chains was found there; for the body, having lain a considerable time in the ground, was putrefied and mouldered away from the fetters. The bones, being collected together, were publicly buried, and thus after the ghost was appeased by the proper ceremonies, the house was haunted no more.

Pliny gives some other (less often cited) ghost stories including one of his own, but here we have the prototype of many modern haunt stories. The philosopher in question, Athenodorus Cananites, lived from 74BCE-7CE, and so this is a ghost story from roughly the time of Christ. The ghost acts in archetypal form, rattling its chains, clanking and making a racket. And here we see why Victorian ghosts, and indeed many ghost in our Classically educated nation used to rattle chains! :) Actually the loud noise is similar to some cases of “phantom housebreakers” which I describe on my Polterwotsit blog; for here let us simply note the ghost is associated with human remains, and appears at night in human form, wanting repose and scaring folks. All pretty central to the ghost story?

Now of course there are much older stories of ghost and spirits, from Sumer, Babylon, the witch of  Endor in the Bible raising the spirit of Saul, from Ancient India, China, I could go on for ages. I won’t though, because this is perhaps the ghost story that had the biggest impact on British culture. It’s maybe hard for people to get now, but in ye olden times (well Early Modern Britain) everyone educated gent learned Latin and Greek, from Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Plutarch etc.  Right the way through from Shakespeare to the Victorians, we were a culture that was literate in both the Bible, and the Classic, and so tales of Greece and Rome were hugely influential. Pliny was someone cited as freely at Oxbridge in the 18th century as Shakespeare, Joyce or Ezra Pound are today, or if you prefer, as Dawklins, Ince, Cox and Wiseman are today!:)

So Victorian ghosts clanked and rattled chains? No, only in fiction and popular cultural representations. What “real” Victorian ghosts sounded like i will return to later, but for the moment let’s go back to the middle ages…

Medieval Ghosts

We have a number of sources for medieval ghosts. The miracula and mirabalia are books of miracles and wonders that were kept for the edification of tourists, sorry pilgrims, in many medieval abbeys. Ghosts sometimes crop up — and some are deeply, deeply, weird,more similar to what we today classify as “high strangeness” UFO accounts than apparitional reports. Ghosts change shape, being tortured souls seeking rest and entry to heaven – we encounter things such as a sinful knight who haunts in the form of a drinking horn, and souls trapped in the form of hats that fly around emitting sparks! For all the high strangeness cases, there are also a lot of fairly normal sounding apparition cases: and they do seem to groan, cry, or wail. Now Steve Parsons also mention the fact “woo!” sounds like the cry of an owl, and that immediately reminded me of Shakespeare, and from hence i recalled the imagery of Isaiah 34:13-15, here given in the King James version —

And thorns shall come up in her palaces, nettles and brambles in the fortresses thereof: and it shall be an habitation of dragons, and a court for owls. The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; the screech owl also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest. There shall the great owl make her nest, and lay, and hatch, and gather under her shadow: there shall the vultures also be gathered, every one with her mate.

This imagery of a desolate ruin, a potentially haunted place is certainly evocative, and would have shaped popular consciousness every bit as much as Pliny I guess. I may be unusual in that I know the KJV but even a century ago I think most people would know those words… (Incidentally there are much more accurate versions of the Bible around today, so don’t get too excited about the dragons!).

Anyway I can’t actually find a reference to a medieval spirit hooting like an owl: I read through the whole of andrew Joyce’s excellent book on Medieval Ghosts this morning, and had a quick flick through Jean Claude Schmitt’s (1998) Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society, and found nothing useful here. Still I recall many passages about screech owls in classical texts on Necromancy, and while I do not have my coipy of Daniel Ogden’s Greek and Roman Necromancy to hand, I certainly can look it up later.

What is clear is that medieval ghosts speak: indeed there primary purpose often seems to be to dissuade a sinner from their wicked ways, lest they end up suffering the same miserable fate as the ghost! Sometimes they need to put matters right or seek revenge, like the woman who had cheated her husband and son out of her will, giving everything to her brother, or the case of the man who fell through the roof and died while trying to ctach his wife committing adultery, then returns to haunt her! Medieval ghosts are actually very vocal…

The Living Dead

As a bit of a digression to out main theme, 12th century England was a bit hammer House of Horror. Specialists often differentiate between the apparition and the revenant, with the latter being an animated corpse — a descendant of the draugr of Norse mythology, the dead who rise from their graves and seek to terrify and destroy the living. These are the British ancestors of the Vampires and Zombies of today, but they are far more horrific than Edward Cullen – in fact they are far more horrific than even Jedward Cullen would be! (You will have to be UK based to get that joke I’m afraid…)

The Medieval Chroniclers tell us quite a bit about these beasties, and my favourite tales come from William of Newburgh. He dedicates three chapters of the fifth book of his Chronicle to the theme, and I think his words are still spine chilling even today…

It would not be easy to believe that the corpses of the dead should sally (I know not by what agency) from their graves, and should wander about to the terror or destruction of the living, and again return to the tomb, which of its own accord spontaneously opened to receive them, did not frequent examples, occurring in our own times, suffice to establish this fact, to the truth of which there is abundant testimony. It would be strange if such things should have happened formerly, since we can find no evidence of them in the works of ancient authors, whose vast labor it was to commit to writing every occurrence worthy of memory; for if they never neglected to register even events of moderate interest, how could they have suppressed a fact at once so amazing and horrible, supposing it to have happened in their day? Moreover, were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome; so I will fain add two more only (and these of recent occurrence) to those I have already narrated, and insert them in our history, as occasion offers, as a warning to posterity.

If you are interested in the whole story, read chapters 22-25 here.

Now you may very well be thinking at this point “pah! old hat! I knew all this…” I shall therefore proceed in part 2, assuming I ever find the time to write it, to look at what noises Victorian and Modern Ghosts make according to the findings of psychical research – but for now I shall leave you with an anecdote. I have above offered what I hope is a sensible explanation as to why Victorian Ghosts clank chains – but many years ago my friend David Curtin suggested that gurgling, groaning and the clanking of chains in ghosts might coincide with the development of the indoor toilet – rather than tell visitors Aunt Fanny was locked in the lave with a very dodgy tummy, the ghost was blamed for the noises! :)

And just in case you all think I have finally taken leave of my senses in dedicating my leisure time to the pressing societal issue of “why do ghost go woo?”, a) will it really be any more irrelevant than anything happening at a political conference this week, and b) I’m not the first – Ian Topham has a thread on the topic on the Mysterious Britain forum!

I’ll be back with a part two at some point :)

cj x




Responding to Hayley: The Medium & The Message Revisited

Posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Religion, Social commentary desecrated by Chris Jensen Romer on July 25, 2011

OK, two things. This will be short, because I’m writing it in a break. I will not have time to do the issues justice, but at least it won’t drag on.

Secondly, I have not blogged on events in Norway, because others have said it all better I’m sure. With Lisa planning to emigrate there permanently, and her and Lloyd recently back from Oslo I hear a great deal about Norway, and sometimes read NRK and listen to Norwegian radio  online, and events utterly shocked me. I think everyone in the world must be encouraged by the words of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg

“We meet terror and violence with more democracy and will continue to fight against intolerance”

My thoughts are with my Norwegian friends; stoic, calm and sensible, they seem to be getting on with making a better future, from the comments i have seen on Facebook and Twitter. I can not begin to deal with this horror properly, so I simply acknowledged it as best I can here, because to write anything at this time seems trite and banal. So with that caveat, I’ll blog on unrelated matters. However I am sensitive that talking about mediumship and life after death can be insensitive faced with mass grief and bereavement, so you may wish to return to this piece later.

I read a couple of interesting pieces on Hayley Steven’s blog today — the first on a BBC TV show she was originally due to be part of, the second a follow on piece. They are both worth reading. I can’t intelligently comment on the first, because I have not yet had a chance to watch the show. You can see it here, the piece on psychics is maybe half way through I think I may do so in the next day or so if time permits, but I am sadly very busy.  Hayley’s second piece however does raise issues I feel I should respond to.

There has been a lot of stuff written about the “ghostnobbergate” silliness, and Professor Brian Cox’s comments after claims that an episode of the Infinite Monkey Cage comedy show on the radio lacked “balance”, the impartiality required by public broadcasters. If you missed it all, there are a couple of articles on this blog, and  Hayley and Roy Stenmen both covered it in depth too.  I only mention this because in some ways this seems to follow up from that: in the light of global and domestic news, the situation in Greece, the USA, Norway and especially East Africa it all seems so petty, but perhaps these things serve to amuse and distract us from the horrors of the world, so I make no apology for talking about it.

Defining Our Terms

The core of the discussion in Hayley’s second post is a disagreement between herself and a representative of the Spiritualist National Union about whether the BBC was substantially in error in said programme as representing in representing a number of people as “mediums” who the SNU would instead dismiss as “psychics”. This may seem like  a bizarre row, because perhaps in common usage the terms are synonymous; but in fact a medium is almost by definition (at least etymologically) someone who acts as a channel for communications (almost always purportedly from the dead), and in fact when we talk about the medium of television, or the media, we use this term in the same way. So a medium is someone who talks to the dead.

The SNU - click for link

So what is a psychic? Well psychic just refers to the soul or mind, and technically a psychic function is just a mental process: dreams are psychic, perception is psychic, memory is psychic and so forth. In the 19th century the term “psychical” was coined for purportedly paranormal powers, to differentiate them from these normal psychic processes we all know. That is why I once tried to win a bet I could show “psychic powers” on Bad Psychics by offerring to do mental arithmetic – because by definition I am completely correct.  The dictionary gives

1. Of, relating to, affecting, or influenced by the human mind or psyche; mental: psychic trauma; psychic energy.

However, in popular usage the term psychic has never caught on, and really it is only used by me sometimes on this blog, and in the name of the Society for Psychical research, or in papers where the two classes of mental activity are discussed, and by people playing Scrabble...

So I’ll use psychic in the popular sense in this piece; and the SNU argument is that psychics are not mediums, and the two should never be confused. Psychics can include a huge number of claims — seeing the future (precognition), reading minds (telepathy), seeing at a distance (clairvoyance), or even effecting matter (psychokinesis); they come in all shapes and sizes from Astral Travellers, Psychic Detectives, Tarot card readers to the psychics who for only £15 a minute will tell you your ex-boyfriend still really loves you and secretly longs for reconciliation (which may or may not be true.)  But these powers are not “talking to the dead” – and mediums and psychics are distinct categories in theory, and indeed I can think of very few who want to claim to be both — Derek Acorah is the first I can think of who billed himself as a “psychic medium”.

Now I’m running short of time and I can’t recall if I have blogged before on the different Spiritualist groups in the UK here, and there history — suffice to say I am not a Spiritualist, and my personal distaste for mediumship is well known, though my opinions on the evidential issue are hopefully open minded.  Suffice for now to say the SNU represents a large group of UK Spiritualists, who follow a strict code, have formal training, and as befits a religious group licensed ministers (platform mediums).

I may be out of date on the organizational aspects, but the SNU really dislike psychics, who “give mediumship a bad name”, and I doubt the psychics are fond of the SNU. In recent year we seem to have seen an explosion of psychics,  many of whom also feel they can speak with the dead, but a drop in support for traditional Spiritualist churches; I blogged on this here.

But once you are clear on the difference between a psychic and a medium, well then it all gets confused. Because most SNU mediums will accept they have psychic powers, which they attempt to ignore, and many psychics claim to also possess mediumistic abilities, but simply do not see themselves as part of the SNU, and hence never join.

I am aware that to many of my readers this must all seem completely insane, and that none of this may be real, but bear with me…

Psychics and Mediums

So first obvious question — why do mediums not like, or want to be psychic? If you remember Derek Acorah in Most Haunted used t talk about “residual energy”: that was a psychic function, where he picked up the “energies” from the past, a form of retrocognition.  This was a distraction over his “real work”, talking to the spirits. It’s the difference between seeing Professor Brian Cox on the TV recorded last Tuesday,  and meeting him down the pub and chatting with him. If this was the only theoretical issue with psychic powers for mediums, well that would not be too bad. In fact being “sensitive” to atmospheres might even help a medium I guess.

It is not the only problem though. There are two far worse issues. The first revolves around Telepathy, mind to mind ESP.

Imagine Aunt Maggie has departed, and buried the family silver. You go to a medium, he tells you it’s under the apple tree, you dig it up, everyone is happy. To many people this would appear clear proof of the mediumistic hypothesis – the medium spoke to Aunt Maggie.

What if we allow for psychism, that is use of psychic powers though? Well maybe a neighbour saw Aunt Maggie bury it, and in fact the medium is not a medium at all: they got the information from the neighbour (who is still alive) mind, using psychic powers – in this case Telepathy?Then this seemingly watertight case does not actually show any proof for life after death.

It gets far worse. Firstly most examples of supposedly “successful” mediumistic contacts with the dead are not like this. Instead they are more like this

Medium: I’m getting a “Johnny”. He liked to eat chocolate buttons in bed and put them in your belly button, and frequently dressed up in a giant pink rabbit costume for Halloween!

Client: Yes he did!

Now clearly this is not evidentially as strong as proof for life after death, even if every word is true, because the client (traditionally called a “sitter”) knew all the facts the medium told her. The medium could potentially be using ESP — telepathy in this case, to read the clients mind, and then receiving the information as if it was from “Johnny”, who is actually no more than a method for the mediums telepathy to present itself to the conscious mind.

So in fact we have a catalogue of almost contradictory marvels — if you allow for ESP (psi), it becomes almost impossible to prove mediumship. And hence the huge rift between the ESP hypothesis in the main laboratory parapsychologists, and the life after death believing mediums. In an early post on this blog I showed how this works — almost any evidence that seems to allow for life after death can instead be explained away by a suitably unlimited “Super-ESP”.

The psychic could have seen in to the future when the silver was discovered, seen in to the past when Aunt Maggie buried it, read the mind of someone who knew where it was, or someone who knew them who has telepathically transferred the knowledge, etc, etc. In fact I used exactly this scenario in an online corse I once led, and saw huge number of ways in which pyschic powers could explain the scenario without life after death being invoked emerge from the students.

So if you actually believe in ESP, and psychics, mediumship is much harder to prove. The SNU has always known this – the SPR raised the Super-ESP problem as early as the late 1880’s, and so mediums are taught to disregard, and indeed avoid using their ESP powers, as part fo their training, instead focusing on talking to the dead and furnishing evidence for post-mortem survival ( even though if you accept the reality of psychic powers it is horribly difficult if not impossible to prove that is what you are doing, many mediums say they can tell the difference.)

And if that is not bad enough, there is another older controversy hinted at in the discussion on Hayley’s blog, when Sam says “personally I do not believe mediums can see the future”. And predictions of the future is  certainly not a claim the SNU would endorse, but to understand why we have to go back to 1938/1939, as Hitler makes increasingly belligerent moves and war seems inevitable.

The spirits were wrong about Hitler's plans

Even them no one believed that mediums could tell the future (though psychics theoretically might by a process called precognition) – but it was widely believed in many spiritualist circles that Spirit could. And Spirit kept assuring circles that war would not happen, Hitler would back down and negotiate, and the Second World War would never happen. And of course they were right, and peace prevailed. ;) Er, sorry, no they weren’t. War broke out as pretty much everyone but Spirit and the editors of Two Worlds magazine  (one of the spiritualist papers of the day) expected, in September 1939.

The prophecies had failed: a theological crisis followed. And what happened? Well, basically it was accepted that Spirit could not see the future any more than we can. I think most mediums accept this now, so don’t take your dearly departed’s advice on whether to take that new job, unless you would accept it if they were sitting in the room with you now and knew what you do.  :)

So again, the SNU are not going to like psychics much, who makes exactly these fortune telling claims all the time.

And finally, there is one rather practical more reason why the SNU don’t like being conflated with “psychics”.  A lot of psychics are utterly disreputable sleazebags, and out to make money, rip off the vulnerable, and generally are slime. (I once famously insulted a commercial “psychic” with the line “I am glad you are so “spiritually evolved”, it rather explains what you were doing for the four billion years of human evolution since pond scum you somehow missed out on.” :) ) I can be rude at times. The SNU are a religious, regulated body, who deeply resent being conflated in the public mind with these people.

Responding to Hayley

Hayley is one of the sharpest and best sceptical commentators out there, and in her piece makes it clear that the issue here is very simple: to complain about the BBC misrepresenting mediums some have is scarcely fair, given that they have merely reflected a popular understanding and popular usage of the terms. After all, many psychics do claim to the talk to the dead, and far from all mediums are members of the SNU – the Christian Spiritualists are another large UK spiritualist denomination, and there are others.  The BBC can not realistically be held to blame for this confusion in the popular mind.  And I agree with Hayley; it is up to the SNU to clarify their position, and educate the public on their beliefs, etc, with the vital caveat I still have not viewed the show.

I’m typing at a tremendous pace and am almost out of time – but I think the issue is wider. Who is a “scientist”? What enables one to use that title? A BSc? A PhD in some science? A job in a scientific career? What makes one a “climate scientist”? There are controversies there; some people we see representing themselves as scientists are actually pundits, or science journalists, or simply science fans?

Hayley Stevens, excellent investigator & sceptical blogger (photo from her linked blog, used without permission so don’t copy it)

Who is a “sceptic”? Am I, a religious believer who accepts some paranormal phenomena is really a sceptic? What about the “global warming sceptics”? the “9/11 sceptics/ Truthers”? “the Birthers?”  They all are sceptical of something, but in the circles Hayley and I move in “sceptic” actually means, as in most Skeptics in the Pub people, supporters  of mainstream scientific/political/medical orthodoxy?  Does Hayley not feel a little sympathy for the SNU when they complain about misrepresentation of psychics and mediums, when I am sure she would not want to be associated with the tinfoil hat brigade who call themselves “skeptics”?” ( I have never forgotten the first time I was asked b some one “so you are a skeptic, you think the government did 9/11 then?” — very close to the endless times that because I am a Christian I have been mistaken for a Creationist, or because I’m a parapsychologist I have been mistaken for an ESP believer.

But am I a Parapsychologist?

Work calls, and I may just have time to format this and add a couple of pictures, but I just said I was a parapsychologist. Am I? What do you all think? I doubt Prof. Ian Baker would think I am: my lab work is very limited. Am I really just a presumptuous ghosthunter, or a “paranormal journalist”, a fortean, or a skeptic? Sure I have done a few methodologically sophisticated studies, and have some publications. But my first degree was in a totally unrelated discipline, and I have no academic credentials in the field. By the generally accepted definition I am not — I am not a full member of the Parapsychological Association, hell not being a student and having no money I’m not even an associate member, and I don’t think I have the publications to be elected yet, but heck I could not afford the fees for the accreditation even if I somehow maned to churn out ten high quality papers this year.

So no, I’m not a parapsychologist, except in my own loosely defined sense of “someone who knows the other people in parapsychology and some of them might know who I am, vaguely, as an irritant”. Ironically, my girlfriend, doing her PhD in the field is well on the way to it. But when I am described on TV as a “parapsychologist” I don’t split hairs on this issue, though maybe i should, given the utter woo that is frequently passed off as by “parapsychologists”, people who I have never heard of and who have not to the best of my knowledge ever published in the peer reviewed journals, and the bizarre belief of many “skeptics” that parapsychologists are somehow synonymous with “paranormal believers”, and that we all believe six impossible things before breakfast.

Out of time, but hope amused

cj x

Booting the Ball in No Man’s Land… A Rant for Sceptics

Posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Social commentary desecrated, Unclassifiable! by Chris Jensen Romer on July 22, 2011

I should really avoid this topic like the plague, but I’m going to talk about it anyway, and risk upsetting everyone, because that’s what I happen to do!

I nearly used in my title the words ” the sceptics movement”, but as I think the idea of a movement that makes sceptics sounds like a creed or religious group is a  misnomer I avoided that term; one thing is certain, sceptics always argue, disagree and often strongly, over all kinds of things. Where the evidence is solid they tend to agree, but on moral issues, tactical issues, social or political issues, or scientific  areas where the evidence is weak sceptics hold strongly divergent opinions. And that is good and healthy.

I self-identify as a sceptic, as most of you know: my scepticism is often sharply turned towards to the claims of my fellow sceptics, owing to the ridiculously partisan Sceptics versus Believers binary opposition one often sees, which prevents any meaningful critique of sceptical writings from those perhaps best qualified to be sceptical about them. I am often pained by the emotive responses one sees from sceptics and believers alike, where mudslinging and vitriol obscure rational debate – but until we break down the “us versus them” herd mentality” it will be hard to make progress. Anyone who knows me knows I am a harsh critic of my fellow Christians; I am a virulently harsh critic of my fellow sceptics and paranormal believers, and a ferociously harsh critic of my own beliefs, which I attempt to dissect as best I can on a continual basis. That’s not easy, so I post and debate on forums, and wherever possible engage with the best arguments and thinkers I can who sharply oppose me; I have learned a lot, and modified many beliefs as a result.  I’m still wrong on many things i know, and hopeless ignorant and misguided at times, but I make an effort to try and cast a critical eye over my own stuff as much as everyone elses. I despise bullies cock sure of themselves and filled with self importance – and regularly get my own ego punctured when someone hands my hat to me in a debate or discussion, and am glad of it. We all need a little doubt, a little humility.

Some of you may remember my old Most Haunted forum signature, taken from Andrew Eldritch’s song Possession? (YouTube link contains sound)

I’ll be your imagination,
Tear apart what you believe,
Make a mess of your conviction,
Take away my pride and leave,
Nothing, but the debris,
Cuts, two ways..

I meant it. I really did. And that doubt, that criticism, I apply indiscriminately. I am not a comfortable person to be around at times..

Now if you are a paranormal believer, expecting another lambasting of sceptics, probably best to stop reading now; this post is not aimed at you. It’s aimed at sceptics, and those who identify as sceptics, and concerns something that puzzles me. Why do they attack their own?

Scepticism is vital, and important, in addressing real issues, of bad science, bad medicine, and quack practices that cost or ruin lives, of that I have no doubt. Sterling work is done in these fields by podcasts, Skeptics in the pub meetings, and conferences up and down the land. I have immense respect for the hard work done by huge numbers of people in these areas.

So what is my beef? Because even the best sceptics in my area, parapsychology, paranormal belief and psychical research, are frequently treated with quiet disdain by their colleagues. While the JREF has obviously always stressed the importance of testing and studying paranormal claims, and in places like Rational Skepticism one sees intelligent comment, while UKSkeptics, BadPsychics and other sites did valuable work in addressing issues,  and their are blogs like Bare Normality and Hayley Steven’s and Ersby’s that deal intelligently with the ssues, skeptics who choose to study paranormal claims are often, unless big names like Chris French, Richard Wiseman, Sue Blackmore or Ray Hyman, treated with disdain by their sceptical colleagues.  “Why bother to study something so pointless?” seems to be the refrain. Fighting homeopathy is seen as real sceptical “work”; trying to actually look at the peer reviewed parapsychological literature is treated with contempt, and trying to investigate yourself these claims, as Hayley, ASKE or Ersby did is met with disdain. People like Dr Braithwaite are ignored; the believers are unhappy with their negative findings, and naturalistic explanations for phenomena in terms of neuroscience or whatever; the sceptics are content at best to point at their work when they meet a “woo”, and run away.

I have immense respect for sceptics who engage with the subject, and offer meaningful critiques. Most of them I would actually classify as parapsychologists however much they would resist the label, as they make a meaningful contribution to the discourse, and many if not the majority of  academic parapsychologists are extremely sceptical of most if not all paranormal claims.  How many are there? Probably as many as there are parapsychologists producing papers in the field — two or three dozen, turning out good quality commentary, doing their own experiments, and speaking at sceptic conferences. Now hardly anyone among the sceptics  dares critique Wiseman for researching this stuff; he s too clever, too charismatic and above all too clearly knows what he is doing — but [people don’t actually read his research papers do they? The APRU did a fascinating series of podcasts  How many folks have listened to them?  From the other “side” (perhaps from the “other side”?) all the Society for Psychical Research lectures and conferences for many many years can be purchased or borrowed from the society on CD (ity says tape on the website, but most are on CD these days) – how many people have listened to them? Prominent sceptics and some of the very best in parapsychology are available to hear — for a free download from the APRU, for a small fee (£5 non-members) or postage if a member from the SPR – and yet who bothers?

Still, people are busy, I understand that. Start investigating paranormal claims outside of say mediums and psychics and you can get caught up in real science issues,a nd philosophy of science issues. Worse than that crazed loonies like me might come after you, and boy am I fierce when woken from my slumbers. ;) But the anti-paranormal camp are not content to ignore the research – they actually often seem to denigrate those among their own who do engage with the subject, and openly ask why stuff on ghosts or ESP actually appears at sceptic conferences. They know, with all the fervour of a fuindamentalist believer, that its all bollocks – so why listen to those who bother to critique it intelligently and sceptically? Their disdain for the subject rubs off on the poor sceptics who do intelligently comment, and while they are lauded when the going gets tough and something like Bem’s habtituative precog paper gets mainstream attention, most of the time they are quietly ignore and sometimes condescended to.

Sometimes I feel I’m playing football in no man’s land. I have come through adversity to gain respect and genuine admiration for those I disagree with, and believe sceptics and believers with a strong interest in paranormal claims can reach out, and boot the ball for a Christmas Day friendly, and who knows, together we might score some goals?

But for the sceptics who actually do engage with the evidence, and who do try to seriously study and address the issues, well they face derision from their peers, and frankly dismissive attitudes from many who should bloody know better. For them it’s more a case of

Shot by both sides….

That’s what happens when you kick that ball over the top. And it is frankly disappointing in people who call themselves rationalists. If you can’t be bothered to do the work, at least respect those who do, and by their intelligent critiques do everyone a favour and advance our knowledge OK?

Almost no one shoots at me, perhaps because they know I’ll come out guns blazing??? Well here is your chance — if you think the serious investigation of paranormal claims does not warrant the effort (and I would be the first to concede there are more vital areas of public finance, advertising and health care needing sceptical engagement) just say so. But don’t denigrate those who dedicate their time freely and graciously to working on these issues, be they “believer” or “sceptic”.  If you think it’s all rot, that is your right — but an argument from ignorance remains an argument from ignorance, and you should be sincerely grateful to those who do the work for you.

So that’s it really. Stop putting down those who study stuff you don’t claim to understand. If like some of the sceptics I have mentioned, or many others – VK, Louie Savva, Sue Blackmore,Matthew Smith, Ciaran O Keefe, fls, Soapy Sam, Campermon the list goes on  you are willing to do the work and have come to a reasoned judgment against these things, that awesome, and I appreciate your work and opinions — but if you are not one of these people, whenther or not i have named you, stop turning on those who do as “second rate sceptics.”

Put up, or STFU.

cj x

Five things I learned from #ghostnobbergate

Posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on July 13, 2011

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! ;)

cj x


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