"And sometimes he's so nameless"

When Psychics Fail — Beyond Sally Morgan

Posted in atheism, Debunking myths, Paranormal, Religion, Social commentary desecrated by Chris Jensen Romer on September 20, 2011

OK, last week I wrote a short piece on Sally Morgan, in which I critiqued the evidence that she was using a well known fraud trick, that is having accomplices gather information in the crowd (or prepare information from public sources like newspapers), and then being fed it by hidden assistants using a radio connection. (I almost wrote “wireless” there for “radio”; astonishing how the meaning of that word, so common in my youth, has changed forty years on!). I doubted this partly on the fallibility of witness testimony, partly because the Theatre manager had came forward with a fairly convincing “alibi” involving two theatre techs being overheard being the cause of the whole matter. I lay out all the facts as I had them in my previous piece, which may be worth reading as it links to the RTE broadcast and the Irish Independent article, if you have not been following the case.

Well Sally Morgan has now issued a statement, categorically denying fraud — you can read it here.

Sally Morgan

Sally Morgan

It does not actually say anything new; and certainly does not come any closer to proving she possesses a genuine “paranormal gift”. I guess the only way she could convince us all of that would be to undergo some kind of scientific test – after all plenty of protocols for testing psychics and mediums exist, and if I ever have time I will write on them here.

Still, today one person who has been involved in testing psychic claimants in the past, the excellent sceptic Professor Chris French wrote a short piece on The Guardian site. I note with approval that like my earlier piece on Sally he mentions perfectly natural ways in which people might convince themselves they are psychic, though he does not go in to as much detail as I did in mine. It’s a good piece, but part of it caught my attention…

This episode is reminiscent of the exposure of faith healer Peter Popoff by James Randi in 1986. Popoff would wow his audiences by giving specific and accurate details of their medical problems before claiming to cure them with his divine powers. This information was, according to Popoff, provided to him directly by God. It was certainly an effective technique, as at this time Popoff was raking in around $4m per month (tax-free) from his poor, sick and uneducated followers.

Randi, with the assistance of investigator Alexander Jason, convincingly demonstrated that Popoff was actually receiving the “divine” information from his wife via a hearing aid. Following his exposure on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Popoff declared bankruptcy in 1987.

In a more rational world, that would have been the end of Popoff’s career as a faith healer. Sadly, we do not live in a rational world. Popoff is back, earning more than ever by fleecing his flock using exactly the same techniques that Randi exposed, plus a few new ones, such as the sale of “Miracle Spring Water”. According to ABC News, Popoff’s ministry received more than $9.6m in 2003 and more than $23m in 2005. In that year, Popoff paid himself and his wife a combined total of almost a million dollars (not to mention two of his children receiving more than $180,000 each).

Since the heyday of mediumship during the Victorian era, exposure as frauds has typically done little to diminish the popularity of alleged psychics in the eyes of their followers.

There is of course a caveat offered at the end of Prof. French’s piece –

Phone-in caller Sue, who believed that Morgan had psychic powers before her experience at the theatre, described herself as being “totally disappointed” and insisted that she would not be attending such shows again. Maybe some of her friends and others sitting near her that evening will follow suit. Sadly, however, history suggests that most of Sally’s followers will continue to adore her and pay the high prices demanded to see her in action.

Prof. Chris French

Prof. Chris French

Watching ‘Nationwide’

I immediately began to question this. Does exposure as a fake always result in people continuing to believe, regardless of the evidence?

My first thought was of the cultural studies writer  Stuart Hall and David Morley, who if I recall correctly argued that when provided with something like a television programme (the original research was the study Watching Nationwide, on the show which brought us skateboarding ducks…)

– people do not simply respond  by accepting the “story” as given. Some will buy in to the “dominant” reading, and enjoy or accept it as given: some will “negotiate” what it means, framing what is presented in terms of their own lives and own experience, and some will create “oppositional” readings. There is  a short wikipedia discussion here.  I often find this quite a handy model to look at things.

Whereas the dominant motif in most media coverage is “so called psychic Sally Morgan was caught in fraud”, and let’s face it most people will have a good laugh and think little more about it, there have certainly been some negotiated readings. As someone interested in both critical thinking and psychical research I offered my alternative reading of what happened in my last blog piece, and Derek Walsh who is clearly extremely unsympathetic to psychic hocus pocus offered an excellent sceptical appraisal of the dominant sceptical message on his blog here in a great example of scepticism squared – when a sceptic applies scepticism to the sceptical consensus, something which is eternally necessary, but rarely makes you friends…

But it is the “oppositional” readings, the defenders of Sally Morgan who really caught the attention of the sceptic world. And let’s face it, some of them really are incredibly dedicated, indeed I think they I will use the word “devoted” to the cause.  Want to  have a look at some? Try Sally’s facebook pages! I note with interest it is her birthday today, and I sincerely hope she has a lovely day. (These things are never personal to me, despite my strong distaste for fraudulent psychics who should be prosecuted as the money grabbing vultures preying on the vulnerable they are — and after all, I am not personally convinced of fraud, or of her psychic gifts, which may place me in a minority of one! ;) )

So in this instance an awful lot of believers in Sally are refusing to accept the evidence of fraud, and carry on believing. And to be fair, I don’t think that is actually as silly as it sounds. Firstly as Derek and I have both pointed out, the evidence for fraud is actually not overwhelming – there are other explanations, and the theatre has leapt to her defence.  Sue she is a big name draw, but I’m pretty sure that theatre in Dublin does pretty well anyway, and is hardly likely to be “in on it”.  If even a handful of sceptics are not sure she actually cheated, well, I can hardly blame her devotees for questioning it?

What if Sally WAS ever caught?

So let’s try a thought experiment: imagine Sally has been caught cheating, absolutely blatantly, flagrantly, and beyond a shadow of a doubt. I don’t know much about the Popoff affair, but I do remember a case many years back when a young “physical medium” called Lincoln was caught in very embarrassing circumstances when the lights went unexpectedly up on his seance, back in 1993. Tony Youens maintains a superb archive on this here, with the full text and many related articles. Yet Lincoln went on to a successful TV career, and is still today a major figure in the world of these stage show psychics, now doing mental not physical mediumship (albeit now known by another name: though forever plagued by jokes like “Colin is not afraid to blow his own trumpet!”).

As with Popoff, exposure seems to have done him no harm at all, though he did spend almost a decade away from the public eye? I don’t actually know much about Popoff, and the circumstances, but yes he bounced back like Alan Partridge.

So we would expect that even if Sally was caught, then she would be back on the scene within a decade, and perhaps as popular as ever? Why? Are people inherently gullible?

Um… I might have left it there if Tracy King had not questioned this on Twitter. I knew instantly she was right: for every big name caught out who bounces back, there are others who slink away and quit the limelight.

When Prophecy Fails…

Certain texts that would be considered obscure at best by non-academics take on a life of their own in popular culture, and in certain subcultures. One of these, When Prophecy Fails (1956) by Elliot Aronson, Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter is a book that few in sceptical and atheist circles can fail to have heard of. The book is a sociological study of a UFO cult whose leader predicted a cataclysmic event, a flood that would embrace their city. The flood failed to materialize — and the cult kept right on believing.  I think it’s important for people to check the facts, and the wikipedia account is very good.  Now there is one real critique of the book, which is very simple; as you will have seen from the Wikipedia page if you had a look, in the view of the people involved the prophecy did not actually fail, they had saved the world by the faith, averting the cataclysm.

cover of When Prophecy Fails

Some of you may recall the incident I am fond of mentioning when I was a young student at university and the Christian Union outing was called off after the bus broke down before we departed, and the various members of the C.U leadership offered contrasting theological explanations. That is the nature of theological talk, to explore why things are in terms of God and the universe I guess.  I found it all fascinating, and rather unconvincing — did God really want us to stay and spend the day on evangelism to our heathen fellow students, or was it really the Devil trying to thwart us? I thought the bus had broken down…

Anyway, we recently saw an example of this when Mr Harold Camping’s much publicized prophecy of the End of the World failed to manifest.   The bad news is he has revised his prediction to October 21, 2011 so folks we have just a month left. Um, assuming no particle physics disaster or asteroid strike I’m going to enjoy writing on the 22nd October about what he says next! :) Strangely there has been very little academic discussion of how his followers have responded beyond the immediate disappointment; I suspect an awful lot have drifted away, but I can neither conform nor deny it. Yet this is all very familiar to those who follow such things -  if any one really has read this far, they may well want to acquaint themselves with The Great Disappointment.

So yep, I think most sociologists of religion agree with Festinger, who also gave us the concept of cognitive dissonance – and while I have critiqued When Prophecy Fails in the past, and equally have critiqued the idea of cognitive dissonance (favouring Bem’s alternative Self-Perception Theory) many of my critiques are actually of the rather shoddy precis of the book one sometimes finds in sceptical articles and books. Festinger et al were much more careful in their claims, and the Wikipedia article gives the conditions for faith in the prophet to “survive” the disappointment –

Festinger stated that five conditions must be present, if someone is to become a more fervent believer after a failure or disconfirmation:

  • A belief must be held with deep conviction and it must have some relevance to action, that is, to what the believer does or how he behaves.
  • The person holding the belief must have committed himself to it; that is, for the sake of his belief, he must have taken some important action that is difficult to undo. In general, the more important such actions are, and the more difficult they are to undo, the greater is the individual’s commitment to the belief.
  • The belief must be sufficiently specific and sufficiently concerned with the real world so that events may unequivocally refute the belief.
  • Such undeniable disconfirmatory evidence must occur and must be recognized by the individual holding the belief.
  • The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of disconfirming evidence that has been specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, the belief may be maintained and the believers may attempt to proselytize or persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.

In the case of Sally Morgan number 5 is true: her supporters help each other maintain their faith, that much is clear. I’m not convinced any of the others are, so perhaps we do not need to look to Festinger after all for an explanation.

Other sociologists of religion have argued that when an adherent of a faiths faith is weakest, they are prone to proselytizing more, buoying up their faith by convincing others. Maybe! I think we actually face slightly more complex issues here….

Counting Crows…

Firstly, there are allegations she was caught cheating, but it’s far from clear, and a reasonable person could doubt this as I have already stated. Secondly, the believers are by their nature already disposed to belief in life after death and psychics I assume, and very few of them will place their faith in one psychic alone. Even if Sally is caught cheating, there are still thousands of other psychics, and the Problem of Induction tells us that one psychic being a fraud in no way means all are: after all as William James famously stated, the claim “all crows are black” is falsified if we find a single white crow. (James believed he had in the form of the medium Leonora Piper).  Spiritualists certainly acknowledge the existence of fake psychics and fraudulent mediums, so one being caught is no problem to them, just as one failed Christian sect’s prophecy is no issue to the rest of the Christian world.

Beyond this, we have to consider what would happen if a personal friend was accused of a serious crime (something like this is currently occurring on the JREF, a miserable business we will pass over beyond noting the potential parallels). Many will spring to their defence, some will renounce them, and some will wait further developments.  There is nothing unique in the way Sally’s adherents are reacting right now, we can all do it when our beliefs are challenged…

So Can Sceptics Win?

No matter how many psychics get debunked, others will step forward. No matter how good the evidence against a fraud, some people, but not I am convinced most, will continue to believe. So is there any point in pursuing the frauds?

My answer is a resounding “Yes!”.  It is in no ones interest to have vulnerable individuals preyed upon by the pond scum who represent themselves as psychic and offer false comfort while using fraudulent means. While there may well be very real benefits to the grieving in seeing a psychic, no matter how much we may question the morality of it all, the frauds are just that – frauds and criminals.  Whether a sincere but deluded individual is better than a fraud is a tricky question, but my personal belief is yes, there is  a huge difference, though I understand others may disagree. Are there real psychics? I can’t discount that possibility; my personal experience suggested it could be, but I honestly don’t know.

So it is really important for sceptics to challenge these people. I’m not sure it’s safe, rewarding or sensible, but it has to be done. I’m not convinced on the current evidence that Sally Morgan is either a) psychic or b) guilty of fraud, and I make no claims to have a real knowledge of her case, but as even spiritualists and psychics acknowledge wholeheartedly there are  lots of scam artistes and conmen and conwomen out there teaching critical thinking and sceptical approaches does no harm to anyone.

Most people will not make their minds up on psychics, life after death, mediumship, or any of these issues based on the academic or scientific evidence. Given there is very little mainstream discussion of the topics, and the journal articles are hard to come by, and the sociology and religion texts fairly obscure, it’s hard even for someone passionately interested to make a rational evidence-based decision on these matters, so we tend to go on the other type of evidence, personal experience. I hope my musings on all this help people to gain a slightly broader perspective, and to think a little deeper about it.

So why have I written all this?

A while ago when I interviewed Dr Matthew Smith on this blog we noted how we live in a very unfashionable neighbourhood indeed, what one of us (I forget which!) termed “the uncomfortable middle”. That is neither of us is wholly “woo”, if such a creature exists, or wholly “sceptic”, if such a thing exists.  Back in the days of the old Most Haunted Forum on Living TV’s site I watched as “parties” formed, one “skeptics”, the other “believers”. There is a polarization of views, and a growing culture of sceptics (who also fight among themselves, argue and debate) and believers (who also fight among themselves, argue and debate). Seeing that I regard scepticism as a methodology, and  belief in any given proposition an outcome, well I don’t see them as really opposed, but you would never get that from reading much written by either side. Venom, hatred and antagonism are all too common: and both “sides” close ranks. And then, when something like this happens, well the sceptics tend to say “I told you so” and the believers say “all sceptical lies”, and people stop talking. Real research does not fall victim to this, but the rhetoric of subcultures fighting for the hearts and minds of the masses do.

I encourage everyone to take a step back, take a deep breath and try to lose the vitriol. Britain is a sceptical country: and no one is going to stamp on you if you believe in fairies here, either.

And on that note I willonce again wish Sally morgan a very happy birthday, and “peace to all people of good will on Earth.” :)

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

Psychic News closes down after 78 years — but why?

Posted in atheism, Paranormal, Religion, Social commentary desecrated by Chris Jensen Romer on July 27, 2010

Now let’s get this straight. I am NOT a Spiritualist, a Spiritist, a psychic, a medium, or anything similar. I’m an Anglican Christian, and one who happens to be passionately interested in psychical research. Still it came as a surprise today to learn from the JREF of this –

Psychic News final issue

Psychic News final issue: 1932 -2010

Now as it happens today is the busiest I have been in a very long time, and I really did not intend to blog about anything, but as the old gal disappears, I felt a few words were in order. Firstly, my best wishes to everyone who was involved in the publication — I know only too well how traditional print and broadcast media are struggling to compete with new media claiming an increasing share of advertising revenues. ITN is the poster child for this issue; as more satellite channels and web advertising take up, commercial television has taken a huge hit. ITN have bounced back, with advertising revenues up, but a lot of traditional print media has suffered what may be an irreversible downturn, and had to look to internet editions and subscriber services to pick up the slack.

Secondly, I am aware of the byzantine politics of the Spiritualist movement, and the complex theological, administrative and personality clashes which sometimes (always?) arise. In this the Spiritualist National Union is much like any other church, or much like any other organisation, be it poetry club or gardening society.

In those two factors, economic issues and doubtless some political manoeuvring we see the immediate reasons for the decline of Psychic News (a newspaper that as long term reader of this blog may recall once featured me on the front page!). It is a shame, but possibly to be expected. And yet…

CJ is confuzzled…

The reason for my confusion is simple. While the actual reasons for the ending of publication are pretty straight forward — see the Paranormal Review blog for a good explanation and commentary — I am deeply puzzled as to why the Psychic New should have fallen a victim to the challenge of new media etc.  While independent it was published by the SNU, and as such one might have expected it to be immensely popular among adherents of that organisation, which maintains a good number of churches, though possibly not enough to give the PN a future. Still, every time I go to Tesco to get my shopping I see this, and several similar publications…

Chat It's Fate!

Chat It's Fate! (c) IPC Media

There has been an explosion of ‘psychic’ publications. We have also this one…

Spirit & Destiny magazine

Spirit & Destiny - click for their website

and probably others I don’t know about. Back in the early years of this decade I noticed that Jane Millichip was changing LIVING TV from a channel that basically was Loaded magazine on screen, for the lads and laddettes, to something closer to the women’s interest magazines like Chat etc – a brilliant, visionary formula which paid off in spades. They brought Most Haunted to our screens, John Edwards,  Colin Fry, Tony Stockwell, and a host of others. Above all, Derek Acorah became a household name.

I doubt Spiritualists were wildly enthusiastic: the few members of the SNU I know seemed concerned that the glitz and excitement of celebrity mediumship was at odds with their own experiences of ‘Spirit’, and there were as always accusations of fraud. It’s an odd fact, but spiritualism does seem to attract critical thinkers, perhaps because it is such an empirically based religion — it professes to demonstrate the reality of its theological claims on platforms in spiritualist churches up and down the country every week after all, and almost every spiritualist i have ever spoken to has been convinced by the evidence they have seen of afterlife communication — yet remain sceptical of the claims of other mediums they have also witnessed.  As such, they can be  difficult audience to address for their Class A mediums (a designation something like ‘vicar’, not a dangerous drug!) and I doubt many Church of England vicars could handle the level of criticism and empirical demands of a Spiritualist congregation.  Quite the contrary to public perception in my opinion, spiritualists are not wild and wooly believers – they are often VERY sceptically minded folks, with a “i’ll believe when you show me proof” attitude.

As the 90′s ended and teenage Wiccan wannabes ceased to be fashionable and became more and more figures of ridicule, many who had been intoxicated by the promise of The Craft now wanted something more real, more empirical, and more directly answering to their needs – the need to see if their was a life after death, to deal with the terrible pain of bereavement, to deal with the inevitability of our personal deaths. These are real human concerns – you can find them on atheist forums, discussed and disected, just as much as in churches and in psychic groups.

Around 2003-2004 I think the UK underwent a major cultural transformation, as a TV-led taste for the psychic and for empircal rather than occult (in its literal sense of ‘hidden’) religions picked up. People did not just want comfort, vague promises of ‘pie in the sky when you die’ — they wanted proof. They wanted direct spiritual experiences – signs and wonders, something that the Charismatic Christian Churches had been providing since the late sixties, and especially in the late eighties and early nineties, and that Wicca had maybe provided for others. A religion that had in my youth been the staple of advertising jokes (I’m with the Woolwich/Toffee Crisp, etc, etc) and associated with elderly ladies and slightly dotty maiden aunts in the public mind suddenly became credible and relevant — and more than that, it provided something really appealing — the chance to experience the truth, not be told it second hand.

The years that Living TV and the psychic boom led to a population of facebook names like Bob Smith (medium) - an example I made up though there may be one – happens to coincide with the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the grim litany of names in the media of our fallen warriors. Historians always point out that the years of the the First World War marked a highpoint in Spiritualism (or so it is claimed) — yet after the grim death toll of the war it faded away again, and the Second World War does not seem to have seen a huge increase in numbers. I don’t know if there is a link, but there may be — please do comment with your thoughts on any of this, I’m no expert, I’m just thinking aloud!

And suddenly we have an explosion of popular interest in the paranormal and the psychic. Two other things arise from it — firstly, a plethora of Ghosthunting TV shows, following the path blazed by Most Haunted — and with them an explosion of paranormal research groups, up from maybe 30 in the late seventies to over 700 in the UK by 2006, if my memory of Dr Ciaran O Keefe’s research is correct – again a “hands on” empirical approach to finding out where spiritual truth stands. That ghosthunting group can be seen as a “New Religious Movements” is I think self evident – they are often technological approaches to ancient questions, a sort of hands-on theological investigation.  Enquiring minds that might have been involved in a church group, or in a occult prctice, or in a scientific pursuit were more and more going out and seeking personal experience – if in the sixties they dropped acid and sought Nirvana, in the seventies looked to the skies for UFo’s and talked to space-brothers, and in the eighties joined a charismatic church or in the nineties a Wiccan coven, in the 2000′s these same peopel became ghosthunters or psychic, or organised sceptics…

Hey, something to offend everyone? Yes, I regard the modern development of many organised sceptic groups as allied to these same cultural phenomena, albeit a critical response to them.  For established folks like CSI(COP), the JREF, or UK Skeptics it must be puzzling — now one can hardly throw a stick without hitting Sceptics in Little Snoring, or some other sceptical group.  While the mainstream media has not been as kind to sceptics as the psychics  – Derren Brown, James Randi and Penn & Teller made it by having other very real talents, ditto the immensely charismatic Dr Richard Wiseman, and Dr Susan Blackmore and Dr Chris French — there are now dozens it seems of sceptical podcasts (sceptics seem very New Media savvy) and while scepticism has been around as a movement since the 1950′s, i think the explosion of interest may well be a direct response to the ‘paranormalisation’ of our popular culture.

I’ll go a stage further, and even allege the New Atheists, and the public interest in Professor Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion and the TV shows he did on these subjects was a response to the same upswing of ‘empirical’ religion (undoubtedly strengthened immensely by 9/11 and the genuine fear of religious fanaticism and old fashioned xenophobia as alien religions and ethnicities become apparent on our streets.)

Ironically I think the thing the New Atheists and Dawkins champion, empiricism and science, have won the battle for the minds of the UK — and the strength of their victory, and the fear of faith based beliefs, can be seen in the upswing of empirically based ‘psychic’ and ‘ghosthunting’ faiths. The adherents of these “new religions”  have taken on-board the dangers of dogma and blind faith, and arcane theological formulations, and are part of the scientifically minded “show me the evidence” culture of doubt and “I’ll believe it when I see it”.   The Atheists are partly a response to some of the spiritual anarchy that has arisen as more and more weird claims are peddles as truth — I often offend by my statement that I prefer institutionalised religion to spiritual anarchy, but that is a discussion for another day — but the New Atheists are at least partially independent of all this – and share the same basic critique of taking things on faith many of the psychics, spiritualists and ghosthunters do as they reject the established faiths and go looking for themselves for the evidence.

The New Sceptics – they serve their role in the new religious landscape of the UK, providing (often badly, sometimes very well), a critique of the experiences that are taken as evidential by the ghosthunters and psychics, explaining them usually in terms of psychology, or less often having a stab at neurological explanations.  New Scepticism is a response to the psychics and ghosthunters to some extent, as Dawkins and the New Atheists are a response to the established Churches?

So why did Psychic News fail?

Well we know the obvious reasons, and looking at the glossy covers of the “rival” psychic magazines, we can why people might pick them up – glossy, polished, exciting, rather then poor old  Psychic News.  As I have hinted above, “people hate noobs”; while SNU churches are undoubtedly welcoming to new members, the criticism and rational analysis I might expect to find of the celebrity mediums in a spiritualist church may make them appear stuffy or conservative to the fans of the big name mediums who pack out theatres all over the country, rather than spiritualist churches.  We have seen this before – in Anglican resentment of John Wesley’s popular preaching in the 18th century, in the distaste for Charles Spurgeon’s evangelical meetings in the 19th century, in the at times snide response of the ‘traditional’ churches to the Charismatic churches in the 1980′s and 1990′s.  And sometimes, as history has shown, the conservatives are right — one remembers the collapse of the Nine o clock Service  rave-church back in the 90′s, and hell, plenty of big name psychics and mediums have been exposed — some like Colin Fry in the pages of Psychic News itself.

We see the same thing in ghosthunting circles – perhaps the SPR (www.spr.ac. uk ) could do more to reach the new ghosthunters, though it appears to me they are, in Atheism – many critiques of the New Atheists come from ‘old atheists’ rather than the religious — and even in scepticism, where politics and personality clashes are as apparent as in any human group. Enthusiastic ‘noobs’ (an internet culture term for a ‘newbie’)  are often a little brash, a little over the top, a little – well ‘enthusiastic’ (in the 19th century sense) – for the tastes of the ‘establishment’.

If I am thinking correctly though, it is not really the fault of those ‘establishments’ though, because a sceptically empirically minded bunch, be they psychic practioners, ghosthunters, sceptics, or whatever, out to tear done the nonsense they perceive in popular belief, and to find out the facts for themselves, put the emphasis not on membership of a church, a certain prestige group, or any organisation that impedes their independent thinking, but in their own experiences, their own thoughts, and their own findings. None like chiefs – they smack of dogma – and none like idols much either. The new spiritualism may be a grass-roots movement that nods at organised Spiritualism, but can’t be bothered to check if their beliefs and experiences tally with the principles of the SNU or orthodox spiritualist theology, or to get out of bed to attend a service or meeting — this is religion for the ‘me’ generation, and  they want a feel good Nescafe friendly morning read not an exposition of often technical spiritualist thinking and history: emotional, personal, experiential, not intellectual and institutionalised religion. The divide between the It’s Fate readers and the psychic news readers may be like the divide between the readers of Paranormal magazine and the ghosthunters and those who subscribe to the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research or the European Journal of Parapsychology – and that I think may be the key to why Psychic News has died, even as psychism as a belief system may be reaching its apogee in the uK??

Dunno, just some quick thoughts. I’d better go do some work, but I’d love to hear your comments…

cj x

Ghosthunting Techniques: Quantatitive Assessment of Haunted Houses…

Posted in Paranormal, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on March 25, 2009

A technique I have been playing with for some years, which may be of interest… A way of employing psychic claimants and sceptics in investigating a purported haunting.

The idea was first developed by NY parapsychologist Gertrude Schmeidler, in her paper on Quantitative Assessment of A Haunted House. I don’t have the paper or the reference to hand, but the proposed protocol has been developed quite a bit since then, though to almost universal disinterest.  A few UK groups I have been involved with have tried it, with varying levels of success, but surprisingly positive results.

Note a  positive result here means a high degree of agreement between the “psychics” and the witnesses – but that in itself tells us nothing about the nature of the “phenomena” — I’ll get back to that shortly…

A GSUK member participates in an a experiment in Tamworth Castle

A GSUK member participates in an a experiment in Tamworth Castle

Here is my current version thereof. I still refer to it as the Schmeidler Protocol, as it is clearly based entirely on that, and because The Schmeidler Protocol sounds like it should be a cool 70′s thriller or a Quatermass episode. Feel free to critique my methodology –

Now firstly, you are going to need an experimental team. Let us assume you are the Investigation Coordinator. Firstly, locate your haunted property. Interview your witnesses – being careful not to ask leading questions – and get the main facts. A case with multiple witnesses and visual apparitions, preferably where the witnesses have not conferred is ideal. However any multiple attested ghost case where you can record primary accounts from the people concerned is cool. Obviously one with no published history, where events are currently occurring, but are known to very few people works well.

Secondly you need to have a set of good clear accurate maps. These are issued to your psychics or their “buddy” (see next).

Now, take your “witness testimony”, and select words relevant to the phenomena for each account. Just a list of words which constitute a hit. How improbable that hit is is really really problematic to work out – word frequency tables won’t work in my opinion, because the nature of the ghost narrative predisposes certain words more than in normal usage, and ghost books are edited and hence not reliable as a source. Also some words simply go together in conceptual blocs – young, pretty, talented, sexy, actress, singer. Cliches! Cliches bugger up your probabilities no end.  Still you need to know what constitutes a “hit” for the Word Challenge! ( I might not be a rich and famous ghosthunter, but I might have made it as a gameshow host…) Also get your witnesses to draw on your map exactly where they saw things. Take measurements if need be. Then produce a composite master map, showing all witness reports.

OK, next up – find your psychics. I’d personally try and get them from 30 miles or more away (I’d also drive them to the location hooded, blindfolded under the hood, wearing head phones and playing loud music by a very circular route, just in case. In the past this has provoked severe motion sickness, but has not actually resulted in me being sued or arrested – to date.) Many psychics might prefer you just don’t tell them where they are going till the day, and some properties location or function is obvious once inside and the blindfolds taken off anyway.

Now you need five psychics, and 5 buddys – fellow investigators, with no knowledge of the building,and who are kept apart from each other, and have never met the witnesses. The buddys should each have a VCR and record all testimony. They should hand the map to the psychic.

Now the psychics and buddy are sent in, independently, to the empty building. Each records on their map where and what they are experiencing, marking exact locations if possible. I usually use small squares which can be filled in. Record all the walk through.

Thank your psychics. Give them a filmed ten minute debrief after they left the building, asking of extra impressions etc. Make it clear they have everything they want to say recorded, and have no” I was going to says”. When they have agreed that on tape, end the interview and film.

Fotheringay church at night, from GSUK fieldtrip.

Fotheringay church at night, from GSUK fieldtrip.

Now this is pretty hard work. Why five people to walk the psychic round? Why can’t you just do it?

Because you know what happened and where. Even if you are incredibly careful with what you say, your body language breathing or even sweat might be giving them clues. So someone who does not know the stories or witness testimony is needed to do this. Also, as we are going to test the mediums/psychics/sensitives statements for consistency, well if you have just heard Madame Arcana say this room is filled with an invisible demonic menage a trois, when you take Fluffy the Vampire Boffer in the same room 5 minutes later you might give off clues… So you need independent walk rounds.

I’d also ask 5 imaginative ghost sceptics to walk round as a control – but there is a problem here. We can’t prove they are not actually psychic. In fact one of our sceptics consistently hits well above chance in ESP tests 9for the first ten minutes till they grow bored at least), and on a couple of runs of this experiment did better than some of the “psychics” – more on this in a moment..

Next, you thank everyone, and play back the testimonies on a big screen, to make sure everyone agrees they were not edited. Then you can overlay the maps on transparencies, and talk through the results, and introduce the witnesses. the press might like this bit too – if the venue wants coverage. Its a nice way to round off the proceedings.

Then, compare
* the psychic testimony versus the “Word Search” lists
* the psychic maps versus each other
* the psychic maps against the witness maps

So what have you got?

Assuming that
* ghosts do not wander around much – a rather large assumption!
* the witnesses are reliable
* the psychics had no foreknowledge of the building

You might have some evidence indicative of the haunting hypothesis.

Of course by “haunting” here I mean in my usual sense to mean – something makes people think this bit is spooky. You might want to look for mould, damp, lighting oddities, weird angles, etc, etc to see why people all chose the same areas. The fact they agree ultimately tells us nothing about the nature of the “haunt” – it merely tells us there is an objective “haunt” ie. something odd going on in that particular area. Smell may well be important, or magnetic fields, or I dunno. You work that out for yourselves…

So there you go. I’ve written up a lot more on how this can work, and indeed since ’93 when I first tried it in the UK it seems to slowly be becoming more common. Not many ghosthunters pay any attention to it, but I personally think it might be rather useful?

cj x

Six Types of Ghosthunters

Posted in Paranormal, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on March 11, 2009

A bad attempt at humour on my part, originally written back in the days when I was a researcher/consultant for the TV show Most Haunted , and posted by me on a few websites since. I rather like it though, and it does contain a lot of truth!

If you are looking for Edinburgh Science Festival’s Science of Ghosts event the website is here –

http://www.scienceofghosts.com/

I mentioned it in a previous post and loads of people have come here looking for it! Still I am going, and hope to see you there! Anyway on with the spookiness…

The six types of Ghosthunter according to CJ –

1. the Safari Group - out to “catch” a ghost on film, armed with the latest in video, camera and laptop equipment. Every “vigil” begins with several hours of wiring and setting up sensitive devices all over the shop to allow these latter day big game hunters to bag the spook. Usually succeed only in making you uncomfortable using the toilet in case you are being filmed or monitored, and while generally pleasant folks there is more technobabble than an episode of Star Trek.  Always find an “anomaly” which as they are usually waving around EMF meters sensitive enough to pick up a fridge being turned off at 300m is no surprise! Unfortunately likely to follow their own mobile phones in their pocket around with the EMF meters, convinced it’s a spook, and tend to be Very Serious Indeed, while having very little knowledge of the literature of parapsychology. Never publish their results.

2. the Legend Trippers – usually young people, who have dared themselves to go to the spooky place, where they plan to drink alcohol, tell ghost stories, frighten each other and make out. Not all legend trippers are teenagers – some are much older, but if you want to flirt and hear a lot of screaming these are your folks. No ghosts caught but they have a good time, a bit like a fairground haunted house! They never publish their results.

3. the Pyscho-dramatists - ok, these tend to be ladies, and these groups usually revolve around one or two star performers, with several minor competing mystics, all of whom compete to tell you the story of the lost little Victorian girl who was the daughter of the wicked Squire who abused her terribly, etc, etc – sort of paranormal MisLit. Occasionally they encounter Terribly Evil Entities (TM) whose lack of corporeality has not slaked their lusts, and who have designs on the mediums person, which in many cases having seen the medium and witnessed their shrieking I would agree anything planning on ravishing is a deeply unnnatural entity.  When they find a spook a redemptive myth is played out, and the spirit “moved on” in to “the light”. Bizarrely, despite my cynicism I once saw this process appear to do something useful — not all people in this category are nuts — however a considerable number are. They never publish their results.

4. The Enthusiastic Amateurs – always nice, people unsullied by contact with other ghost hunters and sometimes still naive enough to think that orbs are definitely paranormal, and scorn the dust hypothesis, these people have watched Most Haunted and bizarrely responded by wanting to do it themselves rather than selling their TV and emigrating. I like them a lot, because generally you can teach them a few good habits, and sell them merchandise for said dodgy TV show, and because on the whole these are good hearted people with often great knowledge of local folklore and history. Enthusiastic, fun folks. They never publish their results.

5. The Ghosthunting Machiavelli - this person has been in a dozen groups in the last year, all of which split off or schism-ed from each other. They have appalling relations with half the groups in the UK, and love to discuss ghost group family trees, their many enemies, and who is doing what with whom (in the bedroom not the haunted house usually!). Often they have a profitable sideline in running paying events, but really they seem to mainly succeed in creating new groups and then alienating the committees of said groups. They never publish their results, which is probably just as well!

I suppose I should offer my own perspective and why I differ very slightly while still having many of the failings I point out light heartedly in others, and some new ones all of my own. All these “types”, and most groups contain a mix of types, resulting in internal conflict, favour a method of investigation called the “vigil”, which means pretty much sitting around all night waiting for stuff to happen. They hope to observe and interact with the phenomena first hand, and hence all the mediums/night vision cameras/EMF meters (very handy of you want to put a nail in the wall and not electrocute yourself, or see if your neighbour has turned on their washing machine, not so useful for ghosts!) and shouting “is there anybody there?” Not bloody likely with you lot kicking up a row.

I have of course sat through many hundred of these (being paid to do so for a long while) but my preferred method is the Inquiry Model. Briefly, arrive in daylight, and interview carefully the witnesses to previous “sightings”. Record their testimony, and photograph “the scene of the crime” from many angles. Try to ascertain where the story originated, and who knew what and when about the purported phenomena. Collect interviews and evidence for as long as it takes,and perhaps attempt to reconstruct the incident. Carefully check out maps, and local histories for any useful clues, and then consult with relevant experts – often builder, plumbers, electricians, naturalists, geologists. The emphasis here is on understanding how the account arose, and on trying to find the origin and explanation for the ghost, rather than sitting around trying to see it yourself. of course if the occurrences are frequent you might well do that — but the tragedy of Most Haunted was it suggested ghost hunting was about personal encounters with the unknown, whereas really its generally about understanding and trying to explain other peoples experiences, and then writing up what you find. I’m not sure I have put this very well, but perhaps you can follow my intent?

Anyway, not sure if that is particularly helpful, but I thought I’d try and explain and am happy to field questions if I can. That is my personal experience, and despite my cynicism, I rather like the vast majority of ghosthunters who are lovely folks – and it is a topic I genuinely love talking about!

cj x

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