"And sometimes he's so nameless"

Is it time to give up on “Skepticism”?

Today I’m recovering from a rather unpleasant patch of illness that has left me drained, tired and at times irritable — and has prevented me posting the following thoughts for over a week. As I can’t see anyone caring anyway, the following post can be seen as a sort of note to self — but hopefully in future rows I can refer people here. I was awaiting the chance to read Daniel Loxton’s piece on scepticism – I often agree with him on much – but in the end have seized the opportunity to write my own thoughts here. I shall adopt a short, simple and hopefully clear style, rather than my usual one.

So, I don’t want to be called a “skeptic” any more. Or even a “sceptic”, though I think I prefer that, it having the advantage of being spelt correctly in the British English I speak. Of course, if you go to the Greek — but either way, the issue is sceptic does not work for me. I even think it’s potentially harmful. We might need to lose it.

I know a bit about ghosts. I know people experience ghosts. I’m still fairly ambivalent about what ghost experiences represent and whether science can currently explain them. (I think not all).  I am therefore surely not a sceptic?: I am open to “paranormal” beliefs.

Or am I? Skip back to 2006 when I joined the JREF forum, Randi’s place. People were just as belligerent and rude there back then as today (and some, indeed many, just as ace) and I soon ended up trying to explain that I saw Scepticism as a methodology,  a critical process of investigating facts and assessing evidence, rather than a simple process of nay saying. I argued many posters at the JREF were a priori skeptics” – that is that they knew say the paranormal was all bunk, therefore there was no need to address paranormal claims. (And such opinions still appear there today). APS, a priori skepticism can be defended as a tactic, but is irrational (in the technical sense) as an actual worldview.

I guess I had best defend that last statement. OK, imagine tomorrow we prove that some phenomena that occurs in paranormal books – take Giant Squid  as that happened – really exists. Giant squid were staples of 70′ paranormal books. Therefore to APS they can not be real because they are/were paranormal. Now you can presumably if you are an a priori skeptic move things from the “paranormal” to the “real” category — but how remains rather obscure, because once you allow that it removes any justification for the APS of paranormal claims in the first place.  Luckily most people who adopt APS are not concerned with epistemology or consistency, only in sneering at anyone who lacks their extreme faith-based beliefs. (I’m sure I don’t have to explain why APS is faith based?)

So enough of APS: it is still a minority position. Most sceptics I spoke to agreed with my 2006 definition of scepticism as a process: a way of looking at the world. Now I spent a lot of 2008-2010 reading philosophy of science, as I kept finding myself puzzled by things I experienced in sceptical circles (people used “rationalist” to mean something other than “argument based on deduction, not sense-observation” for example — and they used “empirical” to include mathematical proofs which are not empirical but rationalist, as well as conflating “rational” and “true” and “irrational” with “false”. I was irritated at times by what seemed to be the exuberance and bull headed self confidence of people who thought they were clever, yet often struck me as not actually knowing what they were talking about. Rather than fight over misappropriation of philosophical language, words can change their meanings and usage after all, I however noted something quite clear —

There seemed little difference between a process sceptic (or methodological scepticism) and normal scientific methodologies.

Yes I really did just write that in red bold. :D Methodological Scepticism and Science are one and the same thing. If you disagree with me, as I’m sure someone must, then please do comment, and tell me how they differ. Both begin by asking questions, and usually involve attempting to falsify a hypothesis. Both involve ending up making a judgement regarding the strength of the evidence, and if the research supported or opposed certain conclusions. Science like Scepticism can be performed by people irrespective of their personal ideological baggage – even  Richard Dawkins has been able to perform science successfully despite his clearly strong ideological biases. 

In process Scepticism paranormal belief is perfectly compatible with said scepticism, if that is what the empirical evidence leads you to. And hence the strong scepticism among many spiritualist circles, and large numbers of scientists I think who sit in such circles – they have a very anti-faith and evidence based mindset, and spiritualism provides what appears to be empirical proof, or so its adherents profess.

Now I’ve bolded that last paragraph cos I want to look at it more. I’m not a spiritualist, and immediately my instinct is sod “process scepticism”/”scientific methodology”, they are all deluded or being defrauded. Yet I immediately stop myself – because that claim is absolutely unfounded. I have certainly seen fake mediums – and ones who were convinced of their own abilities too – but I certainly have not seen enough to know they were all fakes, even if the Problem of Induction allowed one to make such grandiose claims. I have certainly know enough intelligent critical people who think they have encountered empirical evidence of the persistence after death of loved ones to realise my reaction is emotional, and far from sceptical.

As a sceptic I should do the work: conduct some experiments, investigate the evidence, and not draw conclusions beyond what the evidence permits. To allow “scientific cultures” sneering contempt for mediumship to influence my thinking is clearly seriously unscientific; and when I turn to the arguments most commonly brought against studying such things as impossible, I find most of them are of the category “belief claims for a materialist philosophical worldview” rather than actually anything to do with Science.

If Scepticism is as I propose simply synonymous with Science, it must remain as neutral as possible in framing the questions and conducting the research. If Scepticism is not Science, but instead something more akin to the philosophical defence (apologetics) of materialist, reductionist, and eliminative philosophies then it should be honest that it is that – faith based teaching, a form of apologetics, and state so.

So to go back to those spiritualists — I must adopt an open minded approach as far as I can, given my prejudices, to the phenomena. I must attempt to be objective. If strong belief either way is allowed to interfere with my reading of the data, my science will be flawed. I will want to render the whole research as transparent and objective as possible.

So why disguise my Scientific investigation as something else, dressing it up as “sceptical”? If that term says nothing about my final position (which will be evidence based) why use the misleading “sceptic”  term? I’m assuming that no one thinks one can scientifically investigate spiritualism’s reality with the conclusion already written – that would be appalling science – so why take on a label that seems to suggest one is doing exactly such a thing?

Furthermore, imagine you think you have seen a ghost, or a bigfoot, or somesuch. You look in the phonebook – there is the local woo group with their YouTube video series, or the local SCEPTIC. Who will you go to? I doubt it will be the sceptic – even if you are unsure about exactly what you experienced, sceptic implies someone who won’t believe you.

Science is methodologically rigorous, critical thinking, and evidence based. Why do we need to add a Skeptic label?

We don’t. I suggest “Skeptics” stop trying to promote “scepticism”, and promote simpler easier to sell virtues, Truth and Science. No one will react badly to you promising to use science and objectively look for the truth. They may even support you.

I can only think of four reasons why the term Sceptic may be used…

1. It may be employed by people who feel insecure about their credentials for doing science. Don’t. You do not need to  wear a white coat or have a PhD in a Scientific discipline to do science. If you aspire to do science, people will help you. Choose a simple research topic, think of an experiment, and try and ask a few folks to check out your methodology before you start. Make sure your ethics are good. And publish your results, if only on the web :)

2. It might be employed by people who think researching say ESP or Lake Monsters without setting out clearly they think it is all bunk will damage their university careers and funding. If so I sympathise, but your publications can speak for themselves, and I think the contrary implication that you are researching topics with your mind already made up as to the outcomes might do you rather more damage in much of academia than a predilection for studying slightly offbeat things.

3. It might be employed by people who genuinely believe there is a difference between sceptical and scientific methodologies, and that the former is superior. If such a position is held, please do explain it to me.

and finally 4. Some people may like calling themselves skeptics because it sounds clever. I have often found skeptics to be fairly intellectually self-assured.   I don’t think advocating Science is any less clever though.

So seriously, this whole skeptic thing, it has got so much baggage attached. Stuff it. You find great papers and poor papers in the journals, and whether written by sceptics or believers is irrelevant. Evidence and sound analysis — good science – is what matters at the end of the day.

cj x

On Thursday I’m Talking Ghosts At Skeptics In the Pub, Cheltenham Science Festival Fringe. Controversy May Ensue :D

A quick update seems in order. It’s Tuesday 12th June and The Times Cheltenham Science Festival is under way. I’m still wondering why the brochure appears to feature a perspex butt plug though?  Or is it just Global Melting, like Global Warming but hotter?  Anyway so far I have seen no events, simply because I have not yet got up and gone out except for a quick trip to acquire breakfast. Secondly, I have a talk to write!

No, the Festival organisers have not gone mad. Every year however Cheltenham Skeptics In The Pub run a wonderful Fringe programme – last year I saw the Festival of the spoken Nerd and Dr Harry Witchell on the Science of Dating.  This year the programme looks just as exciting, and while it gets little attention the Fringe Events are excellent and well worth attending if you are in town for the Science Festival.  I was thinking of going through the whole run down, from Dark Matters to Science Show Offs on Saturday, but the website does that better than I can. Also these events are all FREE, with a donations bucket being passed around if you want to give (Being Skeptics it’s a bucket not a collection plate – there may be some subtle symbolism I’m missing?)

So I am trying to write my talk on The Science of Ghosts for Thursday night

Now most of my friends so far seem to respond with “there isn’t any!”. Given I have spent twenty five  years studying it, I think there is — but as a recent row on the Rational Skepticism forum suggests, a lot of people think that when I say “ghosts” I mean “Dead Guys” ( & Dead Gals too). This is unfortunate, because it is all a lot more complicated than that. I could say I take a phenomenological approach, rather than making an ontological claim, but I think people would just look at me funny, and I don’t mean phenomenological in the sense of Philosophy they might also think I’m nuts. So just to be clear, I’m looking at how we study two things: the ghost experience, and the causes thereof. (“Tough on Ghosts, Tough on the Causes of Ghosts”? If you want to be really bored you can read my ASSAP conference talk here: this one will be faster, funnier cover very different ground and have more “science” whatever that means! :D

Anyhow this year my talk will be mercifully free of asides on the philosophy of science, epistemology and other big words too. In fact it will be a) light hearted, b) loud, c) visual (I’m using a  lot of video or whatever you call the digital equivalent) clips and also very hands on. Yes I’m running some little experiments and audience participation events, because well, why ever not? So be prepared for Circle Dancing, Knocking On Wood, learning the Power of Expectation and Suggestion, and I’m even doing a little jokey tribute to Bem’s precognition research, which sounds deadly dull, but isn’t at all, at least in my version I hope.

So is there any Science of Ghosts? Yes, way, way too much to even just list the areas covered in the time I have, unless I over run by a week. I think the best way to go is to keep the first half light hearted and fast moving. I have been through loads of topics I could cover, and have thought about presenting on a little of everything, but in the end I have chosen just two topics for the first bit that I can present well upon and have never given a talk on before, one of which is very suited to hands on experimentation.

One thing that seems to confuse a lot of people is why I am talking at Skeptics In The Pub. Paranormal Believers often seem to regard Skeptics, or as us non-Americans usually call ’em, Sceptics, as the enemy. (Why do we use the American spelling? Is it to prove we know Greek or something?) Skeptics/Sceptics think people like me who spend our time on parapsychology are all woos, unless they have heard of us (Chris French and  Richard Wiseman  are exempt from this it seems. Stuart J Ritchie probably still gets called a woo, as he is not yet a household name?). I’m desperately hoping that Professor Brian Cox might show to run a picket line and  to tell people  I’m an utter nobber, but sadly feel that highly unlikely.:D

Anyway why am I talking at a Skeptic’s meeting? Well I have always regarded myself as a sceptic. Yes I’m a methodological sceptic, and sometimes I come to conclusions that sit uncomfortably with other sceptics, but I do believe firmly that doubt and “rational sceptisicm” are the only way forward and are central to the scientific method, or rather most scientific methods, as I don’t think there is only one.  It often amuses me that I am far less certain of many things than self-proclaimed forum sceptics who are absolutely rock solid in their beliefs where I have little more than an ever expanding list questions, a lot of data, and a few tentative, provisional conclusions.   I encounter this time and time again on the JREF and other forums: people whose faith is stronger than mine. :)

Anyway, enough rambling. I have a talk to write. I’ll let others decide if I am a Fake Sceptic or not. :)  Whatever you think about ghosts and parapsychology, the questions it raises for Science, how we do Science, how we communicate Science and what constitutes real Science are vital, or so I am inclined to think. I hope some of you will come a long and heckle, whether sceptic or believer!

Here are the talk details

Thursday, June 14 2012 at 7:30PM

40 Clarence St
GL50 3NX

Er, em!

What’s the talk about?

Ghosts don’t exist, all skeptics know this, right?. Yet even a skeptic can experience a “ghost”, and when one does all kind of awkward questions arise. That was what happened to CJ, and the story of how he became involved in parapsychology, spent twenty five years investigating hauntings and became embroiled in working in paranormal television for a decade before ending up with far more questions than when he started may amuse and hopefully cause you to question your own deep seated beliefs on the subject. Learn the inside view behind shows like Most Haunted, and why despite everything for CJ at least the serious research must continue.

So can Science really address the ghost experience? For 120 years scientists have wrestled with the question of what is really going on when people think they see ghosts, and in this talk CJ promises to present a whistle stop tour of the science that has been published in the field, good, bad and bogus. Can science finally exorcise our ancient fears of the unquiet dead, and explain the night hag? Are buildings haunted, or is it people? And what should you do if you actually see a spook? If that seems unlikely, come along, and find out how you could :D

The event is FREE, but we will be shaking the Skeptic-Bucket to cover costs

cj x

Pigs Might Fly! Randi, Bem and A Sceptical Failure?

Posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on April 4, 2012

I like James Randi, a lot. He has had a rough year, and I wish him well – and I have long supported the JREF, despite endless objections to some of Randi’s videos. Long time readers of this blog will recall my annoyance, near apoplexy, at woo in the Nazareth Never Existed one, and his sceptical piece on man-made global warming (strongly suggesting he did not believe in it) shocked me, but hell I guess it’s good to question. If a difference of opinion with another sceptic OR parapsychologist stopped me talking to them, and far more importantly, listening and learning from them, I’d be both ignorant and friendless.

The JREF staff I have spoken to over the years have been unfailingly polite and helpful, despite my tendency towards accepting some “paranormal” beliefs, and my strong commitment to investigating these issues scientifically. I’m particularly a fan of the JREF forum, where I have made many friends, and can promise that though there are some acerbic and rather strident critics there, there are also some excellent sceptics, critics and thinkers. I learn a lot there. I have respect for DJ Grothe and Phil Plait, who have both been JREF Presidents, and usually enjoy my reading there.

However, often the JREF videos can be wrong, or misleading. Today I finally saw this years Pigasus awards, ofter spotting a mention on the SPR Facebook page, and went and watched it. The Pigasus Awards are basically Ig Nobel Prizes for the worst in some paranormal, psychic or parapsychological related field, a mock honour that highlights the worst out there. And I tend to actually be pretty pleased with some of the choices, and irritated by others. There is a good wikipedia page on the Pigasus Awards

Anyway this years Awards make for fun viewing, so here they are

Video (c) JREF 2012.

Now, the bit I have a problem with this year is the awarding of the Pigasus for Science to Daryl Bem for his work on habituative presentiment, that infamous study I wrote about a few weeks back – if you have no idea what I am on about best read that first. Given I don’t actually believe in psi, and find it hard to see how it can work — though clearly there would be vast adaptive advantage in precognition if such a thing could exist, so yes in evolutionary terms it would make sense — why am I so irritated?

Listen to the speech again.

“The winner of the Pigasus Award for Science is Daryl Bem, for his shoddy research which has been discredited on many accounts, by prominent critics, such as Drs. Richard Wiseman, Steven Novella, and Chris French.”

I had not actually read Steven Novella’s piece before today, but I do in my previous piece refer to the research he cites — Wagenmakers et al (2011) — and link to it and Bem’s response. I am curious as to why Novella was mentioned rather than Wagenmakers here, and even more striking omission is that while two of the researchers who performed the recent failed replication of Bem’s experiment are mentioned, Stuart J Ritchie the other author does not get a mention at all. I have seen lots of theoretical criticisms of Bem’s work – here is an interesting thread on the JREF Forum, and here is Bare Normality’s recent blog post. However to me the most important critique remains that of those who have like Galak & Nelson and Ritchie, French & Wiseman actually replicated the experiments. As I commented in my last piece on spin in science and the Bem affair, there have of course also been successful replications.

Now the use of the word shoddy to describe Bem’s work is to me highly unfair, given that Wagenmakers critique, if correct, is that the methods used by almost all social scientists and lots of “hard” scientists too for dealing with probability are flawed, and these are inherent issues in our statistical methodologies. I’m not going to get involved in a discussion of Frequentist versus Bayesian analysis, because I’m not qualified to do so — but if Wagenmaker’s et als critique as put forward by Novella is correct then it is a common and widespread issue effecting a centuries research across the sciences, not something specific to Bem. How is that shoddy? I don’t know if it is correct – Bem has responded, and I encourage interested parties to go back and read the papers and discussion, which are linked in my last piece. The use of the word “shoddy” however really needs some justification.

Let’s move on. Randi continues —

“such examination, shows very strange methods used by Bem, which ends up unproven, though the popular media of course have chosen to embrace it.”

I have seen some suggestions of methodological flaws, which I linked above, but the paper was published in a major peer reviewed journal and has generally been positively commented upon by many of those who have like myself been through the paper looking for such flaws to explain the bizarre results. As anyone who has read my last piece knows, I am dismayed by the media spin: but plenty of popular science magazines have also reported on the affair, and the failed replications.

The biggest problem is if strange methods were used by Bem, the same software, and the same methods have been used in the failed replications. So why did they fail? A failed replication speaks far more to me than all the theoretical objections folks have raised, and is no real scandal. People do research, get funny results, others try to replicate and if replication fails we then start to try and work out what the hell is going on. Now in this case Dr Richard Wiseman is maintaining a “file drawer” registry of replications, and will publish a meta-analysis later in the year or next, which will finally clarify what exactly the experiments say. I have plenty of time for French, Ritchie and Wiseman — but this assassination of character by implication and slur just annoys me.

The truth is Bem performed perfectly good science, and while the media hype that followed was a bit odd, over the top and regrettable, he will be vindicated or be proven wrong by perfectly good, and normal, scientific methods. The Pigasus Award seems to be an attempt to place Bem’s research firmly in the pseudoscience camp; I think that is manifestly unfair. I can’t see Ritchie, Wiseman and French condoning this, and have drawn it their attention: all it does is widen the gap between parapsychologists and their intelligent critics, and it’s simply misleading. It does also make those who bothered like the above British team to replicate and seriously take on Bem on the issue look like fools.

And here is the thing: Randi appears to think that Bem’s work is worthy as a Pigasus because it can’t be right. He has made an a priori assumption it will not be vindicated (as have I to some extent, I just don’t claim to know that until the evidence is in, it’s simply a personal prejudice…) but by the award of the Piagsus he goes much further, belittling Bem for taking the subject seriously enough to research it.

Randi seems to think he knows what science contains, and psi is clearly absurd. He ridicules those who use science to investigate these issues – if they happen to disagree with his prejudice, while praising those like Wiseman and French (and the not-to-be-mentioned Ritchie) who use exactly the same methodologies, yet find results he personally finds acceptable. This is not uncommon in an ideological struggle like the parapsychologicalist-believers versus sceptic struggle has been since the days of William James at least, but it is ultimately far more damaging and dangerous to real scientific inquiry than Bem’s research. Science asks questions, tests them, and falsifies hypotheses — and is conducted not by sneering and cheap shots, but by hard work and real research.

As usual the Daily Grail beat me to the story, and did it better, but anyway, enough. As usual, it is science that is the victim here, and the war of spin continues…

UPDATE: Just saw that Stuart J Ritchie one of the authors of the failure to replicate experiment wrote on Twitter “Should put it on record that I think James Randi giving Bem the Pigasus award is unfair, unhelpful and disappointing.”

:) I agree totally.

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.

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

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

Living with the ‘Enemy’ – the Epistemological Acid Test

I don’t mean Lisa, I mean my internet activities. :)

I just saw a friend has joined a Liberal Christian forum on Facebook, and it has brought to mind a few thoughts on what many people think is a rather perverse feature of my personality; given that I am a religious and ‘paranormal’ believer, with fairly strong beliefs that I express freely, why do I spend most of my on-line existence in atheist and sceptic sites?

Well firstly, as I have pointed out for many years now, I don’t see there being a dichotomy between ‘believers’ and ‘sceptics’. The opposite of belief is disbelief: often a leap of faith in itself, and an opinion. Yet the notion of ‘belief’ and ‘disbelief’ is pretty meaningless unless we understand the context in which it is being employed. I know hard atheists who believe in life after death, hard Christians who have no belief at all in angels, and hard-core mediums who think psychic powers are bunk. If you are confused by any of those statements, just ask for clarification, but I think we can all accept that a believer in werewolves may or may not believe in ghosts, and a believer in a God may or may not believe in fairies.

Some atheist friends often remind me of all the gods I purportedly do not believe in (and then I like to argue henotheism awhile for fun!);  yet often they seem to fail to apply the opposite notion — a disbeliever in deities (god/dess/es) may or may not disbelieve in all kinds of other things.  There are plenty of virulent atheist spiritualists out there; and mediums seem pretty equally split on whether they do or don’t believe in reincarnation. Some of us may still believe in the Tooth Fairy; some may believe in Santa Claus, and some may believe Ipswich Town FC are a first-rate club. There is no necessary relationship between those beliefs.

The terms disbelief and belief are opinions on a specific issue: context is all important.

I see Scepticism as something very different – a process of understanding, by which one questions assumptions and truth claims critically. The sceptic may or may not believe in deities, ghosts or the Easter Bunny – that is an outcome of their enquiry, not scepticism in itself. One is a method, one a conclusion – the two should never be confused. As such one can believe sceptics believing in almost any hypothesis, given a limited set of data from which to draw their conclusions.

So scepticism is never enough – with scepticism must go work, research, and an attempt to apply the methodology objectively to as much pertinent data as possible.  Any methodology applied to insufficient data will result in worthless results: sceptics must make an effort to make an informed and reasoned case, and that unfortunately is often a lot of hard work. Given the differing access to the evidence, it is unsurprising that sceptics often sharply disagree in their conclusions. Yet ultimately is hard for me to see any difference between a sceptical approach and a rationalist-empiricist synthesis scientific one.  It’s almost impossible to define the scientific method, as long-term readers will appreciate, but scepticism comes pretty close. One critically examines claims, by a variety of methodologies – much as in the humanities actually.

So I regard myself as a process sceptic. I like to examine beliefs, including (especially) my own, and try to see if they stand up:and the acid test for doing this is surely in dialogue with those who have very different readings of the evidence, and hold very different opinions? One of the beliefs I hold is that “linguistic communities” who hold similar beliefs build them in to a way of interpreting reality in line with their paradigm — magicians learn to talk magic, Wiccans wicca, Atheists atheism and Hindus Hinduism, and by adopting certain linguistic ways of rendering or negotiating their lived experience they create a feed back loop that sustains and strengthens their pre-existing beliefs.

I’ll give the example I always give. Many years ago the Christian Union had booked a coach for an outing. The coach broke down, and by midday it was clear we could not get a replacement bus. I thought the bus had broken down owing to a mechanical fault: but I saw two divergent opinions arise among the Christians sitting around waiting for news. Some saw this as an attack by the devil: little imps had engaged us in spiritual warfare, and we were facing the opposition of the Evil One. Others, mindful that the devil has no power over God’s children, saw it as a sign from God – we were meant to stay and witness on this glorious sunny day to the heathens at the university, rather than take a coach to the sea-side. My comment on the bus probably being badly maintained and this being the cause of us being stuck there was passed over without any comment: yes that was the cause, but not the meaning of the events.  Fair enough – what was fascinating to me was how this rather dismal outcome was negotiated in terms of existing theological and language structures to affirm Christian beliefs. It all felt a bit “heads I win, tails you lose to me” but of course if you believe that God is sovereign over all and intimately concerned with our lives that makes perfect sense: I accept the theology, but don’t process things that way, I have not spent enough time in Christian communities to interpret on those lines.

It’s easy to take cheap shots at Christians: I can imagine some of my dear atheist mates laughing heartily at this. Yet atheist communities, paranormalist communities, Lib Dem communities and for all I know Country Music fans do very similar things. They build consensus modes of interpretation, filters if you like, and they view the world through those lenses. Challenge the assumptions, and you may be ostracised, or ignored. In-group ways of seeing prevail:  it takes a lot to upset them, because they are learned short-cuts for dealing with reality. Some one who has been unemployed a very long time will view the world radically differently from a bank manager, or office worker – but the difference between a Wiccan, a Spiritualist and an Atheist may be even stronger, as they have learned to read reality from utterly different perspectives. To a materialist the notion of a meaning beyond the cause of the coach breakdown is just silly.  A spiritualist may find the idea of ESP bonkers: they knew stuff because a spirit told them, not because they psychically read Uncle Joes’ mind.

In fact we defend our communities beliefs passionately:  we are annoyed when people question the common sense right to love as you will, live as you will, work as you will, in line with our concepts of what is right and proper. We form communities with like-minded people, and we pat each other metaphorically on the back, and only fight to establish OUR version of the party line. A fight between Anglicans is likely to be more heated than a row between a Baptist and an Atheist – the closer the conceptual closeness, the more the heresy hurts.

So maybe that is why I hang out on atheist sites: I am too annoyed by my fellow Christians to want to spend much time discussing with them, as they say things that challenge my own reading of Christianity, and I am too cowardly to defend and fight for my interpretation. Or more positively, because I see the value in learning a completely disparate mode of interpretation, so I read every communities I cans stuff, and try to self identify with te concerns and ways -of-seeing of that group, and engage in playful guerilla ontology, forcing them to question assumptions by mere existence at the party.

I don’t know: maybe I am just perverse, after all. I do know though that as a self-proclaimed sceptic it never does any harm to open yourself to other perspectives, and to listen to others.

cj x

UK Sceptics Newsletter

Posted in Debunking myths, Fun forthcoming events, Paranormal by Chris Jensen Romer on July 29, 2009

Hey chaps and chapesses, I have been meaning to share this for a while. The excellent UK Sceptics, whose forum is linked if you look on this blog have released a pdf newsletter which deserves a wider readership. You can download it here —


It really is sound stuff- like me thy are methodological sceptics, not a priori sceptics. Briefly a methodological scepotic employs sceptisim and questioning as a way of answerin qustions, of investigating an issue – but does not presuppose an outcome to the enquiry. An a priori sceptic knows that certain things are bunk, and sets out to prove this, and reinforce their existing views.  Anyway the level of scholarship and the excellent common sense bodes well for the UK — so do have a look, and even if you are a “believer” in some religion or phenomena – we all are after all believers in some things, only if the claim the sun will rise tomorrow! – don’t be put off by the word sceptic. Have a look!

There are also details on the forthcoming Muncaster Conference, mentioned previously on this blog and my Facebook.

cj x

In Defence of Astrology – some common sense on a touchy subject!

Posted in Debunking myths, History, Paranormal, Religion, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on March 12, 2009

In defense of Astrology? Have I finally lost the plot?


Maybe! I like to doubt my own doubts from time to time, and critique my own sceptical beliefs. I originally wrote this as a playful piece on Richard Dawkin’s forum when The Enemies of Reason TV show was announced.

All my life I have been rather amused by the persistence of belief in Astrology, and have outspokenly declared against it as superstitious claptrap — in this I was very much influenced by one of my heroes, the American Rationalist and SF/Horror writer HP Lovecraft who carried out a letter writing campaign to get it removed from newspapers, and the latter day efforts of James Randi and other decent minded Sceptics.

However, I think it’s time to say a few words in defense of the old gal, so here goes…

From the earliest times, humanity looked to the stars with awe, and very quickly they made a rather important observation, and one upon which I suspect pretty much all of our civilization is founded: the heavens predict the seasons, and by observing the skies, one knows when to plant, when to reap, and so forth. The whole calendar, and our sense of linear time, but above all the development of agriculture which enabled urbanization and eventually through surplus, the rise of technology and learning, is based on predictive study of the heavens. Astrology was a science back then, a science which enabled the Egyptians to predict the flooding of the Nile for example.  In China, the Middle East, and probably India a great body of astronomical lore and observations were amassed, for entirely pragmatic reasons.

From the earliest times, I guess people also marked important anniversaries – birthdays perhaps, or the solstices. They saw themselves age, and life events pass, and measured themselves against the passage of time, the seasons, and the stars.  From these observations the astrologers with their maths developed a body of knowledge which they saw as predictive, which explained the fates of people, and came to believe in it.

Of course there were a great many sceptics in the Ancient World – Rome was full of astrological sceptics, and today we would separate the Astrological nonsense from the Astronomical truth – but in the early days of Science there was no such luxury.  By the fist century BCE astrologers were pointing out, does the moon not influence the tides?  How much more likely the subtleties of the human blood and spirit were bound by these same natural forces!

In fact they were almost right.  We know now that cosmic rays appear to seed clouds, or so I am told, and we understand that the same rays can cause mutations in our very DNA, or again so I believe is the case?  The sun clearly is vital to sustaining our little system, and the moon really does cause the tides.  Indeed they were completely right to see a causal relationship between the sun and moon and the seasons, which our science has long since explained.  The planets really do effect life on earth, and maybe the remains of dead stars actually brought us some of the ingredients for this life?  I don’t know.

So maybe old Aunty Astrology, long since discredited by the Christian Church Fathers, vilified by sceptics, and abandoned by her wayward son Astronomy in her dotage, was not all bad. Without her we would probably still be hunter gatherers, and how much of our science in a millenia will look equally as dumb to an observer then looking back? “They believed what in the 21st century? How quaint!”

Then there is the fact that in some senses Astrology works.  At a simple level, many people do seem to actually resemble their sun sign, and i think I know why — because as children we are exposed to this garbage, and therefore our personal identities shape themselves to some degree based on what we are told we “should be like”.  I’m a Leo/Virgo cusp – I was told when young I was Leo, so I grew up proud, arrogant, overbearing and intensely egotistical, a thoroughly unpleasant tosser, but hey that’s me. And I’m guessing that happens a lot.


I started working on this theory years ago, after I noticed that Freudian ideas, which I considered superstitious tosh, actually were far more effective in a clinical environment than they had any right to be, and there were some brilliant Freudian practitioners.  I thought through all the possibilities – was Freud right after all? Was it all just chance and misperception on my part? and then one day a possible explanation  hit me – most of our patients had grown up in a society where Freud’s ideas were at least slightly known, and held authority – and that belief empowered them to get better, because they were comfortable with the ideas?  I could be wrong – but I think it might work.

Astrology might gain just empower some people to make decisions, because they feel its “in their stars”, whereas in fact they are just selectively choosing which bits to believe, and which to ignore.  So I actually think childhood to the ideas exposure might help shape the child’s personality and self perception in a self fulfilling prophecy – precisely Augustine’s argument as I recall, except I think he felt demons gained power to shape you once you chose? Maybe it was some other Church Father, I’m nowhere near my books!

Yet Astrology was, and still is in many parts of the world correct here – the time of your birth in any seasonal agricultural economy might be extremely important in your chance of surviving infancy I’m guessing. simply because certain illnesses and the mothers food supply hence available nutrients are going to vary tremendously with the passing of the seasons.  Of course this will depend where you are on the planet, as the seasons of say Northern Finland are very different to those of Italy or Brazil, but it will be significant. The place and date of your birth may well in pre-industrial societies actually have a marked effect on your development?  I don’t know, but us “Enemies of Reason” like to consider these possibilities.  The ancients were maybe not so daft after all…

So Aunty Astrology has been shown to be a gossipy old hag, but she was not without her uses.  And then of course, we have the final and funniest thing of all.

A few decades ago, a French husband and wife pair discovered what they called the Mars Effect – that is that Mars was ascendant at the time that sports champions (as I recall, this is off the top of my head) was ascendant, rising over the horizon at the moment of birth. Now a moments thought will show this is nonsense – why birth – why not conception?  The problem is their figures worked, and the rationalist organization CSICOP famously investigated this, and then a number of members including Truzzi quit in disgiust claiming that CSICOP had suppressed the positive replication.  It was a scandal which actually besmirched the cause of Sceptisicm for years, an irrational refusal many felt to follow the facts when the conclusions were uncomfortable.  In fact in the decades since there have been many positive replications, and a good number of papers which show why the original claims may well have been as flawed as was purported – but the matter is still not really in 2009 conclusively dealt with as far as I know.  You can read up on this here —
Perhaps someone with time, and a good knowledge of stats and mathematical analysis cares to play?

Now let’s get this straight – I ain’t following no horoscope, or claiming Astrology as popularly understood is in any sense useful. However before one can dismiss it finally as pseudoscience, there is still a little work to be done – and if it was not for our dear mad aunty, we might still be out hunting now, and grubbing for roots, not playing on the net.

I’m not going to be too harsh on Astrology again. :)

UK-Sceptics Conference, Muncaster Castle, Cumbria, 18th-20th September 2009

Posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Reviews and Past Events by Chris Jensen Romer on March 5, 2009
uk-sceptics conference 2009- see you there?

uk-sceptics conference 2009- see you there?

The UK Sceptics have announced their 2009 conference to be held at Muncaster Castle, Cumbria on the 18th-20th September 2009.  Speakers include Chris French and Chris Roe, but also interestingly John Walliss on mediumship and amazingly Nick Pope – yes,  Nick “real X Files” Pope! I have never heard of the other speakers but it looks like an excellent line up, covering a huge array of topics, from the social psychology of conspiracy theory to “The Lure of the Dark side: Sex, death and the paranormal in cult movies.” Sounds intriguing! I don’t know if I will be able to make this one – places are limited, and Cumbria is a bit of a trek for me unless Dave Curtin is interested or some of my other friends are interested, but if you are considering going do email me or comment and let’s see if we can work something out!

It is astonishingly cheap for a weekend in a castle — to quote their website “As is clear from the location chosen and the invited speakers, we have decided to make the conference a quality event rather than go for minimum cost; however, the price per head will still only be £65 as an Early-Bird booking discount (£75 if booked after July 1st).

This price includes, access to both days of the conference (10 talks, 5 per-day); access to the Friday night welcoming wine reception (meet the speakers) to be held in the castle; tea, coffee and biscuits each morning and afternoon session; a two course hot fork buffet style lunch on Saturday and Sunday, full access to the castle and grounds for the duration of the conference (note castle is open Friday and Sunday – grounds open all the time).

In addition, an optional 3-course dinner for speakers and delegates is available on Saturday evening in the castle (priced separately £45 per-head).”

Well I’ll be skipping the dinner, and it looks like one has to find accommodation – where is Dave when you need him? Still it looks pretty good to me! :)

So anyone interested?  Full details at



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