Looking ahead at 2014

jello letters

I feel as though I have gone through a big change this year and it is partly because I read ‘Heretics’ by Will Storr. I wrote a review and my thoughts on the book here, but to summarise – I had been examining my position as a skeptic and as a paranormal researcher prior to reading the book but upon doing so a lot of the soul searching found a resolution.

This was partly because of the conclusions that Will himself finds as he explores the questions the book is based around, and partly because of the irrational reaction I faced from members of skeptic communities when I did some investigation into claims made about James Randi by Will Storr.

In ‘Heretics’ Storr quoted Randi saying certain appalling things about Social Darwinism that many skeptics said he couldn’t possibly have said, accusing Storr of quote mining or outright fabrication. I decided to look at the evidence and found that Randi had indeed said what had been written and that, according to many skeptics (including high profile skeptics), was a bad thing for me to have done. One particular high profile skeptic questioned their followers on Facebook about who exactly I thought I was looking into such matters, and in response I questioned (to myself) who these people thought they were and who they thought they were kidding.

In the subsequent months I have observed a lot of combative behaviour that has made me want to distance myself from certain communities and groups. If you asked me last year how I identified myself I’d have said ‘a skeptic, an atheist, a secularist’ but now I’m not so sure I’m as eager to use those labels. Perhaps I’d tell you I was just a curious ghost geek, an open-minded non-believer, a doubtful-yet-curious observer…

As the new year approaches I’ve been considering a lot of things about who I am and what I want to achieve and I’ve realised that those goals that would have once sat firmly within skeptical communities and organisations no longer do. I have decided that 2014 is going to be a year for me as an individual away from labels that come with so much negative baggage.

As such I have deleted my Facebook and Google+ accounts (where I would encounter so much negativity and aggression) and I’ve written up a list of Eight rules. They are as follows:

1 – Being selfish is okay. Looking after yourself is not a bad thing.
2 – let other people own their negativity, don’t own it for them. Even temporarily.
3 – Comparison is the thief of joy.
4 – It is okay to be wrong.
5 – Whatever it is, don’t take it personally.
6 – Invest in what makes you happy.
7 – If what is familiar makes you happy that is okay
8 – don’t be afraid to fail and don’t be ashamed to admit failure.

These rules are a bit cheesy but I’m fine with that. I feel that for a while I have blogged, podcasted etc. to keep up with the skeptic communities and to be heard, but that isn’t something that makes me happy anymore. I will continue to blog, podcast, speak etc. but I’ll do it because I want to do it, because it makes me happy, not on anybody else’s terms or with their approval and whether I am heard or not. I know I have a small-yet-loyal following here on my blog, and I doff my hat to you.

I will investigate and research allegedly paranormal phenomena because it interests me and not on behalf of a community that only approves of me doing said research because they can”t be bothered to do it themselves and would rather dismiss everything remotely odd a priori while ironically continuing to preach about being open minded. Hmmph.

I’ve also made some New Years Resolutions ahead of January 1st. I won’t post them all here but they include: Be in control of you, Explore more, Learn new things.

These are, I hope, more worthwhile ways to spend my time than being suffocated online by the habitual negativity of people that I don’t really know. Only time shall tell.

By the way, you can still catch my on Twitter @hayleystevens if you want to follow me away from my blog.

Review: PSI Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the Internet

PSI Wars coverThe TED Controversy took place between March and April 2013 when videos of talks delivered by Rupert Sheldrake and Graham Hancock at a TEDx event in London were removed by TED after complaints that the event was giving pseudoscience a platform.

When Amazon recommended Craig Weiler’s  ‘PSI Wars: TED, Wikipedia and the Battle for the InternetI was intrigued as I am one of those skeptics who believed that the removal of the videos was wrong and I have been critical of Wikipedia editing in the past. I was bitterly disappointed because it would seem that to Weiler I am the enemy too.

He explains early on that ‘one of the great things about the TED controversy was that it gave me an opportunity to explain the whole sordid background situation with organised skepticism’.

He isn’t wrong. The whole book is skeptic and science bashing with some cultural commentary thrown in.

He describes the TED controversy as a ‘milestone on the road to a fundamental cultural change’ and warns that ‘the TED controversy is a warning of things to come. It is time for media companies to looking more closely at whether they’re simply following the agenda of organised ideologue skeptics or whether they’re actually creating unbiased material’. [Sic]

Skeptics are continually referred to as ‘ideologue skeptics’ throughout the book by the way, hinting at the idea that skepticism is dogmatic. This is the biggest problem with the book; his hatred for skeptics overshadows everything else to the point that you can visualise the sneer on his face as you read.

Later in the book Weiler points out that he regards much of what he writes to be about pseudo-skeptics and not good skeptics but refers to it as ‘skepticism’ or ‘skeptics’ because that is how psuedoskeptics refer to themselves. In the next breath he likens pseudoskeptics to other groups who ‘think in similar black and white terms’ such as the Tea Party, Christian Fundamentalists and White Supremacy Groups. A slur that cheapens any valid criticism he may have had.

Early on the book there are pages dedicated to parapsychological research and psychical research – such as the founding of the Society for Psychical Research, the Ganzfield studies, Sheldrake’s Staring Studies and more, and Weiler dismisses criticism about these as slurs because ‘for skeptics, psychical research is never enough’.

The problem here is that criticisms from scientists are often made not because they want to brush away the ideas being tested but because they want to see the protocols improved so that the data isn’t open to variables that may have caused false results.

There will always be closed-minded people who claim to be skeptics or scientists (both of which require open minds) but they do not represent skepticism and science and to act as though they do isn’t a fair representation, but why let that get in the way of a good bit of bashing?

Those with open minds don’t defend bad research, they improve it, but for people like Weiler who rely on that bad research as the foundation for their beliefs this just isn’t acceptable. Instead all criticism and all skepticism is lumped together with pseudoskeptics and closed-minded people. ‘Skeptics gang up to make their numbers look larger than they actually are’ he states, hinting at the possibility that there is a larger skeptical conspiracy at play. This is something hinted at throughout the book, and actually mentioned in chapters when he writes about the editing of Wikipedia articles by a group called Guerilla Skepticism whom he refers to as evil.

Here’s the thing; there are problems within organised skepticism with individuals claiming to represent other skeptics when they only represent their own interests, but this doesn’t represent good, healthy skepticism. To conflate these is an underhand dismissal of people with genuine criticism.

Weiler accuses organisations like the James Randi Education Foundation and the Centre for Skeptical Inquiry of being dishonest PR machines who are out to cause confusion about parapsychology, and he accuses these organisations along with websites like QuackWatch, Whatstheharm, Skeptics Dictionary and Guerilla Skepticism, of creating an echo chamber type effect on the internet where they cite each other as sources but when faced with intelligent rebuttals ‘melt like a snowman in August’.

This may be true to a point (we’ve all seen those skeptics who dismiss people as ‘woo’ or ‘pseudoscience’, or with the same tired quotes like ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ ) but this isn’t always the case and this is not representative of those of us who are skeptical yet open-minded to alternative possibilities and this is the assumption made throughout this book. The assumption that turns potentially informed criticism into a laughable conspiracy theory.


I struggled to finish this book because of the slurs about skeptics, but also because of the double standards regarding “evidence” throughout. For example, an initial study by R Wiseman and M Schlitz in 1998 is presented as scientific evidence that ‘psychic ability declines in the presence of skeptics’ when the study claims no such thing. This is a terrible misrepresentation of a study in an attempt to explain away why psychics don’t perform as well when controls are put in place.

In another instance Weiler dismisses criticism that Sheldrake’s Staring Studies were too varied to produce reliable data as nonsense, stating that varied studies are ‘extremely unlikely’ to cause consistent positive results, when this is just not true.

The best studies in a controversial field like consist of many experiments across different labs that all follow the same procedure and with similar participants, and then show in a meta-analysis that there’s an overall effect. If you put a bunch of widely varied studies in the meta-analysis, your result is much less reliable. If you do this don’t be surprised when people are skeptical of your research and don’t pretend it isn’t a problem. Remember, open-minded people don’t defend bad research, they improve it.

The only recommendation I can make for this book is to leave it on the shelf unless you want a headache. No amount of reasoning will make a difference here.



There is an interview with me on Episode 32 of The CUSP (The completely Unnecessary Skeptical Podcast).  You can listen by clicking here (excuse the sore throat, I’m currently battling a throat and ear infection. Boo!) 

For those visiting my site for the first time after hearing me on the show, welcome! Here are some links that might help/interest you:

my research
The Clevedon Pier Ghost case that I mentioned
Ethical investigation into anomalous phenomena
The Be Reasonable podcast that I co-host with Michael Marshall

The 5 Worst Ghosts of 2013

thumb ghostbusters

This year was lacking in ghost stories that took me into the field to investigate and I’m hoping that 2014 will remedy that with ghouls to chase and phantoms to fight. While I wait for that to happen I thought I’d cast my eye back at 2013 and list what I think were the 5 Worst Ghosts of 2013.

I should point out that although they’re listed here these stories fulfilled that need for terrible paranormal news stories that make me shake my fist in a pantomime style and roar ‘Oh no it isn’t!’ when headlines proclaim ‘this is a ghost!’

These stories, in all reality, aren’t terrible and horrendous. Just bad. The really horrendous ghost stories are the ones we don’t hear of. They’re the stories where selfish ghost hunters act unethically in other peoples homes and businesses, scaring people silly by not thinking their actions through. The real ghost horror stories are the ones where people destroy property or break the law for a cheap ghost hunting thrill.

Without further ado, let’s look at the The 5 Worst Ghosts of 2013!

#5 The Exmouth Rugby Club Ghost

Footage captured on the CCTV system in the bar at the Exmouth Rugby Club showed the bell that is traditionally rung for ‘last orders’ ringing on its own, freaking out nearby staff members who ran to investigate. The papers jumped on this story pretty quickly, quoting staff members who claimed it could have been the ghost of an old landlord called Nigel haunting the premesis.

When interviewed by The Daily Mail, manager Frank Bright said: ‘A few people have mentioned Nigel’s name. He was great man, an all-round good guy – and certainly no threat to anyone. ‘The bell ringing on its own is pretty odd, I’ll give you that and one of the girls was quite freaked out.  But I’m a bit more level-headed and I’m sure there’s some way to explain it; I just can’t put my finger on it at the moment. ‘There was one time I was here on my own and I heard a whistle. I turned round and shouted “hello, hello” but there was no-one here.’

I contacted the Rugby Club to see if they really thought it could be haunted but was told pretty quickly that they didn’t really think they were haunted at all.

Frank’s comment was  was light hearted, think we’ve got better things to be doing as a rugby club than having Most Haunted turn up! It wasn’t a staged ghost video. we favour the idea that the ringer slipped down from where it’d been hung up during cleaning’. 

Case closed.

#4 The Napanock Ghost Cat

The apparent apparition of a cat in a US hotel caused quite a stir in the paranormal research community, prompting much commentary about whether it was or was not a ghost, was or was not a cat and was or was not genuine footage.

The footage was taken from an IR DVR camera in The Shanley Hotel in Napanoch, New York but what we see is a low quality copy of the original that leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

cat ghost

When I first read the story and saw the video on the WhoForted.com site I commented that it might be the product of ghosting which can happen on some CCTV and Camcorder systems, but having watching it over it could just as easily be a piece of lint floating on a breeze or even an IR light being shone down the hallway from behind the camera.

Without further information and footage we will never know for sure. This ghost was not at all impressive.

#3 Amanda Byram’s Whitstable Ghost Photo

The Byram fake photo
The Byram fake photo

I thought twice about including this rubbish ghost in this list because when it first made the headlines we had no way of knowing that this hoax was part of a bigger stunt for a Channel 4 television program called The Happenings. However, even the bigger stunt was a bit rubbish so I felt that the ghost photo featuring TV presenter Amanda Byram deserved a place here.

Back in September I was sent a link to this news story featured in the Canterbury Times by the journalist who wrote it, asking for my opinion. The story is about a supposedly strange photo captured by TV presenter Amanda Byram. The photo is of Byram posing with two members of the public, and next to them is a translucent shadowy figure and was taken as she allegedly investigated the story that features later on in this list. It’s a fake made using a Smartphone.

#2 The Kelvedon Hatch Apparitions


In September, The Brentwood Gazette reported that Spooksavers (a Ghost events company) captured a spirit portal in action at an overnight event in the Secret Nuclear Bunker in Kelvedon Hatch. The photos in question show people in the room surrounded by lots of wiggly and fuzzy lights.

kelvedon 1

A little investigation with the help of Bob Dezon showed that these photos were less than impressive. We found out that the rooms in the bunker are full of various reflective surfaces (see picture A), and we also know that it is possible that the photos may have been taken through a window (see picture B). Both of these, coupled with a slow shutter speed and slight movement of the camera could cause the effects seen. Not only that, but if you study the blur in the first photo above, you can see ghostly forms of the shoes of the people in the photo, which suggests to me that a slow shutter speed has indeed caused this effect.

Picture A

kelvedon room

kelvedon window photo

It’s also worth pointing out that various cameras and similar devices were being used by numerous people present, as seen in the photo montage below taken from the event gallery. It’s impossible to rule out that a camera with its screen on, or perhaps a meter with an on-light illuminated in the hand of someone in the photo was moved around at the time of the photo being taken.

photos from the kelvedon eventThese apparitions were the product of wishful thinking and not a spirit portal. Doh.

#1 The Whistable Floating Tea Ghost

Those who follow my blog regularly probably knew this particular story would feature in the #1 spot of this list. This was part one of a bigger prank, with the Amanda Byram fake photo being part two for the television show called The Happenings. Read more about this here.

The Whistable floating tea ghost hit the news in July when a nutrition shop claimed that two boxes of teabags had been caught floating off of shelves in the store on the CCTV system, leading people to think there may be a ghost in the area. Initial speculation led people to believe the store were perpetrating a hoax for attention, but it seems that even they weren’t in the on the trick.

It's behind you!
It’s behind you!

The Happenings is a television show for Channel 4 in which two magicians convince people that strange things are happening in their town. Episode one saw them trying to convince a town that the citizens were being tested for psychic ability, the second episode saw them trying to convince people in Whitstable that their town was being terrorised by a ghost, and the third will see them convince a town that they are in danger of a Vampire. The floating tea footage and Byram fake photo were stunts for the second show.

The shows have had mixed receptions and, although I can appreciate what they’re trying to do, I think they’ve often rubbed people up the wrong way – especially within the paranormal research community.

These are my Worst Ghosts of 2013. Let’s see what shocking spectres crawl out of the woodwork for 2014…

Why not check out previous years?

The Worst Ghosts of 2012
The Worst Ghosts of 2011
The Worst Ghosts of 2010

Whistable… not so haunted.

thumb whitstable

Turns out that Whitstable might not be so haunted after all (who knew) and that all the recent ghost related news stories coming out of there were for a Channel 4 television show called ‘The Happenings’. I just saw the advert for it on television and they used the High Quality version of the floating teabag box CCTV ghost footage (which wasn’t available to the general public) and they also showed the Amanda Byram photograph too.

The Byram fake photo
The Byram fake photo

Also worth noting is that the name of the original video on Youtube about the teabag box ghost has been changed. It is now called ‘Whitstable paranormal activity is first glimpse of The Happenings’. I had my suspicions that we were being fooled by the same person or people when this article about Amanda Byram mentioned a TV Producer but I simply didn’t have the time to research any further.

Ho hum. The series will be available via the 4OD service if you want to watch it. What is the point in this? I guess it might be an attempt to get people to question everything they encounter, but I’m not so sure that tricking people is the best way to do this. Entertaining though, I guess…