Has Parapsychology Had Enough of Experts?

thinking man image

Update: Since publishing this post, the Stellar University website has undergone changes to remove misleading claims outlined below.

When it comes to paranormal research it is often difficult to tell the amateurs from the experts. Some people will claim their opinions are those of an expert when they’re not and others offer expert opinions that do not fit with our view of the world and we want to reject them as amateurs.

Trying to differentiate between those whose thoughts we can trust and those we can’t can become quite confusing. Parapsychology hasn’t had enough of experts if you’re wondering about the question in the title. Yet I reckon it has had enough of people claiming to be experts when they don’t appear to be once you look beneath the surface.

With the majority of parapsychologists, the route to their current position is pretty clearly laid out but then there are those who complete courses from the backs of magazines and correspondence course websites and label themselves as parapsychologists.

Telling these two groups of people apart at face value isn’t always easily achieved.

Recently, Doubtful News (DN) ran a story about Steve Mera and a piece of research of his, the report for which was found to have been severely plagarised. (Hill, S. 2016)

This DN piece piqued my interest in Mera’s credentials and I began to research into his studies. I was a little confused at what I found.

I should clarify at this stage that I thought this was worth exploring because Mera presents himself as a Parapsychologist and expert in the many organisations and projects that he is a part of. For example, on the Phenomena Project website, his bio states ‘In 1998 Steve completed two parapsychology diploma courses and one parapsychology degree. He is an associate member of the Unifaculty of London Forensic Parapsychology  Unit’ (Phenomena Project, n.d).

Yet, as far as I can tell, the ‘Unifaculty of London Forensic (ULF) Parapsychology Unit’ doesn’t exist and the ULF is another name for the ‘College of Management Science’ (CMS) which is not recognised as an authentic degree awarding body. I checked this with the Higher Education Degree Datacheck (HEDD) service which is the official service for candidate verification and university authentication.

The CMS website explains that ‘The College of Management Science, BCM Unifaculty … offers distance learning courses and certification in paranormal investigation, parapsychology, paranormal phenomenon, past-life regression, future-life progression psychic phenomena, electronic voice phenomenon’ (Unifaculty Foundation, n.d).

It then explains in a paragraph or two beneath this that ‘The course fee for a single course is £325 or just three monthly instalments of £120‘.

I sure wish that the sum total of my student debt was less than £1,000!

While conducting my research I also discovered something called ‘Stellar University’. This organisation, which seems to be run by Mera as the tutor, offers four courses that people can enrol on covering a whole range of paranormal research subjects.

The website boasts that ‘since 1995, over 26,000 eager students from all walks of life have joined our correspondence courses … Some of our graduates joined international lecturers circuits, have written numerous books and some went all the way to professional levels.’ (Stellar university, 2016)

The website also states that the courses offered by ‘Stellar University’ are accredited by Manchester’s ‘Association of Paranormal Investigation & Training’ (MAPIT) and ‘The Scientific Establishment of Parapsychology’ (SEP), which sounds impressive actually. Until you realise that Mera runs both of these organisations. He is literally claiming that his courses are accredited by his own organisations and accreditation doesn’t work like that.

‘Stellar University’ is also not listed as a ‘Recognised and Listed Body’ on the UK Government’s education website. It is also not listed as an authentic degree awarding body on the HEDD website.

I wasn’t sure what this meant so I contacted HEDD by email to see if I could establish the facts. A member of staff confirmed that ‘any degree awarded by this body [Stellar University] will not be regarded as a recognised UK degree.’

‘In addition to this the word ‘university’ is a sensitive word under business and company name regulations and requires permission from Government prior to its use in any business or company name’

They continued, ‘A company wanting to use ‘university’ in a title first needs to seek the approval of the Secretary of State by virtue of section 55 Companies Act 2006 and the Company, Limited Liability Partnership and Business Names (Sensitive Words and Expressions) Regulations 2009.’

‘As far as our records show, ‘Stellar University’ has not applied for any application.’

As I explored the ‘Stellar University’ website I also noticed a list of people who were contributors to the courses and among the names were some that surprised me. Dr Steven Novella was among them; a highly respected skeptic, podcaster and science communicator, he seemed somewhat out of place. (Update: the contributor list has now been removed. A screenshot of the page from 3 Nov 2016 is available to view here.)

I reached out to Dr Novella by email to see what his involvement with the course had been. He replied ‘I have no idea who these people are and have no relationship with them.’

With all of this in mind, I decided to contact Steve Mera directly in an attempt to establish the facts behind his qualifications and ‘Stellar University’. I asked the following questions:

  1. I couldn’t find Stellar University among the ‘Recognised and Listed Bodies’ on the UK Government website. I also could not find you listed as an authentic degree awarding body on the HEDD website. I wondered if you could explain what you mean when you state that the courses are accredited?
  2. On your site, you state the courses are accredited by organisations that you also run but who else is the course accredited by?
  3. Have you obtained permission from the Secretary of State to use the term ‘university’ in your business name by virtue of section 55 Companies Act 2006 and the Company, Limited Liability Partnership and Business Names (Sensitive Words and Expressions) Regulations 2009?
  4. I have contacted people listed on your course website as contributors who do not recognise you, the course, or why they are listed. Could you elaborate on this?
  5. On your site, you state that 70 UK and 20 International organisations and establishments recognise the courses. Could you provide a list of these?
  6. Elsewhere, you say that you’re an associate member of the Unifaculty of London Forensic Parapsychology Unit. Could you tell me about your work with this unit and provide more information about the unit itself?
  7. Was your degree obtained via the College of Management Science?’

I waited six days for a response and then sent a follow-up email offering another chance to comment. In response, I received a reply from Mera stating that ‘our legal team and digital platform agency will respond‘. I then received a message from an email address linked to the website zoharstargate.com asking me to send my questions in written form by recorded post, explaining that I would need to allow 4-6 weeks for a response via post.

However, as I was simply attempting to clarify information I had already discovered I didn’t feel the need to do this. Everything I have written above is what I have found from exploring online. If anything I have written is incorrect I am more than happy to amend it. Indeed, this is why I contacted Mera in the first place (usually, an email back with the necessary information is sent in response but this did not happen!) With this in mind, I am confident that I supplied Steven Mera with enough opportunity to clarify any errors I may have made and to offer comment.

To conclude, Steve Mera’s research methodologies and the conclusions he reaches in his research are scientifically questionable. That he believes he is in an authoritative position from which to teach others how to research anomalous phenomena is alarming and, in my opinion, only serves to damage the field of paranormal research. It is unclear what his credentials actually are and he would not clarify this when given the opportunity.

To discover that he uses Dr Steven Novella’s name without his knowledge is concerning and could be viewed as misleading to potential students who visit the website.

Steve Mera, alongside Don Philips and the others involved in the ‘Phenomena Project’, are entering people’s homes and making all sorts of ludicrous claims about so-called evidence of the paranormal while using these credentials as an appeal to their authority on the subject which I don’t think is very fair.

The potential for harm here should be apparent to all. There is also potential for people who wish to study parapsychology to be misled into undertaking the courses offered by the so-called “Stellar University” because of the claims outlined above, resulting in them handing over money for something that is ultimately worthless training.

If you wish to study Parapsychology, the Parapsychological Association have a list of accredited organisations globally through which you can do so here. Oddly, the Stellar University, Unifaculty of London Forensic Parapsychology Unit, and the College of Management Science are not listed.

References 

Hill, S. (2016) Doubtful News [Online]. Available at http://doubtfulnews.com/2016/09/facts-may-no-longer-matter-in-this-election-but-fact-checking-and-skeptical-activism-works/ (Accessed 3 November 2016).

Phenomena Project, The (n.d) [Online]. Available at http://www.phenomenaproject.tv/?page_id=161 (Accessed 3 November 2016).

Stellar University (c2016) [Online]. Available at http://stellaruniversity.com/ (Accessed 3 November 2016).

Unifaculty Foundation (n.d), College of Management Science [Online]. Available at http://www.unifaculty.com/html/paranormal_courses.html (Accessed 3 November 2016).

Featured image: Thinking Man – Yale Museum of Art, m01229, Flickr

Annoying Myths About The Paranormal

ghostmyths

I’m a bit of a ghost geek and after being a paranormal investigator for over a decade I like to think I know a thing or two about ghosts. That’s why I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Halloween because on one hand “yay spooky times”, but on the other hand, I watch, aghast, as people who know very little about spontaneous phenomena suddenly start telling us the reality of it while really just rehashing old myths.

So, here are four stubborn myths about ghosts that I wish we could finally put to rest.

1 – Ghosts/Spirits are human energy because energy doesn’t die

I’m just going to say it. The first law of thermodynamics does not prove that ghosts are real. Ghost hunters occasionally claim that it does because if energy cannot be destroyed or dissipate then the energy in our bodies when we die must go somewhere, therefore… ghosts. This makes absolutely no sense at all because our bodies don’t just disappear once we’re dead. Things happen to our corpse and the energy in our cells is used in the decomposition process. Everything that makes us mobile relies on exchanges of different energies within our bodies.

This is GCSE science and yet so many people fail to grasp this. Remember in science class how your teacher explained that the sandwich you ate at lunchtime becomes energy that you use to kick a ball? They were right. Remember how the same teacher didn’t talk about some spiritual energy surviving death? Yeah!

If you want to know exactly what happens to your dead, bloating body when you die I recommend reading Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty. Be warned though, it isn’t pretty.

2 – Water attracts ghosts/causes hauntings because water has memory

Lots of so-called experts will tell you that houses with (or near) underground water sources are likely to be haunted and that bathrooms (where there’s lots of plumbing and water) are commonly haunted because of the water.

They are wrong.

The idea has its roots in the Stone Tape Theory that suggests a ghost or spirit can actually be a recording of a thing that happened a long time ago, the energy of which has been recorded in the fabric of the place the haunting is taking place in. In this instance, it would be a body of water or water source.

In fact, when I read John Fraser’s book ‘Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s guide’ (you can read my review here),  I was shocked to discover that he suggested water had memory and it was this that could cause ghosts to be drawn to it. (Fraser, 2010)

Nope.

Fraser suggests there is circumstantial evidence for this but there isn’t, especially as his circumstantial evidence involves the unscientific method of dowsing. (Fraser, 2010)

Yes. Dowsing, which only works because of ideomotor responses (unconscious muscular movement) which stop when you introduce a double-blind control as Professor Chris French did in this experiment…

Many people base their claim that water has memory on research by Dr Jaques Benveniste but they fail to realise or mention that Benveniste didn’t use a double-blind control is his research which could have (and probably did) bias the conclusions being reached.

The paper by Benveniste was published in Nature in 1988 but one of the conditions for publication was that editor John Maddox and James Randi could supervise a repeat of the experiment. They did, and they found that the assessment of the two types of water involved in the experiment involved a subjective evaluation by a researcher who knew which samples were which. When the protocol was tightened to avoid this the results were not repeated.

Other research by a Dr Emoto suggested that water could remember good or bad things spoken to it and that this would affect the way in which the water froze. However, as Carrie Poppy reported for Skeptical Inquirer, the protocols for these experiments were so lacking that it’d be impossible to replicate them.

‘Apparently, Emoto’s experimental protocols are so lacking as to be unrepeatable, and even the most basic attempts at scientific controls are absent. Regular Skeptical Inquirer contributor Harriet Hall reviewed Emoto’s book about his experiments herself, giving it the honor of “the worst book I have ever read. It is about as scientific as Alice in Wonderland.”’ Carrie Poppy, Skeptical Inquirer, 2014

So, although the idea that events can be recorded and replayed sounds possible and would account for some anomalous reports there really is no supporting evidence for this claim.

3 – More ghosts are seen at Halloween than any other time of the year

I see this claim made so often in the media and by paranormal researchers, especially at this time of the year. There are so many people rushing out to take part in ghost hunting events as a result of this myth and it’s a shame because they could be at home, in the warm, watching their Ghostwatch DVD instead. 

Halloween traditions change depending on where they come from but for many, it was (or is) a time to remember and honour the dead. Others would (or still do) go house to house in costume for food and would carry lanterns with them that represented spirits, or to drive spirits away. 

It was traditionally Christmas or Easter and the Pentecost that was most associated with apparitions of the dead and not All Saints Day or Halloween which was more about keeping the dead away. (Davies, 2007)

According to Owen Davies, ‘Today, Halloween is, of course, most associated with the imitation of ghosts and noisy spirits rather than concerns over their actual appearance.’ (Davies, 2007)

The idea that the spirit realm is somehow closer to that of the living is a nice idea that certainly suits the theme of modern Halloween but, as with many of the myths discussed here, this idea simply doesn’t have any evidence to support it. 

You might be more aware of your strange, ghostly experiences at this time of year because Halloween is so widely commercialised but, in all reality, you’re just as likely to see a ghost in July as you are to see a ghost in October.

4 – The X-box Kinect can detect ghosts

Thanks to US ghost hunting TV show Ghost Adventures, Youtube and ghost hunting websites are full of footage of ghosts captured using Microsoft Kinect, the advanced motion-capture camera that you can use with your Xbox console. 

Unexplained figures that are picked up by the camera are explained away as ghosts but is that really the case? Can this camera detect what the human eye cannot see?

No. It cannot.

The Kinect is capable of near-instant recognition of someone entering its field of view. It can work in complete darkness and detect body heat, facial expressions and your heartbeat (Corriea, 2014).  Yet, the camera isn’t completely accurate as anyone who experienced the failure of the motion control part way through a game will attest to.

Many of these Kinect ghost videos are inevitably hoaxes but a lot of them are also caused by the system picking out familiar shapes and identifying them as human even though they’re probably just shadows, light glare on furniture, or even temperature changes within the room. A bit like thermal imaging cameras do.

If you use the Kinect and stand behind a piece of furniture it will freak out and start trying to find something that looks like your legs. Does this mean you suddenly have ghost legs?

No. It doesn’t.

There is no credible evidence that the Kinect can detect ghosts. These oddities are more likely to just be technological glitches and not other-worldly. Don’t believe the hype. 

 

References

Corriea, A. (2014) ‘Ghosts in the machine? Using the Kinect to hunt for spirits’, Polygon. Available at http://www.polygon.com/halloween/2014/10/30/7079943/kinect-ghost-hunting (Accessed 30 Oct 2016).

Davies, O. (2007) The Haunted, A Social History of Ghosts, Palgrave & Macmillan

Frasher, J (2010) Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide, The History Press

Don Philips Still Playing The Science Game. Still Losing.

Don Philips

In the last few months, I have had a number of conversations with people who have found my previous blog posts about Don Philips. Philips, it seems, along with Steve Mera, has been causing a fair bit of concern states side with their claims and research ethics.

You may have watched my video on Dowsing after it seemed to be claimed that Philips could psychically influence dowsing rods being held by Mera.

Back in 2014, I wrote a blog post called ‘Don Philips plays the science game. Loses.‘ It looked at a newspaper report that claimed scientists had proven Philips was able to capture voices of the dead on tape. The report said that Steve Mera has been able to discount that the recordings are pareidolia. He is quoted as saying

In the article, he was quoted as saying that they had played Don’s recording to three people and they ‘picked out the same name. With pareidolia, they should all hear different words.”

In response to my criticisms of this Steve Mera wrote that he was ‘still going through all the paperwork, and lots more tests to carry out…’ and Don Philips similarly wrote ‘when the current project has ended experiments replicated, and data collated all information will be freely available.’

Yeah… still waiting on that.

Colour me surprised then when Doubtful News covered some more recent research by Mera and Philips under the name of The Scientific Establishment of Parapsychology [SEP] concerning an allegedly haunted house. Sharon Hill reports:

‘SEP report was horrible – full of unreadable graphs, following poor methodology, and bloated with pseudoscientific babble. Kenny [Biddle] had the report run through a software program commonly used to detect plagiarism and discovered that about 38% of the text was verbatim from other, unattributed sources. I wrote to the lead author, Steve Mera, with the plagiarism charge. He said that the report was not final, it was just a draft, and that Linder should not have released it. The report is dramatically stamped “cleared for release” and contains no indication that it is a draft or that the unattributed portions would be fixed or cited.’

It is my opinion that Philips and Mera use the “incomplete research” excuse time and time again to wiggle out of having to be held responsible for their bad science and questionable research ethics.

Hill concludes in the Doubtful News piece that ‘[Fact checking] and skeptical activism works to scale back inaccurate “facts”, unethical and unprofessional actions, and maybe even squash hoaxes or frauds. If we didn’t bust the fakers, we’d probably be overrun by them.’

There isn’t much I can add to that conclusion except to that that Don Philips and Steve Mera are still playing the science game and still losing.

Thoughts from QEDcon 2016

QEDcon main hall

In the past, I have questioned whether I belong to the skeptic movement or skeptic community. To be honest, I’ve never really been sure what they actually are, but after spending four days in Manchester at the 6th QEDcon I am certain that I am part of the skeptic movement and a member of the community, too.

There seemed to be a theme in the discussions on and off stage throughout the weekend: the governments of the world are making decisions that see irrationality thrive, and education and taking an evidence-based approach to life is dismissed as elitist. This answered a question that many talks and discussions touched upon: are we wasting our time with skeptic outreach and activism?

Well, there are many examples of why we are not and they were highlighted throughout the weekend, but a number of talks in particular really hit a nerve for me and I’m going to focus on those in this examination.

ADE651
Meirion Jones with the ADE651    Photo: Sean Slater

Sunday at QEDcon closed with Meirion Jones (pictured) who took us through the timeline of the investigation into the ADE651 – a bomb detector that it was revealed didn’t detect bombs. It was essentially a dowsing device built to look as though it had functions that it simply didn’t have.

Jones had two of these devices with him – one priced at $10,000 and the other at $40,000. We audience members got to each hold one of these as they were passed back through the room and, frankly, the ADE651 that I held wasn’t that much more sophisticated than my £3 dowsing rods.

Holding the device filled me with a sense of horror. Hundreds (perhaps even thousands) of people died as these devices were used to secure checkpoints into and out of conflict zones. Bombs were allowed through as a result and people died so that others could profit from the purchase contracts.

That’s why we bother with skepticism. Not because we personally stop hoax bomb detectors, but because unchallenged nonsense kills people. The idea that asking for evidence is elitist kills people. It is dangerous and deadly and it rips people off. It gives people false hope and it lies.

There were two talks in particular that were rather moving – those delivered by Petra Boynton and Paul Zenon. I think this is because in this past year I’ve left behind a career in arts marketing so that I can study for a degree which will allow me to (hopefully) then train to become a grief counsellor. You see, over a decade of paranormal research has taught me two important lessons (among others):

  1. humans are strange creatures
  2. grief can make you vulnerable to harm

I’ve made the switch to part-time work and living at home for the foreseeable future to make this happen and I’ve had doubts that I’ve done the right thing. Massive doubts.

Then Dr Petra Boynton took to the stage at QEDcon and introduced us to the complexities of the world of advice columns and the role they continue to play. She told us that more people turn to advice columns because of an 18-month wait for counselling on the NHS and because they have nowhere else to go, and what this can mean for those in need.

Paul Zenon spoke to us about psychics and the techniques often employed by stage performers. I know this information already (I’ve even played stooge for a skeptic educational psychic show) but I feel it’s important to remind ourselves that this knowledge is still ignored by the hoards of people who pay upwards of £25 to see touring artists claiming to have paranormal abilities. There was no mistaking the passion with which Paul spoke as he shared his observations from countless performances by such people which brought home the relevance of skeptic outreach in this area.

I also enjoyed interesting lectures by personal heroes of mine, Dr Susan Blackmore and Professor Caroline Watt (but then I am a paranormal nerd…)

The opening presentation by Alan Melikdjanian on behalf of Captain Disillusion was spectacular and gave many tips on how to produce good quality outreach media. He also explained how our first impressions of how a video was created can be wrong and that gut instinct isn’t always correct. A little later in the weekend Cara Santa Maria gave an absolutely kick-ass talk on her experiences working as a science communicator through various forms of media and the successes and challenges she has faced doing so.

I came away from QEDcon with all of this (and more) in my head feeling re-energised, motivated, and inspired. On the train home, I filled a notebook with ideas and thoughts and I hope to put these into practice in the future. If you’re particularly interested in activism related to psychic fraud and you have a couple of hours spare over the next few months please get in touch.

Prior to QEDcon 2016, there were some suggesting the event was an exercise in back-patting. Although there is an element of celebration of successes and achievements during the weekend QEDcon is a vital event in the skeptic community. It’s educational, self-reflective, fun, and important. The team from the Greater Manchester and Merseyside Skeptics should be very proud.

Team Spirit Panel Photo: Tammy Webster
Team Spirit Panel. L-R: Me, Deborah Hyde, Prof. Caroline Watt, Prof. Susan Blackmore
Photo: Tammy Webster

I’m thankful to meet with like-minded people from across the globe each year and cannot put into words what it means to have the opportunity to participate in panels with people I’ve long admired such as Prof. Chris French, Joe Nickell, Deborah Hyde, Prof. Caroline Watt, Prof. Richard Wiseman, and Prof. Sue Blackmore to name just a few. I know that I have developed personally as a direct result of attending these yearly conferences and that’s invaluable.

I haven’t even touched upon half of what happened and neither shall I, but I’ll end with a warning:

Skeptics from across the world were in Manchester this weekend organising, communicating, networking and encouraging one another. If you profit from selling snake oil or nonsense to people you can be sure they’re coming for you.

Featured image: Rob McDermott

That Viral Gettysburg Ghost Video

gettsyburg

A video uploaded to Youtube in 2013 has been gaining some traction on social media in the last few weeks. It’s footage of two ghost hunters allegedly capturing a ghost on video on a battlefield in Gettysburg.

Here is a screen-cap of the moment the ghost appears in case it isn’t clear.

gettsyburg

In episode 14 of The Spooktator we asked Kenny Biddle to join us as a guest host and just prior to recording I asked Kenny if we could discuss this video in the show because I was interested on his take on it. You can listen to episode 14 by clicking here.

Kenny has gone one step further than just providing his opinion on this footage – he’s actually deconstructed the whole thing in this really insightful video! Check it out and give Kenny a follow over on the I Am Kenny Biddle blog.

I originally considered this to be something done in After Effects or similar industry-standard software but Kenny shows you don’t need anything that fancy to produce these sorts of effects.

p.s. Kenny mentions Captain Disillusion. You can find his Youtube channel here AND you can catch Captain Disillusion at QEDcon next month. #exciting