The Snubbing of Tatchell

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The Guardian report that the LGBT officer for the National Union of Students (NUS), Fran Cowling, declined to share a platform with Peter Tatchell at an upcoming talk on the subject of ‘re-radicalising queers’.

The first I heard of this was from various social media posts from people outraged that Peter Tatchell, of all people, had been no-platformed. This wasn’t the case though as he hasn’t been denied a platform and Cowling has simply stated in correspondence with the event organisers that she would not share a platform with him.

Cowling claims that Tachell is transphobic and this is her reason for this decision – a claim that Tachell says he has asked her to back up with evidence which she has not done.

Refusing to share a platform with someone you disagree with is the easy way out and achieves less that confronting what you believe to be bad or false information with good information and evidence. That said, we are all entitled to be able to choose our responses. If anything, Cowling has no-platformed herself here, and has denied herself a voice which is an interesting choice to make.

It could be argued that refusing to share a platform with someone is a demand that they not be allowed to talk, but unless Tatchell is refused a platform as a result of this it isn’t equal to being denied a platform as people such as Kate Smurthwaite, Julie Bindel, and others have experienced recently – often for the protection of so-called safe spaces at universities. Such actions are in direct conflict with the safeguarding of free speech. They are forms of censorship and in a world where people are being murdered for expressing dissenting opinions it is vital that such censoring actions be challenged and that free expression isn’t silenced by a minority who would seek to not hear an opinion they do not agree with- whether feminists offended by alleged transphobia or muslims offended by atheists.

But in the process of defending freedom of speech we must ensure that we do not paint targets on the backs of those who are not attempting to censor others for fear of building Straw Men when in reality there are enough enemies of reason out there already happily censoring others. 

Chicken George: The Day I Got A Lesson In Believing

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I grew up in a council house on a mostly-council-owned street in a Wiltshire village. The plot of land our house sat on had been an orchard before it was developed. Ours was the last house before you reached the bungalows in which elderly people lived and at the end of the bungalows sat our primary school – a minutes walk from home.

My brother is four years younger than me and between us we had a huge group of friends who lived on the same street, or on the streets that connected to ours or were situated nearby.

We all lived in fear of Chicken George.

Chicken George was a man who lived behind the garages at the end of our street. Behind the garages was an expanse of fields called “The Hilperton Gap” which seperated our village from the nearby town of Trowbridge. It has all been developed now and Hilperton and Trowbridge are practically one and the same. The front of these garages were tidy with a concrete floor and a row of uniformly green metal doors. We’d play football there. But behind them grew tall trees, brambles, weeds and goodness knows what else. There also existed in that space between garage and field a man called Chicken George.

If you ventured down the sides of the garages and- god forbid -behind them Chicken George would get you. “Don’t go back there or Chicken George will get you” the older kids would warn, and we would stand in the safe area looking at the brambles and wondering what Chicken George looked like, or how fast he could run (could we outrun him?)

My brother and I- and our group of friends -all lived by the rule that we’d allow Chicken George to live in peace and keep our distance. We’d play our football games in front of the garages and he wouldn’t mind as he munched on rats back there. He would stay there and we would stay out front and it was all good.

Until the day that I decided that I was going to climb on top of the garages.

I’d like to point out now that as a child I had no concept of how dangerous what I was about to do actually was, but there you go. I realised that some rubbish that had been left to the side of the garages meant that I would be able to climb up on the top of the garages.

So I did.

We had never been told that Chicken George went on the roof of the block of garages so in my mind I was relatively safe up there. Obviously being over ten feet in the air on top of a badly maintained garage roof didn’t seem dangerous at all to me, but there you go.

I can remember sauntering up and down the roof as my friends looked on from below, demonstrating how brave and cool I was, until one of our neighbours pulled up in his van and yelled at me to “GET DOWN FROM THERE NOW!”

So I did.

I jumped from the top of the garages into the wilderness behind the garages.

I hadn’t been thinking. I wasn’t a very bright child.

I landed on my back on a fallen tree and somehow didn’t break my spine. It wasn’t something I was worried about though because I was in danger. Chicken George was about to pounce… only, there was nobody there but me. My friends guided me out through the brambles, logs and trees and I went home for sympathy from my mum.

I never did climb on top of those garages again, and neither did I heed warnings of Chicken George. None of us did.

I knew he wasn’t real because I’d observed his absence for myself. My friends saw me survive my fall into his territory and with my survival the myth of Chicken George died.

We did still tell the younger kids he was real though. Just because we could.

 

For Entertainment Purposes Only: On Psychics and Legislation

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There is a UK Gov petition doing the rounds that states ‘Make all those who sell psychic services, prove that their abilities are real.’ You can read the petition in full here. 

It is well intentioned but it isn’t going to work. I know not because I am a psychic myself, but because consumers are already covered by The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act 2008 which replaced The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951.

It was under this previous piece of legislation that psychics and mediums would use ‘For Entertainment Purposes Only’ disclaimers to avoid prosecution for fraud. This is a practice that still continues, probably to avoid breaching the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 which prevents service providers from misleading consumers as to what they are spending their money on.

Yet despite the use of entertainment disclaimers at the start of their show many psychics and mediums will go on to deliver what is considered a serious psychic performance or seance. It will upset people, give them false hope, and those who come away from the venue will often believe that what the psychic was doing was genuine.

This is proof that is doesn’t matter if you force psychics and mediums to prove their abilities before the can perform to the public, people will still seek out their services regardless of the risk of being tricked out of their money.

People who visit a psychic show do not deserve to have their money taken from them dishonestly, but the best way to stop this from happening is to educate people about how to spot trickery for themselves and by raising awareness of existing legislation that is there to protect us as consumers.

There are a number of things that people can do to cover themselves; get a receipt, record your session with a psychic, learn what the tricks psychics use are and familiarise yourself with reviews from others who have seen the psychic in question. It’s also important to check the Terms and Conditions of purchase of the venue you’re buying a ticket from as many theatres do not issue refunds.

When I created Project Barnum (an online resource about psychic trickery) a group of volunteers and I phoned dozens of UK venues at which Sally Morgan, Derek Acorah and other well known psychics would be performing. We posed as potential customers and asked for clarification about whether the psychic was real or not because they had entertainment disclaimers.

We would ask “are they a real psychic or are using psychological trickery to make it seem so?” and none of the venues were able to tell us. We would then ask “if it turns out they’re using misleading tactics and aren’t really psychic can I get a refund?” Again, the venues were unable to provide any of us with consistent answers. Had I been a real customer I would have been very confused. Had I been an actual customer refused a refund I would have taken it to Trading Standards and I’m confident that it would be possible to get a refund as a result.

The only outcome of stopping psychics and mediums from performing will be to move what they do from the stage where we can all see them and into back rooms, secret shows, or back into the parlours that our psychic ancestors would hold seances and reading during the Victorian and Edwardian spiritualism trends. I think that’s a big risk that skeptics should consider very carefully. I don’t think it’s an outcome that anybody really wants.

 

I Want To Believe: Will The X-Files Reboot Turn People Into Believers?

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There have been lots of X-Files-related posts across my social media accounts recently as the relaunch fast approaches (with Greg and Dana of Planet Weird accounting for at least 70% of the Mulder and Scully stuff appearing on my Facebook feed.) Mixed in with these have been concerns from my more sceptically-inclined friends about what the return of Mulder and Scully will mean for the paranormal belief and susceptibility of the general public.

When talking about people who believe in paranormal ideas skeptics (myself included) will often be quick to point out that the media can have an influence upon which ideas we humans perceive to be realistic and possible. However many people will not be able to provide any reference for this claim – it is often parroted as a way to dismiss paranormal beliefs or to warn of the danger of paranormal television shows.

What we do know is that watching a television show isn’t likely to turn you from a non-believer to a believer. It’s all rather more complicated than that.

Glenn Sparks et al. conducted several experiments with groups of students who were surveyed about their paranormal beliefs and then exposed to certain forms of paranormal media. After watching shows about paranormal subjects presented in different manners they were surveyed about their beliefs again to see if there were shifts in their attitudes.

In one study the researchers had one group watch a program without any introductory disclaimer and another group with a disclaimer that mimicked those used on paranormal television shows. Another two groups watched the program with different disclaimers – one which said the program was only for entertainment and was fictitious and the second asserted that the depicted events violated the known laws of nature and that nothing like them had ever occurred.

The post-viewing survey found that the groups who saw the disclaimers tended to express more doubt in the existence of paranormal phenomena but the group who saw no disclaimer tended to express more confidence in the existence of these phenomena.

They also studied what happened when people with high or low mental imagery watched UFO-related television shows. One of which was shown as it had been broadcast, and the second which was edited to remove all special effects and alien imagery originally added by the producers.

‘One major finding that emerged from the study was that viewers who watched either of the two segments of the UFO reports increased their UFO beliefs significantly when compared to the control group. Like the results in the first study, this finding supports the notion that media depictions of the paranormal do indeed affect viewers’ beliefs.’ – Sparks

Other experiments were conducted about how a scientific authority can play a significant role in whether people consuming paranormal-related media are more likely to accept paranormal ideas presented as being valid or not. You can read an overview of the studies here. 

The important thing to consider here though is that The X-Files does not present itself as a factual programme as shows like Unsolved Mysteries, Beyond Reality, Strange But True and others. It’s a fictional show that fits into various different genres – paranormal, horror, science-fiction. The X-Files takes common paranormal themes and often adds another layer of weirdness to them.

The shift in attitudes that Sparks et al. noted also relied upon a pre-existing belief in paranormal ideas. There was no indication that watching these shows in their original format or an edited format could convert somebody from non-believer to believer.

In 2003 Christopher H. Whittle conducted a study that explored how people learn scientific information from television programming. Using an online questionnaire he asked viewers of ER and The X-Files to agree or disagree with a series of questions based upon the science (or pseudoscience) presented in the two shows.

He discovered that entertainment television viewers can learn facts and concepts from the shows that they watch, but he also discovered that there was no significant difference in the level of pseudoscientific or paranormal belief between viewers of ER and The X-Files.

The weird thing about this was the fact that Whittle wasn’t asking ‘do you believe in astral projection?’ but in fact questions that focussed on ideas created by the writers of The X-Files in their episodes, such as ‘Do you believe during astral projection a person could commit a murder?”

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‘ER viewers were just as likely to acknowledge belief in that paraparanormal (a concept beyond the traditional paranormal) belief as were viewers of The X-Files!’ Whittle wrote in Skeptical Inquirer in 2004. ‘The media may provide fodder for pseudoscientific beliefs and create new monsters and demons for us to believe in, but each individual’s culture is responsible for laying the groundwork for pseudoscientific and paranormal belief to take root.’

So sure, The X-FIles might make UFOs seem a bit cooler than ghosts for a bit (depending on what the focus of the series will be, that is) and many of us will rekindle old crushes, but it’s probably not going to make people believe in things they weren’t likely to believe in before.

Besides, Dana Scully is a kick-ass skeptic investigator who knows what’s up. We’re in pretty safe hands.

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What’s The Deal With Self-Styled Exorcists?

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Ghost Hunters claiming to clear spirits from a property is nothing new and yet many people who offer this nonsense service brand themselves as exorcists and they seem to be as popular as ever. So, what’s the deal?

A survey conducted in 2012 found that 57% of Americans believe in demonic possession. A survey in 2013 showed that 18% of Brits did too. In October 2013 the Pope commended exorcist priests for their fight against “the Devil’s works” and said that the Church needed to help “those possessed by evil.” The Catholic church responded by training more priests to perform exorcisms with a conference last year seeing at least 160 priests in attendance.

It seems that the “cool” new Pope that many people (atheists included) praise for being a more modern version of his predecessors is actually a bit obsessed with the fictional devil. When this man is praised by atheists it makes my skin itch, but that’s another blog post for another day.

“Pope Francis talks about the Devil all the time and that has certainly raised awareness about exorcisms,” Father Cesare Truqui  told The Telegraph, “but all Latin Americans have this sensibility – for them, the existence of the Devil is part of their faith.”

Traditionally people associated ill luck with demonic entities, and as the media modernises and we see news reports from all around the world 24/7 it is easy to see why people may turn to the more traditional aspects of their religion and believe in the work of the devil when they did not before. The world seems like such a darker place when you are constantly bombarded with news of terrorism, war, humanitarian crises, poverty and natural disasters.

Suddenly the darkness that was thousands of miles away is in your living room, invading your house. You can’t quite escape it.

The risk is, of course, that exorcisms often replace what should be a trip to see a health professional, and this is alarming given the number of people being killed or grievously harmed while being exorcised because friends or family members believe they are possessed.

People who are thought to be possessed are usually displaying symptoms of underlying mental or physical health conditions, but this isn’t always the case. Sometimes you could have a lifestyle that is not approved of by relatives and they’ll consider this sin to be the result of evil in your life.

This is why I find it concerning that ghost hunters present themselves as people who conduct exorcisms when ridding homes of a ghost. This is probably done because it makes you sound important and mysterious –  an appeal to authority, if you will. Yet to do this adds a sinister layer to a haunting that could actually make the situation worse because of the negative connotation that the use of the word ‘exorcism’ drums up. Suddenly your traditional ghost is something much more scary because a ghost hunter is stroking their ego. It’s all quite vulgar really.