Bigfoot Skepticism: This Is Not A Defense

bigfoot yo

John Horgan has offered up a written version of a talk he delivered at the Northeast Conference on Science and Skepticism (NECSS) over at Scientific American. The post is titled Dear ‘Skeptics,’ Bash Homeopathy and Bigfoot Less, Mammograms and War More” and in it he makes various arguments about things that skeptics should be spending their time focussing on instead of “soft targets”.

Daniel Loxton and Steven Novella have both written great responses to Horgan that are worth reading. (PZ Myers, on the other hand, hasn’t.)

I’ve defended the role of skeptics in paranormal research fields time and time again on this blog and I refuse to do so today. Sometimes people seem so focussed on trying to justify skepticism with the levels of harm that a chosen topic can cause but here’s a fact – you don’t need to justify skepticism.

Bad ideas deserve to be challenged with good ideas, bad information with good information, bad knowledge with good knowledge. There’s your justification right there.

Skepticism is a way in which you process information and claims that you encounter and I cannot think of a single person I know in this vast community of self-identified skeptics who doesn’t have the ability to rationally approach a whole range of claims – from health to astronomy, politics to religion and beyond. Some of us are even selfish and focus on subjects that apply to our personal lives, like cults, LGBT rights, superstitions about witchcraft, exorcisms, sexism, bogus medical treatments that we’ve encountered, and more…

I happen to be knowledgeable about the paranormal but my skepticism is something I use in all aspects of my life. If your skepticism is self-limiting to the point that you can only focus on one subject at a time then that’s your problem.

I view Horgan’s comments as extremely dismissive of the work that many skeptics have achieved in a whole range of areas of society. From bringing to the public eye the dodgy behaviour of rich psychics, to having a hand in defunding homeopathy on the National Health Service in the UK (where funding is currently in a bit of a crisis situation), to protecting cancer patients from harmful treatments that might not help them… if these are considered soft targets then I have no choice but to politely disagree.

Ultimately though, us skeptics thought to be hitting only the soft targets are often actually doing way more than those who sit around and tell us we’re doing it wrong. And do you know who doesn’t reflect inwardly about whether they’re focussing their efforts in the right way? Peddlers of misinformation, that’s who.  By the way, the latest claim is that Bigfoot is a ghost.

 

On thinking outside of the box: Beware the “real or app?” trap

toowoomba composit

In June 2012 a ghost photo taken by a Cheltenham resident in their home started to go viral. It contained the ghost of a baby that had died in the house years before and the owner of the phone it was taken on was sure it was paranormal evidence. It wasn’t. It had been created on a smartphone app designed to create fake ghost photos by inserting ghostly characters into existing photographs.

The phone owner in question hadn’t known this and the fake photo had been created by someone else to prank them and they hadn’t realised the truth before going to the media. I wrote about this particular case when I became involved in it.

Smartphone apps have made it easier than ever before to fake ghost photos (not that is has ever been particularly difficult) that look realistic to an untrained eye – but know what you’re looking for and it’s easy to spot a smartphone app for what it is. There are a whole range of ghosts and oddities that can be added to a photo by an ever-growing range of ghost photo apps. Visit any paranormal blog and you’ll probably find people talking about these apps and attributing photos to them.

Today I saw someone ask their Twitter followers if a photo was ‘real or an app?‘ as though these are the only two possible explanations. The photo in question looked as though it could actually be someone walking into a photograph being taken on a slow exposure setting which can often turn people translucent.

People must be careful to not just dismiss photographs as ghost app creations a priori, but worryingly I’ve seen an increasing number of people doing exactly this. For example, a recent news story from the UK featured some sort of face being photographed in the window of an old hospital and people started speculating on social media that it was just created using an app – but the truth was that it was a Halloween mask placed in the window to spook people passing by. 

One must rule out all possible explanations until it isn’t possible to continue to do so. To just speculate about what could have caused a photo without any evidence on which to base your suggestion is find so long as you don’t pretend that you’re doing something altogether different.

This isn’t me saying that people shouldn’t question things or voice their thoughts and opinions about ghost photos and other forms of evidence – I often do just that on this blog and on The Spooktator podcast but these are different forms of analysis than actual investigation.

I conduct many on-site investigations too where possible, and these have always provided better results than sitting at my computer pondering and googling. There are forms of investigation where site visits are not required – footage replications for example, and audio analysis. But all too often people claiming to be skeptical investigators fall short of the actual investigating. They continually reach conclusions without stepping away from their computers, speaking to the people involved, or moving past the suspicion that every piece of evidence of ghosts is the result of ill intent on the part of the person who has shared it, and this approach bores me beyond comprehension.

When the skeptic get spooked

Woodchester Mansion photo by Stewart Black

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Woodchester Mansion with a small group of others. It wasn’t a paranormal investigation but more a tour of the building and we were there from about 11pm through to 2am-ish.

It is a beautiful building in its own way – incomplete, with doorways that lead to a two-floor drop, floors that aren’t quite there and in some places are completely absent. It feels as though you’re stepping back in time to the 1800s and that at any moment the architects and stonemasons will pick up the tools they left behind and carry on. Why they left their tools behind nobody quite knows…

You know that the building you’re standing in is old and yet it almost feels new and throughout the time we spent there I couldn’t shake the discombobulation that came as a result of that.

As we walked around Paul and Chris (who had kindly agreed to do the tour at a moments notice) explained the history of the building and the many eye-witness accounts that have been reported from visitors and staff over the years. We were listening to them speak while standing in a first floor hallway when suddenly the noise of something moving in the hall on the floor below us caught our attention.

It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been to the mansion, but the previously-mentioned missing floors meant that even though we were a level above the hall we were able to look through what was meant to be a doorway (but isn’t) and down into the hall through what should have been the floor of the missing adjacent room. There was nobody present and nothing obvious that could cause the noise.

Old building, lots of open spaces, windy night… who knows what the noises could have been. What interested me more though was the report that most weird experiences at Woodchester Mansion seem to happen to those not expecting to have experiences (e.g. not ghost hunters, or ghost hunters who aren’t yet ghost hunting.)

This is my experience too – whenever I have had a strange experience it has been when I was working, when I was packing up equipment or setting it up, when I’ve been a guest somewhere and not there as an investigator. This isn’t to say that ghosts are real and are pranksters, but it’s incredibly frustrating because when people inevitably ask you if you have any evidence you don’t because you didn’t have a camera with you, or you’d just packed it away.

The most interesting thing happened after we’d left the building for the night and were about to leave. The group of seven had arrived in two cars and were stood next to them talking – CJ and I went to the outbuilding that houses toilets. The women’s toilets are around the corner from the men’s and as I was inside I heard someone call my name but when I left there was nobody there which surprised me because it certainly sounded like a vocalisation. I walked around the side of the building and met CJ just as he was leaving the men’s and asked if he’d called my name but he hadn’t. None of the others had left the group of five that stood with the cars. Certainly not evidence of anything I know, but intriguing nonetheless.

To conclude, I left Woodchester Mansion realising that I was actually in support of paranormal tourism. We’re going to discuss this on Episode 10 of The Spooktator when it comes out and I’ll write more about this after the episode is released so do check back if you’re keen to hear more.

Thanks to everyone who made the trip possible – it was an incredible way to spend the night and morning. I would thoroughly recommend that people visit Woodchester Mansion either as tourists or as part of a ghost tour.

featured photo by Stewart Black, Flickr

We are the Monsters

all monsters are human

We all consider ourselves to be rational, ethical people, and we wouldn’t dream that we were potentially harming others with our behaviour. As a previous blog post showed, ghost hunters who do unethical things do not always realise that they’re being unethical.

How then do we ensure that we don’t make the same mistake? I pointed out in that blog post that it’s important to work to a code of ethics – either one that you’ve written up yourself, that an investigator/team you’re working with has written, or perhaps one a venue has in place.

It’s easy to think that irrational people are unethical investigators and that rational people are ethical investigators but this is false. Nobody fits those pigeon holes so perfectly.

A code of ethics covers your back, but it primarily works for the people you come into contact with. It protects them from you doing harm to them through your actions, it guarantees complete confidentiality and it enables them to stop the investigation at any time. No questions asked.

I don’t speak for other paranormal researchers but I am terrified that I am going to do the wrong thing when I deal with somebody who has asked for my help and so I’m glad that I have a safety net that limits the harm I can do.

I have today made public my code of ethics [PDF] in the hope that it will inspire others to actually use a code of ethics that exists outside of their head*. Skeptics (myself included) talk often about the harm they want to protect others from but if we’re not careful we can become the monsters that we’re trying to chase away.

*please contact me before replicating, redistributing, or using my code of ethics as your own.

 

Are Poor People Who Report Ghosts Just Fakers?

ghosts and hauntings

In days gone by if something weird started happening in a manor or home belonging to a wealthy family the finger of blame would probably be pointed at the servants because ghost nonsense has always been something that poor people bother themselves with.

When Peggy Hodgson told her neighbours, the police and the press that odd things were happening in her council house people suspected the working class family were trying to get moved to a new house by faking activity. There’s evidence to suggest that there may have been foul play in this Enfield Poltergeist case but who knows what the motive could have been if there was one? Today in the 2010’s when the press write outlandish articles about a family dealing with a terrifying “ghosts” people are still quick to point the same finger of blame… but on what foundations are such accusations based?

In episode 7 of The Spooktator we discuss research by Inside Housing in which it is shown how many council and housing association tenants reported to their landlord that their house was haunted between  2003-2013.

There is a chart on the Haunted Houses article that shows how many reports of this nature responding councils received and how they were dealt with. A total of 73 cases of paranormal activity (possibly ongoing activity of one-off occurrences) were reported to the associations or councils in the ten year time frame – 6 of these resulted in an exorcist or medium being called in, and just 9 of these resulted in the tenant moving out.

These figures are not that staggering when you consider that recent polls measuring the belief in paranormal subjects suggest that anywhere from 30% – 50% of the general public believe that ghosts exist. You would actually expect there to be more cases of people contacting their landlords to report that their houses are haunted.

Obviously there will be times when people don’t report stuff to their landlord and contact a medium, their religious leader, or local ghost hunter directly, but these are not recorded and it is the recorded data I want to focus on here.

The statistics from this report show that the accusation of having an ulterior motive is pretty baseless, so… are people just being classist when judging the poor who claim to see ghosts? Possibly (and as someone who lives in social housing who has witnessed prejudice I’d suggest “probably” was accurate.)

Worryingly though, Inside Housing were unable to gather a full set of data from all councils as ‘the vast majority of councils said the information was not available because either it had not been recorded, or there was no relevant complaint category in their computer systems.’ None of the councils had a policy regarding how to deal with reports of this nature meaning that if something strange happens in your house the outcome of this could literally depend on where you live. This is bad news considering that for many the real cause of paranormal activity can be underlying or undiagnosed/mistreated mental or physical health issues.

So the next time someone who lives in social housing reports that their house is haunted and your gut reaction is that they just want a new house maybe ask yourself what alternative you would prefer – perhaps it’s the one where the housing association leave someone living in a house that terrifies them without offering help, and perhaps you think that because you’re actually satan?