“Feel like a Mulder, Question like a Scully”

mulder and scully

I’ve written before about the moment on a case investigation when something happens and you’re not quite sure what is going on and it’s equal parts exciting and equal parts intriguing. I think that’s the closest you can get to feeling like Mulder and Scully on one of their more adventurous cases.

Sure, it might end up to be foxes in the garden outside of the property sounding a bit like a baby crying and not an actual ghostly baby crying in the next room (that happened) and you might not end up chasing something mysteriously and scary as the perfect duo from The X-Files often do, but it’s still cool. And in that moment it’s easy to see how simple it would be to convince yourself (and, in turn, convince others) that what you are hearing is paranormal and mysterious. To add that kick of spooky flavour to your reality.

But you mustn’t.

Twitter user @fowkc brought the above tweet from @realscientists to my attention this morning and lo! a new mantra has been born.

Feel like Mulder, but question like Scully.

I’m a non-believer but I still love a good mystery. And I love investigating these mysteries in a way that hopefully reveals what’s going on. It’s easy to fall into the pattern of using the facts (“it’s wasn’t a ghost, it was carbon monoxide”, “it wasn’t Nessie, it was driftwood”, “she isn’t psychic, she’s using cold reading techniques”) to punish those who dared to believe something paranormal, but that isn’t productive.

I love the Loch-Ness Monster legend, and that of it’s younger cousin Bownessie and I am an advocate of being open-minded yet rational in the research and study of weird experiences that people have. I try to champion skeptical inquiry in my research, and you should too! This is why I still investigate weird stuff despite not believing in the paranormal, it’s why I am a member of the recently re-established Fairy Investigation Society, and it’s why I will always have time for people who want to talk about the weird stuff they’ve experienced.

Because it’s important to Feel like Mulder, but question like Scully.

but don’t use a gun ‘cos that’s dangerous, and try not to chase scary things on your own and don’t go getting arrested or anything. Gawd. 

Book Review: Abominable Science

abominable scienceAbominable Science! authored by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero is one of those books that comes along and makes the world a better place. A rare treat that you didn’t know you needed until you had it in your hands.

The combination of good research, good references and an honest, open-minded yet critical outlook turns Abominable Science! into a must-have for anybody with a passing interest in monsters and strange creatures. There is no doubt in my mind that this book will help people understand how to critically assess claims that they come across and the numerous detailed references mean that you don’t have to take the authors at their word and can explore each subject further for yourself.

There is still a general lack of respect for skeptical inquiry within paranormal research, including ghost investigations, monster investigations and more. Headline stories in the media about monsters are not rare even today in 2015, and a quick flick through the numerous available television channels will reveal shows like Finding Bigfoot or Destination Truth where unconventional and, at times, pseudo-scientific methodologies are championed in the quest to find evidence of legendary monsters. These programmes sacrifice a factual approach in order to provide so-called evidence of that which they hunt for.

A great time, then, for a book like Abominable Science! to be available. This is an engrossing read and it’s a must have for any self-identifying Skeptic, Cryptozoologist or Monster Hunter. There is a lot to learn about Cryptozoology in the modern world and this book is where you’ll find it.

Someone buy Matt Moneymaker a copy quick, and make sure he reads it. Or better yet sack the entire crew of the awful, awful Finding Bigfoot and use the funds to get Loxton and Prothero their own show! Fact is that people who are heavily invested in their belief in these cryptids won’t be convinced by a book, even one as detailed as Abominable Science! but it’s there if they ever decide to change their minds.

If this book had been published fifteen-years earlier I might have read it as I went on my first road trip to Loch Ness, but would it have stolen some of the magic of the experience from 13-year-old me who was fascinated by the weird and wonderful ghost and monster lore?

No. I would have been better for it. Skeptics are often accused of ruining the magic or stealing the fun from fanciful ideas and although this is a charge levelled at this book by some true-believers I don’t think it is an accurate criticism. The book embodies the kind of skepticism that I hope that I champion (even a little bit) in my own approach to paranormal research.

In 2012 I visited Loch Ness again, this time joined by Joe Nickell and we visited the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, a guided tour that introduces you to the story of the Loch Ness Monster and critically analyses every single aspect of the legend in an educational manner that not only debunks most of the nonsense but also introduces you to the geology, history and ecology of the area. It is so engaging and fascinating that you don’t even realise it is a lesson until you leave with a newly installed sense of the wonder of the scientific approach (how the Centre hasn’t won any awards from skeptic organisations I do not know.) In my opinion Abominable Science! is right up there with the Loch Ness Centre. A wonderful read and a wonderful resource for future generations.

Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero. 2013. Abominable Science! Columbia University Press, New York. Available from the Columbia University Press, on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk

Is Mould Haunting You? Maybe, Say Scientists

mould

This is really fascinating. Researchers at Clarkson University are studying whether the air quality in reportedly haunted buildings could contribute to the ghostly experiences had there by comparing samples from “haunted” buildings to air samples at “non-haunted” buildings. Medicaldaily reported that ‘since toxic mold can trigger psychosis, they believe the real reason that one pesky poltergeist will not leave you and your ancient house alone has to do with air quality and your own sensitivity to indoor pollution.’

Professor Shane Rogers who heads up the research team says that “experiences reported in many hauntings are similar to mental or neurological symptoms reported by individuals exposed to toxic moulds. Psychoactive effects of some fungi are well-known, whereas the effects of others such as indoor moulds are less researched.

“Reports of psychiatric symptoms including mood swings, hyperactivity, and irrational anger, as well as cognitive impairment are prevalent among those exposed to moulds. Other reports include depression and loss of memory function. More recent work is emerging that supports brain inflammation and memory loss in mice exposed to Stachybotrys charatarum, a common indoor air mould, as well as increased anxiety and fear.”
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This sounds plausible and it will be interesting to see what the research shows. However we have to be careful not to present this as an already established cause of alleged paranormal experiences as the research hasn’t been completed and to dismiss cases a priori based on the ongoing research would be irrational. I also think the “symptoms” that Rogers associates with mould make it sound as though this is just the new infrasound or Experience-Inducing fields hypothesis… and not everyone feels depressed, anxious or fearful when they have these weird experiences.
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Not only that but we also have to take on board the fact that some cases of people experiencing so-called Toxic Mould Syndrome have been found to be suffering from pseudo-diagnostic conditions – a bit like wifi-intolerance or sick building syndrome. In fact, this clinical review of cases of Toxic Mould Syndrome found that many of the people being studied had underlying conditions that contributed to the symptoms.One thing we can be sure of is that explaining paranormal experiences is a complicated process, but it will be interesting to see what the comparisons of air quality in these locations reveals, if anything.

Para-Unity Makes A Mockery Of Everybody

para unity 2

para unity 2Para-unity.

It’s all that a lot of ghost hunters go on about these days and it gives me a headache because on the surface it’s presented as a movement to bond the diverse people involved in paranormal research but underneath the happy surface lurks something not so pleasant.

If “para-unity” was just about getting on with one another I could probably get behind it, but more often than not I see “para-unity” requested at a cost. Those who promote “para-unity” want mutual respect for all of those involved in paranormal research in one way or another but not everybody involved in paranormal research is deserving of respect.

No we are not.
No we are not.

If you use a bad methodology then your methodology isn’t worthy of respect, if you are unethical in your research then that isn’t worthy of respect and if you use pseudo-science or make outright nonsense claims in your research then that isn’t worthy of respect. You do not gain the respect of somebody else simply because you share something in common with them, and all too often I see paranormal researchers acting as though they shouldn’t have to deal with any criticism or questioning because “we’re all in this together”.

No. We are not all in this together, and to pretend that comradery should somehow absolve you of the responsibility for your actions and your claims is a weak position to take. So many paranormal researchers hunt for evidence that ghosts are real and I think that is a completely flawed methodology. I am not your ally because we’re both interested in ghosts, and as harsh as that may sound it’s the truth.

It’s great to work with other paranormal researchers and to share resources and information but you are only lying to yourself if you think that “mutual respect” dissolves your responsibility to back up the claims you make with evidence.

Believing in different things is absolutely fine as long as you’re willing to accept that those who disagree with you are going to counter your points or challenge your claims. If something you claim to be true is not true it is not okay to just say “well that’s how I do it, that’s what I think and I believe in para-unity so we should respect one another’s decisions“. There is a big difference between having the right to believe in different things and having the right to have your beliefs go unchallenged.

As an atheist I see too much cross-over between those who use para-unity as a tool that enables them to not listen to criticism, and those who censor atheists and critics of religion. Sure, nobody has hacked a skeptic to death because they challenged their belief in ghosts. But there are similarities in other concerning ways. In the last few years there have been a concerning number of incidents of censorship in British universities of atheists who criticised or mocked religion because religious students felt as though they were entitled to not have the things they believed in criticised.

The para-unity folks also remind me somewhat of those students who sat with their fingers in their ears or walked out of a lecture by Susan Blackmore in Oxford rather than listening to her thoughts, but what irks me most is that instead of conflicting with their critics as many who protest outspoken atheists do, the folks who promote “para-unity” pretend to be your ally…

…and something I have learned very quickly in this world is that anyone who will do anything to stop you questioning their claims is not an ally.

You don’t need to create a special term for respecting other people regardless of what they believe. Para-unity serves only those within the paranormal research fields who seek to go unchallenged and that’s just not cool.

JREF In Forgetting-Women Shocker?

microphone

Some people have reacted in horror, anger and confusion as the James Randi Education Foundation (JREF) revealed the confirmed speakers for their 2015 conference, The Amazing Meeting. Why? Because there are 20 men and 2 women and, out of these 22 speakers 21 are white.

So much diversity!

There are more speakers to be announced for TAM 2015 and I can only hope that they are all the minority speakers otherwise this is just a startling under representation.

I was curious though. Is this really a one off? Or is the JREF just guilty of what so many others are also guilty of? I had just returned from speaking at the 2015 convention for the AHS Students Society where the topic of attracting more diverse members into non-believer communities came up during the panel session I sat on. With this in mind I had a look at some of the other skeptical/atheist/humanist/freethought conferences that I am aware of/attending/speaking at personally this year and this is what I found:

AHS Student Society Convention 2015
9 announced speakers  / 5 women. 4 men.

QEDcon 2015
19 announced speakers / 11 men. 8 women. panels tba.

SkepKon 2015
21 announced speakers / 12 men. 9 women. panels tba.

Centre For Inquiry conference 2015 
38 announced speakers28 men. 10 women. more tba.

BHA Conference 2015
10 announced speakers / 7 men. 3 women. more tba.

American Atheist Conference 2015 
40+ announced speakers / 20+ men. 20+ women.

NECSS
34 announced speakers / 18 men. 16 women.

SkeptiCal 2015
9 announced speakers / 4 men. 5 women.

European Skeptics Congress 2015 
19 announced speakers / 16 men. 3 women. More tba/calling for participants

Australian Skeptics Convention
11 announced speakers / 5 men. 6 women. More tba

Well that’s… damning, really. Other than the European Skeptics Congress that only has three women so far (mainly due to women approached being unavailable) the TAM speakers list stands out like a sore thumb. There has been so much discussion about diversity within the skeptic scene and skeptic movement in recent years and it is great to see so many event organisers putting in the hard work and finding interesting and diverse speakers to make their events reflect the audiences they want to attract.

Research has even shown that diversity (gender and racial) in speakers at non-religious conferences has increased from 2003 to 2014, as detailed in this paper written by Ian Bushfield and Chris Hassall.

…but this effort has to be consistent. The previous TAM was pretty diverse (despite women reporting they didn’t feel welcome), so what gives?

Hopefully TAM will be announcing more minority speakers over the coming months, but isn’t it a shame to launch an event with such an under-representative speaker list? It certainly raises a lot of questions.