What do Celine Dion, hots dogs and ghosts have in common?


There’s a video that has been showing up on my Facebook news feed recently as more and more people share it that I wanted to share here. It’s a clip from a comedy set by British comedian Peter Kay. He plays a selection of songs that he has been mistaking the lyrics for, for years. It’s pretty funny:

It’s a great example of how all it takes is a suggestion for you to hear something you weren’t able to hear before. Professor Chris French provides a good example of apophenia in the talks that he often delivers about Anomalistic Psychology during which he will play Led Zepplin’s Stairway to Heaven backwards to reveal a hidden message.

We see a similar effect in action within ghost hunting groups who provide audio recordings as evidence of a haunting because they think they contain the voices of ghosts. These recordings are referred to as Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP) and although they sometimes sound spooky it is more likely that they’re caused by external and internal interference. This is something I’ve covered in more detail before on my website here.

Below are some examples of EVP recordings:

Listening to them on their own doesn’t reveal very much. You can hear things that might sound like speech but the words aren’t very recognisable… until I suggest to you what it is you should be hearing. Then you’ll probably be able to hear exactly what ghost hunters claim ghosts have said on these recordings, just as you can hear Celine Dion singing about hot dogs when Peter Kay suggests so.

If you’re interested you can highlight the sentences below to reveal what each recording allegedly says.

1) I know those people are here
3) About time. Help me. Let me get out of here.

My journey into non-belief

paper boats

I recently wrote on my social media accounts that I no longer identified with the skeptic movement and followed this up with a blog post explaining what I meant. A small group of people from the skeptic movement claimed I was merely seeking attention and I took the blog post down because I didn’t want to be forced into a dialogue defending why I do or do not identify with certain groups of people.

The attitude I encountered from those particular people wasn’t at all surprising and is in fact one of the reasons I have slowly come to realise that the skeptic movement isn’t my thing – that these people aren’t my people. Now that some time has passed since the bizarre backlash on Twitter I decided to write on this subject a little more to explain that my divorce from the skeptic movement.

I realised a while ago that the skeptic movement wasn’t my scene when I investigated whether Will Storr had really quote-mined James Randi regarding what Randi had said about Social Darwinism. When I saw the accusations about Storr I decided to see if the allegations were evidence based and discovered that they weren’t. The reaction from some regarding what I did was appalling, with one particular high profile Australian skeptic telling her fans that I was a trouble maker simply for questioning the claims that were being made.

As questioning things is at the heart of my approach to rational inquiry I found this quite confusing. It felt as though I was expected to know my place and that by investigating whether Storr was lying or not I had stepped out of line. Nobody is off limits when it comes to being scrutinised, even as famous a skeptic as James Randi. It made me quite angry to think that others felt they could dictate what I should or shouldn’t be questioning.

My journey into skepticism started around 2007 when I came to realise that my belief in ghosts, an afterlife, psychics etc. was irrational. I started to scrutinise the claims I had accepted as true and soon found others who were like-minded who referred to this process as skepticism. In 2009 I was invited to co-host a skeptical podcast called Righteous Indignation and it soon established us in the skeptic movement and gained a lot of followers, subscribers and listeners. In fact, it was because of the popularity of the podcast that I began to receive speaking invitations from skeptic organisations, and as a result of this I started attending skeptic conferences and events.

I still use scientific scepticism and rational inquiry in my research, I value evidence, and I still look up to a number of skeptics and their work of course, there are just a number of factors that have led me to deciding that organised skepticism just isn’t my scene.

I often speak about how my involvement with ghost hunting came about because I was looking for something comforting to replace my belief in god and heaven with after I rejected religion in my late teens. I realise now that the skeptic movement acted as a similar crutch for me as I moved away from a belief in ghosts, and I have come to realise that it isn’t a movement that I belong to any more.

Becoming involved with the skeptic movement was part of a cycle of non-belief where an newly discovered atheist replaced her belief in god and heaven with ghosts and an afterlife, which was then replaced with a sense of belonging in a movement that valued reason. As part of the skeptic movement I have made good friends with people from around the world, I improved my critical thinking skills and understanding of biased and illogical reasoning, but in the process I discovered that although some people want to engage irrational claims and nonsense throughout society in a proactive and empowering manner, more often than not people who champion the skeptic movement don’t want to do that at all.

They want to silence those they do not agree with, to ridicule them, to isolate them without a second thought. Many people I encounter in the skeptic movement don’t consider the world around them from any other perspective than their own, and that isn’t a movement I can play any part in.

I’ve come to learn that it isn’t what I know but what I accept I do not know that empowers me. By admitting that I am fallible and that I have biases I can continue to develop my own critical thinking skills and encourage that very same change in those around me (just as they do with me), but in the skeptic movement the only lesson on offer is knowing my place, and it’s a lesson that I have no choice but to decline.

Interesting Thingies


Here are some interesting things I have been reading this week that I wanted to share:

58 Cognitive Biases That Screw Up Everything We Do
Business Insider have a great piece on Cognitive Biases that makes you realise that flawed thinking is just a human trait, and not something only idiots do.

How To Make A  Paranormal Event Seem Believable

Archaeologists Discover Britain’s Longest Road to be 10,000 years old

Milk Doesn’t Aggravate Autism: How PETA and Jenny McCarthy Became Unwitting Bedfellows
The ever brilliant Carrie Poppy gets sensible where so many others got TOTALLY OUTRAGED

Improbable Things Happen All The Time
Brian Clegg (whose book Dice World has been longlisted for the Royal Society Prize) writes about how sometimes  improbable things probably aren’t so improbable, probably.

Finally, this awesome music video for OK Go’s The Writing’s on the Wall uses some really stunning visual illusions that you simply have to see:

Update: The Alcatraz ghost photo

women up close alcatraz

After my recent post about the ghost photo currently making the headlines after someone taking a tour of Alcatraz suggested they’d caught the apparition of a woman in a window, Bob Dezon, he who taught me how to ghost, has discovered additional photos online that bust open the idea that the ghost photo currently doing the rounds is paranormal.

inside cells 2
People inside the cells. Photo: MattfromPA, Flickr
inside the cell 1
People inside the cells. Photo: Rod Cuthbert, Flickr

Photo one (above) by MattfromPA on Flickr shows people within the cell area, as does Photo two by Rod Cuthbert on Flickr. Below, FLickr user Eliza Hiscocks shares a photo of portraits of women stuck to the wall of an Alcatraz cell.

Portraits on the wall. Photo: Eliza Hiscock, Flickr
Portraits on the wall. Photo: Eliza Hiscock, Flickr

Does this prove that the ghost photo was one of these old female portraits or a person inside the cell? Not conclusively, but it’s enough to suggest that there is no way that anyone can suggest the alleged apparition is paranormal in nature when there are so many obvious alternative explanations at hand. Case closed.

The Alcatraz Ghost Photo

alcatraz spook close up

View an Update on this here.

There is no shortage when it comes to news coverage of pretty rubbish ghost photos, but every now and then a photo comes along that makes you pause. The photo making headlines at the moment, taken by tourists on a tour of Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary was a photo that made me pause when I first saw it while browsing the web during a recent lunch break. It allegedly shows the ghost of a woman in 1940’s clothing looking back through the window when the cell behind was empty.

Sheila Sillery-Walsh, who took the photo on her iPhone while taking a tour of the notorious prison, told The Metro ‘When I glanced at the photo on my mobile, I saw this dark female figure in the picture. I looked at the window again and there was no one in the room.’ She also told the paper that after contacting prison staff they could not recognise the woman in the picture.


Here is the photo:

alcatraz spook

This is a cool ghost photo, but unfortunately a little digging around online reveals that it probably isn’t as spooky as you might initially think. The visitation windows allowed prisoners to see but not touch their visitors while they were incarcerated at the prison. A quick google image search reveals several images that show what looks to be figures in these windows in photos taken by other visitors.

In the first picture below, for example, it becomes clear that the cells on the other side of the windows have lots of items inside them, as well as posters on the walls. In the second photo a similar shadow “figure” can be seen in the glass.

photo: Bay City Guide
photo: Stephen M Scott, Flickr
visitation window
Photo: Bay City Guide

My suspicion is that the ghost of the woman in the photo doing the rounds is caused by a pareidolia illusion of items either within or outside of the cell. The face could be caused by daylight from behind the photographer reflecting on the window, or causing people in the corridor to be illuminated in the glass against the dark background of the cell interior. A similar effect is seen in the two comparison photos above. It could also possibly be an image from a poster (which would explain why the “woman” looks so small).

View an Update on this here.