A hat tip

skeptic lisa simpson

Over at the Huffington Post Rodney Schmaltz has written a great piece called ‘Battling Psychics and Ghosts: The Need for Scientific Skepticism‘ in which he discusses how society are constantly ‘bombarded with pseudo-science’ in various forms. He points out that ‘people who buy into these pseudo-scientific claims are neither gullible nor lacking in intelligence. Instead, they have often not been taught the skills to critically evaluate information.’ 

Scientific Skepticism is important, he explains. Schmaltz then writes how many organisations and people work to help people gain critical thinking skills so that they can avoid being suckered in by those who promote nonsense. He also includes a link to a resource that he created Scott Lilienfeld.

In the article Carl Sagan, James Randi, Penn & Teller, Phil Plait, Richard Wiseman, Michael Shermer and Tim Minchin all get a name check for their work… but there is no mention of any skeptics who are women, and I think that’s a shame. Especially as there are women who work hard and make a huge difference to the public perception of pseudo-science, but also the public perception of being a skeptic. It isn’t just the Schmaltz piece, time and time again articles about skepticism are dominated by male skeptics.

So, while I sit here at my desk quickly eating a sandwich during my late lunch break I thought I’d share some of the women involved in paranormal/anomalistic fields in one way or another who make a difference that I think deserve a hat tip. I may not always agree with the methods of the people below, but their work totally deserves the credit.

Dr Caroline Watt is a a founder member of the Koestler Parapsychology Unit, is a published author, has taught and researched parapsychology at the University of Edinburgh for 25 years. She has published over 50 peer-reviewed academic papers, served as president of the Parapsychological Association, and has presented her research at conferences both within the UK and abroad and often appears in broadcast and print media

Kylie Sturgess is an award-Winning blogger, an established writer and author, and the independent podcast host of ‘The Token Skeptic Podcast‘ which currently rocks in at over 180 episodes. She has lectured on teaching critical thinking, feminism, new media and anomalistic beliefs worldwide, is a Philosophy and Religious Education teacher by trade and has won awards for her engagement and outreach activities.

Dr Karen Stollznow is a paranormal researcher, writer, author and podcaster. She is a columnist for Skeptic magazine,  a Research Fellow for the James Randi Educational Foundation, Contributing Editor for Skeptical Inquirer magazine, a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and a member of their Executive Council.

Carrie Poppy co-hosts the ‘Oh No! Ross and Carrie’ podcast in which both hosts go undercover to investigate claims about spirituality, fringe science, religion, and the paranormal. She previously worked for the James Randi Educational Foundation and currently writes an investigative column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Deborah Hyde is the editor of The Skeptic magazinethe UK’s only regular magazine to take a critical-thinking and evidence-based approach to pseudo-science and the paranormal. She is a blogger, and regularly speaks about vampires, folklore, werewolves and more, and can often be found in broadcast and print media talking sense about paranormal topics such as the Enfield Poltergeist. 

Sharon Hill is founder and editor of Doubtful News, a past contributor to the Huffington Post blog, a columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), and has contributed reports and articles to Skeptical Inquirer and Skeptical Briefs. She is a public speaker and Studied amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs) for her Masters thesis, which examined the “community of amateur paranormal investigators and how they used science.”

Dr Susan Blackmore received an MSc in environmental psychology in 1974 from the University of Surrey. In 1980, she earned a PhD in parapsychology from the same university and became skeptical following her studies of such subjects. Is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (formerly CSICOP), is a consulting editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and was awarded the CSICOP Distinguished Skeptic Award  in 1991. Visit her website here.

This list has been pulled from the top of my head during a lunch break, but even so it is clear to see that women make a huge contribution to the outreach and promotion of a rational approach to paranormal topics.

 

 

Retiring Project Barnum

project barnum slide hayleyisaghost

I have retired Project Barnum, the no-frills resource that educated people about psychic trickery for a number of years. There are several reasons that led me to this decision and I wanted to discuss some of them here.

Project Barnum was first launched when the drama about whether Sally Morgan had used an earpiece in a Dublin show was going strong. A number of people helped create the website and offered support for the website to begin with, but after a while, when the Sally Morgan case was out of the headlines, the help and support pretty much disappeared. I ended up maintaining the website and answering emails from people who thought they were scammed myself. When I recently tried to find someone to spend an hour a week on the Psychic Trickery blog I had no luck.

I don’t know why this is.

Perhaps tackling psychic trickery in a non-confrontational manner isn’t cool enough? Perhaps the consumer-focus was what made it not hip? Perhaps because most of the conversations with the public happened privately people thought Project Barnum was boring? Maybe Psychic trickery isn’t considered a priority for some skeptics?

A priority for skeptics… that’s something that was suggested to me in a comment on a recent blog post, by the way. As though there is some way in which you can determine what is and isn’t a priority. Alt Med kills people, but so does psychic surgery. Alt Med robs people of their money, but so do Psychic Mail scams.

When it comes to nonsense harming people there are no priorities. There is just harm caused by nonsense.

I am frustrated that despite numerous demonstrations that the UKs top working psychics routinely fake their abilities, people still flock to their shows in their hundreds. I am frustrated that an over-worked and under-resourced Trading Standards only have a rubbish resource about Psychic Mail Scams, but don’t have any information available about Psychic Fraud that happens behind closed doors. 

I am frustrated that when people realise they have been tricked by people claiming to be psychic there is very little that can be done to help them. I am frustrated that even though I tried to help it wasn’t enough, and it never would have been enough even if I’d had the support and training that was needed.

I am frustrated that a lot of people who could help to make a difference only show an interest when psychic scams are ‘on topic’. I am frustrated that ‘For Entertainment Only’ disclaimers don’t make a jot of difference and that they are used as a Get Out of Jail Card, and that despite having ‘For Entertainment Only’ disclaimers on their posters psychic performers will then tell their audiences “we have to say that, but it’s all real.”

I am frustrated that when a group of volunteers helped Project Barnum phone up dozens of Theatres to ask ‘is the psychic you’re hosting real? Can I get a refund if they’re not?’ none of us got a consistent or straight answer.

I’ve retired Project Barnum today, but it won’t make any difference. 

David Cameron: the terrible Christian

cross-78000_640

One of the teachers at my Church of England Primary School used to tell us children that a good Christian treated others as they wished to be treated themselves. She would explain that even the smallest kind gesture would make others think well of you and of your testimony in Christ. We were taught that good Christians were selfless, kind, shared, volunteered and loved their neighbour regardless of their story. Our teacher would remind us that we should live as Jesus did himself, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you Jesus said, John 13:15”, she would say “I have given you an example, that as I have done, so should you do.”

With this in mind, then, it seems that I am a better Christian that David Cameron, and I’m as rabidly atheist as they come.

His recent proclamations of religious pride come very soon after after several clashes between the coalition and the church, including a letter this week from Anglican bishops and church leaders calling on political parties to tackle food poverty.

I  happen to think that the messages and lessons we were taught from the bible at primary school can be taken out of the context of religion entirely and taught as secular values. Yet British Prime Minister David Cameron has said that non-believers, such as me and my family, fail to see that faith can give people a ‘moral code’.

A moral code? David Cameron wishes to teach us about being moral people?

The same David Cameron whose government has forced austerity onto the poorest to pay back the debt of the rich, irresponsible and selfish? whose government forces families to queue at food banks (often run by the sort of Christians that Cameron claims to be like, but isn’t) just to survive? The same man whose government punishes the sick and disabled for being sick and disabled and declares them ‘fit for work’ when they’re not and allows them to die as a result?

Fuck your moral code, David Cameron. Morals do not come from religion, they come from good people regardless of what they believe and you, the proud Christian, are living proof of that. 

The 360 Solution

russian ghost car

I liken my paranormal research to solving one of those picture puzzles where you’re not told what the final picture will be. You can have lots of pieces of the puzzle that make up some image that is sort of recognisable, but without all of the pieces of the puzzle it is nearly impossible to say for sure what the final picture looks like.

In this analogy the picture puzzle is the case of phenomena being investigated, the final picture is the rational conclusion, and the missing pieces of the puzzle are the bits of information that I, as an investigator, have to try and find in order to work out the rational conclusion to the case.

Nine times out of ten, when it comes to ghosts, monsters or UFOs, quite a few pieces of the puzzle are missing, and it’s because eye-witness testimony is lacking due to the limited view the eye-witness had to what was happening 360 degrees around them. In a lot of cases with just eye-witness testimony to work with a researcher can only speculate because of the limited information they have (but this isn’t always so.)

“The 360 solution” is a phrase I coined early on in my time as skeptical paranormal researcher to refer to those times that a missing piece of information that could possibly solve a case would be provided if someone was watching from a birds-eye-view when the strange happening was witnessed. People watching from a birds-eye view is always very unlikely, but more often than not by asking myself what they would have seen if they had been in such a position I can work out what took place. This can be a great way to solve what happened when you have just eye-witness testimony to work with (though it can be difficult to get all of the information you need to build up that picture.) It’s also useful even in those cases where you have video and photos to work with. Remember: the camera is also not getting a birds-eye view of what is happening and is also limiting. 

A great example of this can be seen in the recently released video filmed from a dashboard camera that it is claimed shows a Russian Ghost Car causing an accident at a traffic junction. The car seems to appear out of nowhere in front of other traffic, and the footage has spread across the internet rapidly.

However, when you apply the 360 Solution to it you start to see what may have occurred in the video. My personal conclusion is that the car came from  an area that isn’t seen by the camera because other cars are in a position on the road ahead that blocks it. I’ve illustrated my thoughts below to make it easier to understand. Click either image to see it full size.

russian ghost car 360 view

Below I have included a still frame shot of the footage to show just how little the dashboard camera is actually seeing. The red line demonstrates the area in which it sees the least, which happens to coincide with where the “ghost car” appears. If we had footage from the bus or the truck seen travelling in the other direction we’d probably see things a lot more clearly…

blocked view

Finally, this gif (found on Imgur) demonstrates how the Ghost Car could be a traffic jumper by tracking its potential (obscured) route. These solutions are all more likely than the idea that a ghost car is the cause.

IS IT A GHOST?

ghost costume

I guess I have a reputation for being weird. My friends, family and followers send me links to weird news stories every single day. As much as I wish I could blog about every weird news story that passes in front of me I can’t, yet I think it is important to highlight the weird obsession the media have with uncritically publishing every odd photo or video they are sent by people claiming to be ‘paranormal experts’.

I was a last minute step-in speaker at the Skepticamp event held in Manchester ahead of QEDcon this year. I did a short presentation called ‘A brief guide to ghosts on camera’ in which I pointed out that most (if not all) ghost photos could be seperated into two camps – misidentification or hoax. Now, I’m not encouraging the a priori dismissal of weird photos here, but in my experience this is what they often boil down to.

With that in mind I have launched a Tumblr page called ‘IS IT A GHOST?‘ that documents ghost photos and videos in the media that really shouldn’t be. It will be updated as regularly as possible. Follow ‘IS IT A GHOST?‘ on Twitter, follow the page on Tumblr, and share it with your friends. If you see a rubbish ghost photo be sure to send it in!