The Misery Industry

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On December 27th the ITV drama about Harry Price hits our television screens in the UK. I am quite excited about this because I’m a bit of a fan of Harry Price and although he wasn’t squeaky clean himself and was prone to exaggeration, it cannot be denied that he plays an important part of the history of paranormal research. You can’t talk about ghosts without Price coming up in the conversation.

Rafe Spall who plays Harry in the drama has caused some tension after speaking out about his skepticism. He called the psychic industry ‘the misery industry’ and said ‘… these mediums are making – as Harry Price said – a fat living preying on bereavement. It’s the misery industry – you’re making money out of people’s misery, which is very questionable’.

He went on to say ‘Even if you are a believer in the supernatural, or religion, I think if you are of rational mind, you would know that [mediumship is] nothing more than bollocks. It’s a trick.’

Rafe Spall, you’ve gained a huge fan in this fellow skeptic.

The admin of the Facebook page of the Society for Psychical Research wrote in response to Spall’s comments ‘because of course now he’s an expert’ and it’s a sentiment I have seen echoed elsewhere… but you don’t need to be an expert to see that there are huge issues with people who claim to be psychic or mediums. There are never a shortage of headlines about how people claiming to be psychics aren’t the lovely people they claimed to be and have abused the trust placed in them by their clients.

Not to mention the fact that many people who claim to be able to communicate with the dead demonstrate questionable behaviour. Sally Morgan, anyone?

In Episode 3 of The Spooktator Podcast which will be released on Thursday morning (on Soundcloud here and on iTunes here) we discuss a recent flurry of cases of alleged possession that ended up with vulnerable people being killed during so-called exorcisms, or treated in an unethical manner as a result of people with superstitious minds becoming involved in their situation rather than trained medical professionals.

Although these cases are the extreme end of the scale they are not rare. The story I chose to discuss in Episode 3 focusses on a family who live in Grimsby.

The Loche family claim they’ve been tormented by ghosts with a whole host of troubling activity allegedly happening at their home. When their story made the headlines in early November the family pleaded for help and Steve Kneeshaw got in touch with them claiming that he could help get rid of the ghosts. Kneeshaw calls himself a hypno-exorcist and on November 18th he performed what he calls a hypno-exorcism on the 16-year-old daughter of the family. Steve induced the child into a state of relaxation before he urged the spirit to communicate to him through her. He told reporters that he received strong signals from the exercise, but a clear message from any paranormal presence was not recorded.

Steve Kneeshaw shared his disappointment that a spirit didn’t communicate through the teenager after he put her into a so-called trance state and it’s deeply disturbing that it seems as though her welfare was not considered a priority above her potential as a communicative device. I find that extremely troubling and unlike Rafe Spall I have over ten years experience of paranormal research.

Psychics, mediums and ghost hunters who are led by their belief in ghosts routinely put their need to find evidence to show that they are right above the wellbeing of the people they come into contact with and it’s disgusting.

The illusion that exorcisms, spirit clearings work is a result of the placebo effect and the power of suggestion. The positive hits that psychics and mediums produce are often the result of cold reading and cognitive biases.

The Misery Industry is an issue we have to admit exists and although people have a right to believe what they want they also have a right to not be ripped off, abused or killed as a result of the actions of others who are making questionable claims and asking us to take their word on them. Anyone taking umbrage with Spall’s comments ought to ask why. It certainly isn’t because his observations are inaccurate.

‘A cold, angry bunch’

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Vice has published a great feature called The Real ‘X-Files’? It’s a mini-documentary about Roswell and the legend that still lives on and it’s fascinating to watch because of the insight Joe Nickell provides to the whole thing.

For those not in the know, Nickell works for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and is (possibly the world’s only) full time, salaried paranormal investigator. He has a history as a detective, journalist and more. The perspective he can bring to a case is amazing as I witnessed when I visited Windermere with him in 2012 to briefly investigate the Bownessie lake monster reports.

One thing that he says in this documentary in particular really struck a chord with me which has promoted this blog post. Joe talks about how it can be difficult to talk to someone who is a true believer and points out that ‘some of the flying saucer people are mostly male and when they get hysterical they start to threaten you and shriek… they’re a pretty cold, angry bunch.”

This is also true of ghost hunters posing as scientific investigators, conspiracy theorists and PSI proponents too and it’s heartening (in a selfish way) to know that other skeptical investigators also witness this hostility.

Two weeks ago I wrote a blog post called ‘the problem with militant debunkers‘ which was about some pretty dismissive stuff a blogger was writing about skeptics (aka militant debunkers) and this prompted quite an angry backlash in the comments section of my blog. The bitter, hateful language being used to describe me and other skeptics and our so-called motives was incredible to see. One guy even decicated a whole blog post on his website to what was wrong with me. These people all essentially accused me of having ulterior motives and of being dishonest and scared to face the truth. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Usually people only get that angry when they learn that you’re an atheist who thinks their god is make believe and the last time I checked Rupert Sheldrake (whom I dared to criticise) is not a god. Theirs was the sort of anger that hurts the person who is expressing it more than it hurts those they lash out at. I didn’t approve all of the comments (which is totally my right) but here are some of my favourite statements:

‘… you blythely parroting that bunch of vicious crap without investigation of your own…’

‘… constant rain of malignant big-money manipulated bullshit convincing mainstream media-suckled morons and so-called skeptics…’

‘I’m talking to you, inexplicably self-righteous militant skeptic. For shame!’

‘… the term ‘skeptic’ is not completely appropriate; instead they behave as little more than paradigm jihadists.’

Back to ‘The Real X-Files?’, the journalist, Casey Feldman, briefly talks to Stanton Friedman who refers to Joe as a “nasty, noisy negativist” which was rather confusing because the Joe Nickell I met back in 2012 was a lovely chap and a brilliant detective.

As Joe himself says in this documentary “when I see ghost hunter types saying they’re paranormal investigators I think no you’re not. They don’t want it solved. They want to sell the mystery. A detetctive’s motivation is to solve the mystery” and perhaps that’s why people like Freidman and those guys who got worked up in the comments section of my blog don’t like skeptics? Because skeptics don’t settle for what’s convenient or comforting, they want the truth and for some people the facts aren’t mysterious or magical enough.

This means that they have to find a way to dismiss the skeptic so that they don’t have to counter the criticisms and the best way to do this is to call them pseudo-skeptics, paradigm jihadists, militant debunkers and accuse them of having agendas.

The trick is to keep on keeping on. It’s easy to get sidetracked by the negativity of others (as I myself am probably guilty of here) but when someone refers to you and your colleagues as jihadists I guess you’ve got to recognise that now is the time to rise above it and Joe Nickell the hell out of some mysteries.

featured image: backlit keyboard by Colin

The Problem With Militant Debunkers

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Militant Debunkers. They’re different from good skeptics because I say so and you can take my word on this because my opinions are right.

I’m kidding of course, but this is the reasoning I see again and again from people who support or believe in certain paranormal ideas and claims, and it’s ridiculous. It’s an easy way to dismiss entirely the criticisms of your idea or field while pretending not to. It suggests that you can decide which criticisms of bad ideas are valid and which aren’t, but when you’re the one promoting nonsense I’m afraid that’s just not true. You can ignore skeptical criticism, of course, but you can’t dismiss it as Bad Skepticismjust because it isn’t to your liking.

People use the word skeptic to describe others and themselves inaccurately or unfairly all too often  – if it isn’t climate change deniers trying to make their ignorance sound distinguished, or anti-vaccination quacks assuring you that their anti-science stance is justified, it is people like Michael Prescott asserting that Bad Skeptics are probably just sick in the head.

Prescott recently wrote a post on his blog full of accusations that border on Ad Hominem. Don’t worry though because he pointed out that he was talking about Skeptics and not skeptics because he has ‘observed Skeptics in many forums over many years. (Note the capital S, denoting militant debunkers, a nomenclature proposed by Roger Knights. I’m not talking about casual scoffers or people who are genuinely undecided.) My impression is that Skeptics, in general, are characterized by an extreme aversion to cognitive dissonance.’

Oh boy. Where to begin.

Firstly, calling people ‘Militant Debunkers’ is pretty fucking derogatory and a clear indication that someone has a chip on their shoulder.

Secondly, psycho-analysing people and accusing them of insincere motives when it isn’t your job to do so is just rude, man. Especially if you’re not a psychologist.

Thirdly, Militant skepticism? Who is Prescott trying to impress? Deepak Chopra?

A skeptic is someone who uses skepticism to examine claims being made to see if there is quality evidence or data to support them… nothing about scoffing, nothing about being undecided – though it’s totally cool to be honest about not being sure as that’s how we learn stuff. However, whether you are a believer or a non-believer is entirely independent of being a skeptic (though, of course, skepticism can lead to belief and non-belief as part of the process of rational inquiry.) People who routinely debunk ideas without examining them are probably not skeptics because skepticism requires an open mind. Simple. 

Militant skeptics routinely refuse to examine evidence means that anybody who refuses to examine evidence becomes a militant skeptic automatically and can be dismissed, which is super convenient for those who don’t want to have to deal with alternative arguments. Fingers in ears, la la la I can’t hear you, and all that.

‘But Hayley, if people refuse to examine evidence surely they’re closed minded?’ you might cry, but this assumes that all evidence is always worth examining and that just isn’t the case when there are other reasons to doubt the validity of the claim – ideas that have been long shown to be incorrect, dodgy methodologies, scams, claims made by people who have been previously shown to be unscientific in their research and so on. If someone tells you they’ve got evidence the world is flat you’re probably not going to examine their evidence. If Andrew Wakefield publishes a new study we can quite confidently assume that he’s probably up to shenanigans, and if Rupert Sheldrake says a dog is psychic you know he might be barking up the wrong tree…

I used to dismiss Bad Skeptics™ when they disagreed with my thoughts about the paranormal and back when I was a ghost hunter it was the fashion for ghost hunting teams to have a Good Skeptic™ on their team to demonstrate that they didn’t just dislike skeptics, just Bad Skeptics™. Laughable, really. Prescott isn’t the first person to lazily dismiss all skeptics by talking about the Bad Skeptics™ as though being sincere and he won’t be the last but I think it’s important that people who do this are called out for it. Now, it would be easy for me to start making all sorts of assumptions here about Prescott and his motives to round this blog post off but I’m not that uncouth and I have standards. Low standards, sure, but standards all the same.

Paranormal Podcasts

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You can go on youtube and find some evidence of ghosts…

Within three minutes of clicking play these terrible, terrible words are spoken and I should switch off. I should walk away. I’ve got a million things to do. I’ve been investigating weird stuff for over a decade. I’m hardened to such statements, I have no time for nonsense… and yet I sit and continue to listen because I think I might be addicted to The Parapod. Gozer help me.

Barry Dodds is a believer, Ray Peacock is a non-believer and their discussions about the paranormal are fascinating.

I discovered the podcast after recently launching The Spooktator, a podcast-version of the Weakly Ghost Bulletin I used to produce on this blog. Someone pointed out that I might like the show and I was skeptical and yet here I am frantically listening my way through the first ten episodes. The only time I can listen to podcasts is on my 30 minute commute to work so I have to listen in halves but it’s worth the effort. You can listen to them on Soundcloud or iTunes and you should!

While on the subject of podcasts I feel I must introduce you to the world of The Spooktator where myself, Paul Gannon, Ash Pryce, Alistair Coleman and Mike Gage discuss the previous months ghost stories that made the news. We broadcast live on youtube and then edit the show down to an audio podcast. We’ve just been added to iTunes and Soundcloud so do subscribe and check out Episode 1 in which we examine October 2015 (and discuss that ominous Most Haunted Live from 30 East Drive.)

Also worth a mention – I was recently a guest on Inkredulous which will be published soon – keep an eye on the Merseyside Skeptics Society podcast page here.

Thoughts on Most Haunted Live Halloween 2015

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During the Most Haunted Live broadcast on Halloween night 2015 Karl Beattie was allegedly dragged up some stairs by an unseen entity which strangled him. This was caught on camera and some people have noticed that there seems to be a rope around his waist. In response to the accusations of trickery that this rope indicates both Karl Beattie and his wife Yvette Fielding say that the rope is actually just a camera cable.

Skeptics doubt it, fans and believers think it’s true…

…but who actually gives a shit?

Seriously. Who gives a flying fuck? Running around declaring Most Haunted to be fake… well done, clever clogs! Of course it’s not to be trusted… it’s television!

I watched the entire show last night while trying to play along with a drinking game and it was shoddy, over-dramatic, hilarious, entertaining… but it was nowhere near as entertaining as watching people react to the show on Facebook and Twitter. Some people were annoyed that “true ghost hunters” were being shown in a bad light. Other people were annoyed that such nonsense should be allowed to be broadcast…

…and yes, the Satanic chants were a bit over the fucking top and ethically questionable – but just as questionable as the ethics of any of your bog standard ghost hunting groups across the country. Sure, there was no scientific credibility to any of the claims being made on the show but, again, the same can be said of 99% of the people who call themselves paranormal researchers. Yet the mistake people are making when they moan about Most Haunted is to treat the show as comparable with real-life paranormal research.

Most Haunted is a television show that courts controversy – it wants to be loved and hated in equal parts and it succeeds – it always has. It plays up to expectations, it ticks boxes, it gets the viewing figures. It does its job.

Amateur paranormal researchers on the other hand want to be respected as researchers when they’re not deserving of respect, and what they do on their ghost hunts is hugely unethical, completely unscientific… and they don’t even have the excuse of being producers of an entertainment TV show to hide behind! If you’re a ghost hunter who feels that Most Haunted is to blame for making paranormal researchers look back I suggest you have a hard look in the mirror because you’re doing a good enough job of that yourselves. Get a fucking grip.

I’ll be talking about this and more on the first ever episode of The Spooktator vodcast/podcast coming to you live from Youtube on Wednesday. I’ll be joined by Paul Gannon, Alistair Coleman and Mike Gage – details can be found here.