Why you should go to the Seriously Strange conference

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When tickets for this years Seriously Strange conference hosted by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) went on sale I bought mine immediately. The conference takes place at the University of Bath in September and boasts a wide variety of speakers talking about numerous subjects that should whet the appetite of anybody with a passing interest in the paranormal and the research and study of anomalous phenomena. Yes, even non-believers or those who identify as skeptics.

Shortly after buying my ticket I was asked if I would speak on a panel about ‘The Future of Ghost Investigation’ which I happily accepted. I’ve been a member of ASSAP for years and as they’re an educational charity I’ll do what I can to support them (I even once did an unintentionally terrible talk at their Swindon Ghost Fest, for example). I believe the educational outreach work ASSAP does is a step in the right direction toward establishing decent standards of research into reports of paranormal phenomena, and a way to tackle the unethical and potentially dangerous methods used by a number of paranormal researchers. When I started doubting the methods I used when ghost hunting, ASSAP were the beacon of light that helped me work out what the right direction was. For that alone I’ll always do what I can to help.

Recently I found out that I will be on the panel with the Chairman of ASSAP Dave Wood, Steve Parsons, Becky Smith and John Fraser, and that other speakers include Professor Chris French (who it seems is not only doing his own lecture but also numerous panels), David Farrant who will be talking about the infamous Highgate Vampire, Richard Freeman will be talking about his work as the Zoological Director for the Centre for Fortean Zoology, Guy Lyon Playfair who will be talking about Twin Telepathy (and on a panel about Poltergeists along with Trystan Swale who I used to host Righteous Indignation with), as well as many other speakers covering topics such as UFOs, Parapsychology, Mass Hysteria, ESP and more.

There are some subjects, such as Twin Telepathy, that make me inwardly groan, but I’m still excited to be attending the conference because of the range of topics being spoken about by believers and non-believers, amateur researchers and academics alike. This is, I believe, one of the strong points of ASSAP (though some would say it’s a weak point). It is also the reason I would encourage believers AND non-believers alike to buy a ticket and attend, and is why I was saddened to see the whole thing dismissed as ‘woo’ recently when the event was shared on a Facebook page for a skeptic group.

I guess there’s a bit of a disconnect for some people who believe that Paranormal Conference are automatically irrational and not worthy of the presence of skeptics. For example, minutes after a link to the Conference website was posted on the Facebook group, a member commented on the post pointing out, almost sneeringly, that ‘they have a professional body – National Register of Professional Investigators…’, which is something ASSAP are soon to be launching as a way to encourage amateur paranormal researchers to work to an approved ethical code. Something I approve of, and something any rational thinker should approve of as a method to cut down on unethical behaviour among paranormal researchers. Unless you don’t bother to look beyond the headline and cast judgement because of the word ‘paranormal’, of course.

The same “skeptic” then cynically suggested that ASSAP were only using the University as a venue as an appeal to authority, and that there was a danger of ‘over-intellectualising woo‘, an accusation that is patronisingly dismissive and ill-informed. The same individual, when asked by myself and the Chairman of ASSAP where the ‘woo’ was, replied ‘Well if telepathy works you’ll understand…’ and followed this up with a straw-man that likened the consideration and discussion of anomalous experiences people report as akin to seriously considering the Earth is flat just because some people say it is, which was the final nail in the coffin for me.

Sure, the conference is hosting talks about telepathy, ESP, UFOs and Vampires, but even a cursory glance at what ASSAP and its members do and are would have informed this “skeptic” that the inclusion of these subjects is not necessarily an endorsement of the existence of these things.

People have weird experiences. I’m one of them, as anyone who has listened to one of my talks at a ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ event or at any of the Conferences I’ve spoken at will know. Healthy skepticism requires the consideration of new information and the consideration of the experiences of other people. Unhealthy skepticism involves a ‘ghosts aren’t real so your experience isn’t a ghost. Move on’ attitude, which is lazy and quite closed minded.

Although there is no evidence that supports the idea that there is or ever was a vampire in Highgate, it doesn’t mean that subject shouldn’t be discussed, especially if it plays an important part in our society, as subjects like ghosts, UFOs, telepathy and monsters do. To dismiss a conference and all of those involved as ‘woo’ simply for addressing these strange topics is ridiculous…

…and that’s why you should go to Seriously Strange, to see what Paranormal research actually looks like.

Also, there’s a paranormal disco. BOOM!

Disco dancing animation

Healing on the Streets: One Year on

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In one weeks time a petition that states ‘I believe that God can heal’ will come to an end. Launched in early 2012 the petition calls on the UK Government to

… ensure that publishing statements of faith is not banned. This petition is put forward following cases where the Advertising Standards Agency [ASA] has banned Christian groups from publishing material with the words ‘God can heal’, for example in Bath.

This is a story quite close to my heart as I was the complainant in the Bath ‘Healing on the Streets’ case that inspired this petition after it made the headlines on February 1st 2012. The group based in the city of Bath were told by the ASA they could not continue to use the leaflets in the form I had complained about. The leaflet read

NEED HEALING? GOD CAN HEAL TODAY! Do you suffer from Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction … Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness? We’d love to pray for your healing right now! We’re Christians from churches in Bath and we pray in the name of Jesus. We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness”

Original Leaflet handed to me in Bath in 2011

I made the complaint because I felt the health claims being made about specific illnesses could be potentially dangerous for those who are desperate and vulnerable, and the ASA agreed with all of my points. A lot of Christians and Christian groups complained that I made the complaint because of some sort of hidden atheist agenda and that this ruling from the ASA was religious persecution. This is, I expect, where the inspiration for the Government petition came from – a misunderstanding of the ASA ruling.

The petition from Andrew Scopes says ‘we call on the Government to ensure that publishing statements of faith is not banned‘ and by asking this question Scopes has taken a distorted interpretation from the ASA adjudication.  The claims ruled against were not statements of faith that were banned, they were claims about the healing of specific illnesses, many of which are terminal and debilitating. The claims had no testable evidence to back them up, and the claims were being made on literature being handed out to strangers on the street, where it would be impossible to know the circumstances of the person being given the leaflet. This is why they were found to be in violation of CAP codes, and not because it was Christians making statements of faith.

The ASA even stated in the initial ruling

‘The ASA acknowledged that HOTS sought to promote their faith and the hope for physical healing by God through the claims in the ad. However, we were concerned that the prominent references to healing and the statement “You have nothing to lose, except your sickness” in combination with the references to medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought such as arthritis, asthma, MS, addictions, depression and paralysis, could give consumers the expectation that, by receiving prayer from HOTS volunteers, they could be healed of the conditions listed or other sicknesses from which they suffered. We concluded the ad was misleading.

We acknowledged that HOTS volunteers believed that prayer could treat illness and medical conditions, and that therefore the ads did not promote false hope. However we noted we had not seen evidence that people had been healed through the prayer of HOTS volunteers, and concluded that the ad could encourage false hope in those suffering from the named conditions and therefore were irresponsible.’

I’m personally not in the business of stopping people from practicing their chosen faith, and I only made the complaint because of the nature in which the claims in question were being made. The ASA ruling had no hand in the banning published statements of faith, but everything to do with statements of faith being published in a potentially misleading manner.

To even be considered for debate by parliament the petition will need to gain another 96,900+ signatures within the next 8 days which is unlikely. Yet, if Scopes and the 3,000+ people who signed the petition believe what happened in the Bath HOTS case was the banning of statements of faith, the one way the government could ensure similar didn’t happen again would be to grant religious groups exemption from CAP codes and similar regulations, and nobody should be offered a free pass to making health claims if they can’t back their claims up with evidence. Testimony, and claims that ‘god did it’ just aren’t good enough. Surely that isn’t what these people are asking for?

One year after the Healing on the Streets saga – after being hounded by the media, being called ‘Atheist Hayley Stevens’ by the international press, someone complaining to my employers that they shouldn’t employ ‘someone like that’ in a bid to get me in trouble, and dozens and dozens of emails from angry Christians all over the world, the HOTS Bath saga still hasn’t ended…

I was right

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In the piece I wrote for the Skeptical Inqurier about my encounter with ‘Healing on the Streets’, the ASA complaint and the following media attention I closed the article with the following quote.

I think my story demonstrates one very important thing: standing up for what we know is right and speaking out against what we know is wrong can result in a tangible achievement. One person can make a difference; all you have to do is act. Be that person. Make that difference.

I was right.

The original leaflet from ‘Healing on the Streets’ in Bath
The new leaflet with a disclaimer explaining people must seek professional advice from their doctor. It reads “We would advice those who receive prayer and feel there is a notable change in their health, that they seek a doctors verification and advice, before making any changes to the medication they receive for a condition. “

Standing up for what we know is right and speaking out against what we know is wrong can result in a tangible achievement. One person can make a difference; all you have to do is act.

Be that person.

Make that difference.

An Outcome In The ASA ‘praying for healing’ Appeal

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The complaint I made to the ASA about Healing on the Streets (HOTS) Bath was originally upheld by the ASA with the following:

 The ads must not appear again in their current form. We told HOTS not to make claims which stated or implied that, by receiving prayer from their volunteers, people could be healed of medical conditions. We also told them not to refer in their ads to medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought.

The ASA had told HOTS that they could not state that they believed prayer could cure people, which had been the amendment HOTS suggested they were happy to make at the time. This decision by the ASA was appealed by the HOTS group and I was asked to contribute a statement to the appeal being conducted by an independent person who had not been involved in the original case. Today I received word that an outcome had been reached and the original “outcome” has been upheld but only applies to the leaflet now, and not the website which was decided to fall outside of the remit of the ASA in this case.

The ASA state:

 This adjudication replaces that published on 1st February 2012. One point of complaint, in relation to website content, outside the remit of the ASA, has been removed. The wording of the remaining points has been changed but the decision to uphold remain.

Action

The ad [leaflet] must not appear in its current form. We told HOTS not to make claims which stated or implied that, by receiving prayer from their volunteers, people could be healed of medical conditions. We also told them not to refer in their ads to medical conditions for which medical supervision should be sought.

I think this is fair and am really pleased with this as I only included the website claims after finding the leaflet and deciding I was going to make a complaint about it.

When I made the complaint it wasn’t on the grounds that Christians were making these claims – despite what some news sources may have said. I made the complaint because of the specific health claims being made by the HOTS volunteers. These specific claims about what they felt their God could heal concerned me because they are all serious conditions that make the sufferer vulnerable and desperate.

That the ASA have reassessed their initial decision and have announced that HOTS still must not list specific illnesses and diseases is great news. They have still taken into account my complaint and understood my concerns and addressed this in their final decision. This an excellent final outcome as far as I am concerned.

‘but atheist Hayley Stevens…’

The original leaflet from 'Healing on the Streets' in Bath

I recently wrote about the complaint I made to the ASA about a group of people who were making claims about treating specific illnesses through prayer. Since writing my blog post it was picked up by the media and just… well… exploded.

Bath Chronicle | Fox News | Daily Mail | BBC News | Western Daily Press

I know there is more coverage to come as I have had to turn down numerous interviews. Out of the above, the reporter from the Western Daily Press was the only one to contact me and speak to me which enabled me to explain my side of the story to him before he wrote about me. The following day (yesterday) as I watched all of these other news sites pick up on the story without getting in touch I had an email from Callum Watkinson from ITV Westcountry to ask if I would film a piece for the news that evening. So, on my lunch break I met him in the centre of Bradford on Avon and was able to talk about why I make the complaint.

I managed to film the news report with my phone, you can watch it here if you want, but it’s poor quality. It was a fair, balanced report which I am grateful for.

I will write about this whole fiasco at some point in the future, but right now I’m busy studying. Thank you for those who’ve been understanding.