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.
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.
…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.
It is explained to me time and time again that I don’t think something is true simply because I haven’t tried it or because I lack experience in that certain subject. If I just tried these things, people explain, then I’d have a completely different opinion about it. Whether the it in question is Electronic Voice Phenomena, Psychic abilities, the latest ghost hunting gadget or any such thing that I have written sceptically about at some point, people are quick to point out in the comments ‘Hey, why don’t you just, like, try it!’
The truth is that I’ve been actively involved in ghost research since 2005 and was a keen observer of ghost research long before that. I have done the vigils in the dark, I have sat in seances, tried glass divination, table tipping, dowsing, scrying, automatic writing and more. I have attempted to record Electronic Voice Phenomena, tried my hand at Instrumental Trans-Communication, set up Trigger Object experiments, called out, attempted ghost photography and all manner of other methods of capturing evidence of ghosts… and at one time in my life I believed that all of those things could be true.
Then I stopped believing. I realised that those methods did not make sense and that the conclusions reached using those methods were flawed and, more often than not, giant leaps of logic.
Despite all of the experiences I’ve outlined above- the very experiences that people in the comment section of my blog insist will change my mind -I still do not believe that those things provide evidence of ghosts or the survival of the soul. I do not believe that they are good research methods because the evidence does not support that claim.
Here’s the real kicker though… even if I hadn’t tried all of those things it would still be okay for me to not accept that those methods prove ghosts are real because the evidence that supports such claims relies on flawed reasoning, leaps of logic and misrepresentation of actual science and research. You don’t have to try ghost hunting first hand to examine the claims and find them wanting, and to suggest that your personal experience is somehow more reliable than the reasoned processing of such claims against known facts is kind of arrogant.
Having research experience is all well and good but it doesn’t make you an expert and it doesn’t put you and your claims above being questioned or doubted and, to be completely honest, if your expertise is pseudo-scientific ghost hunting techniques then I don’t really think you have the grounds to demand that people try out your methodology before dismissing it. Awkward…
‘Nothing shady goes on in our secret forum, honest. You’ll have to take my word for it though, ‘cos it’s private. We’d let you join, but we can’t. Not even our friends get to join.’
The above is my personal summary of a rebuttal written by the team leader of the Dutch language group of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia project to recent criticism. Before I am accused of creating a straw-man argument I will point out that my summary is not a direct quote, but it comes pretty close.
Rebecca O’Neill recently wrote criticism of the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSOW) project from the point of view of someone who is studying ‘how curation has moved from being the pursuit of a singular expert within an institution such a museum, gallery or archive, to a collective endeavour in which many “citizen curators” (a term that I am developing) work together to curate content both off and online.’
… an audience member who is studying the way information is shared on Wikipedia questioned why the Guerilla Skepticism on Wikipedia group have a private (described as “secret”) forum away from Wikipedia if what they do isn’t agenda driven. This went unanswered with just “my editors only put out good stuff” given in response.
Leon Korteweg wrote the rebuttal on the GWOS blog after seeing a link to Rebecca’s article on my Facebook wall. His response was everything I expected it to be and nothing more.
In her criticism Rebecca points out that there are problems around the fact that GSOW use a private member-only forum in which they discuss the work their project does. She writes that she has ‘no knowledge of the nature of the discussions on the forum as I have not approached the group to become a member.’
Simple solution, says Leon in his rebuttal, ‘you can always apply to join if you want to help improve Wikipedia, value the scientific method and the evidence it produces, use critical thinking and want to get instructions on how to write about it in an encyclopedic fashion …’
…only one problem though, he goes on to explain, ‘we can’t demand that of you, and we don’t give access to people who are simply interested in ‘keeping track of what GSoW does.’ Not even close friends get access, Leon says, so why would critics, right? It’s okay though because he continues ‘we have a fine blog and Facebook group page for that, both of which are public, which should suffice‘
Trying to get people involved with GSOW to understand that the private forum is creating suspicion and confusion about their tactics and possible agenda is like trying to get blood from a stone. It seems that they hear what people are saying but want people to just take their word that the criticism is unjust and that nothing bad happens in the private forum.
The response always seems to be the same: if you’re Rupert Sheldrake or Craig Weiler you’re labelled a crank and your criticism is ignored, if you’re a skeptic you’re told ‘we do only good stuff in our secret forum, trust us’ with no evidence provided. Leon ends his piece with ‘Yes, we have a private forum, and we’re fine with that’ and that speak volumes.
On this day in 1809 Charles Darwin was born. Darwin, best known for his contributions to evolutionary theory, established that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors, and in a joint publication with Alfred Russel Wallace introduced his scientific theory that this branching pattern of evolution resulted from a process that he called natural selection. [source]
I personally gained a better understanding of evolutionary theory through the books of Professor Richard Dawkins, such as ‘The Ancestors Tale’, ‘The River Out of Eden’ and ‘The Blind Watchmaker’. I would recommend such books to anyone who is undecided on the subject, or who wants to grasp the subject and explore it as fully as possible. It can be confusing, especially with alternative ideas being presented as valid science. Creationism, for example.
Creationism refers to the religious belief in a supernatural deity or force that has intervened directly in the physical world. At the Church of England Primary School I attended we were taught that it might be possible that natural biological processes don’t account for the complexity of life on our planet and that these had been created by a higher being.
Looking back at the education I received from my school as a young child I am horrified at how strong a religious agenda there was throughout the curriculum, often with a blatant disregard for science and facts. The teaching of creationism as somehow equal to evolutionary theory is a direct attack against decent science education. No child should be denied access to factual information. “Teaching the Controversy” should not be up for debate in the context of the science classroom, and yet it is creeping further and further through the door with a sugar coating of ‘just asking questions’ or ‘exploring alternatives’.
Recently, Professor Alice Roberts called for more debate about the teaching of creationism in schools, stating that “creationism has the potential to ruin a scientific education”. Roberts pointed out that although state schools, including free schools, were not allowed to teach creationism as a science, there were some private schools which did. She said “presenting a religious creation story as a scientifically valid alternative is nonsense.” I fully agree.
In it Roberts and Copson state that ‘it is clearly not the case that this organisation offers good quality learning outside the classroom; indeed, the Zoo’s approach runs contrary to Government policy on the teaching of creationism … The Department for Education has made it repeatedly clear that young earth creationism and related theories are incompatible with the established scientific consensus, and therefore should not be taught as such. And yet throughout its materials this Zoo promotes a creationist theory known as ‘recolonisation’, which rejects both evolution and more common young earth creationism in favour of a third explanation … It is therefore difficult to see how a school visiting such a Zoo is compatible with the Government’s policy on creationism’
This is indeed alarming, and with this in mind I decided that I had to check this zoo out for myself. With a week off from work and nothing much to do I thought I’d celebrate Darwin’s birthday by checking out Noah’s Ark. I had no idea what I was in for.
With the current battering the country is getting from ferocious storms I couldn’t have chosen a worse time to visit the zoo which is based in and around a working farm in South Wraxall, in North Somerset. It’s quite open to the elements. I battled almost-horizontal rain and boarded a bus at Temple Meads train station and asked for a combo ticket – a £15 ticket that gets you a return trip between the station and the zoo and entry to the zoo as well. The driver looked at me as I stood dripping rainwater all over his bus and said, dryly, ‘you do realise it isn’t an actual ark, right?’ and then laughed.
The roads changed from inner city to country lanes, puddles of water were sent splashing over other cars in giant waves by the bus, and at one point we had to stop because the strong winds had blown the engine cover open. I sat, alone on the bus, wondering why I had left my nice warm house. We got to the zoo, the bus pulled away leaving me standing on the side of the road, and as it grew smaller and smaller in the distance I realised I was quite alone, with just two horses huddled in a field as the wind howled around us.
The zoo was quite empty for the duration of my visit, with just myself and a group of Primary School children wandering around. Most of the animals were huddled inside in the warm away from the unrelenting rain and wind. There was one ape swinging around on the tyre swings but it too was sent scurrying inside when a piece of the plastic corrugated roofing of a nearby cage for parakeets was sent smashing into the wall of the reptile house, just feet from where I was standing. I headed inside after that, scurrying from building to building as fast as I could to avoid other potential debris.
I’m not entirely sure why the animals had access to the outside areas with the weather as bad as it is, and when I entered a lot of the enclosed spaces I found it quite sad to find animals in small spaces that smelt quite bad. The monkey room, for example, had four ceiling-to-floor cages in it and there was a strong smell of urine.
Primates – or more accurately titled ‘brachiates/arm swingers’
The Latin name ‘Primates means ‘one of the first / excellent / noble’. This was chosen for Darwinian reasons’, assuming these mammals are related to man because of some physical similarities. However, there is no evidence that non-human primates are more intelligent than parrots, dogs, horses, dolphins, or are related to man. A more descriptive name would be the Latin name Brachiates which means ‘to move by swinging with the arms, from one hold to another’
Outside and just around the corner from the Apes and Monkeys are four pens holding pigs who, when I visited, were all huddled in corners aware from the cold. I couldn’t see any access to an indoors area for them and that made me really sad. A sign outside their pens stated, among other things
The many breeds of domestic pigs carry a health risk in some countries as they are scavengers and do not ‘filter out’ the contamination they eat in the way ruminants (cows, sheep, deer) do. This is probably the reason that pig meat was forbidden to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. Some other religions also forbid it
To sound a warning / to call each other or sing to each other / to mark their territory / to encourage the leader (quiet honking in flying geese) / To frighten their prey (Owls and Hawks screech) / Because they are happy! / to praise their maker
DESIGN: These features [a/n: tone, pitch, chords, mimicking calls etc.] go far beyond what it biologically an advantage, and point clearly to a musically minded creator.
I next wandered to the area of the zoo with the more exotic animals such as lions, tigers, Rhino, Zebra and Giraffe. It saddened me to see a tiger pacing in an enclosure smaller than the one that houses three zebra, and a lion doing much the same. Their enclosures were smaller than the garden behind the house I grew up in.
Oddly, on the wall outside of their enclosures, where there are large windows through which you can watch them when they are inside, there was a poster titled ‘prayer of dedication of the tiger territory‘, and one that threatens to throw visitors to the big cats should they knock on the windows. You’d think Christians wouldn’t throw such a threat around lightly… but there we go.
I visited the Giraffe house and then made my way past the Rhino house on my way out of the zoo to catch the next bus home. As I passed by the hedge maze I found a sign with a bible quote on it: ‘Then Jesus said ‘come to me all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’.
Throughout the park there is an unsettling theme of religious scripture and teachings but I’m not sure that the children who were some way ahead of me on their class trip adsorbed much of it at all. At one point, as our paths crossed as they left the tigers just as I was arriving there, they could all be heard going ‘rooarrrr, roaaaarrr’. It would, of course, completely depend on the context of the trip and how it was used once back at school… and this is what worries me. It worries me because of one particular room at the zoo.
Inside there is a huge model of the Ark with animals entering in pairs, with some already in the boat. The walls around the room are covered with creationist literature and there is a voice guide that you can listen to at the press of a button – but it wasn’t working when I tried. On board the ark you can see T-Rex next to the Giraffes, and Triceratops next to the Elephants. There are floor plans available that show where everything would have been – like pigs next to the bears just across from the bedrooms and bathrooms, and there are Question and Answer cards on the table around the Ark with statements like:
Q: ‘What food did god allow after flood; that was no included for Adam and Eve?’ A: ‘Eating meat was allowed after the flood. Before this most people would have been veggies.’
Q: ‘How long were they all on the Ark?’ A: ‘Noah broke out after a year and 10 days’
Q: ‘Why were so few people saved?’ A: ‘There was lots of spare room on the Ark. More people could have been saved if they were willing’
I really love visiting animal sanctuaries, auariums, wildlife centres, safari parks and zoos, but I came away from Noah’s Ark Farm Zoo feeling quite unsettled. I was disappointed with how uninterested most of the animals seemed to be with their surroundings – Zebra huddled in a lean-to, monkeys all clinging to the cages of their enclosures, the roof of the bird enclosure almost smashing into me, the roof of the farm sheds flapping around and allowing the rain inside, tigers and lions pacing… as a zoo it was underwhelming. As an educational facility it was alarming.
On my way home I stopped via the gift shop and bought some pens, a book called ‘Evolution: Fact or Fiction?’ and picked up a free flyer produced by the zoo titled ’20 differences between Ape and Man’. The selection of books on sale was outstanding and in no way biased. I giggled at my purchases on the train ride home, but then the seriousness of this hit me. The fact that this facility has a clear religiously motivated agenda in direct opposition to evolutionary theory teachings and is still receiving awards despite this makes me wonder what is in the future for science education in our school.
Let us hope that we do not have a fight in our future like the battle faced by the National Centre for Science Education who have been opposing efforts by creationists to weaken or block the teaching of evolution in the US for more than two decades. However, if we tolerate the nonsense presented at the Noah Ark Farm Zoo being a part of the education offered to school children then that could be a reality we have to face. If we are complacent and allow non-science to be offered up on the same plate as science we are doing future generations a disservice.
The Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia Project (GSOW) aim to ‘improve skeptical content of Wikipedia … by improving pages of our skeptic spokespeople, providing noteworthy citations, and removing the unsourced claims from paranormal and pseudo-scientific pages.’ It’s a good idea at it’s core, and I hope that nobody would think I oppose the sourcing of claims about paranormal topics considering my approach to paranormal research and claims.
It isn’t without it’s problems though, and one of the unintentional by-products of their work is criticism from within paranormal communities (i.e. researchers, fans, believers and so on) about the way in which articles are edited, and also about the way in which the project communicates what it does. There have also been accusations that the skeptics involved in GSOW are aggressively editing the pages of certain individuals, which has since been denied. (I personally think this is probably being done by skeptical individuals with a chip on their shoulder rather than the organisation).
I don’t know enough about editing Wikipedia entries to comment upon who edited what and so on, but I can comment upon what I have observed and this is where my criticism comes from. I think it’s great to edit pseudo-scientific Wikipedia articles, but I also think that it isn’t enough to do just that. It should be clear to anyone that this activity is going to cause bad feeling within paranormal communities, and it seems as though GSOW haven’t factored this into their plans and have no intention of engaging with the people in the communities they encounter through their work, and that’s a shame. It is, of course, important to point out that this isn’t a unique problem, and similar can be seen with many skeptic campaigns.
There will always be mistrust of skeptics within paranormal communities and that is unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother to consider this when starting skeptic outreach projects. Skeptics should always try and work with believers and paranormal researchers that they come into contact with to some extent, rather than just insisting that they either get on board with the project themselves (in this case provide sources on wikipedia) or stop complaining. It ain’t that simple, and this suggestion made on my Facebook wall when I asked my Friends what could be done to limit ill feeling was really shortsighted.
Skeptic Outreach Projects will never please everybody and more often than not the focus has to be on those who are undecided about a subject, and there will always be those who are offended when skeptics start making changes, and that’s fine… but not all of those who oppose skeptical work are just being closed minded. Sometimes there are problems with what is being done or the way it is being communicated and as skeptic activists we have to face facts and address that.
This was a problem I encountered with Project Barnum. When it was first launched it was targeting venues that host psychic shows and attempting to change their minds about doing so. I thought it was a good idea and I had loads of support, but then I realised that it just isolated the very people I had intended to help – those who attend the shows. I reflected on what Project Barnum was doing and I changed the focus so that it was no longer something that attacked, but instead was something that assisted. Rather than trying to stop the psychic shows and make the decision on behalf of the attendees, I turned it into something that would help people understand what they were actually seeing at those shows so they could make informed decisions for themselves. It was a major success and is currently being developed to be more useful.
As a Paranormal Researcher I know that Ghost Researchers, Ufologists, Cryptozoologists and Parapsychologists are not always the pseudo-scientific bad guys that skeptics often presume them to be. It might be hard for some to accept, but those who believe in illogical ideas often do so because they think they are logical ideas. The majority of people who believe paranormal ideas are against the promotion of misinformation, fraud, hoaxes and unethical behaviour and make good research allies whether they believe something to be true or not. It’s a shame that this potential is often overlooked.
I hope this clears up any confusion or questions about my previous comments.
Note: I would also recommend that people read Extra Sensory by Brian Clegg (read my review here) to get a grasp of how complex the topic of psychic phenomena and parapsychology really is. It’s dismissed out of hand so readily by some. The same can be said of hauntings, ghost phenomena and poltergeists too. Once you get an idea of the complexity of these subjects it’s easy to see why people get so annoyed when such things are just passed off as bullshit.