Don Philips Plays The Science Game. Loses.

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According to Mike Lockley of the Birmingham Mail, paranormal researcher Don Philips ‘has allowed scientists to pore over his unique talents and emerged with reputation untarnished.’ When I read this I had to do a double take – readers of my blog may be familiar with the issues I have with Don Philips and his research methods, so to discover he had worked with scientists to prove his abilities once and for all was news to me and my skeptic senses started tingling straight away.

I contacted Professor Chris French from the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths because I assumed it would be Professor French that this had happened with considering that Philips has been on investigations alongside Chris in the past, but he knew nothing about it. It turns out that this reference to allowing scientists to ‘pore over his unique talents’ may be reference to Steve Mera whom Philips has recently started to work alongside.

Further in the Birmingham Mail article Mike Lockley explains that Philips uses audio recordings to capture evidence of ghosts and explains that ‘Among believers, the activity is dubbed Electronic Voice Phenomena. Among non-believers, it is pareidolia – presented with a wall of incoherent noise, the brain will scramble the cackles and hisses into words.’

According the article Steve Mera has been able to discount that the recordings Philips provides as evidence are pareidolia. He is quoted as saying

“We’ve played Don’s tape to three people and they’ve picked out the same name. With pareidolia, they should all hear different words.”

Um. Nope.

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It’s great that there has been an attempt to use a control here by asking a (albeit small) sample of people to listen to the recording to gather their independent opinions of what the recording is but this doesn’t mean anything. I play samples of EVPs in the talks I deliver to the general public all the time and the hundreds of people who have sat and listened to these clips in my talk often hear similar things said in the recordings but this is not evidence that these recordings are made by ghosts.

They are not made by ghosts and there is a very good chance that the recordings are a product of external interference from broadcast sources such as radio transmissions, walkie talkies, wireless baby monitors and similar devices.

To suggest that three people hearing the same thing in an EVP recording is evidence that the recording is not a result of the pareidolia effect is quite odd really and it certainly isn’t scientific. Not to mention the pareidolia effect doesn’t make people interpret things differently than others. If the recording follows a specific speech pattern or sound pattern then it isn’t difficult to see how three people could hear the same thing.

Below is an example of one of the EVP clips I often use in my public talks. Give it a listen:

The hundreds of people who listen to this alleged EVP recording tell me that they hear some of the following things:

Just give it to me
Where is Timmy?
Just listen to me

Does this mean that this clip is a ghost saying one of these things? No, there is no way that I can rule out any of the possible rational causes for the recording and I find it very hard to believe that this has been possible for the clips that Don Philips records and presents as evidence. By all means allow scientists to examine your evidence and use a scientific approach to your research, but claiming that EVP isn’t pareidolia or caused by external interference? Please… change the record.

Don Philips: the desperate ghost hunter

Don Philips

“Even if it’s really quiet, my ears are quite tuned to hearing these guys. We’re actually communicating with them on a device that’s not actually made for communicating with spirits – it’s a digital recorder. The frequency is not perfect but they’re obviously somewhere in that range.”

Don Philips is the founder of the GSI Paranormal team and the above quote is taken from an episode of the television show ‘Man vs. Weird’ in which comedian Simon Farnby travels the world to meet people who claim to have superhuman powers. At the beginning of this particular episode he joins Philips and the GSI Paranormal team on a ghost hunt. A really, really boring ghost hunt… an almost homeopathic version of a crap Most Haunted knock off type ghost hunt…

“We’ll go anywhere, and we’ll usually find something” one of the team members tells the camera, “…even places that haven’t been reported as being haunted, we can usually find something there.” Well, the right crappy techniques and the will to believe anything is evidence will enable you to find ghosts where you want to find them, but that doesn’t do anything to prove a haunting.

Don Philips became involved in paranormal research after he had a scary experience with what he calls “a black mass” in his bedroom when he was seven years old. Some time later he started a paranormal investigation group.

“… straight away I realised I didn’t need any equipment but a digital recorder … they answer any question I ask them. I’ve asked about parallel universes and alternate realities and yes they do exist apparently.

Philips believes that he had the ability to capture the voices of spirits of the deceased on hand held digital recorders and offers these recordings as evidence that the soul survives after death, but in reality his recordings are a poor quality and likely caused by external interference, internal mechanisms (the recordings often sound clunky) and the auto-gain control of the device. He offers these recordings as evidence and calls them Actual Voice Phenomena (AVP), alluding to the idea that they are a class above Electronic Voice Phenomena (EVP), but they’re not. Those interested can read about what causes EVP recordings here.

In the programme produced for Channel 4 and available to watch on 4OD, Philips leads an investigation at the local council offices in Wigston where staff have reported hearing the sounds of children in what was a nursery, a baby crying near a back staircase, the visual apparition of a grey lady, and the sound of a child falling down a staircase where a boy actually once broke his neck from doing just that.

Philips begins the investigation by scouting the building out. “I’ll have a walk around, see where it feels strongest then invite the spirits to come to me and speak to me.” As he does this, his right hand man Nick Stoppani explains to the camera just how good Don is, saying “I can tell you hand on my heart that Don is the only person I have worked with that, for me, has given me the proof.”

The investigation is, quite frankly, pants. They smell something a bit weird in one room, then in another room Don suddenly proclaims, in that voice ghost hunters use for when they’re standing in dark empty rooms “I’ve got a lady with me now. Sweetheart I’d really appreciate it if you’d give me your name as loudly and clearly as possible, please.”

They get nothing.

Don also does some recording on the staircase where a child died after falling down the stairs, commenting wisely “this is sad just here” as he enters the area. He plays back the recorder and there’s a loud static sound that he swears is a voice saying “Wanker I will kill you!” Stoppani agrees enthusiastically that he has heard it too, but something tells me he’d agree with Don if he claimed he was the Son of God as long as there was a television appearance involved somewhere… then again, I’m a skeptic so I would say that.

There’s a moment where Don starts hyperventilating and coughing. “I just got blasted into next week” he claims, seemingly overwhelmed by… something. “I’ve never seen Don to that extent. Shocked me, shocked me, mate” Stoppani informs the camera man, shaking his head in an attempt to make the viewer understand just how edgy and exciting life with GSI Paranormal really is, but failing.

A little later they hold a seance, Don’s trusted digital recorder is still in his hand as he asks “who is behind me then?”, playing it back shortly later and listening intently, “…all of them” he whispers dramatically, but all that can be heard is a static clunking noise.

Don Philips isn’t the controversial character that some would have you believe.

I mean, yes, technically he threatens to sue people just for criticising him and his team, and yes he and his team mates aggressively harass people who don’t agree with them

..but in reality Don Philips is just a sad product of pop-culture paranormal – a man who talks to the dead and insists that they really, really do talk back even if you can’t hear it. The only controversy that comes with these particular ghost hunters are the awful over-hyped claims they make time after time again as they desperately try to stay relevant in a community where even the most open-minded believers eye them with caution and skepticism.

The very amusing “What are you so afraid of?” question

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Those not familiar with Don Philips and the GSI Paranormal team can read past posts of mine about them by clicking this link here. To summarise, Don and his team often demonstrate pseudo-scientific techniques on their ghost hunts and make outrageous claims about spirits they encounter and then “exorcise”. Whenever anybody has criticised or questioned such practices and claims, or when it has been pointed out that what this group does has the potential to be very unethical, Don goes on the attack (as you will see if you read back through my posts).

Recent media coverage of Don Philips and GSI’s investigations have set Don on the defensive again after many people have been openly critical of his work, behaviour and the claims he and his team members make. Criticism from people who believe and don’t believe in ghosts alike. This defensiveness is behaviour that many have come to expect of Don who refuses to consider anything said critically of what he and his team does.

Today it was pointed out to me that on the GSI Paranormal UK Facebook page the Admin (who I presume is Don) made the following post:

GSI are happy to put our working practices / evidence out in the public domain for all to see, some may like it others may not but after all we have nothing to hide and as such are totally transparent. But for those few who like to criticize other groups including those who claim to have been paranormal investigators themselves who now don’t believe:I, have seen lots on your blogs and websites about how scientific & great you are and indeed that you may be, but unfortunately apart from lack of anything other than the odd photo of you on location with some equipment or pics with buddy’s & lot’s of writing, there does seem to be a distinct lack of any video’s of you actually doing an investigation. A cynic may therefore conclude you either fail to produce anything worthwhile, or maybe your concerned of letting others see and comment on your own working practices & conclusions, after you have been so free with your comments towards others.

I presume (possibly incorrectly) that this is aimed at me as well as others, as did the person who sent me the link to it. I’m not sure of any other non-believers that Don Philips so openly dislikes. I know of many people who don’t identify as non-believers that he dislikes – The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena, the Society for Psychical Research, Steve Parsons of Para.Science and many others, for example. With that in mind I felt it was only fair to be able to respond to the accusation that I may be too scared to share my research.

Firstly, I work with quite a few eyewitnesses who are scared or confused, but you wont find anything in the public domain about this because I respect their privacy before anything else. You’ll only find my research regarding public cases (those that have been in the media, or are already documented publicly) written about on my websites.

Secondly, I’m quite fussy about cases I take on. Possibly too fussy, to be honest. If I can’t replicate things or I don’t have a good idea of what might be happening then it’s likely I will decline the case or ask for assistance from someone with more experience. I am always aware of how easy it is for my conduct as a researcher to become unethical so that is always at the front of my mind.

Thirdly, you can find writing about many of my cases here, here, here and here. You can ask me about others if you are that interested. The idea that I have something to hide is humorous, to say the least.

Fourthly, the idea that you have to visit someones house under the cover of darkness and spend hours at a time there and provide videos of you doing this to successfully investigate a paranormal claim is nonsense.

In another post on the Facebook page I noticed that Don Philips wrote an open invite to Professor Chris French, Professor Richard Wiseman and Derren Brown to work with the GSI team. He wrote:

I & my team will be doing many more investigations this year, Id like to invite, Professor Chris French, Dr Richard Wiseman , Derren to join me in an attempt to find / offer an alternative explanation or debunk my spirit replies, you will be made most welcome and work together as a team.

I can only hope that these respected individuals do not work with Don and his team for fear that they would give these ghost hunters credibility that they do not deserve. If there was one piece of advice I could give to Don that I knew he would listen to, it would be to listen to his critics, but that will never happen. Instead I predict there will be a condescending blog comment left in 5… 4… 3… 2…

Don Philips Surpasses Himself!

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I’ve blogged before about the unprofessional and unethical antics of Don Philip who promotes himself as a top investigator of ghost phenomena in the UK. With numerous TV appearances and public events to his name it is quite worrying. Today Steve Parsons posted a screengrab from Don Philips on Facebook that blew away anything I’ve blogged about in the past.

It reads:

Spur of the moment I rang nick who turned up in Leicester around 11:30pm, we visited a cemetery & the most prevelent contact we made was with a [deleted by me] year old girl called [deleted by me], she passed in 2010 & told me she was not happy in spirit so I invited her to come with me to find out more, she a lovely sounding child but obviously now myself and Nick have questions we would like the answers to so i plan on speaking with [deleted by me], this evening. I was actually hoping to find Becky’s [his friend] resting place! [sic all the way through]

The ethical oversight of this is staggering. I am lost for words really. I hope that the child doesn’t exist – I hope there are no parents who will discover that a man who thinks he can talk to dead people has been hanging around in a graveyard talking to their child who died just two years ago. Gosh. I’m lost for words.

This demonstrates the real need for people to be vigilant of the ghost hunting community because for all of those who understand ethical behaviour, there are the few who don’t whose reach is wide.

Don’s reaction is again defensive, and he ignores the reason people are outraged at what has been said. The exchange with his comment can be read below:

Don: If you took the time to read the post “I was actually hoping to find Beckys resting place” (a friend) you just might find the reason we went instrad of jumping to conclusions and moronic assumptions! if a little girl wishes to speak to me whilst im there then thats her business and mike and feck all to do with you! and just for the record paranormal investigators and ghost hunters are 2 different things!! .. And as for TWAT & no respect ethic or morals comments KEEP EM you really have no idea what I actually do do & and as its it in my friend + the fact myself and nick spent some time making good some graves that vandals had spoiled putting things back and standing headstones back up go preach your ethics morals and other crap to somewhere it actually may apply. [SIC THE WHOLE THING]

There are just two points I wish to raise in response to this:

1) The globe symbol next to Don’s name means this is a public post and anyone can see it. He is claiming only his Facebook friends can. The reach of such a post is wider than he thinks it is.

2) Don states “if a little girl wishes to speak to me whilst im there then thats her business and mike and feck all to do with you!” However, he made this alleged communication with a ghost public and made it everybody’s business – potentially including people who may have a child buried in that graveyard. Most ghost researchers – no matter how much they do or do not believe in ghosts – would not disclose that sort of information about the ghost they thought they had contacted if it was likely that living relatives of the deceased were still a) alive and b) local.

It’s a matter of sensitivity. Of course it is your right to go and talk to ghosts if that is what you think you are doing, but you should always consider the impact releasing that sort of information might have on those around you – particularly if you’re visiting graveyards in your local area.

That is what people meant when they spoke about Don being unethical with this posting. It’s a shame he doesn’t get that because this is basic ghost research ethics right here!

Intimidation as a distraction

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You may remember that a while ago I blogged about a man called Don Philips who is involved with a paranormal group called GSI UK. After I was critical of the methods they used on investigations I was subjected to abuse from Don. You can read about it here and here, but to summarise the experience – rather than answer the criticisms as I had offered him the chance to he ranted and raved online about how GSI were being attacked because of how good they were. I’m not at all surprised to discover that Don Philips has been doing the same recently in response to a media student who dared to email Don to get his side of a story.

The media student, Chris, had been approached by some people who had allegedly worked with Don and other members of GSI UK in the past who made allegations about Don and his team mates. Chris emailed Don to get his side of events regarding the allegations.

Rather than respond to the criticisms Don has ranted and raved on his Facebook pages and groups for days and days. He has openly attempted to intimidate the media student involved.

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[Nick Stoppani asked me to take down pictures grabbed from his public Facebook timeline claiming ‘copyright’, which I have done to avoid further conflict. The words attributed to him quoted below are done so in the spirit of ‘fair dealing’ as allowed for instances of criticism or review under Sections 29 and 30 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.]

Image of comments left on the GSI Facebook page reads:

Nick Stoppani-Presenter: Can’t see a link there myself mate, I wonder what the college would say I’d [sic] they learned what one of their students was up to? Also could you let me know what Ctoff has said please.
GSI Paranormal U.U & GSI Paranormal X events: Not so hasty Nick, I’ve just got to finish printing these posts off for someone who has requested them
Nick Stopanni-Presenter: OK don’t forget to inbox be [sic] what he has posted so I can show the officer later.”

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[Nick Stoppani asked me to take down pictures grabbed from his public Facebook timeline claiming ‘copyright’, which I have done to avoid further conflict. The words attributed to him quoted below are done so in the spirit of ‘fair dealing’ as allowed for instances of criticism or review under Sections 29 and 30 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.]

Image of status from the GSI Facebook Group admin reads:

GSI Paranormal U.U & GSI Paranormal X events: Police just been, it would appear our freelance reporter is actually a media student. Interestingly he went to the police the day after I posted that I had reported my [sic] this myself, but he went claiming he was being harassed by ME ! ummm…”

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[Nick Stoppani asked me to take down pictures grabbed from his public Facebook timeline claiming ‘copyright’, which I have done to avoid further conflict. The words attributed to him quoted below are done so in the spirit of ‘fair dealing’ as allowed for instances of criticism or review under Sections 29 and 30 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.]

Image of Facebook quote from GSI Paranormal reads:

GSI Paranormal U.U & GSI Paranormal X events: Update: In light of the idiotic accusations from x3 known individuals, x1 of which should really no [sic] better ! & all in an attempt to thwart the progress of (G.S.I) I thought the seriousness of money extortions etc best be looked at by the police. Now I have suggested the idiots making these claims take their so called evidence to the police themselves ? there seems to be some reluctance to do so on their part! So……… I thought I [sic] help you out ad [sic] a the same time show how pathetic your claims are: I spent a whole a the police station on your behalf last night, gave the all your emails / accusations / including the email where you claim to have recorded evidence!!! CRIME REF NO: LEP12 02 12 – 0701. They have promised to come see me today. KEEP YOUR EVIDENCE SAFE THEY MAY WANT TO SEE IT!! Now post this in your story oon the 17th ! (& do one) as I’m wasting no more time with wanna be (freelance reporters) (Rival ghost team members & their stories) or indeer amateur film makers who also tell porkys!”

Instead of intimidating a student by making public posts that Don knows Chris will read, about reporting him to the police, publically sharing his email address and making abusive posts about him, Don could have (and should have) just responded to the private email from Chris in response to the allegations that had been made to Chris by other people.

If those other people had lied then that isn’t Chris’ fault – at least he had the decency to follow the allegations up with the other party involved. More than the mainstream did with me recently, I can assure you.

When I saw the drama on the GSI Facebook page I wasn’t at all surprised but I was annoyed. Don Philip appears to be a very closed minded individual who cannot handle any criticism leveled his way whatsoever. It’s a shame, because when you stick your head above the parapet you will become a target for criticsm. Whether that criticism is justified or not doesn’t matter. It’s something you have to expect to deal with – especially when you make the sort of claims Don does.

Being abusive and rude wont distract people from the original criticisms being leveled in your direction – it just strengthens the criticisms against you. To simply abuse everyone who dares to criticise you, to claim they’re only doing it to ‘ruin’ your reputation and the ‘good’ work that you do is at best naive, and at worst, arrogant.