Don Philips Still Playing The Science Game. Still Losing.

Don Philips

In the last few months, I have had a number of conversations with people who have found my previous blog posts about Don Philips. Philips, it seems, along with Steve Mera, has been causing a fair bit of concern states side with their claims and research ethics.

You may have watched my video on Dowsing after it seemed to be claimed that Philips could psychically influence dowsing rods being held by Mera.

Back in 2014, I wrote a blog post called ‘Don Philips plays the science game. Loses.‘ It looked at a newspaper report that claimed scientists had proven Philips was able to capture voices of the dead on tape. The report said that Steve Mera has been able to discount that the recordings are pareidolia. He is quoted as saying

In the article, he was quoted as saying that they had played Don’s recording to three people and they ‘picked out the same name. With pareidolia, they should all hear different words.”

In response to my criticisms of this Steve Mera wrote that he was ‘still going through all the paperwork, and lots more tests to carry out…’ and Don Philips similarly wrote ‘when the current project has ended experiments replicated, and data collated all information will be freely available.’

Yeah… still waiting on that.

Colour me surprised then when Doubtful News covered some more recent research by Mera and Philips under the name of The Scientific Establishment of Parapsychology [SEP] concerning an allegedly haunted house. Sharon Hill reports:

‘SEP report was horrible – full of unreadable graphs, following poor methodology, and bloated with pseudoscientific babble. Kenny [Biddle] had the report run through a software program commonly used to detect plagiarism and discovered that about 38% of the text was verbatim from other, unattributed sources. I wrote to the lead author, Steve Mera, with the plagiarism charge. He said that the report was not final, it was just a draft, and that Linder should not have released it. The report is dramatically stamped “cleared for release” and contains no indication that it is a draft or that the unattributed portions would be fixed or cited.’

It is my opinion that Philips and Mera use the “incomplete research” excuse time and time again to wiggle out of having to be held responsible for their bad science and questionable research ethics.

Hill concludes in the Doubtful News piece that ‘[Fact checking] and skeptical activism works to scale back inaccurate “facts”, unethical and unprofessional actions, and maybe even squash hoaxes or frauds. If we didn’t bust the fakers, we’d probably be overrun by them.’

There isn’t much I can add to that conclusion except to that that Don Philips and Steve Mera are still playing the science game and still losing.

Win: A Natural History of Ghosts

competition time


natural history ghostsTo be in with a chance of winning a signed copy of A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke all you have to do is subscribe to this blog by filling in the form below.

Described as ‘insightful and illuminating’, A Natural History of Ghosts is a firm favourite in the Stevens household. In it Clarke traces the scientific and social aspects of ghostly sightings and brings to life classic cases from Hinton Ampner and Borley to the Angels of Mons. But he does more than just tell ghost stories… he explores why and how these stories came to be, and what they mean to us today. This book is a delightful read whether you believe in ghosts or not.

The winner will also receive a Ghost Geek pin badge and something from my ghost collection too (which is a collection of ghost-related merch, toys and items and not actual ghosts.)

Badge modeled here by "psychic conman", Ash Pryce
Badge in the wild. Model: Ash Pryce.

The best news is that I won’t bombard you with spam once you’ve signed up. You’ll just get an update when something new is added to the site. It’s a win-win situation!


Bill Nye on Ghosts

bill nye

The folks over at recently shared a video in which Bill Nye answers a question from a woman and her son about ghosts.

‘We have a question on your perspective on ghosts, and what you think happens to your life energy after you die. Is it just pushing daisies?”

It presented a great opportunity for Nye to respond to a question that many people have asked through the centuries.

The answers provided by Nye are less than inspiring though. His first mistake is to treat ghosts and psychics as one subject when this simply isn’t the case. A parapsychologist will study psychic claims but typically not ghosts and haunted houses. A paranormal researcher (like me) will research ghosts and haunted houses but not psychics.

Nye mentions that he is a member of several skeptic societies who have “looked and looked for haunted houses, ghosts in cemeteries or psychics who believe they’re in touch with people who are dead and there’s no credible evidence.”

What I think he means is that skeptical investigators routinely examine the evidence presented by people who claim it provides evidence of such things, and find it to be less than compelling and certainly not up to standard. No skeptical society that I am aware of has ever launched investigations to actively find evidence which would be a venture into the pseudo-scientific.

In the video Nye also talks about Harry Houdini and the code that Houdini promised to deliver after he died should ghosts be real. He seems to be quite confused though as he states:

“You may know that Houdini, the famous magician, said “if anybody can come back from the dead it’s me, man. I’m coming. And he never got in touch with anyone, no-one ever heard from him. yet a secret word between he and his mother that he said, you know, I’ll give you the secret word when he comes back. You know what the secret word is? NOBODY KNOWS! It was secret! He never came back!”

The code word was actually shared between Houdini and his wife, Bess. The word was also published in the authorised Houdini biography written by Harold Kellock titled Houdini, His Life Story.

Those who listen only to Nye’s version will not know the truth and perhaps will miss out on the insight that the Houdini story provides into the human relationship with ghosts.

For a while Bess believed Houdini had communicated from beyond the grave but it is likely that this was her way of coping with her grief following his death. This has been written about in detail by Massimo Polidoro for Skeptical Inquirer and you can read about it here.

This is something we see happening even today. Ghosts are a coping mechanism for many people and research has shown that some people benefit from the belief that a deceased love one is visiting them in ghost form. This is why I found myself growing annoyed with Nye when, at the end of the video, he tells the woman who asked the question that she can outwit her friends who believe in ghosts.

“Your friends who believe in ghosts – you can outwit them. You’re ahead of them because you’ll not waste energy look around looking for ghosts.”

Oh, hun. No. Not believing in ghosts doesn’t make you a superior person. Just watch skeptics talk about politics and you’ll see that non-belief =/= intelligence.

People who believe in ghosts aren’t stupid. They’re often people searching for closure or trying to figure out what they’ve experienced. I should know because I am the result of that line of reasoning. People asking these questions are not wasting their time in doing so.

Although Nye is technically right that research has provided no evidence for the survival of the human “soul”, this isn’t the whole sum of ghosts or even paranormal research.

Some people who believe in ghosts do not believe ghosts to be the human soul. Some people do not believe that haunted houses are haunted by ghosts, some people believe in ghosts but not haunted houses.

Paranormal research is a complex and weird field of study regardless of which direction you approach it from. Even those who’ve been researching this area for decades learn new things all of the time, which is why the research is ongoing. The confidence with which Nye dismissed these ideas suggests that he’s an expert, but his incorrect statements prove otherwise.

It’s behaviour like this that make me think I was right when I recently wrote of how Science Snobs Make Us All Stupid. And you can take my word for it because I’m a member of several skeptical societies – and even on the board for one.

I would have loved for Nye to say “evidence suggests ghosts aren’t real but…”, because we have so much to learn and teach about human perception from the experiences that people report. Explaining the Ideomotor response or Pareidolia effect can blow minds. As skeptics we could do well to remember that just because we have knowledge, not everybody does and it’s this can be used to engage people. Not ill-informed dismissals.

Knowledge is only powerful if you share it.

Mystery Hand Haunts Belfast Mill Workers

the mysterious hand close up

HuffPo have reported that during the creation of a historic gallery by Belfast Live it was noticed that a photo taken in 1900 of some Belfast mill workers shows a disembodied hand resting on the shoulder of one of the women.

photo of mill workers
The Mysterious Hand

Sure enough, if you look at the woman seated on the right of the first row of four she has a hand resting upon her shoulder that appears to have no owner. So, is this a ghostly manifestation? Thing from The Addams Family dropping in to say hi? Or does she literally have a disembodied hand sitting there?

the mysterious hand close up
Close up of the hand

As a paranormal researcher of some experience I can tell you that when it comes to photographs nothing is ever what it seems. Many people believe that photo manipulation was born when the modern computer was created but it pre-dates Photoshop by a long, long time. In fact, as soon as the science of photography was perfected for general use people began to manipulate the photographs they were taking.

Usually this was to correct over-exposures and similar issues by fitting two photographic plates together to create one image, other times this would be for comedic or artistic effect. Photograph manipulation was particularly popular among advertising agencies and also, more controversially, for political propaganda – the most noted case of this being Stalin having opponents erased from or added into photos.

stalin photos
Naughty, naughty Stalin…

People also faked ghostly apparitions in their photographs by creating purposeful double exposures which would result in ghostly figures appearing in the photograph alongside the medium or the customer (who was often hoping to contact a deceased loved one.) American spirit photographer William Mumler is by far the most famous employer of this method of trickery, having been caught out and tried in court for fraud.

Mumler photos
Examples of the work of William Mumler

The mysterious hand in the photo of the Belfast mill workers is most likely the result of photo manipulation. I suspect there were other people in the photo who were edited out, with the hand accidentally being left in place – or proving too difficult to erase cleanly. Today we would call this sort of mistake a “photoshop fail” and there are whole web galleries devoted to left behind limbs. Here are some examples:

catalogue photo error
How many hands does this man have?
miley cyrus photo error
Miley Cyrus appears to have a third hand


basketball player photo
Extra hands would be useful in basketball, I guess…

When the skeptic get spooked

Woodchester Mansion photo by Stewart Black

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Woodchester Mansion with a small group of others. It wasn’t a paranormal investigation but more a tour of the building and we were there from about 11pm through to 2am-ish.

It is a beautiful building in its own way – incomplete, with doorways that lead to a two-floor drop, floors that aren’t quite there and in some places are completely absent. It feels as though you’re stepping back in time to the 1800s and that at any moment the architects and stonemasons will pick up the tools they left behind and carry on. Why they left their tools behind nobody quite knows…

You know that the building you’re standing in is old and yet it almost feels new and throughout the time we spent there I couldn’t shake the discombobulation that came as a result of that.

As we walked around Paul and Chris (who had kindly agreed to do the tour at a moments notice) explained the history of the building and the many eye-witness accounts that have been reported from visitors and staff over the years. We were listening to them speak while standing in a first floor hallway when suddenly the noise of something moving in the hall on the floor below us caught our attention.

It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been to the mansion, but the previously-mentioned missing floors meant that even though we were a level above the hall we were able to look through what was meant to be a doorway (but isn’t) and down into the hall through what should have been the floor of the missing adjacent room. There was nobody present and nothing obvious that could cause the noise.

Old building, lots of open spaces, windy night… who knows what the noises could have been. What interested me more though was the report that most weird experiences at Woodchester Mansion seem to happen to those not expecting to have experiences (e.g. not ghost hunters, or ghost hunters who aren’t yet ghost hunting.)

This is my experience too – whenever I have had a strange experience it has been when I was working, when I was packing up equipment or setting it up, when I’ve been a guest somewhere and not there as an investigator. This isn’t to say that ghosts are real and are pranksters, but it’s incredibly frustrating because when people inevitably ask you if you have any evidence you don’t because you didn’t have a camera with you, or you’d just packed it away.

The most interesting thing happened after we’d left the building for the night and were about to leave. The group of seven had arrived in two cars and were stood next to them talking – CJ and I went to the outbuilding that houses toilets. The women’s toilets are around the corner from the men’s and as I was inside I heard someone call my name but when I left there was nobody there which surprised me because it certainly sounded like a vocalisation. I walked around the side of the building and met CJ just as he was leaving the men’s and asked if he’d called my name but he hadn’t. None of the others had left the group of five that stood with the cars. Certainly not evidence of anything I know, but intriguing nonetheless.

To conclude, I left Woodchester Mansion realising that I was actually in support of paranormal tourism. We’re going to discuss this on Episode 10 of The Spooktator when it comes out and I’ll write more about this after the episode is released so do check back if you’re keen to hear more.

Thanks to everyone who made the trip possible – it was an incredible way to spend the night and morning. I would thoroughly recommend that people visit Woodchester Mansion either as tourists or as part of a ghost tour.

featured photo by Stewart Black, Flickr