Will Another Paranormal Challenge Prove Psychic Ability?

psychic-challenge

“If you’re really psychic there’s $1million with your name on it!” 

It’s a challenge issued up by skeptics on a regular basis. I still see it to this day and recently, while being interviewed by a US-based skeptic podcast, I was surprised to discover that the hosts didn’t know the $1million challenge had ceased to exist following the retirement of James Randi in 2015.

Marcello Truzzi was right when he said ‘An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof’ (1978), but I’ve often felt that some would use the $1million challenge as a way to not engage with people who were making paranormal claims. As a dismissal of sorts.

The JREF challenge required people to pass a preliminary test that demonstrated their paranormal claims were legit before going onto another test that, if successful, could lead to them winning the legendary $1million prize. Yet, many critics point out that the statistics involved to pass these tests were unrealistic and unachievable. (Taylor, 2008)

Indeed, Truzzi himself once wrote it was his opinion that ‘ … scientists should carefully make such assessments before judging the likelihood of some phenomenon’s actual occurence. I think that this will quickly reveal that some paranormal claims are far less unlikely than others, and this has very important implications for the amount and quality of proof a scientific skeptic should demand before accepting such claims.‘ (Truzzi, 1978)

When the JREF challenge ceased in 2015 you’d be forgiven for thinking that there wasn’t anything as mainstream to replace it but there are currently at least twenty such challenges in existence around the globe which can be seen listed here.

Here in the UK, other than the Merseyside Skeptic Society’s Halloween Psychic Challenge, there hasn’t been much else actively offering an incentive for people to put their claims to the test other than their sense of curiosity and openness.

Then, in September, members of the Association for Skeptical Enquiry (ASKE) were informed that the organisation has relaunched The ASKE Paranormal Challenge which offers a £10,000 reward to applicants who can demonstrate a paranormal ability under controlled conditions.

The document outlining the test on the ASKE website explains that ‘Successful claimants who are resident in the UK will then be eligible, if they wish, to apply for the €25,000 Sisyphus Prize offered by SKEPP, the Belgian Skeptical society.’ (ASKE, 2016)

I asked one of the founders of ASKE, Michael Heap (MH) a few questions about the challenge. My questions are labelled as HS and our exchange follows.


HS: Did the cessation of the JREF $1million challenge have any influence upon the relaunch of the ASKE challenge?

MH: The original idea of having this kind of challenge came from Tony Youens and others when ASKE was established in the 1990s.  No doubt they were influenced by James Randi’s $1million challenge.  Several ASKE members pledged contributions to the prize, which at one time came to £14,000.  We had few applicants and the claims of those that did apply were too ill-defined or difficult test.  We were however involved in a preliminary test of a dowser (with negative results)

For this reason, and the fact that several of the people who made pledges allowed their ASKE membership to lapse, we withdrew the offer.  However, around that time the Belgian skeptical organisation SKEPP announced a temporary challenge (the Sisyphus Prize) with an award of €1 million.  Applicants had first to pass a preliminary test in their own country, overseen by their national skeptical organisation, which would give them a small prize if they passed the test. ASKE offered £400. 

ASKE’s latest venture was announced at my initiative and, in effect, continues the present arrangement but with, I hope, a higher profile and more publicity.

HS: What is the long-term aim of the challenge?

MH: It is important to express the aim of this kind of venture as being no more than to put to the test claims of paranormal abilities made by individuals from any walk of life.  The aim (expressed or unspoken) should not be to debunk the paranormal.  

If someone were to demonstrate unequivocally that they have a paranormal ability that would be a wonderful bonus, despite the loss of £10,000.  Past experience has suggested that this is extremely unlikely.  Nevertheless, as a psychologist what I find most interesting about people who believe they have a paranormal ability is why they have come to believe this and what purpose, if any, the belief serves in their lives.  This does not mean disparaging the people concerned in any way.  I hope we can build up a caseload of tests (either preliminary or formal) that have been conducted and I think this would be of interest.  

HS: What are the challenges that running such a test faces?

MH: As you will have gathered I have only limited experience of running tests, and I have spoken to those with more experience.  The main challenge seems to be devising a watertight protocol.  Science will not accept the authenticity of any unusual claim or explanation if there is a way of accounting for what is observed that is more consistent with existing knowledge.  (This does not, incidentally, mean that the unusual explanation is thus incorrect).  

It follows that if you conduct an experiment or test on an unusual claim you must eliminate every possibility that a positive outcome could be explained by normal means such as inadequate randomisation of conditions, inadvertent cueing, or the use of trickery by the claimant.  It is deceptively difficult to ensure that this condition is met and some claims do not lend themselves to this kind of investigations.

Many people see the problem of paranormal challenges such as this as the almost universal reluctance of the person tested to relinquish their claim when the test has failed.  (In answer to my question at a lecture by James Randi, he stated that very occasionally claimants have done this; at a Skeptics in the Pub meeting some years ago, Richard Wiseman’s answer was that he lived for the day when this would happen.)  However, I personally would not expect this to occur.  

I believe that it is important to inform applicants that if they do not pass the test it does not disprove their claimed ability; it simply means that they were unable to demonstrate it on this occasion.  This is also something we all need to accept.  

HS: Do you think such challenges contribute to the field of Parapsychology or is it a stand-alone thing?

MH: I believe they have a place in Parapsychology if only for the purpose given above, namely that they provide an accumulation of detailed case records.

Obviously, if a claimant passed their test that would be important for Parapsychology (but see one problem below).  More generally, a paranormal ability such as ‘a sixth sense’ would have an immense evolutionary advantage and, as with the other ‘five senses’, there is no reason why an individual should not be able to demonstrate it under controlled conditions.  (Why would it only be revealed by a group of people?)  So it only needs one person to demonstrate this ability unequivocally for its existence to be accepted.  

Unfortunately, the history of single case studies in Parapsychology (cf. Uri Geller) is not an inspiring one; nevertheless, it is a valid approach and less costly and time-consuming than group studies.  There is, however, one problem with challenges; in science, as well as a watertight experiment, the findings must be replicable.  A successful challenge claimant is quite free to go away and rest on their laurels without submitting themselves for further tests.  And – heaven forfend – what about the possibility that the prize-winner fails subsequent tests that they agree to undertake!

HS:  What sort of people do you hope will apply to take the test?

MH: So far as the personal qualities of the applicant are concerned, the words ‘sensible’ and ‘sincere’ spring to mind.  From my not-too-extensive experience, an understanding of the scientific experimental process is important.  That is, the applicant should be able to grasp the idea that, within the limited resources that can be provided, the claimed ability should be one that will produce a clear, specific and unequivocal outcome if it succeeds, and no effect if it does not and there should be tight controls on normal extraneous influences.  

Finally, there is the possibility that the claimed ability is part of a delusional system in a person with mental health problems.  If such appears to be the case it would be unwise to proceed.  With this and other considerations in mind, ASKE stipulates that it reserves the right to reject any application it wishes.


Personally, I have never been 100% sure that a financial prize is a way to approach testing paranormal abilities. I believe that if evidence of such abilities or powers is ever to be produced it will be through parapsychology or anomalistic psychology research and not through tests at conferences or conducted in front of news cameras. However, I respect that challenges of this nature are a good way to engage with the public about how important controlled tests of paranormal claims are. Just look at the damage caused by the ADE651 bomb detectors which were actually just dowsing devices. Had the right people asked the right questions, and had these devices been tested using the double-blind conditions promoted by paranormal challenges the outcome could have been so different.

Will another test of this nature find evidence of paranormal abilities? I doubt it, but time will tell.


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References

ASKE Paranormal Challenge (2016) [Online], The Association for Skeptical Enquiry. Available at http://www.aske-skeptics.org.uk/page13/ASKE%20Paranormal%20Challenge.pdf (Accessed Nov 10th 2016).

Taylor, Greg (2008), The Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge [Online], Daily Grail. Available at http://www.dailygrail.com/features/the-myth-of-james-randis-million-dollar-challenge (Accessed Nov 10th 2016).

Truzzi, Marcello (1978), On The Extraordinary: An Attempt at Clarification, Zetetic Scholar. Vol. 1, No. 1, p. 11. Available to view at http://www.tricksterbook.com/truzzi/ZS-Issues-PDFs/ZeteticScholarNo1.pdf (Accessed Nov 10th 2016)

Featured image: Business man consults glowing crystal ball, Infowire, Flickr

Annoying Myths About The Paranormal

ghostmyths

I’m a bit of a ghost geek and after being a paranormal investigator for over a decade I like to think I know a thing or two about ghosts. That’s why I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Halloween because on one hand “yay spooky times”, but on the other hand, I watch, aghast, as people who know very little about spontaneous phenomena suddenly start telling us the reality of it while really just rehashing old myths.

So, here are four stubborn myths about ghosts that I wish we could finally put to rest.

1 – Ghosts/Spirits are human energy because energy doesn’t die

I’m just going to say it. The first law of thermodynamics does not prove that ghosts are real. Ghost hunters occasionally claim that it does because if energy cannot be destroyed or dissipate then the energy in our bodies when we die must go somewhere, therefore… ghosts. This makes absolutely no sense at all because our bodies don’t just disappear once we’re dead. Things happen to our corpse and the energy in our cells is used in the decomposition process. Everything that makes us mobile relies on exchanges of different energies within our bodies.

This is GCSE science and yet so many people fail to grasp this. Remember in science class how your teacher explained that the sandwich you ate at lunchtime becomes energy that you use to kick a ball? They were right. Remember how the same teacher didn’t talk about some spiritual energy surviving death? Yeah!

If you want to know exactly what happens to your dead, bloating body when you die I recommend reading Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty. Be warned though, it isn’t pretty.

2 – Water attracts ghosts/causes hauntings because water has memory

Lots of so-called experts will tell you that houses with (or near) underground water sources are likely to be haunted and that bathrooms (where there’s lots of plumbing and water) are commonly haunted because of the water.

They are wrong.

The idea has its roots in the Stone Tape Theory that suggests a ghost or spirit can actually be a recording of a thing that happened a long time ago, the energy of which has been recorded in the fabric of the place the haunting is taking place in. In this instance, it would be a body of water or water source.

In fact, when I read John Fraser’s book ‘Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s guide’ (you can read my review here),  I was shocked to discover that he suggested water had memory and it was this that could cause ghosts to be drawn to it. (Fraser, 2010)

Nope.

Fraser suggests there is circumstantial evidence for this but there isn’t, especially as his circumstantial evidence involves the unscientific method of dowsing. (Fraser, 2010)

Yes. Dowsing, which only works because of ideomotor responses (unconscious muscular movement) which stop when you introduce a double-blind control as Professor Chris French did in this experiment…

Many people base their claim that water has memory on research by Dr Jaques Benveniste but they fail to realise or mention that Benveniste didn’t use a double-blind control is his research which could have (and probably did) bias the conclusions being reached.

The paper by Benveniste was published in Nature in 1988 but one of the conditions for publication was that editor John Maddox and James Randi could supervise a repeat of the experiment. They did, and they found that the assessment of the two types of water involved in the experiment involved a subjective evaluation by a researcher who knew which samples were which. When the protocol was tightened to avoid this the results were not repeated.

Other research by a Dr Emoto suggested that water could remember good or bad things spoken to it and that this would affect the way in which the water froze. However, as Carrie Poppy reported for Skeptical Inquirer, the protocols for these experiments were so lacking that it’d be impossible to replicate them.

‘Apparently, Emoto’s experimental protocols are so lacking as to be unrepeatable, and even the most basic attempts at scientific controls are absent. Regular Skeptical Inquirer contributor Harriet Hall reviewed Emoto’s book about his experiments herself, giving it the honor of “the worst book I have ever read. It is about as scientific as Alice in Wonderland.”’ Carrie Poppy, Skeptical Inquirer, 2014

So, although the idea that events can be recorded and replayed sounds possible and would account for some anomalous reports there really is no supporting evidence for this claim.

3 – More ghosts are seen at Halloween than any other time of the year

I see this claim made so often in the media and by paranormal researchers, especially at this time of the year. There are so many people rushing out to take part in ghost hunting events as a result of this myth and it’s a shame because they could be at home, in the warm, watching their Ghostwatch DVD instead. 

Halloween traditions change depending on where they come from but for many, it was (or is) a time to remember and honour the dead. Others would (or still do) go house to house in costume for food and would carry lanterns with them that represented spirits, or to drive spirits away. 

It was traditionally Christmas or Easter and the Pentecost that was most associated with apparitions of the dead and not All Saints Day or Halloween which was more about keeping the dead away. (Davies, 2007)

According to Owen Davies, ‘Today, Halloween is, of course, most associated with the imitation of ghosts and noisy spirits rather than concerns over their actual appearance.’ (Davies, 2007)

The idea that the spirit realm is somehow closer to that of the living is a nice idea that certainly suits the theme of modern Halloween but, as with many of the myths discussed here, this idea simply doesn’t have any evidence to support it. 

You might be more aware of your strange, ghostly experiences at this time of year because Halloween is so widely commercialised but, in all reality, you’re just as likely to see a ghost in July as you are to see a ghost in October.

4 – The X-box Kinect can detect ghosts

Thanks to US ghost hunting TV show Ghost Adventures, Youtube and ghost hunting websites are full of footage of ghosts captured using Microsoft Kinect, the advanced motion-capture camera that you can use with your Xbox console. 

Unexplained figures that are picked up by the camera are explained away as ghosts but is that really the case? Can this camera detect what the human eye cannot see?

No. It cannot.

The Kinect is capable of near-instant recognition of someone entering its field of view. It can work in complete darkness and detect body heat, facial expressions and your heartbeat (Corriea, 2014).  Yet, the camera isn’t completely accurate as anyone who experienced the failure of the motion control part way through a game will attest to.

Many of these Kinect ghost videos are inevitably hoaxes but a lot of them are also caused by the system picking out familiar shapes and identifying them as human even though they’re probably just shadows, light glare on furniture, or even temperature changes within the room. A bit like thermal imaging cameras do.

If you use the Kinect and stand behind a piece of furniture it will freak out and start trying to find something that looks like your legs. Does this mean you suddenly have ghost legs?

No. It doesn’t.

There is no credible evidence that the Kinect can detect ghosts. These oddities are more likely to just be technological glitches and not other-worldly. Don’t believe the hype. 

 

References

Corriea, A. (2014) ‘Ghosts in the machine? Using the Kinect to hunt for spirits’, Polygon. Available at http://www.polygon.com/halloween/2014/10/30/7079943/kinect-ghost-hunting (Accessed 30 Oct 2016).

Davies, O. (2007) The Haunted, A Social History of Ghosts, Palgrave & Macmillan

Frasher, J (2010) Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide, The History Press

Win: A Natural History of Ghosts

competition time

YOU CAN WIN…

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!

COMPETITION NOW CLOSED

The BBC “Guide To Ghost-Hunting” Is Anti-Science

ghostbusters

In the week that saw Ghostbusters 2016 launch on the bigscreen I’ve been contacted by many news outlets wanting to speak to me. As I have a proper job I haven’t been able to oblige but luckily for us all, BBC Three managed to get hold of ‘a range of the most experienced experts in the field’ to put together a guide called ‘How to be a real life ghost hunter’. I’d say that it was a useful piece of writing, only it isn’t. It’s terrible and made me laugh for all the wrong reasons.

According to them paranormal investigators are ‘focused primarily on collecting data and evidence of the paranormal’ which is utter nonsense. Ghost hunters use biased methodologies to do this, investigators actually investigate to discover the facts – two very different approaches. Only one of which is useful.

It all becomes clear when the article goes on the explain how they’ve been getting their advice from Tim Brown from the British ghost hunting team called PIGS. To begin with Brown sounds pretty rational and explains that ‘“99% of the time when we get called round to a house, it’s turns out to be something quite normal; a creaky home, changes in temperatures, etc.’ but then he lets himself down by presenting this photo as evidence.

pigs photo 1

Brown adds ‘“Sometimes you hear from people that they’ve got a funny smell, or they’ve heard voices, or they’ve seen someone walking around their house. So at that point we try and record some evidence or data of what’s happening in their home. So we can either explain it away as normal, or prove that it’s not normal, and make sure it gets fixed.’

All of this, and the rest of the article prove that people who call themselves paranormal investigators are not always investigators and do not have any idea of how to apply the scientific method to their work. They’re out to prove that ghosts are real and to capture evidence of ghosts when this simply isn’t possible. Anything that they capture will have a real-world explanation.

Brown says that his team work to capture data of the odd things that have been reported to them to see if they can then work them out or not but this is just a clever way of explaining why they look as though they’re just ghost hunters. They’re not really ghost hunters, they just look like ghost hunters because they’re gathering data. Data is a scientific word, don’t you know?

Here are some facts though – you do not need to experience the oddity for yourself to be able to explain it. Do you know how long it would take for some cases to get solved if everyone used this method? It also adds a huge bias to the research being undertaken because it means that the investigators a) think there is something to be experienced, and b) are more likely to interpret ordinary things as significant because they’re looking for something significant.

But hey… it makes you sound rational, right?

Data, Surveillance, Analysis, Peer Review  – these are all buzz words used by ghost hunters to assure others (and themselves, I would argue) that they’re legit.

When ghost hunters employ these approaches they often ignore the negative hits (when something doesn’t occur) and only focus on the positive hits (when something occurs) which means that their conclusions are based upon cherry picked data.

Further down the article John from Spirit Knights Paranormal Investigators explains how it’s important to respect who you’re speaking to. ‘It’s when people go in to antagonise them that it all goes wrong. People get scratched and thrown down stairs, all through handling it wrong’ he says, and the article states: Spirits were once people and we shouldn’t forget that.

It’s clear that Spirit Knights are a whole different kind of ghost hunting team because they don’t hide the fact that they employ spiritualist methods of spirit communication on their ghost hunts. It does mean that their advice isn’t useful, but then at least BBC Three got their science-to-nonsense balance sorted which is highly important to them, but unfortunately for them the science they portrayed is anything but scientific. Awkward…

There is something wholly strange about humans who act as though they’re white knights riding in to save the tormented souls of the dead. I would suggest it says a lot about the self-worth of those who act in this way.

I have seen Ghostbusters 2016 and I thought it was a fun film. We talk about it in Episode 12 of The Spooktator podcast. The thing that stood out to me the most though was the fact that in this alternative universe the Ghostbusters are all scientists who have respect for rational inquiry. In their world it becomes apparent that ghosts really do exist but in this world that isn’t the reality. So-called experts like Tim Brown chase their shadows and make themselves feel important by sounding science-y., they host paranormal tourism events while claiming to be impartial, and they use equipment that does nothing useful.

Ghost hunting teams often want to distance themselves from the Most Haunted-esque type of ghost hunting which seemed to boom in the early part of this century, but in truth they’re not completely divorced from those methodologies at all because they rely on them too much. If you totally disregard pseudo-science how are you going to show the world that you’re right even when you’re spectacularly wrong?

 

Who Do Gettysburg Ghost Gals Think They’re Kidding?

ghostbusters 1

“Every team back in the 90s was male-dominated. You didn’t find any teams that were female-run” claims Brigid Goode, a member of the Gettysburg Ghost Gals in an interview with Irish Central.

In the article it is claimed she has ‘been doing paranormal investigations for decades and founded the Gettysburg Ghost Gals in 2012.’ In an MTV article Goode also claimed that “during investigations we get better results than the men do.”

Hmm.

Ugly gender stereotyping aside, we always knew there’d be people who’d ride of the coattails of the new Ghostbusters movie this year and it appears that the Gettysberg Ghost Gals (GGG) are those people. Members of this US based team have cropped up on various media outlets basking in the limelight of the movie by claiming to be the first all-female ghost-hunting team in the US. This, is seems, somehow makes them relatable to the new Ghostbusters who also happen to be women.

The Ghostbusters were a team of (mostly) parapsychologists who had their funding withdrawn by their university and struck it out on their own but the Ghostbusters are nothing like real-life Parapsychologists. I’d even go as far as to say that they’re bad and unethical researchers. Look no further that the Zener card experiment near the beginning of the film for evidence of this!

In her book  ‘Parapsychology: a beginners guide‘, Dr Caroline Watt writes that ‘Parapsychologists do not run around in boiler suits, hunting down marauding ghosts with proton packs. Instead, like other scientists, parapsychologists often carry out well-controlled studies and publish their findings in both mainstream and specialist academic journals.’

Running around chasing ghosts with weird equipment? Sounds familiar!

Further into the MTV article mentioned above Goode tells aspiring ghost hunters to ‘“Know your equipment, and know what you’re talking about. If they use modern equipment, pieces of ghost hunting equipment that we actually use, it would add legitimacy.’

This is not true because there is no equipment that has been proven to detect ghosts. Nobody has ever established the qualities of ghosts so how on earth would you go about detecting them?

A browse of the GGG website reveals nothing much about the methodologies they use, but there is a page dedicated to the paranormal equipment companies that sponsor them, and their event management company, and all of their public appearances… it’s all rather unimpressive.

I was prompted to write this post after noticing that someone called Chris Goode (who I presume is related to Brigid) recently tweeted that the Gettysburg team should have been included in a list of influential American ghost hunters produced by Planet Weird.

Awkward…

It seems to me that this attention-seeking ghost hunting team aren’t very good at researching ghosts which leaves them only one claim to fame – that they’re Americas first all-female ghost hunting team. There’s no way of establishing this as an accurate claim (and I’m pretty sure it could be disputed) but who really cares?

There are so many women who made waves and shaped paranormal research (and many who continue to do so today) despite their gender so if your only claim to fame is your gender then you’re not really that special.