For Entertainment Purposes Only: On Psychics and Legislation

consumer

There is a UK Gov petition doing the rounds that states ‘Make all those who sell psychic services, prove that their abilities are real.’ You can read the petition in full here. 

It is well intentioned but it isn’t going to work. I know not because I am a psychic myself, but because consumers are already covered by The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act 2008 which replaced The Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951.

It was under this previous piece of legislation that psychics and mediums would use ‘For Entertainment Purposes Only’ disclaimers to avoid prosecution for fraud. This is a practice that still continues, probably to avoid breaching the Trade Descriptions Act 1968 which prevents service providers from misleading consumers as to what they are spending their money on.

Yet despite the use of entertainment disclaimers at the start of their show many psychics and mediums will go on to deliver what is considered a serious psychic performance or seance. It will upset people, give them false hope, and those who come away from the venue will often believe that what the psychic was doing was genuine.

This is proof that is doesn’t matter if you force psychics and mediums to prove their abilities before the can perform to the public, people will still seek out their services regardless of the risk of being tricked out of their money.

People who visit a psychic show do not deserve to have their money taken from them dishonestly, but the best way to stop this from happening is to educate people about how to spot trickery for themselves and by raising awareness of existing legislation that is there to protect us as consumers.

There are a number of things that people can do to cover themselves; get a receipt, record your session with a psychic, learn what the tricks psychics use are and familiarise yourself with reviews from others who have seen the psychic in question. It’s also important to check the Terms and Conditions of purchase of the venue you’re buying a ticket from as many theatres do not issue refunds.

When I created Project Barnum (an online resource about psychic trickery) a group of volunteers and I phoned dozens of UK venues at which Sally Morgan, Derek Acorah and other well known psychics would be performing. We posed as potential customers and asked for clarification about whether the psychic was real or not because they had entertainment disclaimers.

We would ask “are they a real psychic or are using psychological trickery to make it seem so?” and none of the venues were able to tell us. We would then ask “if it turns out they’re using misleading tactics and aren’t really psychic can I get a refund?” Again, the venues were unable to provide any of us with consistent answers. Had I been a real customer I would have been very confused. Had I been an actual customer refused a refund I would have taken it to Trading Standards and I’m confident that it would be possible to get a refund as a result.

The only outcome of stopping psychics and mediums from performing will be to move what they do from the stage where we can all see them and into back rooms, secret shows, or back into the parlours that our psychic ancestors would hold seances and reading during the Victorian and Edwardian spiritualism trends. I think that’s a big risk that skeptics should consider very carefully. I don’t think it’s an outcome that anybody really wants.

 

That San Antonio Railway Tracks Video…

san antonio ghost tracks

Quite often old ghost-related photos, testimonies or videos do the rounds on social media sites, gaining attention and traction despite being long debunked and explained away. Oddly the rational explanations don’t follow around so quickly or at all. For all the good the internet does one of the downsides is the way in which it allows myth to persist (much like other forms of exchanging information that pre-date it.)

A video I’ve seen being shared around a lot in the last week or so is the video from about three years ago of a group of people in two cars driving onto the “haunted” railway tracks in San Antonio, Texas which I’ve shared above. This is just one of hundreds of videos of people doing this but this one is proving popular on Facebook right now. In this particular one two groups of people cover their cars with white powder and drive onto the tracks. The legend is that in the 1930s or 1940s a school bus was driving its way down the road and toward the intersection when it stalled on the tracks. A train smashed into the bus, killing twenty six children and the bus driver. However, the accident never actually happened in San Antonio but in Salt Lake City in Utah instead, but that doesn’t stop people from parking on the tracks and turning their engine off to see if the car will be pushed off of the tracks by the spirits of the people from the bus. The legend says that you won’t see them but you will see their hand prints on the car.

In the video they do find hand prints on their cards upon inspection… but they were likely to have been there before. When the powder was applied it probably just formed on top of the grease and dirt from hands previously placed on the car. Forensic investigators use similar tactics to find finger and hand prints in crime scenes but that doesn’t seem to occur to these folk. In fact, there’s even a child with the group and if you watch as they apply the powder to the second car that crosses the tracks you can see one of the men in the group patting their hand across the top of the car. He’s doing this to spread the powder, but I bet it left prints even if he didn’t think it did. Here’s a tip: If you’re putting powder on something to detect hand prints, don’t put your hand in the powder.

pat the car

As you can imagine people routinely drive onto the tracks and turn their engines off to see if the legend will come true for them which it sometimes does… but there’s a reason for that and we know what it is thanks to rational inquiry. The show Is It Real? found that there’s actually a two-foot incline in the road leading up to the tracks, you can see it being investigated in the video below along with the other elements of the legend:

Despite this people still drive onto the tracks, turn their engines off and wait, convincing themselves it is forces other than those of nature responsible for their cars moving. Kinda stupid really. If your default reaction to these sorts of legends isn’t skepticism then this is surely proof that you’re opening yourself up to all sorts of misinformation.

Weakly Ghost Bulletin #11

WEAKLY GHOST BULLETIN HEADER

imageI am proud to bring you the Weakly Ghost Bulletin #11 on the award winning Hayley Is  a Ghost blog after being awarded the Best Skeptic Blog award at the Ockham’s Awards by The Skeptic Mag at QEDcon this weekend.

Thank you to everyone who nominated me, who reads my blog and shares whats i write. Thank you to those who comment on my blog and those who might not agree with what I write but engage anyway.

Thank you also to the judges from The Skeptic for making the decision.

I have been blogging since 2007 and on this blog since 2010 and it means a lot that so many people seem to enjoy what I write.


 Ghost ‘photobombs’ happy couple in Wedding photo

Kevin-and-Christiana-Dennis

The Mirror particularly seems to love ghosts. In this story it is claimed that the photo above shows a ghost photobombing Kevin and Christina Denis on their wedding day. Sure looks just like a guest sneakily getting into shot, you can see other people are clearly behind them in this photo when you look to the left of Christina. Unless that’s supposed to be a ghost too? Oooh…

Dismembered Samurai Ghost Photobombed Little Girl

Samurai-Ghost

Photobombing ghosts seems to be a trend this week. This photo allegedly shows the ghost of a Samurai “photobombing” the young girl, and at first we couldn’t make it out and thought they meant the bent-over guy in the background, but then  someone put a red circle around it and we spotted it (how embarrassing).

Samurai-Ghost (2)

This is probably just someone stood behind the girl that the dad forgot was in shot or didn’t notice because he was too busy taking the photo. If you look closely you can see part of a pale blue t-shirt next to the girls elbow and it appears the person behind the girl has black shoes and dark trousers on too, details that become really clear when you zoom in on the original photo. Strangely this photo has been around for months and yet has only just made the news.

spotted by: Ash Pryce

Ghost caught on camera at Loftus Hall

Loftus Hall

According to the Loftus Hall Twitter account the above photo shows ‘the latest ghost photo’ from the Hall to have been caught on camera. Where? No seriously… where? Judging by their website I’m quite sure that Loftus Hall would tell you that everything in the above photo is a ghost – building included.

That concludes the Weakly Ghost Bulletin #11.

Weakly Ghost Bulletin #10

WEAKLY GHOST BULLETIN HEADER

Can you spot the ghost at the Galleries of Justice Museum?

notthingham ghost 1

Frankly? No. I can see what looks like a squished up face but years of watching Ghost Webcams as a teenager tells me that this is the pixellation of the photo causing an illusion. This is called the Pareidolia effect.

I really like the Galleries of Justice Museum in Nottingham. I visited years ago prior to delivering my first ever talk to Skeptics in the Pub in the city. I was one of two or three visitors in the whole museum (it was quite late in the day) and the atmosphere was like nothing I’ve experienced anywhere else. It was a sombre experience and it’s easy to see how walking around the building in the dark would make you think any little noise or movement could be a ghost.

Galleries of Justice ghost sighting3In the article staff from the Museum say they receive up to ten photos a year from visitors who think they’ve captured a ghost. They include one taken just outside of the hanging exhibition (left) that looks like a figure, but it’s hard to tell what it could be. An exhbit or display? Another person? A shadow?

One thing I know for sure is that the hanging exhibition properly frightened me during my visit. I was completely alone and walked into the room just as a mannequin was noisily dropped from a mock gallows as a recreation of the hanging process. I can remember running out of the room because I hadn’t expected to see someone moving or the noise because I knew I was alone in that section. I suspected at the time that this was motion activated. It doesn’t surprise me that people take photos in this area or in this location and see ghosts or strange figures in them because I fully suspect that we, as visitors to such a sombre Museum, are primed to see such things here without realising it and both photos above are from this within this display. After my fright I was on edge for the rest of my time in the museum, so much so that when I crossed paths with another living human I got yet another fright.

Stupid instincts.

Spooky footage reveals GHOST wandering through 250-year-old former church

This “oddity” has apparently promoted the owner of this restaurant to call in ghost hunters but I’d like to be a bit more proactive about it and would like to suggest an alternative title for this news story above the video above:

Footage reveals insect crawling on lens of CCTV camera bizarrely pointed directly at light source

little mermaid facepalm gif

How Ghost Evidence Is Rated And How People Get It Wrong

Evidence

The plural of anecdote is not data. 

It’s a rule that anyone involved in paranormal research, even casually, is familiar with. The things that we experience are open to our personal biases and the biases of those around us – not to mention the flawed memory that we have to contend with when trying to accurately recall something that we experienced (and yes, that does include those that people refer to as “expert witnesses” due to their occupation.)

Anecdotes are a good starting block for paranormal investigation and nothing more. This makes it quite difficult for paranormal investigators to investigate those cases where eye-witness testimony is the only information to go on. As an investigator myself I always encourage eye-witnesses to immediately note down anything odd that they experience in the hope that the cause will become apparent in any patterns that might emerge – experiences seem to happen in warmer weather, just after they’ve watched Ghost Adventures, when the heating has been turned off, when they’re tired…

But even noting down an experience soon after having it doesn’t protect the testimony from the aforementioned biases, suggestion or flawed memories. At the very core of being a paranormal phenomenon experiencee is the decision that an experience is significant. This decision itself is influenced by personal biases and the suggestion from our peer groups. Can any of us confirm that something we experienced is paranormal in nature when there aren’t characteristics that have been documented and proven to belong to ghosts? I think the answer is no, not as conclusively as many people do.

This is why more physical forms of evidence of ghost manifestations are considered to be much more useful to paranormal investigators. A photo or piece of footage that contains something ghostly or strange is thought of by many investigators to be more reliable… yet these forms of evidence are also at the mercy of the same issues that plague eye-witness testimony too! It’s never-ending.

As pattern seeking creatures it is our natural instincts to seek meaning where there is not – that could be a face in vague shapes in a photo, or in the decision that a strange knocking sound just as you ask a question is significant (would it have been if you hadn’t asked a question? No.)

It’s even easier to think the insignificant is significant and to find meaning in randomness in the context of a paranormal investigation where you might be hoping to experience something strange. This is why it’s really important to have a methodology that limits the amount of bias that can be introduced to proceedings. Additionally, if you’ve been told that you work or live in a place that is paranormally active you’re more likely to interpret something insignificant as significant because the ghost stories are one of the first things that come to mind when you encounter something that seems a bit odd.

We also have to consider whether something strange in a photo or on footage is actually just something normal being misidentified, such as a hair or finger in front of the camera lens and out of focus, or perhaps an insect whizzing past just as you trigger the shutter of the camera. Or perhaps could have been purposefully altered to look strange. Hoaxing ghost photos has always been extremely easy to do – even easier with the advancements of modern technology such as smart phones and editing software meaning that you no longer need to keep partially exposed photography plates to hand. Not only this but even the ways in which you use your camera can cause a photograph to look strange. A long exposure, for example, can cause people who stand in shot and then move out-of-the-way to look partially see-through or distorted and using a panoramic setting on your camera incorrectly can make people in the photograph look… well… bizarre and unrecognisable!

A reliance on such forms of so-called evidence clearly has many shortfalls, but so too does the aim to prove that a location is haunted or paranormally active by seeking these forms of evidence in the first place. If you have a conclusion in mind before you even conduct an investigation then you’re likely to interpret what happens during your investigation in a manner that fits with your already decided conclusion and that isn’t very open-minded.

Depending on eye-witness testimonies as evidence that something paranormal is real is poor form, but providing something more than just eye-witness testimony doesn’t automatically strengthen the case. If investigators don’t have a good methodology that limits the way in which personal biases can be introduced to their investigation then they will inevitably be chasing their own tails like agitated dogs and agitated dogs don’t make good paranormal investigators.