Has Parapsychology Had Enough of Experts?

thinking man image

Update: Since publishing this post, the Stellar University website has undergone changes to remove misleading claims outlined below.

When it comes to paranormal research it is often difficult to tell the amateurs from the experts. Some people will claim their opinions are those of an expert when they’re not and others offer expert opinions that do not fit with our view of the world and we want to reject them as amateurs.

Trying to differentiate between those whose thoughts we can trust and those we can’t can become quite confusing. Parapsychology hasn’t had enough of experts if you’re wondering about the question in the title. Yet I reckon it has had enough of people claiming to be experts when they don’t appear to be once you look beneath the surface.

With the majority of parapsychologists, the route to their current position is pretty clearly laid out but then there are those who complete courses from the backs of magazines and correspondence course websites and label themselves as parapsychologists.

Telling these two groups of people apart at face value isn’t always easily achieved.

Recently, Doubtful News (DN) ran a story about Steve Mera and a piece of research of his, the report for which was found to have been severely plagarised. (Hill, S. 2016)

This DN piece piqued my interest in Mera’s credentials and I began to research into his studies. I was a little confused at what I found.

I should clarify at this stage that I thought this was worth exploring because Mera presents himself as a Parapsychologist and expert in the many organisations and projects that he is a part of. For example, on the Phenomena Project website, his bio states ‘In 1998 Steve completed two parapsychology diploma courses and one parapsychology degree. He is an associate member of the Unifaculty of London Forensic Parapsychology  Unit’ (Phenomena Project, n.d).

Yet, as far as I can tell, the ‘Unifaculty of London Forensic (ULF) Parapsychology Unit’ doesn’t exist and the ULF is another name for the ‘College of Management Science’ (CMS) which is not recognised as an authentic degree awarding body. I checked this with the Higher Education Degree Datacheck (HEDD) service which is the official service for candidate verification and university authentication.

The CMS website explains that ‘The College of Management Science, BCM Unifaculty … offers distance learning courses and certification in paranormal investigation, parapsychology, paranormal phenomenon, past-life regression, future-life progression psychic phenomena, electronic voice phenomenon’ (Unifaculty Foundation, n.d).

It then explains in a paragraph or two beneath this that ‘The course fee for a single course is £325 or just three monthly instalments of £120‘.

I sure wish that the sum total of my student debt was less than £1,000!

While conducting my research I also discovered something called ‘Stellar University’. This organisation, which seems to be run by Mera as the tutor, offers four courses that people can enrol on covering a whole range of paranormal research subjects.

The website boasts that ‘since 1995, over 26,000 eager students from all walks of life have joined our correspondence courses … Some of our graduates joined international lecturers circuits, have written numerous books and some went all the way to professional levels.’ (Stellar university, 2016)

The website also states that the courses offered by ‘Stellar University’ are accredited by Manchester’s ‘Association of Paranormal Investigation & Training’ (MAPIT) and ‘The Scientific Establishment of Parapsychology’ (SEP), which sounds impressive actually. Until you realise that Mera runs both of these organisations. He is literally claiming that his courses are accredited by his own organisations and accreditation doesn’t work like that.

‘Stellar University’ is also not listed as a ‘Recognised and Listed Body’ on the UK Government’s education website. It is also not listed as an authentic degree awarding body on the HEDD website.

I wasn’t sure what this meant so I contacted HEDD by email to see if I could establish the facts. A member of staff confirmed that ‘any degree awarded by this body [Stellar University] will not be regarded as a recognised UK degree.’

‘In addition to this the word ‘university’ is a sensitive word under business and company name regulations and requires permission from Government prior to its use in any business or company name’

They continued, ‘A company wanting to use ‘university’ in a title first needs to seek the approval of the Secretary of State by virtue of section 55 Companies Act 2006 and the Company, Limited Liability Partnership and Business Names (Sensitive Words and Expressions) Regulations 2009.’

‘As far as our records show, ‘Stellar University’ has not applied for any application.’

As I explored the ‘Stellar University’ website I also noticed a list of people who were contributors to the courses and among the names were some that surprised me. Dr Steven Novella was among them; a highly respected skeptic, podcaster and science communicator, he seemed somewhat out of place. (Update: the contributor list has now been removed. A screenshot of the page from 3 Nov 2016 is available to view here.)

I reached out to Dr Novella by email to see what his involvement with the course had been. He replied ‘I have no idea who these people are and have no relationship with them.’

With all of this in mind, I decided to contact Steve Mera directly in an attempt to establish the facts behind his qualifications and ‘Stellar University’. I asked the following questions:

  1. I couldn’t find Stellar University among the ‘Recognised and Listed Bodies’ on the UK Government website. I also could not find you listed as an authentic degree awarding body on the HEDD website. I wondered if you could explain what you mean when you state that the courses are accredited?
  2. On your site, you state the courses are accredited by organisations that you also run but who else is the course accredited by?
  3. Have you obtained permission from the Secretary of State to use the term ‘university’ in your business name by virtue of section 55 Companies Act 2006 and the Company, Limited Liability Partnership and Business Names (Sensitive Words and Expressions) Regulations 2009?
  4. I have contacted people listed on your course website as contributors who do not recognise you, the course, or why they are listed. Could you elaborate on this?
  5. On your site, you state that 70 UK and 20 International organisations and establishments recognise the courses. Could you provide a list of these?
  6. Elsewhere, you say that you’re an associate member of the Unifaculty of London Forensic Parapsychology Unit. Could you tell me about your work with this unit and provide more information about the unit itself?
  7. Was your degree obtained via the College of Management Science?’

I waited six days for a response and then sent a follow-up email offering another chance to comment. In response, I received a reply from Mera stating that ‘our legal team and digital platform agency will respond‘. I then received a message from an email address linked to the website zoharstargate.com asking me to send my questions in written form by recorded post, explaining that I would need to allow 4-6 weeks for a response via post.

However, as I was simply attempting to clarify information I had already discovered I didn’t feel the need to do this. Everything I have written above is what I have found from exploring online. If anything I have written is incorrect I am more than happy to amend it. Indeed, this is why I contacted Mera in the first place (usually, an email back with the necessary information is sent in response but this did not happen!) With this in mind, I am confident that I supplied Steven Mera with enough opportunity to clarify any errors I may have made and to offer comment.

To conclude, Steve Mera’s research methodologies and the conclusions he reaches in his research are scientifically questionable. That he believes he is in an authoritative position from which to teach others how to research anomalous phenomena is alarming and, in my opinion, only serves to damage the field of paranormal research. It is unclear what his credentials actually are and he would not clarify this when given the opportunity.

To discover that he uses Dr Steven Novella’s name without his knowledge is concerning and could be viewed as misleading to potential students who visit the website.

Steve Mera, alongside Don Philips and the others involved in the ‘Phenomena Project’, are entering people’s homes and making all sorts of ludicrous claims about so-called evidence of the paranormal while using these credentials as an appeal to their authority on the subject which I don’t think is very fair.

The potential for harm here should be apparent to all. There is also potential for people who wish to study parapsychology to be misled into undertaking the courses offered by the so-called “Stellar University” because of the claims outlined above, resulting in them handing over money for something that is ultimately worthless training.

If you wish to study Parapsychology, the Parapsychological Association have a list of accredited organisations globally through which you can do so here. Oddly, the Stellar University, Unifaculty of London Forensic Parapsychology Unit, and the College of Management Science are not listed.

References 

Hill, S. (2016) Doubtful News [Online]. Available at http://doubtfulnews.com/2016/09/facts-may-no-longer-matter-in-this-election-but-fact-checking-and-skeptical-activism-works/ (Accessed 3 November 2016).

Phenomena Project, The (n.d) [Online]. Available at http://www.phenomenaproject.tv/?page_id=161 (Accessed 3 November 2016).

Stellar University (c2016) [Online]. Available at http://stellaruniversity.com/ (Accessed 3 November 2016).

Unifaculty Foundation (n.d), College of Management Science [Online]. Available at http://www.unifaculty.com/html/paranormal_courses.html (Accessed 3 November 2016).

Featured image: Thinking Man – Yale Museum of Art, m01229, Flickr

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.

Keeping Up With The Smiths: 5 Ways Pseudo-Science Shames The Poor

dr-nick

I’ve never been overly well off and I’m cool with that. Growing up in a working class family I learned a lot of tips and tricks for shopping on the high street that would help save money.

Since becoming an active member of the skeptic community I’ve come to realise that these same tips and tricks can also be a good way to avoid pseudo-science and nonsense selling tactics too.

There is a certain pressure on us all to keep up with our friends and colleagues by following certain trends and by living in certain ways. Especially when it comes to our health. Buying certain products and following certain fads seems to almost be expected of us by our peers, but sometimes this can be counter-productive and even harmful.

Below I have summarised 5 ways in which we are sold expensive lies on the high street and how to avoid being tricked out of our money.

1 – off the shelf medication

Own-brand painkillers are equally as good as their fancily branded counterparts. You can buy a pack of 16 500mg Paracetamol pills for 25p from Superdrug or Tesco. Sainsbury’s do a pack for 32p. You can hold the packs next to their branded counterparts and you will see that they have the exact same ingredients – you’re literally paying for the fancy packaging.

Also, ladies: don’t be fooled into buying those tablets marketed as relief for period pain. Check out the ingredients on the packaging and you’ll realise you can save money by buying store-brand pain relief pills for a fraction of the price. You can then spend the money you saved on chocolate. True story.

2 Organic food

When I talk about organic food I am speaking of food which is bought from the high street and not food grown at home. If you grow your own veggies I think that’s cool! However, walk into any supermarket and you’ll find organic produce marketed to you as the luxurious version of standard meat and veg.

You can end up paying more than 100% more for organic produce and there’s really no justification for doing so.

Many people cite the use of pesticides as the reason they choose organic food over non-organic food, but according to evolutionary biologist, Christie Wilcox “Organic pesticides pose the same health risks as non-organic ones.” Plus, studies have shown that there is really no nutritional benefit to eating organic meat and produce, or to drinking organic milk.

The idea of eating genetically modified food (GMOs) scares some people but, in reality, they’re perfectly safe and, actually, better for the environment than their organic counterparts. If you eat organic food you’re making the world a worse place for poor people in other countries.

Also: when buying produce don’t be so quick to grab the pre-packaged veggies and fruit. The loose versions of these can often be cheaper when you weigh them out – even in the same quantities as the pre-packaged stuff. It’s also beneficial to ask yourself if you really need a bag of a zillion mini-red onions when one loose onion might suffice. Doing this has reduced our food budget and the amount of food waste at home. Kerching!

3 Vitamins and Supplement pills                                 

I used to take a multivitamin every morning until I discovered that we don’t need them because we should be getting all of the nutrients we need from the food that we eat. But even if you have a deficiency a vitamin pill probably wouldn’t be the best way to solve that issue and you should speak to your GP.

The National Health Service website actually states that ‘many people choose to take supplements, but taking too much or taking them for too long could be harmful.’

Alternet reports that vitamins can be marketed in a way that doesn’t make the health risk obvious. They also report that in the US a ‘Trader Joe’s Women’s Once Daily Multivitamin & Mineral supplement contains 200 percent of the recommended amount of Vitamin C, 286 percent of the recommended dosage of selenium, and over 400 percent of what you need in the way of Vitamin B12’ which is not good news, folks. I think that’s actually quite scary!

Maybe think twice before buying those expensive bottles of tablets?

4 Superfoods and Clean Eating

Darling. Everyone is doing the Clean Eating thing, didn’t you know? The only problem is that dieticians and doctors think it isn’t as useful as many people make out. There are some elements of the clean eating movement that are just good old fashioned common sense- like eating more veggies -and then there are elements that are fictional as fuck, like the idea that you should cut gluten out of your diet even if you’re not allergic to it because it’s “toxic”.

There is a great piece over at theconversation.com that explores this in more detail by looking at the inaccurate claims made by people in the Clean Eating movement. Don’t be ashamed of what’s in your basket because it’s probably not as bad as you think.

“I despair of the term ‘clean eating’…it necessarily implies that any other form of eating – and consequently the eater of it – is dirty or impure and thus bad.” Nigella Lawson

As for superfoods… we’ve all heard that chia seeds and coconut can work miracles for our bodies because of the magical nutrients they have in them, and it’s tempting to run out and buy the newest (and never cheap) supplements that contain these super ingredients from Holland and Barretts. But here’s a general rule of thumb that has seen me well through my life so far:

If it’s described as a miracle it’s not going to work because magic isn’t real.

“Whether it’s coconut oil, chia seeds or apple cider vinegar,” Duane Mellor, an assistant professor in dietetics at the University of Nottingham told The Guardian, “there is no scientific evidence to suggest that if you top up your diet with any ‘miracle’ or special food that you’ll get any of the promised effects.”

That should be an open and shut case, but it isn’t. Look around the high street and you’ll see Superfoods everywhere but popularity doesn’t support the accuracy of the claims that surround them.

Remember: fad diets are bad diets.

5 Alternative Medicines & Treatments

I’ve been a part of many workplace teams where everyone else was from a middle-class background. At first, it was a culture shock to see just how many of my colleagues relied on alternative medicinal practices like chiropractic, homeopathy and reiki but it soon became common to find any skepticism of these techniques being sneered at because personal experience apparently outweighs clinical trials and scientific research.

Let me just do a quick run-through of all of the bogus health fads people often use that have little or no benefit. Some of which can actually be dangerous:

Homeopathic medicines: there are no active ingredients in these diluted solutions and water does not have memory. Don’t bother. Learn more here.

Chiropractic: manipulation of your spine may offer short term relief but so does massage, and massage doesn’t run the risks that come with chiropractic treatment. The evidence also suggests that Chiropractic doesn’t work and isn’t worth the money.

Reiki/Shiatsu: there is no evidence that such thing as energy healing exists. Reviews of clinical research into these methods concluded thatthe evidence is insufficient to suggest that Reiki is an effective treatment for any condition… the value of Reiki remains unproven.”

Acupuncture: there are claims that the needles release endorphins which help ease pain, but it’s an expensive way of getting an endorphin rush! Plus, other studies suggest that any relief from acupuncture is just a placebo. Harriet Hall goes into more detail over on ‘Science-Based Medicine’ here.

Finally, my favourite pet-hate:

Echinacea: Every time I saw someone use this to treat their cough I wanted to scream at them because using this botanical remedy is pretty risky. Read about it here and then throw it away.

As you can see, many of the fads I have covered here all have links to the idea that natural and traditional is best but such thinking can wander into the realms of fallacious thinking. Natural remedies that have medicinal values become medicine and if alternative medical treatments worked they would be… well… medical treatments. There’d be no alternative to them.

Here is a list of websites I use for no-nonsense information about health-based claims when I want to find out if there is any evidence to support them. As someone on a low income, I can’t afford to be misled into spending money on expensive alternatives just because they’re the latest trend. I need evidence.

Hayley’s ‘Evidence or GTFO’ go-to resources:

Science Based Medicine
The National Health Service website
What’s The Harm?
Cochrane
Bandolier Knowledge

Ask For Evidence

Bill Nye on Ghosts

bill nye

The folks over at BigThink.com 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.

Weekly Summary: Rationalia, Netflix and Superheroes

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In 2002 a bird bent a piece of wiring to use as a tool and people lost their minds, but NewScientist report that this may not have been a one-off, unique case of complex problem solving as the behaviour has been observed elsewhere too.

It seems that the best way to deal with the stress life throws at you is to literally say “f*ck it”

fuck it
The kind of inspirational quote I can support

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has presented further argument on the his case for Rationalia but Kelsey Atherton shows why his arguments are flawed over on PopSci. It’s almost as though Tyson has forgotten that humans are, well… human.

NASA have just shared 1,000 new photos of Mars. SpaceX are about to start testing the engines that will take them to Mars, and Deep Space Industries claim they’ll launch the first private space mission in 2020.

Elsewhere a Swedish church plans to drone-drop a tonne of bibles into ISIS occupied territory. They insist it isn’t aggressive, demonstrating possibly the worlds biggest case of a lack of self awareness. Utter, utter fail.

It turns out that Netflix and similar services are literally changing the way we watch shows, and Cillian Murphy contemplates where the eff all of these superhero movies keep coming from. Can we have some original sci-fi up in here please?

Lastly, if you have a spare hour and are a bit of a nerd (hi) check out this neat collection of interesting maps of Europe.

Feature image credit: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona