My grandfather died

On November 1st 2015 my lovely grandfather- Pappy, as we called him -died.

We knew he was going to die because he had dementia and had suffered two strokes, that didn’t make it any easier, but what did help was knowing that he wasn’t truly gone. Maurice Stevens hasn’t vanished and ceased to exist.

I know that he lives on because the first law of thermodynamics tells us that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. This is where the idea of ghosts comes into play for many, but I know that all of his energy, every joule of heat, every wave of every particle that was him remains here, somewhere. All the hundreds of billions of particles that encountered him have continued on their way, directed by his mere presence. Still.

As Aaron Freeman says in the Physicists Eulogy ‘according to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.’

This may have troubled Pappy slightly because he liked everything to be “ship shaped and Bristol fashion. A place for everything and everything in its place”, his career as a chef in the Royal Navy never truly left him. But look up at the stars, look at the world around you and know that this is our place and we are all in it.

Many of my geeky friends recite the lovely fact that “we are all made of stardust” because our origins are pretty inspiring, and so too is our destination. This is why I take comfort from the nature of the universe and our existence because deep down, beneath the feeling of loss, I know that I am statistically fortunate to have ever known Pappy and that his existence lives on in our genes, our memories, in his actions and in the universe.

Life is extraordinary, it’s bigger than any one of us which can be a bit overwhelming at times but, as Pappy would say, ‘it’s good here, isn’t it?”

Pappy

The Anti-Science Bias Of Ghost Hunters

anti-science bias

I wrote previously about a research team at Clarkson University headed up by Professor Shane Rogers that seek to establish whether there is a link between air quality and strange experiences people often associate with a haunting or with ghosts. Rogers said “experiences reported in many hauntings are similar to mental or neurological symptoms reported by individuals exposed to toxic moulds. Psychoactive effects of some fungi are well-known, whereas the effects of others such as indoor moulds are less researched.”

I have seen a frankly bizarre and at times bitter reaction from large swathes of ghost hunting communities to this news such as:

“Oh yeah? How do they explain EVP then?”

“Mould doesn’t explain all of MY experiences!”

“These guys are stupid. They just need to see to believe!”

It is completely bizarre for anyone- regardless of what they believe -to react with hostility towards people who are conducting scientific research in order to learn more about why people have strange experiences. Learning more about the world around us and establishing facts about our experiences as human beings who are greatly influenced by the environments we live and exist in is a good thing.

If you react with hostility to the news of this ongoing research then it says quite a lot about you as an individual. It says that you’re closed minded and that you do not want people providing alternative and rational explanations for the things that you are convinced are paranormal in origin.

I pointed out a few issues with the research myself in my original blog post, like the fact that people have been quick to use the ongoing research to dismiss a whole range of paranormal experiences a priori when actually if a link is established this will only indicate a new cause for a small number of experiences.  This doesn’t mean the research isn’t a good thing and I look forward to the conclusion when it is presented.

Those people who asked “how does this explain EVP and EMF fluctuations?” should know that it doesn’t. However we do already have explanations for those things that show, unequivocally that they are not paranormal in origin and yet such people ignore those too so I’m sure there’s no chance they’ll pay attention to this research once it is concluded too because they are simply psuedo-scienctific ghost hunters who are willing to believe anything other than the factual truth.

Establishing the cause for paranormal phenomena is what paranormal research is at its very core, and anyone involved in ghost research that doesn’t like that approach ought to pack up their EMF meters, Ghost-box and Dowsing rods and go home.

Further Reading

The Rational Causes Of Electronic Voice Phenomena
A Rational Look At The Ghost-Box
Why Personal Experiences Aren’t Evidence Of Ghosts

 

Book Review: Abominable Science

abominable scienceAbominable Science! authored by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero is one of those books that comes along and makes the world a better place. A rare treat that you didn’t know you needed until you had it in your hands.

The combination of good research, good references and an honest, open-minded yet critical outlook turns Abominable Science! into a must-have for anybody with a passing interest in monsters and strange creatures. There is no doubt in my mind that this book will help people understand how to critically assess claims that they come across and the numerous detailed references mean that you don’t have to take the authors at their word and can explore each subject further for yourself.

There is still a general lack of respect for skeptical inquiry within paranormal research, including ghost investigations, monster investigations and more. Headline stories in the media about monsters are not rare even today in 2015, and a quick flick through the numerous available television channels will reveal shows like Finding Bigfoot or Destination Truth where unconventional and, at times, pseudo-scientific methodologies are championed in the quest to find evidence of legendary monsters. These programmes sacrifice a factual approach in order to provide so-called evidence of that which they hunt for.

A great time, then, for a book like Abominable Science! to be available. This is an engrossing read and it’s a must have for any self-identifying Skeptic, Cryptozoologist or Monster Hunter. There is a lot to learn about Cryptozoology in the modern world and this book is where you’ll find it.

Someone buy Matt Moneymaker a copy quick, and make sure he reads it. Or better yet sack the entire crew of the awful, awful Finding Bigfoot and use the funds to get Loxton and Prothero their own show! Fact is that people who are heavily invested in their belief in these cryptids won’t be convinced by a book, even one as detailed as Abominable Science! but it’s there if they ever decide to change their minds.

If this book had been published fifteen-years earlier I might have read it as I went on my first road trip to Loch Ness, but would it have stolen some of the magic of the experience from 13-year-old me who was fascinated by the weird and wonderful ghost and monster lore?

No. I would have been better for it. Skeptics are often accused of ruining the magic or stealing the fun from fanciful ideas and although this is a charge levelled at this book by some true-believers I don’t think it is an accurate criticism. The book embodies the kind of skepticism that I hope that I champion (even a little bit) in my own approach to paranormal research.

In 2012 I visited Loch Ness again, this time joined by Joe Nickell and we visited the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, a guided tour that introduces you to the story of the Loch Ness Monster and critically analyses every single aspect of the legend in an educational manner that not only debunks most of the nonsense but also introduces you to the geology, history and ecology of the area. It is so engaging and fascinating that you don’t even realise it is a lesson until you leave with a newly installed sense of the wonder of the scientific approach (how the Centre hasn’t won any awards from skeptic organisations I do not know.) In my opinion Abominable Science! is right up there with the Loch Ness Centre. A wonderful read and a wonderful resource for future generations.

Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero. 2013. Abominable Science! Columbia University Press, New York. Available from the Columbia University Press, on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk

Is Mould Haunting You? Maybe, Say Scientists

mould

This is really fascinating. Researchers at Clarkson University are studying whether the air quality in reportedly haunted buildings could contribute to the ghostly experiences had there by comparing samples from “haunted” buildings to air samples at “non-haunted” buildings. Medicaldaily reported that ‘since toxic mold can trigger psychosis, they believe the real reason that one pesky poltergeist will not leave you and your ancient house alone has to do with air quality and your own sensitivity to indoor pollution.’

Professor Shane Rogers who heads up the research team says that “experiences reported in many hauntings are similar to mental or neurological symptoms reported by individuals exposed to toxic moulds. Psychoactive effects of some fungi are well-known, whereas the effects of others such as indoor moulds are less researched.

“Reports of psychiatric symptoms including mood swings, hyperactivity, and irrational anger, as well as cognitive impairment are prevalent among those exposed to moulds. Other reports include depression and loss of memory function. More recent work is emerging that supports brain inflammation and memory loss in mice exposed to Stachybotrys charatarum, a common indoor air mould, as well as increased anxiety and fear.”
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This sounds plausible and it will be interesting to see what the research shows. However we have to be careful not to present this as an already established cause of alleged paranormal experiences as the research hasn’t been completed and to dismiss cases a priori based on the ongoing research would be irrational. I also think the “symptoms” that Rogers associates with mould make it sound as though this is just the new infrasound or Experience-Inducing fields hypothesis… and not everyone feels depressed, anxious or fearful when they have these weird experiences.
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Not only that but we also have to take on board the fact that some cases of people experiencing so-called Toxic Mould Syndrome have been found to be suffering from pseudo-diagnostic conditions – a bit like wifi-intolerance or sick building syndrome. In fact, this clinical review of cases of Toxic Mould Syndrome found that many of the people being studied had underlying conditions that contributed to the symptoms.One thing we can be sure of is that explaining paranormal experiences is a complicated process, but it will be interesting to see what the comparisons of air quality in these locations reveals, if anything.

Thoughts On The “Religion Flies Planes Into Buildings” Bullshit

science flies you to the moon

Terrorism, according to the Global Terrorism Index (GTI) is ‘the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation’.

According to the GTI, in 2014 alone 17,958 people were killed in terrorist attacks which is 61% more than the previous year. 82% of all deaths from terrorist attacks occur in just 5 countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nigeria and Syria and 90% of these attacks occurred in countries that already have gross human rights violations. Four groups were the dominant contributors: the Taliban, Boko Haram, ISIL, and al Qa’ida.

science flies you to the moon

A friend of a friend today shared a photo of a t-shirt being sold by an atheist group on Facebook and it had the following slogan on it:

Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.

What a cheap way to score points at the expense of those whose only crime is to believe in the same god as people who commit acts of terror. Let’s face it, the ‘flies you into buildings‘ comment is aimed at Muslims because of the attacks of this nature on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001. On a purely anecdotal level, I know a fair few people who are Muslim and none of them have ever been inspired to fly a plane into a building on purpose.

The t-shirt and the slogan upon it is just indicative of a bigger issue that I want to address. I’m atheist. I believe in no gods or goddesses but that doesn’t automatically make me a good person. I identify as a secular humanist and that’s why it makes me so sad to see other atheists turning their apparent anti-theism into anti-humanism. If you cannot attack/debate religion without attacking religious people then I don’t think that makes you a very rational person.

It’s true that some people use religion to justify their acts or regimes of hatred, intolerance and violence but such hateful and murderous acts have no place at the feet of others who peacefully practice the same religions. Their religious beliefs do not automatically make them bad people. So why does society feel so compelled to keep putting them there? Why do we hold religious people accountable for the actions of others whom they have no control over?

Maybe it’s because we need someone to blame and Mohammed next door is the most easily accessible target? I don’t know, I’m not a psychologist but I do know that it gets really tiring really fast to see some atheists acting this way.

Extremism flies you into buildings. Extremism leads to the kidnapping of girls who dare seek education. Extremism leads to the burning of hostages. Extremism harms everyone… but as shown in the statistics from the 2014 GTI report, the very people this stupid t-shirt targets as bad people are those most likely to be affected by acts of terrorism. Talk about kicking someone when they are down… 

Oh, and by the way, Muslims died in the 9/11 attacks, and some of people who flew humans to the moon were religious, including the astronauts.