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

On Sally Morgan Warning Her Fans About Scammers

Sally Morgan video

 

British psychic Sally Morgan recently caused a bit of a stir online when she posted a video to her official Facebook page warning fans about people on social media pretending to be her and trying to make money from her fans by scamming them.

Many people on my social media timelines have mocked this because they believe that Sally Morgan is also scamming money from her fans in one way or another, but that’s a debate for another day. In fact, I’ve blogged about Sally Morgan and her claims previously on this blog here if you’re curious.

What many people are missing here is that Sally Morgan is doing the right thing by warning her fans because by doing so she is helping them to know who they are handing their money over to and what services they are purchasing and this is good news. Why? Because it means that they have a huge range of consumer protection legislation and consumer protection services behind them to help them if they decide they’ve been tricked out of their money by Sally Morgan.

Being clear about who you are paying, what you are paying for and why makes you a clever consumer who has options if you’re not happy with what you’ve paid for.

If someone is tricked into handing their bank details over to someone who is pretending to be Sally Morgan it’s quite unlikely that they’re going to be able to trace that person very easily. A police investigation might be successful in returning their money to them eventually but it might not. It’s also a highly traumatic experience.

This is why I think we should applaud psychics (and other odd claim makers) when they warn their customers to be careful consumers and to think twice about who they’re handing their money over to. The alternative is that Sally Morgan knows that people are pretending to be her and scamming money from people and she does nothing about it and nothing to highlight it and that’s just not cool. There would quite rightly be an uproar.

Look – people claiming to be psychics are not going away regardless of how many petitions you launch or how many banners you hold up outside of their shows. People will always believe in psychics and psychics will always be around.

The best thing that people who doubt psychics can do is to ensure that those who believe in psychics know how to spot trickery when it happens and what to do when they spot it because people who believe in psychics do not deserve to be conned out of their money.

There are whole swathes of people within the skeptic community whom I refer to as “anti-psychics”. These are not the people out there raising awareness of how to spot psychic trickery (and sometimes being abused for doing so), but instead those who want to see psychics punished and shamed for what they claim. Or even harmed – the aggression I have seen aimed at people who claim to be psychic has been alarming at times.

These “anti-psychics” think that people who believe in psychics must be thick and that because they’re thick they deserve to have their money stolen through dishonest practices. ‘You reap what you sow’ they’ll say. ‘Should have listened to us’ they’ll warn, but ultimately they do nothing to solve the issues that those who want to visit psychics face.

People believe in psychics for a whole range of reasons, many of which are complex and personal and it’s their choice what they spend their money on. If we want to help we can help raise awareness of how to be a smart consumer and how to spot psychic fraud if you see it. On this occasion Sally Morgan helped us achieve that aim because people pretending to be famous psychics are psychic con artists themselves. Nice one, Sally. 👍

The Worst Ghosts of 2015

hampton court

It has been an entire year since I correctly predicted that Slenderman would be seen in the UK in my ‘Worst Ghosts of 2014’ round up. In that year I created a feature on this blog called The Weakly Ghost Bulletin which morphed into The Spooktator Podcast which examines ghost related headlines on a monthly basis. It’s been busy…

…so, without further ado here are the 5 Worst Ghosts of 2015!

#5 The Ohio Ghost that was literally crap

figure outside Ohio mall

In May, Examiner reported that a woman called Tonya Nester was taking photos of the closed down Randall Park Mall in Ohio and a friend noticed something odd in one of the photos that was quickly concluded to be a ghost.

‘What exactly is the angelic figure in the photo?’ asked Examiner reporter John Albrecht. Well, John, bird crap is what it is.

The photo was taken through a car window, dirt tracks left from rain visible, and the white smudge being called a ghost or angelic is bird poo.

#4 That Samurai Ghost that photobombed a little girl

Samurai-Ghost (2)

In April some people lost their composure over a photo that it is claimed shows a pair of ghostly legs behind a little girl who was on holiday with her family. Taken on a smart phone, the childs father claimed nobody was standing behind her at the time the photo was taken. This, it turns out, is not true.

japan policeDon Cake worked out that it was a guard standing a slight distance away from the child and emailed the Fortean Times (FT332, p. 76) to tell them that the beach in the photograph is a short distance from the Summer palace of the Emperor of Japan, which is well guarded by officers who wear the uniform (pictured), which resembles the legs of the so-called ghost. If you look carefully you can even see part of the light blue shirt beneath the childs left elbow.

 

#3 The grey lady of Hampton Court that was actually… not

hampton court

Many people claimed that this photo taken by 12-year-old Holly Hampsheir in February shows the ghost of Dame Sybil Penn (aka the gray lady of Hampton Court) and that the apparition is wearing period clothing which is interesting because it totally isn’t.

It is, in fact, a panoramic photo that went wrong and what we’re seeing are the distorted features of a fleshy (an alive human.) This is explained by Mick West in more detail here, where he also replicated the photo. West said ‘it’s just the result of taking a panoramic photo in low light on the iPhone. Panoramic photos are done by holding the camera up, and panning from left to right. The camera takes lots of photos and then stitches them together … but because it takes a while to take all the images, if something moves while you are taking the panorama, then it will get distorted.’

#2 That eight-foot-tall Ghost 

Although this photo technically dates back to pre-Christmas 2014 it wasn’t until 2015 that it came to the attention of the media which is why it has been included here. It was taken by teacher Debbie Monteforte and a family friend said “The family insists there was no one standing behind them and there was no place to hang a coat. Even if there was someone standing there, they would have to be 8ft tall to appear like that. It’s beyond spooky.”

However, in Weakly Ghost Bulletin #4 I explained how a quick look around on Google Image Search revealed another photograph taken in the same area of the pub that showed that perhaps a person standing in that position wouldn’t have been 8-foot-tall after all.

Kings Arms Ghost Comparison

#1  Slenderman. Obviously.

It feels right that we finish with the story I opened with. I am awarding the #1 spot on this list to two people: Lee Brickley and Christine Hamlett.

In January 2015 Brickley (who has previously made the #1 spot on this list) generated bizarre headlines by claiming that Slenderman had been seen by many people in the Cannock Chase area. He also made the observation that throughout history people have reported seeing tall creatures and spirits which led him to declare that Slenderman wasn’t created online.

What a genius.

He’s wrong, of course. The fictional creature called Slenderman is an internet creation that probably takes inspiration from real-like folklore. I wrote about this in more detail in a blog post called The Evolution of Ghosts and Monsters in which I point out that ‘many in the Cannock Chase area reported that they saw the so-called Slenderman entity while experiencing sleep paralysis, but if they lived in a different part of the world they might perhaps report that they saw a Grey- an alien considered synonymous with E.T. encounters -rather than a spirit or monster.’

It didn’t stop there though. Enter Christine Hamlett…

Hamlett, a self-proclaimed spirit medium, claimed to have caught Slenderman on camera.

Alleged photo of Slenderman
Alleged photo of Slenderman

This is quite amusing because Hamlett also claimed to have caught a Black Eyed Child on camera when Brickley made the headlines in October 2014 with claims that Black Eyed Kids were prowling in Cannock Chase (you can read more about that on my blog here)

not slenderman
Alleged photo of Black Eyed Child ghost…
More recently Hamlett made headlines with claims that she caught the ghost of one of the Pendle Witches on camera, but her claims were shown to be historically inaccurate. You can read my breakdown of the Pendle Witch claims here.

So there we have what I consider to be the 5 Worst Ghosts of 2015 – a whole range of bizarre claims that, encouragingly, were investigated and explained by rational researchers.

You can check out previous years Worst Ghosts showcases here, and throughout 2016 I will examine ghost related headlines on a monthly basis on The Spooktator podcast. Be sure to subscribe on Soundcloud or iTunes!

 

The Problem With Militant Debunkers

grenade

Militant Debunkers. They’re different from good skeptics because I say so and you can take my word on this because my opinions are right.

I’m kidding of course, but this is the reasoning I see again and again from people who support or believe in certain paranormal ideas and claims, and it’s ridiculous. It’s an easy way to dismiss entirely the criticisms of your idea or field while pretending not to. It suggests that you can decide which criticisms of bad ideas are valid and which aren’t, but when you’re the one promoting nonsense I’m afraid that’s just not true. You can ignore skeptical criticism, of course, but you can’t dismiss it as Bad Skepticismjust because it isn’t to your liking.

People use the word skeptic to describe others and themselves inaccurately or unfairly all too often  – if it isn’t climate change deniers trying to make their ignorance sound distinguished, or anti-vaccination quacks assuring you that their anti-science stance is justified, it is people like Michael Prescott asserting that Bad Skeptics are probably just sick in the head.

Prescott recently wrote a post on his blog full of accusations that border on Ad Hominem. Don’t worry though because he pointed out that he was talking about Skeptics and not skeptics because he has ‘observed Skeptics in many forums over many years. (Note the capital S, denoting militant debunkers, a nomenclature proposed by Roger Knights. I’m not talking about casual scoffers or people who are genuinely undecided.) My impression is that Skeptics, in general, are characterized by an extreme aversion to cognitive dissonance.’

Oh boy. Where to begin.

Firstly, calling people ‘Militant Debunkers’ is pretty fucking derogatory and a clear indication that someone has a chip on their shoulder.

Secondly, psycho-analysing people and accusing them of insincere motives when it isn’t your job to do so is just rude, man. Especially if you’re not a psychologist.

Thirdly, Militant skepticism? Who is Prescott trying to impress? Deepak Chopra?

A skeptic is someone who uses skepticism to examine claims being made to see if there is quality evidence or data to support them… nothing about scoffing, nothing about being undecided – though it’s totally cool to be honest about not being sure as that’s how we learn stuff. However, whether you are a believer or a non-believer is entirely independent of being a skeptic (though, of course, skepticism can lead to belief and non-belief as part of the process of rational inquiry.) People who routinely debunk ideas without examining them are probably not skeptics because skepticism requires an open mind. Simple. 

Militant skeptics routinely refuse to examine evidence means that anybody who refuses to examine evidence becomes a militant skeptic automatically and can be dismissed, which is super convenient for those who don’t want to have to deal with alternative arguments. Fingers in ears, la la la I can’t hear you, and all that.

‘But Hayley, if people refuse to examine evidence surely they’re closed minded?’ you might cry, but this assumes that all evidence is always worth examining and that just isn’t the case when there are other reasons to doubt the validity of the claim – ideas that have been long shown to be incorrect, dodgy methodologies, scams, claims made by people who have been previously shown to be unscientific in their research and so on. If someone tells you they’ve got evidence the world is flat you’re probably not going to examine their evidence. If Andrew Wakefield publishes a new study we can quite confidently assume that he’s probably up to shenanigans, and if Rupert Sheldrake says a dog is psychic you know he might be barking up the wrong tree…

I used to dismiss Bad Skeptics™ when they disagreed with my thoughts about the paranormal and back when I was a ghost hunter it was the fashion for ghost hunting teams to have a Good Skeptic™ on their team to demonstrate that they didn’t just dislike skeptics, just Bad Skeptics™. Laughable, really. Prescott isn’t the first person to lazily dismiss all skeptics by talking about the Bad Skeptics™ as though being sincere and he won’t be the last but I think it’s important that people who do this are called out for it. Now, it would be easy for me to start making all sorts of assumptions here about Prescott and his motives to round this blog post off but I’m not that uncouth and I have standards. Low standards, sure, but standards all the same.

How To Prove A Skeptic Wrong

wrong graphic

I am a skeptic and, believe it or not, underneath these scales that I wear as a skin I am a human being and human beings are typically silly creatures. We’ve got these things called confirmation biases and our brains confuse us into seeing meaning where there is none and as a result we make decisions and claims that are irrational or illogical. When we try to be rational about things as skeptics often do, we are working against our instincts and sometimes (believe it or not) people who identify as skeptics get things… wrong.

I am one of those skeptics who writes a blog. Often referred to as the “scum of the earth”, us bloggers tend to share our skeptical thoughts and opinions in written words on our carefully crafted spaces on the internet. See these colours on this page? I paid my money so that this writing is displayed in a way that I hope is pleasing to your eye and I try to make this website accessible to all people. I care about my blog space because I care about my readers and because I care about my readers I take seriously suggestions that I am incorrect about things, and if I accept the reasoning behind such a suggestion (or accusation because some people know nothing about tone) I will hold my scaly human hands up and say “oh shit, I was wrong”. Why? Well, because being a skeptic means having an open mind ‘but not so open that your brains fall out’ (Carl Sagan) and an open mind means that you will accept new information as it becomes available and change your opinion based upon the quality of that information.

So, really, when it comes down to it, it’s actually really very easy to prove a skeptic wrong because all you have to do is provide the evidence and, if they are really a skeptic (or a sceptic) they’ll accept it and change their minds and then you can all have a cup of tea and move on.

Of course, there are other ways in which you can try to prove a skeptic wrong that are less effective. As a skeptic blogger of quite some experience of this I have created an easy-to-follow guide below. You are welcome.

WAYS IN WHICH YOU WILL NOT PROVE ME WRONG

– being abusive
– writing sentences IN partial CAPITALISATION without realising you can use HTML coding in the comment section to make font bold (the code is <strong></strong> fyi)
– calling me names (often rude or sweary)
– pointing out my age
– pointing out my gender
– pointing out that I am British
– pretending you have lawyer and are going to sue me for defamation or slander or libel or some other law you know nothing about
– libelling me
– harassing me online
– threatening me
– threatening my friends
– threatening my relatives
– mocking my appearance
– phoning up my employers and trying to get me sacked
– mistaking me for someone who can be intimidated easily

WAYS IN WHICH YOU CAN PROVE ME WRONG

-Showing me evidence that I am wrong