When the skeptic get spooked

Woodchester Mansion photo by Stewart Black

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Woodchester Mansion with a small group of others. It wasn’t a paranormal investigation but more a tour of the building and we were there from about 11pm through to 2am-ish.

It is a beautiful building in its own way – incomplete, with doorways that lead to a two-floor drop, floors that aren’t quite there and in some places are completely absent. It feels as though you’re stepping back in time to the 1800s and that at any moment the architects and stonemasons will pick up the tools they left behind and carry on. Why they left their tools behind nobody quite knows…

You know that the building you’re standing in is old and yet it almost feels new and throughout the time we spent there I couldn’t shake the discombobulation that came as a result of that.

As we walked around Paul and Chris (who had kindly agreed to do the tour at a moments notice) explained the history of the building and the many eye-witness accounts that have been reported from visitors and staff over the years. We were listening to them speak while standing in a first floor hallway when suddenly the noise of something moving in the hall on the floor below us caught our attention.

It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been to the mansion, but the previously-mentioned missing floors meant that even though we were a level above the hall we were able to look through what was meant to be a doorway (but isn’t) and down into the hall through what should have been the floor of the missing adjacent room. There was nobody present and nothing obvious that could cause the noise.

Old building, lots of open spaces, windy night… who knows what the noises could have been. What interested me more though was the report that most weird experiences at Woodchester Mansion seem to happen to those not expecting to have experiences (e.g. not ghost hunters, or ghost hunters who aren’t yet ghost hunting.)

This is my experience too – whenever I have had a strange experience it has been when I was working, when I was packing up equipment or setting it up, when I’ve been a guest somewhere and not there as an investigator. This isn’t to say that ghosts are real and are pranksters, but it’s incredibly frustrating because when people inevitably ask you if you have any evidence you don’t because you didn’t have a camera with you, or you’d just packed it away.

The most interesting thing happened after we’d left the building for the night and were about to leave. The group of seven had arrived in two cars and were stood next to them talking – CJ and I went to the outbuilding that houses toilets. The women’s toilets are around the corner from the men’s and as I was inside I heard someone call my name but when I left there was nobody there which surprised me because it certainly sounded like a vocalisation. I walked around the side of the building and met CJ just as he was leaving the men’s and asked if he’d called my name but he hadn’t. None of the others had left the group of five that stood with the cars. Certainly not evidence of anything I know, but intriguing nonetheless.

To conclude, I left Woodchester Mansion realising that I was actually in support of paranormal tourism. We’re going to discuss this on Episode 10 of The Spooktator when it comes out and I’ll write more about this after the episode is released so do check back if you’re keen to hear more.

Thanks to everyone who made the trip possible – it was an incredible way to spend the night and morning. I would thoroughly recommend that people visit Woodchester Mansion either as tourists or as part of a ghost tour.

featured photo by Stewart Black, Flickr

We are the Monsters

all monsters are human

We all consider ourselves to be rational, ethical people, and we wouldn’t dream that we were potentially harming others with our behaviour. As a previous blog post showed, ghost hunters who do unethical things do not always realise that they’re being unethical.

How then do we ensure that we don’t make the same mistake? I pointed out in that blog post that it’s important to work to a code of ethics – either one that you’ve written up yourself, that an investigator/team you’re working with has written, or perhaps one a venue has in place.

It’s easy to think that irrational people are unethical investigators and that rational people are ethical investigators but this is false. Nobody fits those pigeon holes so perfectly.

A code of ethics covers your back, but it primarily works for the people you come into contact with. It protects them from you doing harm to them through your actions, it guarantees complete confidentiality and it enables them to stop the investigation at any time. No questions asked.

I don’t speak for other paranormal researchers but I am terrified that I am going to do the wrong thing when I deal with somebody who has asked for my help and so I’m glad that I have a safety net that limits the harm I can do.

I have today made public my code of ethics [PDF] in the hope that it will inspire others to actually use a code of ethics that exists outside of their head*. Skeptics (myself included) talk often about the harm they want to protect others from but if we’re not careful we can become the monsters that we’re trying to chase away.

*please contact me before replicating, redistributing, or using my code of ethics as your own.

 

I Want To Believe: Will The X-Files Reboot Turn People Into Believers?

TV box

There have been lots of X-Files-related posts across my social media accounts recently as the relaunch fast approaches (with Greg and Dana of Planet Weird accounting for at least 70% of the Mulder and Scully stuff appearing on my Facebook feed.) Mixed in with these have been concerns from my more sceptically-inclined friends about what the return of Mulder and Scully will mean for the paranormal belief and susceptibility of the general public.

When talking about people who believe in paranormal ideas skeptics (myself included) will often be quick to point out that the media can have an influence upon which ideas we humans perceive to be realistic and possible. However many people will not be able to provide any reference for this claim – it is often parroted as a way to dismiss paranormal beliefs or to warn of the danger of paranormal television shows.

What we do know is that watching a television show isn’t likely to turn you from a non-believer to a believer. It’s all rather more complicated than that.

Glenn Sparks et al. conducted several experiments with groups of students who were surveyed about their paranormal beliefs and then exposed to certain forms of paranormal media. After watching shows about paranormal subjects presented in different manners they were surveyed about their beliefs again to see if there were shifts in their attitudes.

In one study the researchers had one group watch a program without any introductory disclaimer and another group with a disclaimer that mimicked those used on paranormal television shows. Another two groups watched the program with different disclaimers – one which said the program was only for entertainment and was fictitious and the second asserted that the depicted events violated the known laws of nature and that nothing like them had ever occurred.

The post-viewing survey found that the groups who saw the disclaimers tended to express more doubt in the existence of paranormal phenomena but the group who saw no disclaimer tended to express more confidence in the existence of these phenomena.

They also studied what happened when people with high or low mental imagery watched UFO-related television shows. One of which was shown as it had been broadcast, and the second which was edited to remove all special effects and alien imagery originally added by the producers.

‘One major finding that emerged from the study was that viewers who watched either of the two segments of the UFO reports increased their UFO beliefs significantly when compared to the control group. Like the results in the first study, this finding supports the notion that media depictions of the paranormal do indeed affect viewers’ beliefs.’ – Sparks

Other experiments were conducted about how a scientific authority can play a significant role in whether people consuming paranormal-related media are more likely to accept paranormal ideas presented as being valid or not. You can read an overview of the studies here. 

The important thing to consider here though is that The X-Files does not present itself as a factual programme as shows like Unsolved Mysteries, Beyond Reality, Strange But True and others. It’s a fictional show that fits into various different genres – paranormal, horror, science-fiction. The X-Files takes common paranormal themes and often adds another layer of weirdness to them.

The shift in attitudes that Sparks et al. noted also relied upon a pre-existing belief in paranormal ideas. There was no indication that watching these shows in their original format or an edited format could convert somebody from non-believer to believer.

In 2003 Christopher H. Whittle conducted a study that explored how people learn scientific information from television programming. Using an online questionnaire he asked viewers of ER and The X-Files to agree or disagree with a series of questions based upon the science (or pseudoscience) presented in the two shows.

He discovered that entertainment television viewers can learn facts and concepts from the shows that they watch, but he also discovered that there was no significant difference in the level of pseudoscientific or paranormal belief between viewers of ER and The X-Files.

The weird thing about this was the fact that Whittle wasn’t asking ‘do you believe in astral projection?’ but in fact questions that focussed on ideas created by the writers of The X-Files in their episodes, such as ‘Do you believe during astral projection a person could commit a murder?”

demon fetal harvest

‘ER viewers were just as likely to acknowledge belief in that paraparanormal (a concept beyond the traditional paranormal) belief as were viewers of The X-Files!’ Whittle wrote in Skeptical Inquirer in 2004. ‘The media may provide fodder for pseudoscientific beliefs and create new monsters and demons for us to believe in, but each individual’s culture is responsible for laying the groundwork for pseudoscientific and paranormal belief to take root.’

So sure, The X-FIles might make UFOs seem a bit cooler than ghosts for a bit (depending on what the focus of the series will be, that is) and many of us will rekindle old crushes, but it’s probably not going to make people believe in things they weren’t likely to believe in before.

Besides, Dana Scully is a kick-ass skeptic investigator who knows what’s up. We’re in pretty safe hands.

scully

The Misery Industry

psychic

On December 27th the ITV drama about Harry Price hits our television screens in the UK. I am quite excited about this because I’m a bit of a fan of Harry Price and although he wasn’t squeaky clean himself and was prone to exaggeration, it cannot be denied that he plays an important part of the history of paranormal research. You can’t talk about ghosts without Price coming up in the conversation.

Rafe Spall who plays Harry in the drama has caused some tension after speaking out about his skepticism. He called the psychic industry ‘the misery industry’ and said ‘… these mediums are making – as Harry Price said – a fat living preying on bereavement. It’s the misery industry – you’re making money out of people’s misery, which is very questionable’.

He went on to say ‘Even if you are a believer in the supernatural, or religion, I think if you are of rational mind, you would know that [mediumship is] nothing more than bollocks. It’s a trick.’

Rafe Spall, you’ve gained a huge fan in this fellow skeptic.

The admin of the Facebook page of the Society for Psychical Research wrote in response to Spall’s comments ‘because of course now he’s an expert’ and it’s a sentiment I have seen echoed elsewhere… but you don’t need to be an expert to see that there are huge issues with people who claim to be psychic or mediums. There are never a shortage of headlines about how people claiming to be psychics aren’t the lovely people they claimed to be and have abused the trust placed in them by their clients.

Not to mention the fact that many people who claim to be able to communicate with the dead demonstrate questionable behaviour. Sally Morgan, anyone?

In Episode 3 of The Spooktator Podcast which will be released on Thursday morning (on Soundcloud here and on iTunes here) we discuss a recent flurry of cases of alleged possession that ended up with vulnerable people being killed during so-called exorcisms, or treated in an unethical manner as a result of people with superstitious minds becoming involved in their situation rather than trained medical professionals.

Although these cases are the extreme end of the scale they are not rare. The story I chose to discuss in Episode 3 focusses on a family who live in Grimsby.

The Loche family claim they’ve been tormented by ghosts with a whole host of troubling activity allegedly happening at their home. When their story made the headlines in early November the family pleaded for help and Steve Kneeshaw got in touch with them claiming that he could help get rid of the ghosts. Kneeshaw calls himself a hypno-exorcist and on November 18th he performed what he calls a hypno-exorcism on the 16-year-old daughter of the family. Steve induced the child into a state of relaxation before he urged the spirit to communicate to him through her. He told reporters that he received strong signals from the exercise, but a clear message from any paranormal presence was not recorded.

Steve Kneeshaw shared his disappointment that a spirit didn’t communicate through the teenager after he put her into a so-called trance state and it’s deeply disturbing that it seems as though her welfare was not considered a priority above her potential as a communicative device. I find that extremely troubling and unlike Rafe Spall I have over ten years experience of paranormal research.

Psychics, mediums and ghost hunters who are led by their belief in ghosts routinely put their need to find evidence to show that they are right above the wellbeing of the people they come into contact with and it’s disgusting.

The illusion that exorcisms, spirit clearings work is a result of the placebo effect and the power of suggestion. The positive hits that psychics and mediums produce are often the result of cold reading and cognitive biases.

The Misery Industry is an issue we have to admit exists and although people have a right to believe what they want they also have a right to not be ripped off, abused or killed as a result of the actions of others who are making questionable claims and asking us to take their word on them. Anyone taking umbrage with Spall’s comments ought to ask why. It certainly isn’t because his observations are inaccurate.

‘A cold, angry bunch’

Backlit_keyboard

Vice has published a great feature called The Real ‘X-Files’? It’s a mini-documentary about Roswell and the legend that still lives on and it’s fascinating to watch because of the insight Joe Nickell provides to the whole thing.

For those not in the know, Nickell works for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and is (possibly the world’s only) full time, salaried paranormal investigator. He has a history as a detective, journalist and more. The perspective he can bring to a case is amazing as I witnessed when I visited Windermere with him in 2012 to briefly investigate the Bownessie lake monster reports.

One thing that he says in this documentary in particular really struck a chord with me which has promoted this blog post. Joe talks about how it can be difficult to talk to someone who is a true believer and points out that ‘some of the flying saucer people are mostly male and when they get hysterical they start to threaten you and shriek… they’re a pretty cold, angry bunch.”

This is also true of ghost hunters posing as scientific investigators, conspiracy theorists and PSI proponents too and it’s heartening (in a selfish way) to know that other skeptical investigators also witness this hostility.

Two weeks ago I wrote a blog post called ‘the problem with militant debunkers‘ which was about some pretty dismissive stuff a blogger was writing about skeptics (aka militant debunkers) and this prompted quite an angry backlash in the comments section of my blog. The bitter, hateful language being used to describe me and other skeptics and our so-called motives was incredible to see. One guy even decicated a whole blog post on his website to what was wrong with me. These people all essentially accused me of having ulterior motives and of being dishonest and scared to face the truth. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Usually people only get that angry when they learn that you’re an atheist who thinks their god is make believe and the last time I checked Rupert Sheldrake (whom I dared to criticise) is not a god. Theirs was the sort of anger that hurts the person who is expressing it more than it hurts those they lash out at. I didn’t approve all of the comments (which is totally my right) but here are some of my favourite statements:

‘… you blythely parroting that bunch of vicious crap without investigation of your own…’

‘… constant rain of malignant big-money manipulated bullshit convincing mainstream media-suckled morons and so-called skeptics…’

‘I’m talking to you, inexplicably self-righteous militant skeptic. For shame!’

‘… the term ‘skeptic’ is not completely appropriate; instead they behave as little more than paradigm jihadists.’

Back to ‘The Real X-Files?’, the journalist, Casey Feldman, briefly talks to Stanton Friedman who refers to Joe as a “nasty, noisy negativist” which was rather confusing because the Joe Nickell I met back in 2012 was a lovely chap and a brilliant detective.

As Joe himself says in this documentary “when I see ghost hunter types saying they’re paranormal investigators I think no you’re not. They don’t want it solved. They want to sell the mystery. A detetctive’s motivation is to solve the mystery” and perhaps that’s why people like Freidman and those guys who got worked up in the comments section of my blog don’t like skeptics? Because skeptics don’t settle for what’s convenient or comforting, they want the truth and for some people the facts aren’t mysterious or magical enough.

This means that they have to find a way to dismiss the skeptic so that they don’t have to counter the criticisms and the best way to do this is to call them pseudo-skeptics, paradigm jihadists, militant debunkers and accuse them of having agendas.

The trick is to keep on keeping on. It’s easy to get sidetracked by the negativity of others (as I myself am probably guilty of here) but when someone refers to you and your colleagues as jihadists I guess you’ve got to recognise that now is the time to rise above it and Joe Nickell the hell out of some mysteries.

featured image: backlit keyboard by Colin