Posts Tagged ‘paranormal’

Will Storr wrote a book really worth reading called The Heretics. It’s about people with beliefs on the fringes of mainstream or accepted scientific thought, and it’s about the skeptical movement that challenges and calls them out. In particular, it’s about how the author has failed to find a comfortable place for himself within the latter, despite sharing so many of their ideals and principles.

I read this book last year and scribbled lots of notes about it, and am only now getting around to putting those notes together into a coherent article. Knowing me, “coherent” will probably be aiming too high and this will likely end up rather scattershot and disordered. [Update from the future: Yep.]

At times the book feels a little uncharitable in its depictions of the characters involved, and a little unfair in its conclusions. But although it felt that way for me to read it, I know a lot of that feeling comes from defensiveness about a perceived attack on my own tribe, who I’m reluctant to allow to be criticised on any point that feels like it touches something personal. That doesn’t explain all that I wasn’t comfortable with – I think there are times when he does miss the mark in his final judgments – but nailing down which of my objections are reasonable and which are more emotionally driven is really difficult.

This difficulty is, in fact, a large part of his point in writing the book.

A lot of what he’s talking about is what he sees as a kind of skeptical tribalism, especially at certain gatherings like QED or Skeptics in the Pub. Many of the folk at these events have a very firm idea of what specific club they’ve joined, and exactly who the out-group are. They know very well what sort of person someone must be if they’re found in the pigeonhole labelled “homeopaths”. Not that it should be a surprise, but many self-identifying skeptics’ own beliefs and positions rely to a large extent on tribal in-group coherence, rather than the purely rational objective evaluation of data which they at least have the good sense to value and espouse.

The refrain that “There’s no evidence for homeopathy”, for instance, is a common one, even though for any reasonable interpretation of “evidence” it’s clearly untrue. Scientific research and evidence is what we fall back on as justifying our position, but several skeptics Will talked to couldn’t name or usefully cite a single study or meta-analysis that supported their position on homeopathy, and bristled when the question was asked.

Off the top of my head, I can’t accurately cite in detail the research which supports my ideas on homeopathy either. Clearly that doesn’t stop me from thinking that there are good reasons to think the things I think, all the same. But if my justifications for my beliefs aren’t truly what I think they are, that’s something worth identifying.

There are ways that general expert opinion can be judged by the layman, tools one can aquire to assess the proponderance of evidence usefully (if not impeccably) which doesn’t require us to each pick through hundreds of complicated technical papers before reaching a conclusion. This kind of direct observation isn’t the only way to learn things, and there can be sound reasons to believe things that appear to be based more on hearsay and second-hand reporting. For instance, if the average punter were tasked with writing a medium-length blog post on why they believe that the world is round – and that anyone who believe it’s flat is drastically, bewilderingly wrong – they could probably come up with something reasonable, despite not having been to space to admire the curvature of the earth directly, or personally circumnavigated it just to check.

But we don’t always think naturally in these terms, and so we often don’t summarise our positions on skeptical issues this way either. A more natural inclincation, if you’re a fairly representative skeptical blogger, might be to say “homeopathy doesn’t work, there’s no evidence for it”, and to get twitchy with anyone who starts asking you to cite papers from memory, because you’ve met people who ask questions like that before, and you think know where this is going. Your tribal integrity is under threat from someone suspected of being from the out-group.

It’s an entirely natural human tendency, when faced with such opposition, to assume the worst, close ranks, and awkwardly throw up defenses around one’s cherished beliefs to protect our ego from the perceived threat. The question worth asking for me is: are skeptics actually any better than anyone else at recognising this tendency in ourselves and working around it?

It’s not that it’s wrong to bristle at the question. It’s that it’s really important, for skeptics especially, to recognise both why it’s not a wholly rational response to bristle, and also why it’s utterly human, and completely understandable – and something we have in common with just about every “true believer” we’ve ever had a heated/feisty/empassioned conversation with. Because if we’re not better than average at recognising that kind of faulty thinking and deploying techniques to avoid it, then being right about the things we’re right about is only going to be of partial help.

I imagine it’s deeply unoriginal and quite tiresome for all involved to draw comparisons between The Heretics and any of Jon Ronson’s books, but that’s not going to stop me. One thing I remember about Jon’s approach to visiting the depths of close-knit tribal alien gatherings and reporting on them as an outsider, is that I don’t recall ever simply disliking anyone he wrote about. Which sounds bizarre, given the amount of time he’s spent with neo-Nazis and profoundly hateful religious fanatics. But either there was something affable in their quirkiness and perhaps Jon’s own affection seeped through, or there was something humanising he’d found about them, which went some way toward hinting at an underlying explanation for what was otherwise unappealing about them, in a way that caught the interest just enough that we weren’t leaving with the idea that they’re simply the antagonist to this piece and we’re supposed to take against them.

It could be that my hazy memory is giving Jon a little too much credit. I may be unfairly searching for an unfavourable comparison by which to downplay Will’s attacks on my tribe. But it feels like he doesn’t always acknowledge that same level of individual humanisation, while recounting certain remarks by certain skeptics in a way that insinuates a disapproving tone over the whole enterprise.

Is that reasonable? Am I being unjustifiably tribalistic, to expect him to tilt the balance even further toward acquiescence to my team? Or is it fair to suggest that his own personal biases might have led his own narrative into the kind of judgmentally prejudiced thinking he’s identifying in so many others?

Either way, it’d be petty to reject or condemn the whole book based on differences like this, however strongly I might feel about them. I’ve read and enjoyed numerous well-argued atheistic and skeptical tomes and essays which would no doubt be at least as grating to anyone not already on my side of the aisle who was trying to engage with it. (Most of the history of this blog is probably included in that as well.)

Actually, that paranthetical deserves more of a digression than that, as I felt particularly strongly in the chapter on James Randi. Various defences and objections to Will’s assessment formed in my head as I read, most of which he recapped and considered fairly a few paragraphs later. And a lot of my protests about his overly harsh insinuations would apply equally well to many other out-group people I’ve been critical of in the past, and of whom I’ve read far more damning accounts. If I want critics to go easy on someone I admire, I do not have a great track record of extending the same courtesy.

But it’s hard, because the things that feel like they’re of basic fundamental importance to us, like that homeopathy is bunk, are things that skeptics are generally right about. It’s important not to let that get lost in the fair and even-handed discussion of how both sides have things to learn and both sides are often swayed by irrational tribal urges and both sides have tendencies to make assumptions that unfairly privilege their own team and both sides etc etc. There is also often a crucial matter on which one side is also completely wrong. Will’s not denying that last point, and he’s got a lot to say about the earlier ones which isn’t easily dismissed with phrases like “tone policing”.

He looks into issues such as false memories, audio hallucinations, and Morgellons syndrome, and determines that the people involved with these issues generally aren’t “crazy”, and deserve to be granted a sympathetic ear – but this isn’t the direct counterpoint to the skeptical position that he seems to think. Most of what I know about the fragility of human memory, the fallibility of perception, and the need for compassion and understanding toward anyone who’s fallen prey to some of the myriad cognitive errors that afflict every one of us, I learned from the skeptical movement.

The section on David Irving was particularly good. It really got into the man’s head, explored and humanised him and all his irrationality, found a deep understanding and compassion for this person, without ever risking letting you think that he might be onto something with any of his utterly false notions.

In the end, even if there are potential complaints with the representation of cherished movements, and if the ratio of interesting questions raised to insightful answers proposed is sometimes higher than I’d like, there’s a lot in The Heretics that’s enjoyable to read, and which provides some level of intellectual challenge to anyone with any kind of investment on either side of any sort of discussion about “belief”.

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The short answer, I think, is “yes, but”.

Actually no, that’s too short. Even the short answer’s fairly long, by normal short-answer standards.

Let’s just dive right into the long answer, then.

Hayley Stevens wrote something recently, in which she takes serious umbrage with some of the mockery directed by many skeptics toward those who believe in irrational things.

Despite a stereotypical affiliation with old white men – and perhaps a preponderance filling that demographic which justifies the stereotype somewhat – the skeptical movement is a pretty diverse thing, with people from various different backgrounds and walks of life. Hayley has spent more time firmly embedded in “woo” than many, having started involving herself with research into the paranormal as a believer in various weird things. She spent a significant part of her life on that side of matters, and has lingering sympathies to people who still feel as she once did.

As a result, it’s clearer to her than most that – although she doesn’t phrase it as such – being skeptically active sometimes looks a lot like being a dick.

Before it sounds like I’m doing that obnoxiously smug thing of claiming some sort of moral high ground, over all those other nasty skeptics out there who just aren’t as sensitive and caring as me (or that I’m asserting that Hayley is doing any such thing either), it’s worth remembering the status that skeptics tend to hold in discussions with the rest of the world. They’re used to being decidedly in the minority. Everyone has some kind of critical thinking skills, and employs some level of skepticism in their day-to-day lives, but the basic things the skeptical movement focuses on – logical fallacies and so forth – don’t have much of a place in mainstream discussion. And some of the results of people’s skepticism – such as atheism – are deeply unpopular in many parts of the world.

So many skeptics are kinda accustomed to being a fringe group, and they do many of the things fringe groups do, to try and maintain group solidarity and security. This can include banding together, tending to be wary of outsiders, and using satire, mockery, and ridicule against those they deem to be an oppressive majority, whose acceptance they never feel they’ve had, and have now decided they neither need nor want.

I don’t say any of this to criticise; I’ve been an active part of everything I’ve just described for years. Elements such as mockery and acerbic humour make total sense, and in many cases are justified and necessary parts of pushing a reason-based agenda.

Around half of people in the USA are young-earth creationists, including the last President and many major public figures and commentators. This religiously inspired fiction is a big, bold, mainstream view with widespread support and respect and long-established kudos. And whatever it’s based on, it sure as hell ain’t reason or science or things that make a lick of sense.

Beliefs like this, and the misunderstanding and contempt of science that they both depend on and exacerbate, are worth opposing, and sometimes ridicule and mockery is justified. In many hard-fought battles, skeptics have been the little guy punching up rather than down. Making powerful, establishment ideas look silly is a useful tool for undermining their authority, and for spreading the idea that they don’t need to be taken so seriously after all.

But it gets tricky. Rational assessment of the evidence leads us to conclude that the Earth is rather older than a few thousand years; it also brings us to many other conclusions that, while not 100% guaranteed, are pretty solidly reliable – for instance, that the Loch Ness Monster doesn’t exist.

Unfortunately, with this same flavour of rational assessment, you also often get the same flavour of mockery and disdain for people who get it wrong.

In many cases, we’re not punching up any more. We’re not taking a brave stand against a wide-reaching and dangerously misguided establishment that can take a few hits. The targets of our piss-taking end up being huge crowds of regular people who, with the best will in the world and no hate in their hearts at all, just don’t think the way we do about something.

That’s not great, you guys.

I’m not going to go trawling the history of this very blog, to look for examples of when I’ve done exactly this. I know there are a bunch of things back there that I wouldn’t say now, now that I’ve studied a little more rationality and cognitive bias, grown up a little more, and essentially tried to become more patient and compassionate (as often happens when you grow up and start understanding more things).

Already, as I mentioned the other day, my rationality has bolstered my compassion. Meanwhile, on the other loop of the virtuous circle, adopting a position of compassion and understanding helps my rationality along too. To see how that works, it’s worth briefly analysing my immediate reaction on reading Hayley’s post – in what direction my lizard hindbrain flinched, before any actual thinking started going on.

Remember a while ago, I talked about noticing myself get a bit huffy over an entirely un-huff-worthy remark by Jon Ronson on Twitter? Some irrational, reactive part of me took his comment as an assault on reason, which was then interpreted as a personal attack on me. I started automatically running through all sorts of defensive arguments, for a belief that hadn’t actually been argued against in the slightest. And something similar happened in an unhelpful corner of my head on reading Hayley’s dismay at some skeptical mockery.

I don’t think the problem was that I’ve mocked believers in the past, and I was resisting being told that I was personally wrong or mean-spirited to do that. I think that I was leaping to defend the notion of ridicule as a legitimate tactic, and to fight the idea that any instance of careless or disrespectful language is a sign of a cruel and unsympathetic character (which, like in Jon’s case, isn’t at all what Hayley said).

So I started rehearsing my cached thoughts about comedy being an important part of a robust discussion, the history of satire’s influence on dangerously wrong-headed thinking… All the things which require taking the least charitable interpretation of Hayley’s words possible, and the grandest sense of personal righteousness, for them to make any sense at all.

Whereas, if I actually think about it, and grant her any reasonable benefit of the doubt, it’s not hard to see that her intentions are surely far more benevolent than my involuntary, instinctive, superficial judgment of them. I can stop to examine what arguments she’s actually making, and what ideas and feelings are at their source. And it becomes quite clear that she has a point.

While mockery may be an important and useful part of the broader public debate – used in carefully chosen moments, directed more at the ideas themselves than the people espousing them – it’s an extremely rare case when it’s actually employed with such precision tactics. Much more often, it’s just because it feels good to vent some of that frustration at those other people who are just such idiots you guys, like, ugh.

And we can do better than that. It’s not the worst thing in the world, and I’m not decrying some terrible rift in the skeptical movement because of how mean some people are. But we all spend a lot of time believing irrational things, and skeptics are the one group who should’ve studied enough psychology to know that there is literally not a single exception to that generalisation, in the entire global set of “people who are awake”. There are people like us, who are mistaken, and we can do better than to punch down at them.

Hayley explains the way she feels some of this ridicule personally:

If you laugh at people because they believe in stupid things you’re laughing at me six years ago…

When skeptics mock believers, they’re mocking my people.

Which is simply what empathy is.

Hayley’s experiences have broadened her innate conception of how her “in-group” is defined. But we can broaden it even further, and do even better.

If you laugh at someone for the human failing of believing something unreasonable, you demean what it is to be human. When people are cruel to people, they’re being cruel to my people, because all the people are my people.

That’s the stance I’m aiming for. I’m not there yet, by a long way, but it’s worth the effort.

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I watched the film Flatliners yesterday, because this was apparently an event many years overdue in my life. It was solid, silly 90s fun, with Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, a Baldwin of some sort, Julia Roberts, and that guy from that thing. It made something pretty obvious occur to me.

We, as a species, really don’t seem to like ghosts.

I mean, there aren’t many ways in which the dead can rise and find our approval, but we always assume the worst of ghosts. So much of the time, the unfinished business which provides the only reason they’re sticking around in this world is something vengeful, something to satisfy their anger and hatred.

Among the world’s most haunted places are said to be a number of ghosts, who generally met some bloody end, and have been loitering for centuries. Everybody who could ever have wronged these individuals in life is long dead; any vendetta or feud, long since irrelevant. There’s nothing left for them to achieve here, no wrong to right, no justice to be had. But still we suppose they stay, angry and miserable and trapped.

And since, y’know, ghosts don’t exist, this can’t reflect badly on them. Only on us.

Apparently, lust for revenge is one of the strongest reasons for us not to want death to be the end of us. When our bodies give in, we don’t want to go, mostly because we haven’t yet had a chance to get back at some bastard who pissed us off. We loves us some retribution, and we assume most dead people do too, even after you might think they’d have been able to leave all worldly concerns behind.

Not every restless soul is like this, but they so rarely stick around here if they’re actually happy. They tend to move on to some higher ethereal plane, only communicating with us, in unreliable fragments of conversation, “from the other side”, through an assortment of con-men. They never seem to feel the need to stick around here to get anything done. The only thing ever worth clinging on to this world for is finishing up some brutal revenge.

What does this say about us, that these are the things we imagine we’ll be focused on for centuries once we’re dead? Is it just that it’s harder to tell a fun story if you imagine deceased spirits are capable of forgiveness and kindness, or are we preoccupied with all the wrong things?

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Psychic Nikki has been “clairvoyant all her life”. She “has appeared on several top-rated international television shows”, and her famous clients include Rod Stewart, Matt Dillon, and Survivor Contestants (I love that guy!)

Nikki has also made some predictions about what’s going to happen in 2012. Why should we trust her, you ask? Well, just look at her track record:

Last year Nikki predicted the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the Wall Street protests in New York City, the devastating tornadoes in the US mid-west including Joplin, Missouri. She also predicted the deaths of Elizabeth Taylor and Amy Winehouse, the royal weddings of Prince Albert of Monaco as well as the wedding for William and Kate of England, and the trouble in Syria.

Wow, that’s some impressive predictioning there. I mean, those things all did happen in 2011, and how could she have possibly known about them ahead of time unless she were magic?

And looking at that page, it’s clear that she’s expanding on her success this year, and has made even more predictions – one hundred and eighty-six for the year, in fact, not counting the scores of celebrities on a “Death and Health Watch” list. Thanks to Psychic Nikki’s wisdom, we now get advance knowledge of even more absolutely certain future events! Hurrah!

The problems appear when you start paying attention.

If you click the “view my past Predictions” link still proudly displayed on Nikki’s own site, you can see what she actually predicted last year. She makes no attempt to disguise the fact that, rather than limiting herself to the claimed successes mentioned above, she made two hundred and thirteen predictions for 2011.

Here are some things which Psychic Nikki genuinely predicted would happen in 2011, which I certainly don’t remember:

  1. The world’s first brain transplant.
  2. A Hollywood starlet will give birth to a dwarf.
  3. Paris Hilton kidnapped for ransom.
  4. A remake of the movie The Godfather.
  5. A plane will crash into the Hollywood sign in LA.
  6. The royal Crown Jewels will be stolen.

And here are some of her 2011 predictions which are so vague as to be completely useless:

  1. Danger around President Obama.
  2. More UFO sightings.
  3. A space tragedy.
  4. Snookie from Jersey Shore has to watch for injury.
  5. Parts of the polar ice cap will melt.

Hmm. Which are the ones she was claiming she got right, again?

– The “earthquake and tsunami in Japan”. It’s true that she did predict both of these things would happen in 2011. Other locations in which Psychic Nikki predicted earthquakes last year include: the Grand Canyon, Seattle, Oregon, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Lake Tahoe, Toronto, Quebec, New York, Alaska, Greece, British Columbia, China, Iran, Rome, Naples, Yosemite National Park, and Yellowstone National Park. But… she got the Japan one right, so that’s… something.

– “Wall Street protests in New York City”. There’s no mention of either Wall Street or protests in her extensive list of 2011 predictions. She did claim that New York would face terrorist attacks, a prison riot, an earthquake, and a subway collision. Maybe that was close enough for her purposes.

– “devastating tornadoes in the US mid-west including Joplin, Missouri”. None of her predictions for last year refer to Joplin or Missouri. She did predict tornadoes in California, Oklahoma, Indiana, Texas, Illinois, and Tennessee.

– “the deaths of Elizabeth Taylor and Amy Winehouse”. These two were, indeed, on Psychic Nikki’s “Death and Health Watch”. To give her full credit, so was “North Korean President”, presumably referring to the late supreme leader Kim Jong-Il, who died in December. However, given that there were more than a hundred names on this list, that puts her success rate at slightly below 3%. Also, there’s a disclaimer below the list clarifying that: “It does not mean the above mentioned will all pass but they might have to watch their health and danger in their life”. Which seems to render the whole thing rather pointless.

– “the royal weddings of Prince Albert of Monaco as well as the wedding for William and Kate of England”. Both engagements had already been announced publicly in 2010.

– “and the trouble in Syria”. The only prediction referring to Syria from last year was: “Syria at war with the United States”. I know the US is at war with so many places it can be hard to keep track, but I’m sure I haven’t heard about this one.

When you throw so many random guesses out there as Nikki’s tended to do over the years, you’re bound to stumble onto a few lucky hits now and then, but even considering the huge bulk of her output, the number of successful predictions Psychic Nikki can offer is extremely feeble.

I haven’t even have to do any research to find all this stuff. It’s right there on her own site, the list of current predictions and her many hundreds of misses from past years, all still on display.

But we live in hope. What does she say 2012 has in store for us?

  1. Giant prehistoric Sea Monsters under the sea.
  2. Upheaval in South America with governments.
  3. Somebody will fall off the CN Tower in Toronto, Canada.
  4. More worldwide protests.
  5. Earth will fall off its’ axis a little more.
  6. A hole in the earth’s core.
  7. Space tragedy.
  8. Ellen DeGeneres joining the army for one week.
  9. More makeup for men.

It’s an exciting time to be alive.

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– For pretty much the same reasons as Hemant, I have significant reservations about the idea of a “National Atheist Party“. As in a political group, not, like, a godless shin-dig. I’d be more into the latter, though I’d probably still rather stay home.

– Hayley Stevens has launched a new podcast – or relaunched an old one with a makeover, kinda. Worth a look if you’re interested in paranormal research by someone competent and well informed.

– A 37-year-old woman in the States has been in jail for eight years. She’s charged with the murder of her daughter, but hasn’t had a trial, and apparently isn’t likely to. She’s suffering from mental health problems, and isn’t getting the help she needs, and nobody wants to just let her out of jail for fear of… something. Jesus. (via @radleybalko)

– And for all their faults, The Sun newspaper aren’t quite the lecherous filth that some recent assertions had suggested.

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One thing that makes the Righteous Indignation podcast stand out – at least among the other stuff I listen to – is the regularity of the interviews they get with non-skeptical types. They’re always friendly discussions, where the hosts mostly just ask questions to establish what their guests believe, and why, and how they respond to some of the common skeptical criticisms.

They don’t hide the fact that they’re skeptics and don’t really believe in any of it themselves, and they don’t hold back from dissecting a ludicrous idea as fully as it deserves. But they manage to keep the chat friendly when somebody’s taken the time to answer their questions.

A great example of this is the recent interview with Vicki Monroe, a psychic medium and “cold case investigator” who’s worked with the police on a number of occasions in this capacity.

Her website is full of the kind of sparkly sappy nonsense you’d expect, and there’s an unpleasant surprise waiting for anyone familiar with James van Praagh if you scroll down a way. But on the show, she was really hard to dislike, and I quickly gave up trying.

For about the first half-hour of the interview, I could only support and approve of just about everything she says. She was warm, she was friendly, she was open, and given that she believes she has this particular power (obviously I don’t believe she does, but simply being mistaken is no crime), she was virtually beyond reproach in the way she operates. She talked, for instance, about how important it is for her not to inject herself into an ongoing police investigation of, say, a missing person, except at the express request of the family or somebody else directly involved.

She specifically referred to the case of Madeleine McCann, the British child who disappeared a couple of years ago in Portugal and got a particular storm of media attention. Vicki’s stayed out of that whole case, because she hasn’t been invited in, and knows the potential that someone in her position has to make things worse for the family, if she were to butt in with her ideas uninvited. Numerous examples of other “psychics” with no such scruples are not heard to find.

She talked about other “psychics” who she felt didn’t respect these kinds of important ethical standards, and recognised the capacity for cons to be pulled on innocent people eager to believe. She even named names, and was barely less scathing about Sylvia Browne than you’d expect from any discussion on a skeptics’ message-board.

And she singled out the skeptical community for praise in their attitude toward psychics, and the importance of skepticism in a subject where fakery and being conned is such a danger.

You have to be skeptical. You have to be!

That’s a direct quote from Vicki Monroe, psychic medium. Not a sentiment you can expect to hear from Joe Power any time soon.

So, I like her. She seems like good people. Of course, on some level it all falls down when you get to that whole pesky psychic powers thing. But that doesn’t stop me from basically liking her.

It’s just fascinatingly bizarre, seeing how it goes wrong.

Because she gave a psychic reading, as part of the interview, to Hayley and Marsh.

And it was terrible.

I have no doubts about her sincerity. I fully believe that she means well, cares about people, and wants to help. I think if you’re a good person, and believe as Vicki does in your own psychic powers, then her behaviour is close to being a solid guideline for how to behave. But the actual efficacy of her abilities, and what constitutes evidence which should be taken seriously, seems to be a massive blind spot for her.

Let’s look at the things she said, when she tried to provide a reading for both the hosts of the interview, Hayley and Marsh, [whose questions and comments will go in square brackets].

I don’t know who has this terrier, it’s a little terrier-type dog… it’s a terrier of some sort, and it’s crossed over…

I’m looking at a dog right now. And I don’t know who it belongs to. Either you, or it belonged to someone in the family… there’s a woman who’s holding it.

This didn’t go anywhere. Nobody seemed to have had a terrier who died. That’ll be a miss.

Michael, did you lose your grandmother on your mother’s side?

Not exactly a stretch to imagine Marsh’s grandmother might be dead, but this was another miss. She mused that the woman she was seeing could be a great-grandmother, and she agreed that guessing that his great-grandparents might have died was hardly a powerful psychic feat.

I’m trying to figure out who Ann is. Or Anna.

[Is it someone who’s alive, or someone who’s dead?]


Hayley and Marsh both know someone called Ann or Anna. A modest hit, but Vicki’s admirably quick to avoid taking credit hastily.

She asks at this point, “I mean, who doesn’t know a Catherine or an Elizabeth?”, which I think was to highlight her acknowledgment that simply guessing they might know someone with a fairly common name isn’t a huge deal. (I mention this because, when Marsh was recapping things later in the interview, it sounded like he’d taken her mention of those names as a further psychic guess. I think she was just picking other common names to illustrate a point, and that’s not really a miss.)

I have… somebody saying the name Rebecca for Hayley…

Hayley, do you know who that is?

Hayley says no at first. Marsh mentions that he knows a Rebecca, and then Hayley admits that she also does, distantly. So, if that’s a hit, it’s pretty weak. There are far more prominent people in both their lives which these spirits could be mentioning, if they wanted to be taken seriously.

As Marsh is just about to elaborate on his Rebecca, though, Vicki jumps in again with a question directed at Marsh.

You date a lot, don’t you?

[*laughing* I absolutely don’t.]

Yeah, but she’s right around the corner!

[I think my girlfriend of two years would be quite annoyed if I was dating a lot.]

After these two clear misses, she moves back to the Rebecca connection. Marsh gently suggests that, with all these vague names being thrown out and only occasionally sort of going anywhere, it doesn’t seem to be going that well.

Vicki disagrees. The fact that she’s been able to provide no useful information about the people she’s performing a psychic reading for takes a back seat to the fact that she knows it’s happening. One way or another, she has these spirits talking to her, and she knows she’s not just making this stuff up, so whatever they’re saying must be meaningful in some way.

She’s allowing her subjective evidence to confirm its own validity. It reminded me of something which I’ve heard called the “toupee fallacy”. This is when someone claims to be able to spot when someone’s wearing a toupee, but never checks how accurate they are against any other objective measure. They just sometimes say “Oh, that’s a toupee,” and sometimes don’t, and consider that proof of their ability – ignoring the fact that they might be missing plenty of toupees that aren’t obvious enough for them to spot, and they’d never know it.

Vicki seems to be like that. She’s said nothing close to being specific or accurate enough to mean anything. Testing her spirits against external sources of information – like checking if someone’s really wearing a toupee – is returning almost nothing supportive. But she’s not deterred. Because that’s not how she’s measuring her success.

[Is that the great-grandmother on my mother’s side?]

…The one that I am talking to is the one that says “the one you liked”.

[What’s her name?]

She hasn’t given me her name yet.

[If you were able to get her name, that’d be really clear then.]

…Who’s Evelyn, or Ethel?


Note that she didn’t say that Evelyn or Ethel was the name she had for the great-grandmother in question, so she could technically wiggle out of this one being a miss. But it’s not a name that means anything to Marsh, so I’m calling that one a miss anyway. It was supposed to be important enough for one of these spirits to mention it, and it meant nothing.

Then Vicki spends quite a while seeming to regroup, listening to the spirits and muttering the occasional “okay” or similar. It seemed to me at the time like her confidence had been shaken as she realised this wasn’t exactly going well, and she needed a moment to pull herself together. I wouldn’t begrudge her that, but I could be wrong anyway. Her next guess doesn’t sound any more certain:

I’m not sure, because all I keep hearing is “Rita”, or “Anita”… or “Lida”. Something like that. I’m not sure.

She clarifies that this is an elderly relative who’s passed on to the other side, but doesn’t wait to see if this hits home with anyone. Straight away:

Helen, who’s that?

[Again, I know several Helens…]

They’re naming people that you know, because they watch you. They name people that you seem to be around a bit.

Another negligible hit. Anyone could pluck a series of female names out of the air like this, and be sure that a few of them would match up with the social circle of anyone who’s not a total recluse.

Lucille, do you know who that is?

Marsh doesn’t. Miss. He guides her back to Helen, though, who he knows “a bit”. This is Vicki’s idea of “a good validation”.

If there are spirits watching over Marsh, and monitoring his loose relationship with Helen, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask whether they might be aware of Helen’s surname, middle name, birthday, age, star sign, hair colour, home town, relationship to Marsh, favourite colour, or shoe size. If Vicki could provide any of these, or any of a number of other things actually about Helen, then this might validate something. But the fact that her subject has an acquaintance whose name matches one of half a dozen or so she’s put out there is totally meaningless.

Mary? Who’s Mary? That’s a deceased person.

She breaks off in the middle of a sentence here, in which she’d been explaining how it all works and why Helen was such a good validation, to move straight onto the next one. Hayley knew a Mary who is now deceased.

Cancer? Hayley, this was cancer?

No. Miss.

Okay, but she says a sickness.

Yes, Hayley confirms that Mary did die of a sickness. There are other ways to die than by sickness, so let’s generously call that another weak hit.

It feels like it’s a blood sickness, though.

Hayley says no. Miss.

…an infection of some sort.

[Yes, there was an infection.]

Yeah, but it came from a wound, or some kind of a… surgery or something… She’s saying that she developed either a septicemia or a staph infection…

[I don’t think so, no.]

…or a haematoma, or a blood clot. But it was very quick in the end.

[I didn’t know her very well, but I don’t believe it was an infection like that.]

It was a blood infection. You can check that out.

So a sort of hit on the infection, before she started trying to pin down the details. Then suddenly she’s entirely confident that she’s got this one absolutely right, and that any further research Hayley does into Mary’s past will vindicate Vicki’s prediction.

Which seems an odd point at which to start being unshakably confident. Given how much trouble she’s had so far in getting either Hayley or Marsh to recognise any of the names she’s thrown at them, there doesn’t seem to be much basis for the idea that this Mary is definitely the spirit of the first person of that name who Hayley happened to think of.

To her credit, she specifically asks for feedback on this if they ever do look into it further. I have my doubts, though, as to how regularly Vicki adjusts her view of her abilities, based on people coming back to her later with things that didn’t quite pan out.

Who the heck has a pig? That’s what I want to know.

Now we’re getting somewhere. That’s kind of unusual. Most people don’t own pigs. Hayley knows someone who owns a pot-bellied pig. A hit!

And they live in the house? That’s what I’m hearing.

D’oh. Miss. And you were doing so well.

I keep hearing the name Jennifer or Jenna. I feel like that would have been somebody who somebody would have known as a young child.

Yet another common female name. She should’ve followed up with the pig thing. Marsh vaguely thinks he might have gone to school with a Jennifer, but no-one he really remembers. I went to school with a lot of people, including at least one Jennifer, and I’m not alone in this. Another very general guess, and a miss.

Whose grandfather, or great-grandfather, smells like Old Spice?

About four seconds later she kinda answers her own question, when she says: “Back then it was what everybody wore”. Neither Marsh nor Hayley can confirm nor deny that any of their elderly male relatives favoured this particular brand.

And one of them smoked a pipe, I know that.

[Yeah, he did.]

And that has a vanilla scent to it.

[No, I think he just went for straight tobacco.]

No, but to me it smells like vanilla.

[Ah, okay.]

I’m not letting her claw it back there at the end. That’s one unimpressive hit, one specific miss.

And he has a pocket-watch.

A likely hit, but Vicki freely offers that this would also have been common for men of that era.

Hayley, you’ve lost grandparents, right?


Okay, because there’s a grandmother here… And she says she left you some jewellery?


And that… do you wear it on a necklace?


Or do you wear it on your finger?


Same pattern again. A hit on the vague stuff that probably applies to a lot of people, but a complete failure to get any of the details right. Vicki then starts talking about the jewellery in question, asking the spirit what it was (apparently not getting a straight answer) and then describing it, as if she can see it and is trying to think of the name for that type of jewellery.

Is it like a rosary, or something?

“Rosary” was the word she was searching for, while muttering to herself about beads, and it’s a miss. She says it’s very nice, whatever it is, and that the spirit is wearing the same thing.

So she can see this item of jewellery being worn… but can’t tell whether it’s got beads, or whether it’s worn on the neck or the wrist or somewhere else? I don’t understand.

She moves on then to the fact that Hayley likes chocolate, but describes it as “not a psychic thing”, so we can leave that one.

And… that’s it. This section of the interview lasted about 15 minutes, and I’ve listed everything that she got remotely correct. They have another quick chat about how important it is to call out the fake psychics who fool people and take their money, and Vicki agrees that what the skeptics are doing is important stuff.

And although it’s admirable that she can be this self-aware about something that means a lot to her, and recognise that skeptics’ doubt and questioning is often coming from a positive place, it’s so odd seeing the disconnect with her assessment of her own performance. “They think that was pretty good,” she says of the spirits she was talking to, and all the information they provided here.

It depends on quite how you’re counting, but I think my tally gives her 7 very weak hits on things like common names, 1 more specific hit on somebody knowing somebody who owns a pig, 1 not-that-impressive hit on the jewellery, and 14 misses in between.

And the dead relatives, we’re told, are proud of how much they managed to communicate.

Are these visions being obscured by a dry ice machine that the spirits don’t know how to switch off? Are they having to talk through the speaker system from a drive-thru? Why wouldn’t they be able to pass on some information that makes sense, that’s more easily understood, and that refers to something sufficiently specific to the people involved to be impressive?

Right to the end, I found Vicki Monroe to be friendly and likeable. I’m quite bewildered by her belief in herself, and the impermeable field of woo in which her usual appreciation for critical thinking doesn’t seem to apply. But you have to do worse than just be wrong or a bit confused to entirely lose my affection, and Vicki displayed none of the malice or reckless stupidity that’s often evident in her profession.

She genuinely seems interested in the truth more than any self-aggrandising or pushing her own abilities. When Marsh was recapping the list of names she’d gone through, she helpfully reminded him of a couple of the times she’d completely missed. She insists that anyone who has a session with her also makes a recording, so that they can refer back to it later. This helpfully allows her to pass off a lot of apparent misses as “future hits”, in a sense, but I really feel she’s genuinely interested in helping to make as much of a real connection as she can.

These are things that are worth remembering when dealing with somebody devoting their life to something you consider fictitious or illusory. You might be well aware of all the reasons why belief in psychic powers can’t be justified based on the available evidence, but if you forget that other people don’t always see that, then you’re left facing the awkward question of what terrible people they must be to persist in something so obviously bogus. But this is the same fallacy we’re much better at recognising when it’s turned on us.

Religious people often accuse atheists of being angry or resentful or rebellious toward God, missing the point that we don’t believe he’s real. Some psychics or other supernaturalists seem to think that skeptics are just out to ruin everyone’s fun, as if we knew as well as they did that paranormal phenomena exist but for some reason seek to deny it anyway. And for us to assume that every professed psychic is a shameless cynic cashing in on bullshit is exactly the same mistake.

So I make no apologies for saying I still like Vicki Monroe.

Or for saying that she’s utterly unconvincing and tragically deluded.

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Don’t run away.

This post is going to be about maths and probabilit


There was a scientific paper recently published, in a respected academic journal, which purported to demonstrate evidence of human precognition.

Yep, science says people can tell the future.

Except, not really. Not yet, anyway. As the study’s author, psychology research Daryl Bem, said himself in the published paper, it was important for other scientists to repeat the experiment, and see if they got the same results. Richard Wiseman has been among those involved in such attempted replications, which so far have failed to support Bem’s original conclusion.

There’s a big moan I’m not quite in the mood to make, about how science generally gets publicised in the media, and the tabloids’ tendency to make a massive fuss over preliminary results, without concerning themselves with facts which later emerge and completely undermine their sensationalist headlines.

But I want to talk about the maths.

Replication is always important in science, particularly where the results look unlikely, or demonstrate something completely new. This is partly because, for all we know, Bem’s original research could have been dishonest or deeply flawed. Most people seem to consider both of these unlikely, though, and I’m certainly not suggesting that he’s faked his results.

But people often seem to assume that these are the only two options: that positive results must mean either an important and revolutionary breakthrough, or very bad science. The idea that something could just happen “by chance” now and then never seems to get much credibility.

Almost every time someone in a TV show or a movie proclaims something to be “just a coincidence”, or that there’s a “perfectly rational explanation”, we’re meant to take it as an ultra-rationalist denial of the obvious – usually supernatural – facts. Remarkable coincidences just don’t happen in the way that ghosts and werewolves obviously do. In fictional drama, there are good reasons for this. In the real world, this is a severe misunderstanding of probability.

When deciding whether or not to get excited about a result, scientists often look for significance “at the 5% level”. Bem’s results, supporting his precognition hypothesis, were significant at this level. But this does not mean, as you might think, that there’s only a 5% chance of the hypothesis being wrong.

What it means is: there would be a 5% chance of getting results this good, just by chance, if people aren’t really psychic.

So, getting results like this – statistically significant at the 5% level – is actually slightly less impressive than rolling a double-six. (If you have two regular six-sided dice, the odds of both landing on 6 on a single roll is 1 in 36, which is slightly less than 3%.)

I’ve rolled plenty of double-sixes. If you’ve rolled a lot of dice, so have you. And if you do a lot of science, you’d expect just as many random chance results to look significant.

So, if you’re thinking that we should probably ask for something a bit more conclusive than a double-six roll before accepting hitherto unconfirmed magic powers, you’re probably right.

This is the essence of Bayesian probability. Imagine having one of the following two conversations with a friend who has two dice:
“These are loaded dice, weighted to always land on a double-six. Watch.”

“Huh, so they are. Neat.”
“I’m going to use my psychic powers to make these dice land on double-six. Watch.”

“…Okay, that’s a little spooky, but you could’ve just got lucky. Do it again.”
You see why you might not believe it right away when your friend claims something really outlandish? But when it was something pretty normal, you’d be more likely to buy it?

In either case, the odds of rolling sixes by chance were exactly the same, 1 in 36, independent of what was allegedly influencing the outcome. But that doesn’t mean you should be equally convinced in either case when the same result comes up.

Both claims become more likely when the double-six is thrown. After all, if the dice really are loaded (or psychically influenced), then what you’ve just seen is exactly what you’d expect to see. But they’re not both getting more likely from the same starting point. One started out as a much more plausible claim than the other, and it’s still more plausible now.

Loaded dice? Sure, they have those. Telekinesis? Well, you have my attention, but let’s see you do it again. And again. And a dozen more times with a fresh set of dice.

This is part of my recurring, occasional project to convince the world that Bayesian probability is both important and intuitive, when it’s expressed right.

Ben Goldacre wrote about Bem’s research, the New Scientist also discussed it, there are some details of the replication attempts at The Psychologist, and I was prodded into thinking about all this in some more depth by a recent episode of the Righteous Indignation podcast.

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This may end up becoming a regular feature, if anybody ever actually asks me anything. This is my attempt to describe how I’d react if I witnessed some paranormal event, and whether it would convince me of the reality of a supernatural world.

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Joe Nickell is one of the big dogs of skepticism.

Less well known on my side of the pond, perhaps, but still a huge deal in the world of skeptical inquiry, particularly as regards paranormal investigations. He’s done a huge amount of work over a number of decades, exploring claims of supernatural phenomena, assessing bizarre and potentially anomalous situations, and seeking any evidence that they might be caused by things beyond the material world.

The list of books he’s written and TV shows he’s contributed to is truly intimidating, and his work has no doubt been hugely beneficial in bringing home the importance of rationality and evidence-based reasoning to a wide audience.

And this interview I heard him give recently bugged the shit out of me.

D.J. Grothe was speaking to him for the For Good Reason podcast, and Joe was discussing his lengthy career investigating alleged paranormal phenomena. Like the various ghost-hunting TV shows, he’s visited many sites of supposedly spooky happenings, trying to pin down whether there might be a ghost causing it all, and avoiding the common pitfalls that these shows tend to fall into, such as screaming and leaping into the air every time someone clears their throat, tuning your psychic vibes into a porn channel by mistake, or just plain making shit up.

So far, Joe’s found nothing conclusive to support any supernatural claims, but obviously he keeps an open mind with every new investigation he goes into.

In fact, a far greater bugbear for Joe than people touting unsubstantiated paranormal woo seemed to be the “armchair skeptics”, who like to sit comfortably at home and proclaim knowledgeably to the world that there’s simply no such thing as ghosts, no matter what some deluded fools with a creaky house think they’ve been hearing.

I obviously took this as the personal insult it was no doubt intended to be. So, I’m going to say it:

There’s no such thing as ghosts.

I’m not in an armchair, but I’m sitting comfortably enough, so it probably still counts.

Look, just because I have the balls to state an opinion doesn’t mean I consider every aspect of the matter incontrovertibly settled and have no interest in re-evaluating my position based on new evidence. I’ve wondered before why atheism seems to come under disproportionate fire for being closed-mindedly certain about things, as if religious believers were generally any better at honestly considering the evidence that they might be completely wrong in what they believe.

I’d say that applies to things like ghosts too. Believers don’t seem to be obliged to genuinely consider alternative explanations which undermine the foundations of what they think, but people who don’t get on board are often branded as stubbornly refusing to accept the evidence just because they dare to question it.

I’m getting off track. Obviously Joe Nickell isn’t convinced by claims about ghosts either, so he’s not railing against fellow non-believers like this. But he did spend a good deal of the interview distancing himself from anyone who simply dismisses ghostly reportings without investigating them. On his website he describes his position as a kind of middle ground between “mystery-mongerers on the one hand and so-called debunkers on the other”.

I’m going to call bullshit on the dichotomy he claims to reject. (And also on the suffix “mongerers”.)

If someone professes a belief in ghosts, I have never once heard someone else then immediately respond by sneering: “Oh, so you’ve already made your mind up that ghosts definitely exist? You’re not even prepared to consider the possibility that you might be wrong? That’s such a closed-minded approach to take.”

And yet these exact assumptions are regularly made about non-believers in all kinds of things, even by fellow skeptics.

Why? If I don’t believe in ghosts, it’s because I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that they exist. Nowhere within that statement is any implicit assertion that I wouldn’t believe it even if I did encounter convincing evidence. I hope I would change my mind under such conditions, since I claim to aspire toward rationality.

In fact, it can be a fun and worthwhile exercise to try and pin down exactly what would constitute “convincing evidence” for such a supernatural phenomenon. I haven’t done this for ghosts yet, and would need to research the background to the phenomenon more before I tried. I would hope that paranormal investigators who claim to be scientific about what they do have at least some idea of what these criteria might be.

It’s clear that an armchair skeptic (hi!) is quite capable of expressing an opinion far less presumptive, condescending, and assholeish than Joe seems to think a good deal of other skeptics really hold. Many would say something like:

Well, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I can’t know for sure what was going on in [allegedly ghostly/haunted/whatever location], because I haven’t checked it out, and no other investigative teams have looked at what’s going on yet. I’m yet to see anything to convince me, but who knows what might be causing [observed phenomenon]? I can’t say anything without having been anywhere near the place. This armchair is really comfy. Someone get me some more Doritos, I don’t want to get up.

And this would be all very fair and reasonable and inclusive and probably mollify Joe a good deal. But I think a reasonable armchair skeptic can say more than this, and doesn’t have to sound so wussy and accommodating.

I’ve mentioned this quote which I can’t precisely remember at least once before on this blog, and do please let me know if you have any idea who said it better than I’m going to – but the point is this:

Yes, we shouldn’t go into situations like this assuming that we know what’s going on, seeking only to confirm our initial suspicions and ignoring or explaining away any evidence that might point to a new and unexpected (possibly paranormal) phenomenon.

But, we also don’t have to act like these exact initial reports – strange noises in old buildings, spooky sightings of people who weren’t there, unexplained images appearing in photographs, whatever – haven’t been seen before thousands of times and always led to nothing.

I think a more appropriate skeptical position would be something like:

Well, I can’t know for sure what was going on in [allegedly ghostly/haunted/whatever location], because I haven’t checked it out, and no other investigative teams have looked at what’s going on. But I can tell you the type of things people have discovered in other similar-sounding cases, when they’ve looked into it and found no real evidence for anything supernatural. Based on the present evidence in this case, some combination of these explanations, or something similar, is just more likely than a sudden breakout of actual ghosts. Do we have any salsa dip?

Based on the available evidence so far, “There’s no such thing as ghosts” is an entirely reasonable provisional conclusion to draw.

(A thought occurred shamefully late in my redrafting of this piece, which I’m adding in here: The reason that “the available evidence so far” is of any worthwhile quality at all, and can lead us toward any useful kind of conclusions, is in very large part due to the hard work and dedication of people like Joe Nickell, who aren’t satisfied to just sit in their chairs and philosophise, and devote a great deal of time and energy to getting out there and investigating these things and solving genuine mysteries.

I don’t want it to sound for a moment like I’m saying that scientifically minded skeptical investigators of the paranormal aren’t doing brilliant and vital work in enriching our understanding of the world. All I’m doing is defending some of the people who don’t choose to do that themselves, and who on occasion get a slightly unfair deal.)

If some evidence turns up which this provisional conclusion cannot satisfactorily account for, then we will have to abandon what would then an inadequate theory in favour of a superior one. But the fact that this could happen doesn’t diminish our confidence in our current theory for the time being.

There’s no such thing as ghosts.

So, yes, if I were investigating some allegedly paranormal experience, I would go in there working under the assumption that it’s not a ghost. Just like a biologist discovering a new species would work under the assumption that it evolved by natural selection and is related to all other life on the planet. They would try to find out more about exactly how it relates to other species, and would give absolutely no serious thought during this time to the possibility that it had been intelligently designed.

Maybe, after much research, it would turn out that there was no plausible way this creature could have evolved through Darwinian means, and intelligent design must become the hypothesis that best fits the facts. Although I have no idea how this could be established in practice, if that was truly where the evidence ended up leading, a reasonable biologist would have to accept it.

But they wouldn’t have been wrong to have ignored that possibility in the first place and continued assuming it had evolved. Evolution is a pretty damn solidly established model of reality. Years of experience have given us good reason to use it as our default setting, and to demand a high level of evidence before abandoning it for something better.

I’ve not decided a priori that there’s no such thing as ghosts, that no further discussion is needed, and that any future observations must always by necessity be explainable through other means.

It’s just a good model of reality to work from.

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While I was offline for a month, I kept a note of any links and news stories worth commenting on. Now that I’m back, I’m aiming to post two short items a day here, about stuff that happened during my online absence, until I’ve cleared the backlog. This is one of those.

If you were hoping to be told what card you’re thinking of by a carrion bird, I can only apologise for the disappointment.

Evan Bernstein reported recently about a woman who charges dying hospital patients $125 to spin some yarn about “who’s waiting to greet them on ‘the other side.'”

Talk about the repulsiveness of the image of an ambulance chasing lawyer. Well, this is a psychic chasing the hearse on the way to the hospital to pick up the bodies.

Seems an appropriate analogy to me.

There are people standing up for her, of course, and declaring that anyone who won’t instantly believe in these outlandish claims entirely at face value must be living a life with no hope or meaning. Which is bewildering enough, but okay, let’s work with them a bit. Let’s say she’s real, she genuinely has some power to do what she says she does, and she’s making a really, really good living by providing a legitimate service.

Personally, I find that a real stretch to believe. But let’s run with it. Here’s something that’s absolutely not a stretch to believe:

Somewhere, some unscrupulous con artist would read this article, see this woman making a fortune by telling dying people reassuring things, and think: I have got to get me a piece of this action.

This is easy to imagine. There are undeniably people like this in the world, trying to make a fast buck and not caring who they hurt in the process. Some of them rob banks. So why wouldn’t some of them, somewhere, decide that dispensing a few platitudes to some old suckers desperate for some comfort before they pop their clogs might be an easy gig?

And if it’s obvious that there really could be scammers trying to rip people off with a pale imitation of what the real psychics do, how do you tell the difference?

That’s not at all a rhetorical question. I’m not trying to say that you can’t tell the difference between a real psychic and a con artist, and so you’re a fool for believing that any of this is real. It’s genuinely worth considering how to distinguish the two, and avoid falling for someone’s dishonesty.

It’s something so many believers seem entirely unwilling to consider.

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