If there’s one consistent feature of claims of psychic ability, it’s that they fail to show when exposed to close scientific scrutiny. Since Harry Houdini started to explore the world of mediums in the 1920s, no definitive evidence of psychic ability has been conjured up, and not for want of trying by successive generations of scientific exploration. So yesterday’s report that two professional mediums were unable to show any psychic ability under test conditions isn’t really a big surprise, particularly when you consider that nobody has been able to accurately describe a measurable mechanism by which psychic powers work.
The series of tests, carried out by Goldsmiths, University of London, in partnership with The Merseyside Skeptics Society, found that the two mediums performed no better than chance. Was the test a definitive refutation of psychic abilities? No. But this test now adds to the many others where a person who has claimed to be in possession of psychic powers has been unable to prove them.
At least these two mediums had the nerve and belief in themselves to have their abilities tested under blind test conditions, and they deserve credit for that. It is a pity that one or more of the big hitters in the world of professional mediumship didn’t use this test as an opportunity to prove themselves. Are they afraid of something?
This raises for me a question about the claims of mediums and the services they provide. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a medium sagely admit that there are some dishonest mediums out there cynically taking money off people. But how does the average consumer know that a medium can do what they say they do? A domestic gas engineer needs to be qualified to touch your gas fire or boiler. A financial adviser has to pass exams to give you advice about your investments. For many service industries, the consumer has an expectation that the one providing the service has some objective measure qualifying them to provide that service. Surely mediums, some of whom earn millions from their claimed psychic abilities, should have to pass a series of blind tests to show they are consistently and significantly better than chance before they can ask their clients for money, and more importantly, trample all over their emotions and mental wellbeing? Shouldn’t there also be a way to ‘strike off’ discredited and dishonest mediums found to be making it up, to protect their industry and protect people, some of whom are vulnerable, from being ripped off?
This isn’t only about whether the paranormal is real, but an issue of ethics and responsibility to fellow citizens. Sadly, I doubt that mediums will get together any time soon to clean up their industry.
Fortunately for the mediums in this test, another similarly consistent feature of psychic abilities is that they reappear once the the psychic is in control of the environment, so I don’t expect their careers to suffer any adverse reaction from their failure to prove their powers.
A regular commenter on this blog, The Skeptic, has now set up shop and created a blog on WordPress, ‘Bad Thinking‘. It’s shaping up to be an exercise in using formal logic as part of the skeptical toolkit to examine the extraordinary claims of paranormalists, UFOlogists and any other ‘ists’ who fail to apply critical thinking to their own remarkable assertions.
It promises to be interesting, challenging, funny and if past performance is anything to go by, sometimes upsetting to the self proclaimed ‘experts’ of the weird.
If you read the Shields Gazette, you might have spotted that last Thursday columnist Mike Hallowell used his column to call out a commenter on this blog. the Skeptic. The article isn’t on the Gazette’s website so I can’t link to it. Sadly, Hallowell failed to mention that it was this blog, despite lifting a good bit of text from it. It seems 600 words or so doesn’t provide enough space for courtesy. The Skeptic has responded to Hallowell’s last comment on the Dangerous Delusion post, but I thought the response was also worthy of it’s own blog post, so with the Skeptic’s permission, here it is.
Update: 3rd January 2012
You’ll note that the rest of this post has now gone. Mike Hallowell has received advice that some of Skeptic’s comment is ‘definitely actionable’, so I’ve removed the comment from this post. Similarly, in the interests of self preservation other response comments which Mike Hallowell has been advised as being ‘definitely actionable’ on other threads will be unapproved, and one of my own posts slightly edited.
Some of the comments may return after further consideration.
However, Skeptic’s link to the excellent XKCD site on the ‘current state of the findings of parapsychological research’ still stands:
Update 2: 3rd January 2012
I’ve been told that Skeptic will be starting his own blog on science, skepticism, philosophy and sociology. Maybe he will revisit this discussion.
Skepticism as a method (that is, with a ‘k’ as opposed to a ‘c’) is not just a toolkit to assess and challenge unproven supernatural or paranormal propositions. Every day we’re inundated with claims from manufacturers and retailers for products and services they say will make our lives better. It’s not just the quack claims that we first think about, like homeopathy or crystal healing. It’s things like training shoes specially designed to tone your calves, vibrating machines to strengthen your bones or wristbands to give you more energy. It goes further. What about that new policy your council has proposed, the voting pattern of your MP or your child’s school’s plans to change opening hours?
Being informed is not just the preserve of the skeptic, but the responsibility of every citizen, not just for our own benefit but for our friends, family and those vulnerable to the less scrupulous after the next quick buck. If as citizens we aren’t informed, we’re not just risking being consumer victims to the unscrupulous claims of outrageous PR, but risking our democracy and our liberty.
One of the first questions to ask is devastatingly simple: Where’s the evidence?
You don’t need to be an expert. Sense About Science has launched a useful guidance resource today to arm people with the necessary tools and advice to try and make sense of claims that seem to good to be true.
Start making sense here, now.
We live in an age of scientific wonder. Technology allows us to see into the deep past of the universe and explore the core of the smallest bacteria. Physicists are teetering on the brink of science only seen in Star Trek: creating anti-matter and accelerating particles to the speed of light. Medical advances mean some deaf people can now hear and hearts can be fixed, and the next generation will see the end of many common killer diseases.
But sometimes things happen that make me think that the Dark Ages aren’t really that far away. Our dark psyche is haunted by myths borne out of fancy or misunderstanding. Most rational people expose them to the harsh sunlight of reason and science, leaving the supernatural to the realm of amusement and titillation. Some people though, still believe that they live in an unseen flat earth of spirits and gods, and that communication with the dead and divination are reliable practices.
So, what’s the harm in it all?
Take possession and its partner, exorcism.
Just last month thirteen-year-old Tomomi Maishigi was a victim of such beliefs. Her parents had requested the help of a Buddhist monk in ridding the young girl of an evil spirit which they believed was causing her to suffer physical and mental illness. Tomomi died from suffocation after hours of ritual torture which involved pouring water over her head whilst she was held down.
Last year, two-year-old Jezaih King was asphyxiated to death by his mother and an accomplice whilst performing an exorcism. The list of deaths through exorcism is long, and the number of people physically and mentally damaged is difficult to quantify.
Rather than dying out as it should, the demand for exorcism is growing, with the Catholic church reporting an increase in the number of priests trained in exorcism to handle the seeming growth in Satanic episodes. Even cars and council houses can be exorcised. In some places, ‘holy’ men prey on the poor and the ignorant, offering exorcism for ailments that are treatable by readily available mainstream (and proven) medicine. All for a price, of course.
Exorcism has a tragic history, and no shortage of victims. Deaths and increasing psychoses. Children are particularly vulerable to parents who are deluded into believing in possession, and children dying from exorcisms or other ‘casting out’ rituals are sadly common.
It seems unbelievable that in the 21st Century people can still be so deluded.
Some of these people who believe in possession and exorcism have newspaper columns. Take the Shields Gazette’s Mike Hallowell, who recently covered the murky world of possession and exorcism in three articles over three weeks. To Hallowell, possession isn’t some ‘what if’ speculation or an account of some inexplicable episode, it exists in the realm of reality:
“Of course, the first question that raises its head is whether “possession” is really possible. Believe me, I know that it is.”
His possession articles weren’t harmless space-fillers about people riding the placebo euphoria of acupuncture or the titillation of something going bump in the night, they were peddling a dangerous ignorance, which finished with his final article in the series giving exorcism the stamp of religious approval, coincidentally his own religion of choice. It paints a picture of a world where people can be ‘possessed’ by demons or spirits, and be ‘cured’ by exorcism. It seems highly irresponsible that someone could write articles implying that dark age ritual mysticism can be used on people suffering from mental illness, and that a newspaper editor could allow the printing of assertions that could put vulnerable people in harm’s way.
It’s worrying that there may be people with mental illness who will see such articles as confirmation of their delusions, and take themselves, or their children, into an environment of spiralling harm, and away from genuine medical treatment.
People suffering from mental illness, brain disorders, or any ailment should be seen and treated by medical professionals, not by shamans or priests. But the risk of people with real mental illness avoiding much needed medical attention and following paranormalists down the rabbit hole of delusion is all too real.
Read last night’s tedious Wraithscape column in the Shields Gazette? No? Here’s a quick summary to save you valuable time:
Woman’s smoke detector is broken, so she has new ones fitted. Then one night the broken smoke alarm goes off inexplicably; there’s no fire. Woman thinks it’s her dead gran trying to comfort her from beyond the grave, because said grandma loved her smoke alarms. Author Mike Hallowell thinks this tripe is spooky enough to fill column inches. Gazette editorial happy to waste ink and page space printing this rubbish.
Most people will have seen the spooky shows on TV, Ghost Hunters, Most Haunted and so on to know that there’s a standard format. People go into a spooky building, in the dark with eerie night vision cameras, jumping at every noise, temperature drop or imagined touches on the shoulder, then run out screaming. If they’re lucky, they’ve got a psychic with them to commune with the spirits, if not they resort to spiritual automatic writing or dabble with an ouija board.
Accounts of alleged paranormal incidents can feature shovelfulls of excited hyperbole and excruciating cliché.
Dare to criticise such practices, or have the temerity to ask for evidence, and you risk being labelled a rabid skeptic who doesn’t know anything, after all you weren’t there. To self styled paranormal investigators, those with a skeptical approach are an enemy to their wisdom, a wisdom borne of front line paranormal investigation experience and the occasional spirit guide.
It’s refreshing then to read this article in the Salon which shows that skeptics aren’t alone in being the object of disdain of paranormal folk, they’re quite bitchy about each other too:
Nichols pointed out a laundry list of what he calls bad science in the series: Investigations always take place at night (Why would ghosts come out only then? How can you be a good observer in the dark?); investigators use unproven, “scientific seeming” instruments like magnetometers, which have ultimately failed to produce replicable results; they suggest that every odd sound, every “cold spot” and every “orb” (which have been explained away as side effects of digital cameras) are signs of ghosts. More generally, as Nichols put it, “they just run around like little girls.”
That about sums it up. Yet people still watch the shows and read the books and newspapers full of unscientific unevidenced drivel. Here in South Shields, our own local newspaper the Shields Gazette regularly features spooky articles with little more than anecdote and speculation fed on a diet of confirmation bias.
It shows that for the meantime at least, the public desire to believe in the supernatural and the extraordinary makes money, which makes the weird a lot more lucrative than scientific and rational explanations.