Here you'll find the latest news from the nay-sayers, telling you what you don't understand, for the good of rationalism and the physical universe

Attention ParaN00bs: Ghost Hunting Mistakes Everyone Makes

In our time, 'Skepticism' has sadly become synonymous with snarky proselytizing, in favor of a certain worldview that tends to eschew and belittle those things lying in the fringe of mainstream Science.

Hayley 'the Ghost Geek' Stevens is a skeptic, but the kind of skeptic which restores the proper meaning of that term. She's often incurred in the 'heresy' of applying critical thinking ALSO to the claims or attitudes of so-called skeptics --like that time when she bravely took a stand in the James Randi 'Social Darwinism' controversy-- and for that she's been severely chastised by people she once considered impassionate colleagues --further highlighting how this social movement has started to attain many defects of the 'woo woo' trends and religious organizations they supposedly combat...

The criticism hasn't silenced Hayley though, who continues to speak and lecture in favor of the rational investigation of paranormal phenomena, including ghost apparitions. In the video above, she points out many of the mistakes she perceives amateur ghost hunters commit, when they go inside haunted houses or other locations in which alleged preternatural manifestations are reported.

Your particular worldview --or maybe even personal experiences-- might cause you to disagree with Hayley's conclusions, and that's fine. Even I once engaged in a discussion with her last year, under the comments of her blog post '3 Weird Things That Happened To Me (& Why I Still Don’t Believe In Ghosts)', because I wanted to know what her operative theory about that which we commonly refer to as 'ghosts' was.

Her response was:

I used to believe ghosts were the dead and that our spirit (the life energy) survived after death, but now I don’t find that convincing enough to believe it.

...Which is something I'm perfectly fine with, since to me unquestioningly equating ghosts with the 'souls' of the dearly departed, is as simplistic and as-yet unfounded as implying UFOs must be the metallic spacecraft of interlopers from another star system; an assumption nuts-and-bolts UFO buffs --not to mention debunkers like Seth Shostak and Neil deGrasse Tyson-- love to either champion or criticize ad-nauseam, when they could probably better spend their energies exploring alternative hypotheses for why people continue to report UFOs --as well as ghosts.

I'm also OK with the fact Hayley is not inclined to let her few mysterious experiences, which seem to indeed defy a rational explanation, move her to cross that ontological Rubicon of accepting the existence of paranormal phenomena. At the end of the day, defining what constitutes 'sufficient evidence' with these mysteries remains a very personal and quite subjective question --what might convince me might not convince you and viceversa-- and I think this ongoing search for the Truth benefits greatly when we have honest people who elect to err on the side of agnosticism.

Saying "I don't know, so let's not jump to conclusions AND keep the case open" will always be more preferable than concluding "I don't know, but I'm going to choose the explanation that better suits my bias and stop looking for answers."

Subscribe to Hayley's channel, and follow her blog Hayley is a Ghost Geek.

Animal Telepathy Controversy - Did a Leading Skeptic Really Debunk a 'Psychic Pet'?

'Maverick biologist' Rupert Sheldrake has had more than his fair share of run-ins with skeptics over the years, based on his research into psi, animal telepathy, morphic resonance and more. One rather public battle was with skeptic Richard Wiseman, regarding Sheldrake's experiments with a dog named Jaytee, who seemed to know when his owner was on their way home:

Richard Wiseman is a conjurer and professional Skeptic based at the University of Hertfordshire in England, where he is Professor of the Public Understanding of Psychology. He replicated Rupert Sheldrake's results with Jaytee, a dog that knew when his owner was coming home, obtaining positive, statistically significant results, and then claimed that he had refuted this dogs abilities! Read a summary of this long-lasting controversy, with links to Rupert's and Richard Wiseman's papers and articles on this subject.

Rupert Sheldrake has now posted the video above to his website, in which Jaytee's owner, Pam Smart - who was rather unfairly treated by media outlets in the wake of Richard Wiseman's debunking - discusses the controversy from her point of view.

For more on this topic, see Rupert Sheldrake's book Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home (Amazon US/Amazon UK).

And while on Sheldrake-skeptic related matters, interested readers might like to check out this dialogue between Rupert Sheldrake and skeptic Michael Shermer, which recently played out over the course of a couple of months.


Skeptical Thoughts on the Atheist & Skeptic Movements


Richard Dawkins hasn't sent a Christmas Festivus card to fellow skeptic & atheist Massimo Pigliucci for years now. The Professor of Philosophy & editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon isn't afraid to turn the blowtorch of skepticism on itself, and call out the double standards of those who lead and the blind faith of those who follow. Pigliucci recently published this op-ed piece, and it's well worth a read.

"Here's what I find unpleasant about SAM [skeptic and atheist movements]: a community who worships celebrities who are often intellectual dilettantes, or at the very least have a tendency to talk about things of which they manifestly know very little; an ugly undertone of in-your-face confrontation and I’m-smarter-than-you-because-I-agree-with [insert your favorite New Atheist or equivalent]; loud proclamations about following reason and evidence wherever they may lead, accompanied by a degree of groupthink and unwillingness to change one’s mind that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists; and, lately, a willingness to engage in public shaming and other vicious social networking practices any time someone says something that doesn’t fit our own opinions, all the while of course claiming to protect “free speech” at all costs."

Pigliucci might not be winning many friends in the skeptic movements; but I'm sure he's not losing any sleep over it because importantly, he's winning minds. With Dawkins embarrassing himself in recent years, PZ Myers getting sex wrong, and James Randi pooh-poohing actual science, it's little wonder many are tiring of their boorishness and hypocrisy.

Tip o' the hat to Rob Brezsny.

And to Greg who posted this in Tuesday's news briefs.

Disneyland Ghost Debunked by Captain Disillusion

Captain D. returns with another close-to-perfect* takedown of a YouTube paranormal sensation: the 'Disneyland ghost'. See it before Disney takes it down!

(* Needs a musical number)

Conner Habib: True Skepticism in NDEs

Conner Habib is definitely a polifacetic individual: An evolutionary biologist who studied under Lynn Margulis, yet rejects the current materialist paradigm predominant in modern Science; an intellectual interested in western philosophy, yet has the looks to be in the cover of GQ magazine; a popular performer in the gay adult entertainment industry, yet one who is involved in it by choice, and not because he's trapped in one of the common stereotypes promulgated by our prudish society --dude likes to #%ck and be #%cked, is all.

On his blog, he has republished an essay in which he looks at Dr. Eben Alexander and his best-selling book Proof of Heaven with a critical eye, while at the same time also criticizing the atheist debunkers who have been at the forefront of the attacks against Alexander and his purported NDE. Approaching these controversial subjects from the radical center? That's right up to The Grail's alley!

Conner takes issue with both the simplistic narrative embraced by Dr. Alexander as an experiencer --he went through clinical death while suffering from meningitis and thus 'went to Heaven'-- and the materialist thinking which adamantly concludes his cerebral cortex couldn't be shut down as he professes (it can't be, therefore it isn't); the same attitude that seriously hinders the scope of Science, by binding it to the naive illusion of dettached objectivity between observer and the observed phenomenon, and which negates any phenomenon that fails to meet the criteria of experimentation and replicability demanded by the scientific method.

We’re bound to bang our heads against the wall if we follow the path that Alexander or his critics have laid out for us. The lines are drawn and no one is going to switch sides, not only because Alexander hasn’t proved anything, but because the whole enterprise of foregrounding “proof” is misguided. Not only when exploring NDEs, but also in use of certain kinds of medicine, parapsychological phenomenon, and more. When it comes to non-materialistic and/or individualized phenomena, seeking proof above all else blinds us to the extraordinary and profound nature of subjectivity.

There may be overlapping (though not universal) themes — in NDEs, for example, “walk toward the light” and “everything is love” — in all non-materialistic phenomena, but they always intersect with and are informed by the unique matrix of the individual’s personality and social circumstances. One person may see a ghost, whereas another person in the same room may see nothing. Acupuncture may heal one person’s back pain and leave another’s unhealed. For the latter example, skeptics might be happy to cart out placebo, but they don’t have any real understanding of how placebo works, and it, too, affects different individuals differently.
Not only are the experiences individualized, but many of them exist within mind states (i.e., the content and contours of our thinking and feeling world, as opposed to physical brain states). Alexander can tell us all about the clouds and colors of the afterlife, but he can’t make us see them, because they intersected with his mind alone.

In other words, for certain experiences, reproducibility (and by extension, falsifiability), a bedrock of materialistic science, seems to go out the window

The idea that we can completely dettach ourselves from both our expectations and the world is akin to a religious belief, Conner writes.

For those who demand total objectivity, proof is Heaven, or God. It’s a distant principle which should be always appealed to, never questioned, and of which nothing is greater.

I find this observation useful for other 'damned' topics in the Fortean realm. Take UFO close encounters for example: By abscribing to a false sense of objectivity, both the true believers and the debunkers are forced into either accepting or flat-out rejecting the anecdotal evidence offered by the witnesses --it was either swamp gas, or a spaceship. They haven't entertained the possibility that on every close encounter, there's a deeply personal component of the experience meant for the witness alone and no-one else; at the same time, the phenomenon 'morphs' itself to the observer's expectations, just like the NDE narrative comforms to the the religious beliefs and aspirations of the dying patient.

The solution? Incorporate Subjectivity back into the scientific method:

A science more like Goethe’s or Bohm’s (and less like Alexander’s or [Sam] Harris’s), i.e., a science that asks us to think about our thinking while we observe, would help create better language for moments like this. There’s always a tension between individual experience (subjectivity) and being able to convey things in shared language (via objectivity and proof), but we need to balance the scales better. If we include subjectivity in our scientific processes, we do just that. Then the kind of approach popular skepticism supports becomes an option or an aspect of our scientific approach, not the only approach that thou shalt not have any other approaches before. That way, we can (rightfully) criticize Alexander on his deceptive claim to proof with questions like the ones I and Harris pose above, but we can also marvel at the account.

Of course, here at the Grail we've been skeptic of Alexander's highfaluting account about riding on top of a butterfly accompanied by his dead sister --even though the fact that he never met that person or even knew of his existence, is as fascinating as the fact that he managed to 'miraculously' recover from his E. Coli-induced meningitis to his doctors' amazement-- while at the same time taking issue with the Mind=Brain dogma of Materialism. Will we someday be able to finally move the discussion forward? God only knows*…

When Proof Is Heaven: Why Near-Death Experiencers and Their Critics Keep Getting Science Wrong

[Conner's appearances on the Tangentially Speaking podcast are also highly recommended]

Further reading:

(*): Though getting Greg's book is certainly a step in the right direction! [Amazon US / UK]

Love Letters to Richard Dawkins

There's plenty I don't agree with Richard Dawkins on, but I've never felt moved to write him an abusive email. Plenty of others have though - and when you combine nasty insults and threats written by self-proclaimed 'religious' people with Dawkins's clean, crisp English accent, the result is rather hilarious. (NSFW language warning)

To Celebrate the 100th Birthday of the Late Martin Gardner, Some Skepticism

Martin Gardner

Today would have been the 100th birthday of the late polymath and influential skeptic Martin Gardner. Gardner – who passed away aged 95 in May 2010 – published more than seventy books on such diverse topics as mathematics, science, philosophy, literature and skepticism. For a quarter of a century he was also the writer of the ‘Mathematical Games’ column in Scientific American, and as a consequence he has influenced many of the modern day’s top academics in the hard sciences. Douglas Hofstadter described Gardner as “one of the great intellects produced in this country in this century,” and Arthur C. Clarke once labeled him a “national treasure.”

Gardner was also one of the major voices in the skeptical movement; George Hansen describes him as “the single most powerful critic of the paranormal in the second half of the 20th century”. Gardner was writing ‘skeptical’ books long before the modern movement ‘began’ in earnest with the inception of CSICOP (now known as CSI) in the 1970s – his seminal deconstruction of pseudoscience, In the Name of Science (later renamed Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science), had been published two decades previous in 1952. Like Randi, he could be a rather nasty skeptic too, sometimes embracing debunking over debate (he once commented that in certain circumstances, "One horse laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms").

The occasion of Gardner's 100th birthday has led to a number of tributes on major news sites this week, from the BBC to the New York Times. And rightly so, there is no doubting that he inspired a number of today's leading academics. But I also thought it worth pointing out his fallibility, by relinking to my article "How Martin Gardner Bamboozled the Skeptics", which I think (hope!) does a good job in deconstructing the truly awful 'skeptical' essay he wrote about the medium Leonora Piper. Rather than denigrating Gardner's memory, I would hope that a man who esteemed skeptical thinking as much as Gardner would appreciate my critique of this particular work of his. It's a long piece, so here's the summary:

Unscientific skepticism of the type exhibited by Gardner and Cattel is a corrosive one which, rather than defending science, instead shields it from possible new discoveries and viewpoints through irrational over-protectiveness. It also brings skepticism as a whole into disrepute when such cheap tactics are employed. In his article “How Mrs. Piper Bamboozled William James”, Martin Gardner ignores the original scientific work done, misrepresents the competency of the investigators, and misleads the reader both through incorrect statements and loaded language. This is hardly the type of writing we would expect from “one of the great intellects produced in this country in this century.”

Sadly for Martin Gardner, perhaps the most succinct summary of his essay can be found in James Hyslop’s caustic response to Hall and Tanner’s Studies in Spiritism, written nearly 100 years previous: "The calm critic can only say that the book either displays the grossest ignorance of the facts and the subject, or it is a colossal piece of constructive lying. The authors may take either horn of the dilemma they like."

Link: Skeptical of a Skeptic

Related: Vale Martin Gardner

Skeptic Abused and Threatened by Husband of 'Psychic Sally Morgan'

A few years ago a controversy erupted in the U.K. concerning allegedly nefarious techniques being used by popular 'psychic', Sally Morgan. At the time, I wrote a commentary concerning how quickly skeptics turned hearsay into a witch hunt (literally?), based only on anecdotal evidence. Now comes a new controversy, though this time there is far less reason to offer any defence of Morgan. In the above video (NSFW language), skeptic Mark Tilbrook documents the harassment and threats directed his way by Psychic Sally's husband (and tour manager) John Morgan while handing out skeptical information regarding psychics outside of one of Morgan's shows:

As I explained in the Guardian on 7 October, 2014, I decided earlier this year to leaflet outside various psychic stage shows, encouraging members of the audience to ask themselves questions about psychic ability. My first three visits were to shows by Sally Morgan, and on each occasion her husband John Morgan approached me. I found him to be threatening and abusive.

After being threatened during my first encounter with John Morgan, I felt it necessary to have a camera with me when leafleting, to record events and provide evidence of the threats I faced. This footage shows what happened on the third occasion, at the Shaw Theatre in London on March 30, 2014. I’ve subtitled the video as accurately as I can make out, and you can make up your mind about his behaviour after seeing it for yourself.

None of this has stopped me from being determined to continue leafleting at psychic stage shows. This is why I have been working with the Good Thinking Society to hand out more leaflets at psychic shows throughout October 2014. You can find out about 'Psychic Awareness Month' at the Good Thinking website

Now while I don't think this necessarily provides any direct evidence that Sally Morgan is a fraud, and can understand family members sticking up for their loved ones, in this case things are beyond the pale. John Morgan comes across like a standover man and a bigot, with his threats against Tilbrook surely verging on being criminal (caveat: I'm no expert on British law). I have no problem with Tilbrook providing information outside the theatre - indeed, I encourage people to understand the debate about psychic abilities as thoroughly as possible - as long as he wasn't bothering those attending, or causing real distress to Sally Morgan in some way.

Hayley Stevens has written an intelligent blog post pointing out that, in the somewhat dodgy world of people claiming psychic ability, when too many incidents start adding up, perhaps it might be time to consider the likelihood that you're being fooled (and also, whether you're fooling yourself) - rather than making excuses for the behaviour of people like John Morgan.

When people make excuses for this sort of behaviour what they’re actually doing is acting in their own best interests. They are convincing themselves that the person they have put their faith in- Sally Morgan -is not dodgy in any way and that the beliefs they have invested in are not tainted by any of this controversy. It is difficult to accept that a psychic you so strongly believe in has fooled you into thinking they are psychic and are a good, caring person… but at what point to do you accept that you’re wrong?

While I would say Hayley's list of negatives against Sally Morgan is longer than mine would be - e.g. I don't blame anyone for not being tested within James Randi's framework - it is a very good point. As Robert Anton Wilson once counseled, in regards to the tension between not being dogmatic but needing to make decisions: "I don't believe anything, but I have many suspicions." At a certain time, too many suspicions should at least set alarm bells ringing.

For her part Sally Morgan has sacked her husband, saying she is "utterly ashamed" of his behaviour and is not sure where this leaves their marriage. But perhaps at this point further redemption is needed - such as allowing herself to be tested by open-minded scientists endowed with enough skepticism to provide a valid examination of claimed abilities.

Though I'd like to see some sort of system doing exactly that for all professional psychics, regardless of how dickish their spouses are...


Has Skeptic Michael Shermer Seen the Light?

Michael Shermer

I've long been a critic of the writings and methods of high-profile 'skeptic' Michael Shermer (I explained why way back in 2004). A long-time columnist for Scientific American, Shermer has regularly pointed out the many ways that anomalistic events are in reality caused by faulty thinking - sometimes employing pseudoscientific techniques, and perhaps even outright deception - to make his point.

Which makes his most recent column for Sci-Am, "Anomalous Events That Can Shake One’s Skepticism to the Core " quite a weird one. Because in it, he admits that a recent experience (which occurred on his wedding day) rattled him. Check out the column for the full anecdote, but here's his conclusion:

Had it happened to someone else I might suggest a chance electrical anomaly and the law of large numbers as an explanation—with billions of people having billions of experiences every day, there's bound to be a handful of extremely unlikely events that stand out in their timing and meaning. In any case, such anecdotes do not constitute scientific evidence that the dead survive or that they can communicate with us via electronic equipment.

Jennifer is as skeptical as I am when it comes to paranormal and supernatural phenomena. Yet the eerie conjunction of these deeply evocative events gave her the distinct feeling that her grandfather was there and that the music was his gift of approval. I have to admit, it rocked me back on my heels and shook my skepticism to its core as well. I savored the experience more than the explanation.

The emotional interpretations of such anomalous events grant them significance regardless of their causal account. And if we are to take seriously the scientific credo to keep an open mind and remain agnostic when the evidence is indecisive or the riddle unsolved, we should not shut the doors of perception when they may be opened to us to marvel in the mysterious.

Don't get me wrong, I'm very happy that Michael Shermer has finally seen (at least some of) the light when it comes to the personal impact of anomalistic experiences, and how pat explanations offered by others sometimes just don't cut it. I'm just a bit...skeptical...that a guy who has for years talked down on and attempted to debunk these type of events suddenly flips in his view. Perhaps the event really did rock him to his core; or perhaps he thought his old-school debunking attitude wasn't playing as well in 2014, or perhaps he just needed a bit of a controversy to drum up some page hits, or even distract people from other events (Shermer has recently been at the centre of somewhat of a controversy regarding his interactions with women in the skeptical movement).

Let's just say I'm cautiously optimistic that one of the leaders of the 'skeptical' movement has had a genuine insight to 'the other side'...


JREF Shake-Up: Headquarters Moved, James Randi Re-Installed as President

James 'The Amazing' Randi

An interesting development in the last few hours at the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF): a short statement has been posted to their website under the title "Los Angeles Office Closed", advising that the headquarters of the organisation is moving across the country to Virginia. Oh, and also as an aside (in a statement released at the end of a long weekend) that the President of the organisation, D.J. Grothe, "is no longer with the JREF"!

In order to achieve cost-savings and greater efficiency, the Los Angeles office of the JREF has closed effective September 1, 2014. All operations have been moved to Falls Church, Virginia.

DJ Grothe is no longer with the JREF. James Randi has taken over as acting President.

This restructuring is part of an enhanced educational agenda aimed at inspiring an investigative spirit in a new generation of critical thinkers by engaging children and their parents, as well as educators and the general public, in how to think about the many extraordinary claims we hear every day.

With the lack of information in the statement, it's difficult to say too much about this development. I might guess - given that the JREF is quite a professional organisation - that the abruptness of the statement, and silence from D.J. Grothe's camp since the announcement, that Grothe was dismissed from his position with little notice (interestingly, D.J.'s name has immediately disappeared from the 'Staff' listing on the JREF site, while his own social media accounts still list him as President of the JREF).

It's interesting to note as well that the shift in headquarters (which only moved from Florida to Los Angeles a few years ago) is to the administrative offices of the JREF, which is centered around JREF board member Rick Adams (the wealthy pioneering internet entrepreneur who financed the Million Dollar Challenge). Adams has previously sat in the background somewhat, but has also recently taken on the job of shifting the JREF's forum away from the official website.

Is the change-up due to a dire financial position? On Twitter, Jim Lippard has posted the JREF's recent revenues, which have almost halved in the last 3 years (2011: $1.56M, 2012: $1.29M, 2013: $887.5K). JREF backer Rick Adams isn't short of coin though...but as a successful businessman, perhaps those figures necessitated change. Or perhaps there was a personality clash? All speculation at the moment...perhaps it's all amicable and pre-planned. Certainly doesn't seem like it at this point though...the burying of the lede in that statement is truly bizarre.