America’s most hyped haunts – Book Review

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America’s Most Haunted: The Secrets of Famous Paranormal Places
By Theresa Argie and Eric Olsen (2014)

ammosthauntedThere are books that people will love that others will hate for entirely distinct reasons. This is one of those books.

I categorize America’s Most Haunted as a paranormal true believer’s travel guide to “must see” places that are totally overhyped and banking on any paranormal popularity they can get. The authors count down ten locations that they have researched. There is no introduction to the book so it is not clear how or why they picked these ten, but according to their accounts and those of several contributors familiar with the sites, these are “tried and true” places for paranormal activity.

The book also has no table of contents, index OR references. No references means I can not care less about the stories inside – they are worthless as nonfiction, OK as entertainment. In that respect, the stories succeed because they are entertaining but they are often absurd in what we are asked to accept as true. The book is far more well-written than typical local ghost story collections. However, being well crafted does not make the stories any more reliable.

I have a fundamental problem with “stories”. As a collection of anecdotes, the reader has no way to assess if they are verifiable or accurate to any degree. Yet, people make serious assumptions from stories. No doubt many readers will swallow these outrageous stories of “it happened to me” without a critical thought.
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Two new videos

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Recently posted are two videos from The Amazing Meeting 2013 (yes, 2013 but better late then never).

The first is me talking about the Doubtful News website and what it means to be an “honest broker”, a concept we can all utilize to present information.

The second is a presentation by Don Prothero then a panel discussion with Don, me, Daniel Loxton and Blake Smith. It’s about cryptozoology and their typical “abominable” standards for science and scholarship.

 

Doubt and About – End of Summer 2014

Kenny and I cruising around Gettysburg.
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June and July were all about getting ready for and attending The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas. I stayed a few extra days to explore some interesting places around Nevada. While there I had some very interesting interactions and discussions I would never have even imagined years before. Never let anyone tell you that hard work and dedication don’t pay off.

Me with Australia's Dr. Karl

Me with Australia’s Dr. Karl

VIP seating at the Penn & Teller show.

VIP seating at the Penn & Teller show.

I’m happy to be an official part of the JREF now, working as their Creative Consultant and eventually as the Content Editor for the web site. I’m very excited about the new challenges for those who advocate for evidence-based skepticism and critical thinking about extraordinary claims. There is always something old returning, packaged in fresh wrapping and always new woo around the corner. This is my passion. The future of skeptical advocacy organizations means a lot to me. So, color me happy to be involved and willing to accept a challenging new project. Or two…

Not only did I start a new Facebook group to discuss weird stuff, called the Group of Fort (after Fortean topics). But I also started a new research society with Ken Biddle.

First, the Group of Fort. Come on over to talk about the paranormal, monsters and anomalous phenomena of all kinds.

Kenny and I decided that a casual investigation group, Anomalies Research Society, to look into local claims would be a good idea. If people don’t call us for the their second opinion about a haunting, maybe we could call them and offer to take a look. The aim is to be an ethical, evidence-based group of diverse experience and to respond to the nonsense propagated by the scientifical groups – the ones that play pretend science with their gadgets and blinky things. We’re after answers, not to bolster a belief system.

Kenny and I cruising around Gettysburg.

Kenny and I cruising around Gettysburg.

Meanwhile, due to my activities, there has been a slacking off at Doubtful News. DN content will eventually head to the JREF website when it is relaunched in a new format. While we continue to get excellent traffic, especially via search engines, on the site, I’ve become far more selective about stories I feature. It is discouraging to post the same nonsense stuff everyday like Bigfoot non-news and “Paranormal group finds haunting evidence”. It’s all the same garbage. I’ve started to look for the gems, stories that illustrate an important aspect of our culture or understanding. I also will accept guest posts on appropriate stories from regular readers.

It’s a case of picking battles, too. Every once in a while I’ll call out paranormal BS in public just to show that not everyone is so gullible and YOU shouldn’t be either. But my audience is the public, not other paranormal researchers or those who will believe no matter what the evidence suggests.

Because of the slowdown on DN, I’ve stopped donations to the site. I’ll still keep the server up. Some people generously agreed to continue to donate to those costs. That is really important because of the links and search results that still bring people in to read about topics that are back in the news. You still can contribute via the lithospherica@gmail.com PayPal account or through Patreon.

Finally, I’ve had a bit of a change in feeling about social media. I’m not about getting 5000 friends on Facebook or about promoting atheism or freedom from religion. Not interesting to me. I’m engaging in less discussion online. I value my personal space so I’ve been cutting back some FB friends. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that I don’t know a lot of you or why you asked to friend me in the first place. Well, I guess that is personal. But it’s not a reflection of you being a bad person, it’s more of me wanted to shore up my privacy and make sure I see things that I need to see, not outrage or drama. If you feel unfriended in error, send me a message. You still can find my public page here.

Sykes paper is a clarion call for higher standards for cryptozoology

Rendition of unknown bear that may represent the Yeti
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The highly anticipated paper from B. Skyes regarding DNA testing of anomalous primates has been published and is, thankfully, freely accessible.

In 2012, the team from University of Oxford and the Museum of Zoology, Lausanne, put out a call for samples of suspected anomalous primates – Yeti, Bigfoot/Sasquatch, Almasty, orang pendek. The samples, if accepted, would be genetically tested using a cleaning method previously vetted in the Journal of Forensic Science that removes all traces of surface contaminants (most likely human) to get to the original DNA sequence. A specific portion of the DNA was used – the ribosomal mitochondrial DNA 12S fragment – for comparison to sequences in the worldwide genetic database GenBank.

A total of 57 samples were received. Two samples were actually not animal hair: one was plant material, the other was glass fiber. Those not trained in biology/zoology cannot always tell the difference between organic and inorganic matter or plant vs animal fibers, as we’d also seen from hunters collecting samples on the Spike TV show Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty.
37 of the sample were selected for genetic analysis. 18 were from 8 U.S. states, including pairs from AZ, CA, MN, OR, TX. The rest were from WA, what is believed to be the prime habitat of Bigfoot/Sasquatch. 8 samples were anticipated to be the almasty from Russia. Three samples were collected in the Himalayan region of Asia and one came from Sumatra supposedly representing the orang pendek.

Let’s see what the results were.

Unfortunately, there were no anomalous primates in the lot. The sequences all matched 100%, there were no “unknowns”.

One was found to be human – from Texas. That only one matched with humans is a testament to the rigorous cleaning method that removed contamination. Sykes revealed his thinking about Melba Ketchum’s paper by noting that human contamination often “confounds the analysis of old material and may lead to misinterpretation of a sample as human or even as an unlikely and unknown human x mammalian hybrid” (Ketchum, et al.). Therefore, her claim of rigorous forensic procedures is shot down, again. Incidentally, Sykes et al. does not consider Ketchum’s paper as a “scientific publication” likely because it was self-published. The Sykes et al. study is regarded as the FIRST serious study regarding anomalous primate DNA – he cites two others that were joke papers. Recall that Ketchum cited these in her paper as genuine, revealing her professional ineptness. While the Sykes, et al. paper lists Ketchum as a reference, it is only to cite it as a poor study, not within the valid body of scientific literature, with misinterpreted results. [Burn.] The quality difference between the two papers is remarkable. The Sykes paper is readable and understandable with minimal jargon and a clear presentation of the data and conclusions. Ketchum’s paper was gobbledygook and, with this new commentary on it, albeit subtle, is another death-blow to any further serious scientific consideration.

All the U.S. samples turned out to be extant (already existing in that area) animals such as cow, horse, black bear, dog/wolf, sheep, raccoon, porcupine, or deer. There very clearly was nothing anomalous at all.

All the Russian samples, at least some of which were collected by Ketchum associate Igor Burtsev, also were disappointing. There were two anomalies, however. Samples of raccoon and American black bear were among the Russian samples indicating either a mistake in the location of the samples or individuals of these animals were imported to Russia at some point and their samples left behind.

Sadly, the orang pendek sample from Sumatra turned out to be from a Malaysian Tapir. This is not the first time tapirs have faked evidence for a Bigfoot creature. But I suspect this sample was very disappointing since the orang pendek is considered to be a plausible cryptid – likely a new species of primate. However, this test failed to provide support for that idea.

The Nepal sample turned out to be a native goat, a serow. However, the other two Himalayan samples were the most interesting of all.

Not one but two samples, those from Ladakh, India and Bhutan, matched a fossilized genetic sample of Ursus martimus, a polar bear of the Pleistocene era, 40,000 years old. Note: TWO samples! There was not a match with the modern species of polar bear. Thus, the study has discovered a new anomaly! This result is a boon to bear studies. Future research will continue to look for more evidence of the representative animal, hopefully a living one. The paper is clear, as was the documentary on this discovered which aired months ago, this previously unknown hybrid bear may contribute to the yeti legend. The look and behavior are reportedly different from the other native bears. Is the Yeti a bear? Well, the yeti is a very general term and its description varies across the huge expanse of the world where it is reported to exist. Even the orang pendek, more akin to an orang utan, is sometimes referred to as a “yeti”. Therefore, the “yeti” is likely not just one animal. It is feasible that this new bear constitutes one version of the yeti. Sykes has been open in stating that it does not mean a primate Yeti is not out there. It just means this result was not supportive of that idea.

Rendition of unknown bear that may represent the Yeti

Rendition of unknown bear that may represent the Yeti

The main thrust of this paper hits the gut of cryptozoology. As it is practiced today by amateur Bigfoot hunters and monster trackers, it is not science. This paper represents science. It’s a high bar. I’ve said as much before. To do science requires very specific training. One result of the Ketchum fiasco and the Sykes “success” has been to educate cryptid hunters about genetics and reliable tests that can give them the results they desire. This project was an excellent example of amateurs working with professionals – exactly what needs to be done to make real discoveries and come up with better answers than “It’s a squatch”.

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I’ve always disputed the claim from paranormal researchers (including cryptozoology enthusiasts) that science ignores their work. Scientists had previously been involved in the founding of the field of cryptozoology but also studies in the psychical research and UFOs. They looked, there was nothing there and they moved on. (See my thesis on amateur research and investigation groups, ARIGs)

Now, the modern field of cryptozoology has been put on notice. You need to raise the standards; you need to stop wasting effort. Blurry pictures or another FLIR recording of a warm blob is not going to constitute worthwhile evidence. We best learn about nature through a scientific process. That means amateurs must work WITH the experts, not rail against them.

I was very pleased with the results of the Sykes, et al. study. I look forward to his book release on this topic as well.

Your help needed: What do you want and need from a “skeptic community”?

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Skepticism: An approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence obtained by systematic observations and reason and applies tools of science most often to extraordinary claims (those that refute the current consensus view).

We are a small very loose association of like-minded people who are not always so like-minded. Priorities vary. Greatly. Some have left disillusioned because the community was not what they hoped or wanted. Some find the focus is misplaced or personalities get in the way. Is there a better way?

Out there are vast numbers of people who do not identify as “skeptical” but who apply the above approach focusing on evidence and reason. There are A LOT of people who value this approach and wish to see it used in health care (human and animal), the media of all kinds, and in policy and government.  What do they need? How do we reach them and start the conversation?

Consider this an open forum. I’d like to hear from everyone.

Tell me what you think is important in skeptical outreach, education and activism. What should be avoided? What audiences need to be reached? What are good approaches to try? What are bad habits to avoid? What turns you off of organized skepticism? What would you support? Please, let me know.

If you wish to comment privately and remain confidential, please send an email to me personally (if you know my email address) or to SAHill080@gmail.com. This is tough but really important. If you value reason, critical thinking and science-based approaches, please give this at least a few minutes of thought and communicate your opinion.

Thank you.

Sharon

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Beware the prowling ghost (Book Review)

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Middleton_spirits of industrial ageRegarding paranormal research, there is no comparison between the work that comes out in print (paper or digital) and the mostly crap posted online from paranormal groups or the media. You are hard-pressed to find anyone online who knows what they are talking about when it comes to solid paranormal scholarship and writes well. Here’s another example – A new book by Jacob Middleton called Spirits of an Industrial Age: Ghost Imposture, Spring-heeled Jack and Victorian Society. It was available to borrow for free from the Kindle lenders library (if you have a Prime membership). So I “borrowed” it for as long as I wanted.

I’ve read a lot of paranormal books, a lot on the web, even “long-haired” academic-type books and papers but I must have missed the fascinating story about the prowling ghost phenomenon of the 19th century. I had an incomplete idea about these old-time spooks. As far as I knew, there was only one Spring-heeled Jack who harassed people of London for a while. I didn’t know his origins or his ultimate fate. (I’m still waiting for Mike Dash’s book to come out.)

In today’s paranormal pop culture, we seek haunted spaces. Middleton’s book describes a strange time where “ghosts” wandered the streets looking for people to frighten. They hid behind hedgerows and in dark alleys. They had no purpose except to be surprising and scary. People really did wear white sheets! (No mention if they said “Boo!”)

The prowling ghost was a well-known phenomena on the outskirts of the big towns in Britain. This book explores the particularly British phenomena in some of its more famous manifestations and how this related to society at that time. In several respects, it is an incredibly interesting and thought-provoking story not many American paranormal researchers know of.

People living in Hammersmith in the early 1800s half expected to meet a specter when out alone at night. There was no public lighting at this time so travel after dark was a serious hazard. The Hammersmith ghost manifested repeatedly in the 1820s and 30s – his identity (presumably multiple) was not resolved. This “ghost” and others like it sought out people to victimize. The goal seemed to be to elicit a good scare but in some cases, there was physical assault. Obviously, women were particularly vulnerable. There is not a lot of info about this aspect, given that the most lurid details were often left out of newspaper accounts, but there is ample suggestion that sexual assault was certainly perpetrated. Females were often targeted, their clothes ripped and skin scratched by long nails or claws of the “ghost”.

Depiction of the Hammersmith Ghost (Wikipedia)

Depiction of the Hammersmith Ghost (Wikipedia)

The tale of the Hammersmith ghost spread beyond the locals. This was not a normally behaved ghost. It seemed an obvious hoax; someone (or more than one) was deliberately doing this. The most common guess was that it was bored aristocrat boys who, if caught, were able to buy their way out of trouble. Besides, law enforcement was lax. Often, gun fire would not draw police attention since it was so common. As fear in the town increased, so did vigilanteism as the citizens had to take matters into their own hands.

The Hammersmith ghost activity came to a crescendo when it resulted in a mistaken death. Thomas Millwood was shot in what was judged to be a case of mistaken identity. He was mistaken for the ghost because he was wearing a bricklayers light clothing. The shooter, Francis Smith, was repentant, but was to be hanged. He was pardoned due to sympathy for the man who thought he was shooting the troublesome “ghost”.

Several more such tricksters appeared. The most famous off all these terrorizing characters was Spring-heeled Jack (1837 onwards). While this book contains excellent info about the Jack phenomena — such as documentation that almost all remarkable traits of Spring Heeled Jack (claws, flame, jumping, etc.) appeared to have precedent from earlier marauders — it is not a definitive book on Jack. What it does do is place Jack into the tail-end chronology of prowling ghosts of Britain.

The term “spring-heeled jack” eventually became a personification of any threat, attack, or display of aggression by an assailant. Even though some attacks were real, it appeared Jack was very much an early urban legend generating lurid tales for the newspapers and penny dreadfuls.

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Army barracks were often the reported locations of ghost sightings with armed soldiers reporting a “spring-heeled jack”. Guards would see apparitions in the night temporarily forgetting their fellow officers were not beyond playing tricks. Confronting a ghost was a brave act.

The bogeyman of Spring-heeled Jack was replaced in society by fear of a more notorious Jack in the late 1800s. The prowling ghosts disappeared as society evolved greater personal security measures.

If there is one concept that all paranormal researcher should understand is that ghosts are a product of their time. To those of us used to hearing about the transparent, amorphous, contemporary shadow person or ghost, the physicality of the Georgian and Victorian “ghost” descriptions are strange. They were solid, like people. Many of them WERE people. There were misperceptions, of course, sightings of people who were going about their business in the dead of night but in unfortunate clothing or circumstances for which they were mistaken as a paranormal marauder. Most people assumed they were hoaxes. But even when you know it’s a fake, the surprise encounter can be disarming and intimidating.

Speaking of surprising encounters, funnily enough, nudity was considered ghostly. Nude, likely disturbed, people running around in the night were mistaken for ghosts. In several instances Middleton points out that deviant sexual activity was conflated with the supernatural. Again, we see things through the lens of that time.

The book can be a bit wandering in places, the chronology was difficult for me to track, maybe because some ghosts made return appearances, but I learned so much that was new to me. The sociology of ghosts is fascinating; ghosts live off of human belief.

Expecting a low-quality amateurish piece like so many paranormal books out these days, Spirits of an Industrial Age is surprisingly well done. I enjoyed it so much that I purchased it as a Kindle e-book because I didn’t want to give it up!

If I could teach a class about paranormal history to today’s Dunning-Kruger suffering ghost hunters, I would include this book. An important addition to the cultural study of ghosts (as well as history and historical crime), it’s well worth the price for those of us that love real ghost stories. Ghost back in those days were WAY more interesting than the mists and floating balls of dust today. Ghosts then were far more exciting, but potentially more dangerous because they were “real”.

Skeptically quoted in Fortean Times

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One of my favorite weekend indulgences is reading Fortean Times outside on the patio with a nice beverage. About three times previously, I was tickled to find my name or website mentioned in the issue. April’s issue #313 carried the “40 years of The Exorcist” theme – WHAT FUN! Imagine my giddiness when I began reading the story from Bob Rickard on p. 46 about the Gary, Indiana family “plagued” by demons, when I discovered my name and website began paragraph 3. Rickard made the point that I thought the Indianapolis Star story was decidedly unskeptical. He notes that I turned out to be right (no surprise, sensationalism sells), the story went from eye-rolling to preposterous with many involved seeking personal publicity. All in all, Rickard emphasized that this story was more about reinforcing belief. Most paranormal, miracle and alt med stories in the news are like this. 

The article goes on to account for the entire run in the media of the Ammons family, the purchase of the house by Zak Bagins, ghost adventurer, and the priest becoming involved in media deals. It was a great piece. 

I really appreciate being included in Fortean Times as the skeptical voice. I rarely feel belitted or scoffed at (as the mostly non-believer) reading its pages. I love these stories. I might have a different conclusion but I appreciate the work that goes into writing them up. I was happy to contribute a piece on SlenderMan to the Forum section a while back that allowed me to be far more informed about the topic when the SlenderMan stuff recently exploded.

As a cryptozoology, occult, paranormal and Fortean phenomena enthusiast, I heartily recommend subscribing. No they aren’t paying me for this. I only endorse what I really like because I believe in supporting good content. FT is where I get some prime info from people who actually know what they are talking about.

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