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”.

sasquatch

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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Warnings of impending danger: Science and Social Factors

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This is a paper I prepared for an ethics graduate class and have updated (7-June-2014). I present it in conjunction with a Strange Frequencies Radio podcast appearance on Sunday June 8.

Natural disasters happen every day. The people who can help prepare society for them are not psychics or crank pseudoscientists but those who study events inside out and upside down – scientists. Those who consider prediction a part of their research and responsibility range from weather forecasters to seismologists and volcanologists.

It’s a great responsibility to be tasked warning officials and the public about probable natural disasters. Warnings of impending danger cause predictable social and economic effects that must be considered along with achieving the primary goal, which is safety and minimizing loss of life. If a disaster prediction is wrong, several million people might be unnecessarily affected (Olsen, 1989 p. 107) and the region may suffer economic losses. If it is correct, but delivered inadequately, disaster is inevitable.

Accuracy of predictions is based on what is possible to observe and data that can be collected. For example, hurricane predictions are very accurate because scientists have extensive weather instruments and well-tested forecasting techniques to use. Volcanic hazard areas and shorelines prone to tsunamis are mapped based on zones identified through historical records – scientists can find geologic evidence that the land was affected by lava, ash or debris flows or inundated with waves of debris.

For many predicted events (volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, floods, blizzards), there is time to deliver the message and adequately prepare for the event. The worst situation is certainly earthquakes. There are no widely accepted precursors for quakes. Reliable prediction are long-term and large-scale — relatively unhelpful for preparation. With the potential for large seismic events to kill huge numbers of people, earthquake prediction theories have been particularly problematic and fraught with ethical dilemmas for the scientific community, public authorities and media.

It’s important to distinguish between predictions from the scientific community and those arising from the nonscientific community (pseudoscientific speculation, psychics and cranks). Scientific predictions must be supported by background theory and data and withstand skeptical scrutiny to be considered credible. The foundation mechanisms, explanations, calculations and assessments are expected to have gone through the gauntlet of peer review in order to gain acceptance. If the foundation is valid, then short-term, specific predictions will be credible. Predictive successes that have followed the conventional route include volcanic evacuations (Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, and the island of Montserrat) and severe weather alerts. Psychic and pseudoscientific predictions are not supported by theory or data and are not credible. I’ll not be addressing the ethics of those predictions as they are in a whole other realm.

Failed predictions fall on an impact scale from low (creating public inconvenience) to high (massive death tolls) with economic losses and potential career destruction in between. The following are some notable examples that highlight the major pitfalls inherent in predicting (or ignoring predictions of) natural disasters.

The Brady-Spence Debacle

In 1976, Dr. Brian Brady, a U.S. government scientist, made a specific prediction for a huge seismic event to take place in Lima, Peru in July of 1981. While the prediction itself was remarkably detailed, the theory supporting it was completely opaque (Olsen, 1989 p. 41). Brady’s theory had not been tested or published for peer review. During the lead up years to the event, things got complicated. Egos, priorities, agendas and protocol hijacked opportunities for proper, coherent, scientific critique. Peruvian officials and the public were confused by the lack of a reliable feed of information. The unstable political situation at the time led Peruvian citizens to think that their government was using the prediction to continue military control (Olsen, 1989 p. 131; Sol & Turan, 2004). The predicted quake did not occur. But, widespread disorder, decline of tourism, decrease in property values, and general public unrest resulted in an estimated economic damage in Lima of $50 million (Mileti & Fitzpatrick, 1993 p. 55).

The lack of following scientific protocol led to the situation getting out of hand. This episode is an example of a loss of objectivity by the chief scientist, the failure of the scientific community to address a serious situation in a coordinated way, and government agencies accepting rumors and pursuing misguided agendas without accurate information.

Armero

In 1985, Columbian scientists knew that villages in the valleys around the Nevado del Ruiz volcano were prone to disaster from eruptions. Yet, money was not allotted by the government to monitor the active volcano. The data that could be collected was ignored or not taken seriously by officials. When the media reported that an eruption would produce deadly mudflows that would obliterate the village of Armero, civic leaders called these press reports “volcanic terrorism”.

Church leaders added to the propaganda by telling people of the village not to fear. The poor population made no preparations to evacuate. Inevitably, the volcano erupted. That night, those who attempted to evacuate did not know where to go. Civil defense tried to get people out of the town but many refused to go – telling rescuers they were certainly mistaken. 23,000 people perished when a flood of meltwater and warm mud buried the town. Armero no longer exists, bodies were incased in dozens of feet of debris.

Government inaction in this entirely preventable situation was devastating. The situation was a heartbreaking testimony to the vulnerability of the poor to manipulation by authority  (Bruce, 2001).

Browning’s New Madrid prediction

Iben Browning was a scientist with unconventional ideas who took his claim directly to the media who gave it wide coverage. He pronounced that an earthquake on the New Madrid fault in the US Midwest would be triggered in December 1990 by tidal forces. In light of his prediction, serious social disturbances occurred. When the quake did not occur, he was ridiculed. Sol & Turan (2004) note that one can not use the defense of free speech to support predictions such as this since they create social disturbances with harmful consequences. Your speech has consequences.

Mr. Browning rejected scientific protocol and valid criticism but used the press to create a stir. While these actions were unethical if one subscribes to the ideals of the scientific community, the media also shares some blame for giving Browning’s opinion credibility it did not deserve. Several cranks persist in using this same “tidal forces” idea, unsupported by science, to gain attention from the media.

Katrina

Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes ever to hit the United States. A US House Committee (2006) investigated the catastrophe and found, though the forecasts were remarkably good, the right information did not get to the right people on time and decision-makers seriously underestimated the threat.

It was well known how vulnerable New Orleans was to hurricanes yet there were inadequate provisions, few acts of leadership, government ineptitude, misguided advice, and media hype of violence that together resulted in a pathetic governmental response and heightened death toll. Katrina also revealed ugly issues of race and class treatment which showed that being poor and black put one at a distinct disadvantage in a disaster situation. Previous federal government cuts for disaster preparedness had increased the vulnerabilities and taught a hard lesson about paying now or paying later.

Boxing Day Tsunami

The Sumatra-Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 was an example of lack of coordinated monitoring, notification and evacuation procedures that caused an enormous and mostly preventable loss of life (Revkin, 2004). Fifteen minutes after the offshore quake that generated the deadly tsunami, U.S. scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Hawaii sent out a warning bulletin. In spite of attempts they made to contact counterparts in other countries, the calls were not answered; the information and warning did not get through. Thousands died along populated coastlines completely unaware of the incoming surge scientists knew was coming.

Back in 2003, Dr. Phil Cummings of Australia had pushed for an expansion of the tsunami network into the Indian Ocean. Formation of a study group was met with resistance from participating countries and the network was never expanded. In hindsight, it was noted that Dr. Cummings had accurately predicted the damage that would be done to Sumatra and India. This event put the new word “tsunami” into the vocabulary of many citizens around the world.

L’Aquila, Italy

Giampaolo Giuliani forecasted the 2009 L’Aquila earthquake in Italy based on radon ground emission readings – a scientifically questionable (but not outlandish) theory. Giuliani was reported to authorities for “spreading panic” by broadcasting his warnings weeks before the predicted event. Italian scientists assured the townspeople that quakes were not predicable and officials forced Guiliani to remove warnings from the internet (Neild, 2009; Mackey, 2009). When the predicted quake did not occur on the expected date, March 29, the Italian Civil Protection Agency denounced Guiliani as “an imbecile” (Israely, 2009). A quake occurred on April 6 destroying the central city of L’Aquila and killing more than 300 people.

In this case, a desperate scientist had made an attempt to do what he thought was the right thing. The government agency chose to use ridicule and censorship instead of providing a measured, coordinated response to a questionable scientific prediction. What might have been the result if a different tactic was undertaken?

In 2012, an Italian court convicted six of the scientists and a government official of manslaughter for failing to give adequate warning of the deadly earthquake. Were they at fault or just mistaken? What happens when scientists are held THIS accountable for a correct guess in an uncertain situation? The public will suffer.

The parties involved

Most crises are not instantly obvious. They take time to develop, sometimes from vague or contradictory signals (Boin & t’Hart, 2006 p. 49). Citizens expect public official to make critical decisions, provide direction and issue emergency warnings (Barberi et al., 2008). Because they are not experts on scientific topics, officials are vulnerable to misunderstanding and mischaracterization (Olsen, 1989, p. 38 and 139). Social scientists note “the public wants to hear things from people they trust” and “they want to hear things repeated”. Miscommunication can occur all too easily when an official speaks outside his area expertise and/or garbles the message. Constant, and correct communication is the key.

Predictions have a way of leaking to the press. The media can be an effective and critical means to deliver warnings and will look to experts for information and confirmation. Scientists, however, have not traditionally been open to making themselves available to address the public. One can argue that it is their ethical obligation to be accessible in such a situation and they MUST do so to establish and retain their place as a credible source of information. Otherwise, alternate, not-so-credible sources step in to fill the void.

New electronic media means word-of-mouth takes on a whole different scale as warnings from credible and non-credible sources are passed instantaneous around the world. “Prediction” via email or social network platforms is popular. Likely unaware that a warning is scientifically baseless, and without an easy way to judge its credibility, a receiver feels that she is doing a good deed by passing on a warning of impending doom. Warnings like this can cause undue concerns and economic effects.

The elemental question in predictive scenarios is: when is the evidence adequate to make a prediction to the public? Many prognosticators feel they have potentially life-saving information and are overcome with a moral obligation to inform the public regardless of protocol. They can’t seem to adequately assess the potential fallout if they are wrong. The public, however, considers costs of all kinds and is not always compelled to follow scientific advice. The public may be misled by a manufactured scientific controversy (such as vaccine dangers or global warming).

Science gets accused of oppressing unorthodox ideas that may form the basis of innovative prediction theory. The punishment for a scientific maverick can mean the end of a career. Desperate scientists with unorthodox ideas, rejected by their peers, will put forth their ideas to the community who will listen – the media and public.

The modern public generally has veneration for science and scientists (Posner, 2004 p. 97; Barberi et al., 2008). Yet, science can not deliver absolutes or provide guarantees. The prediction scenario must take public perception into account or the prediction will cause harm whether the event occurs or not.

The world’s most vulnerable population is the poor. Keys et al. (2006) asserts that expensive warning systems are a hard political sell if it is just to save the poor populations.

Governments and citizens will hesitate to undertake precautions that are expensive and time consuming. The public, however, is influenced by seeing others in the community (or, these days, online) taking a warning seriously (Mileti & Fitzgerald, 1993, p. 87). Where the people are poor, uneducated or distrustful of government (Bolin, 2006 p. 129), there can be a reluctance to accept an “official” warning to evacuate. People who feel they are in control of their lives take action to survive. Those who feel their lives are controlled by an external force will passively await whatever fate will come. Fatalistic attitudes, especially as a result of religious beliefs, are still encountered today, most notably in poor populations (Quarantelli et al., 2006 p. 19, and Bruce, 2001 p. 19). Leaders must be forthright to convince citizens to take the most reasonable course of action. Compassion for personal human concerns must be displayed for a warning to be heeded. Government must be prepared to follow through with obligations to the population whether the event occurs or not.

Conclusion

Many predictions are valid attempts to do the right thing under uncertain circumstances. There are social and political reasons why a prediction is taken seriously or completely ignored. The media and public may give a baseless prediction credence where the scientific community does not.

When the public, media and politicians become involved, a prediction becomes socially complex. Warnings must be delivered in relation to social conditions (Rodrigues et al, 2006b p. 486).

Government and scientists have an obligation to learn from historical events and not repeat mistakes. Even false alarms do not diminish future response if the basis and reasons for the miss are understood and accepted by the public (Sorensen & Sorensen, 2006 p. 196-7). Therefore, authorities should be willing to prepare their citizens without hesitation if the prediction is supported by science.

Science has an established process to be followed for a theory to gain acceptance. Scientists should be discouraged from short circuiting this process and appealing directly to the public. However, the scientific community must evolve its process to include modern technology and the new media in consideration of basic human needs and various responses to life-threatening events.

References
Barberi, F., M.S. Davis, R. Isaia, R. Nave, T. Riccia (2008). “Volcanic risk perception in the Vesuvius population.” Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 172: 244 – 258.

Boin, A. and P. ‘t Hart (2006). “The Crisis Approach”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 42-54.

Bolin, B. (2006). “Race, Class, Ethnicity, and Disaster Vulnerability”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 113-129.

Bourque, L. B., J.M. Siegel, M. Kano, M. M. Wood (2006). “Morbidity and Mortality Associated with Disasters”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 97-112.

Bruce, V. (2001). No Apparent Danger. NY, Harper Collins.

Bryant, E. (2005). “Personal and Group Response to Hazards”. Natural Hazards, Cambridge Univ Press: 273-287.

Hinman, L. M. (2005). “Hurricane Katrina: A ‘Natural’ Disaster?” San Diego Union-Tribune. San Diego, CA. Sept. 8, 2005.

Israely, J. (2009) “Italy’s Earthquake: Could Tragedy Have Been Avoided?” Time Retrieved April 7, 2009 from http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1889644,00.html.

Johnson, B. F. (2009) “Gone and Back Again”. Earth (07 Apr 2009) Retrieved April 20, 2009 from http://www.earthmagazine.org/earth/article/1fe-7d9-4-7.

Keys, A., H. Masterman-Smith, D. Cottle (2006). “The Political Economy of a Natural Disaster: The Boxing Day Tsunami, 2004.” Antipode 38(2): 195-204.

Mackey, R. (2009). “Earthquake Warning was Removed from Internet”. NY Times News Blog (The Lede) (06 April 2009) Retrieved April 6, 2009 from http://thelede.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/06/earthquake-warning-was-removed-from-internet

Mileti, D. S. and C. Fitzpatrick (1993). The Great Earthquake Experiment. Boulder, CO, Westview Press.

Neild, B. and G. Deputato (2009) “Scientist: My quake prediction was ignorned”. CNN.com (06 April 2009) Retrieved April 6, 2009 from http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/europe/04/06/italy.quake.prediction.

Olsen, R. S. (1989). The Politics of Earthquake Prediction. Princeton, NJ, Princeton Univ Press.

Posner, R.A. (2004). Catastrophe: Risk and Response. Oxford Univ Press.

Quarantelli, E. L., P. Lagadec, A. Boin (2006). “A Heuristic Approach to Future Disasters adn Crises: New, Old and In-Between Types”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E.L. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 16-41.

Revkin, A. C. (2004). “How Scientists and Victims Watched Helplessly”. New York Times. December 31, 2004.

Rodriguez, H., E.L. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes (2006a). Handbook of Disaster Research. NY, Springer.

Rodriguez, H., W. Diaz, J. Santos, B.E. Aguirre (2006b). “Communicating Risk and Uncertainty: Science, Technology, and Disasters at the Crossroads”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 476-488.

Scanlon, J. (2006). “Unwelcome Irritant or Useful Ally? The Mass Media in Emergencies”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 413-429.

Select Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina (2006). “A Failure of Initiative”. Washington, D.C., US House of Representatives.

Sol, A. and H. Turan (2004). “The Ethics of Earthquake Prediction.” Science and Engineering Ethics10(4): 655-666.

Sorensen, J. H. and B. V. Sorensen (2006). “Community Processes: Warning and Evacuation”. Handbook of Disaster Research. H. Rodriguez, E. Quarantelli, R. R. Dynes. NY, Springer: 183-199.

USGS (1999). “Most Recent Natural Disasters Were Not the Century’s Worst, USGS Says.” News release – US Dept of Interior, USGS (Geologic Hazards) (30 December 1999).

* I use the term prediction throughout this post since I am referring to the cases where a particular event was said to occur within a discrete time frame in a certain location. Please see this post in which I distinguish forecasting from prediction.

Originally published on this blog on 28 Mar 2011

I used to be a skeptic, but then…

Standard

Arm yourself against narrative devices that draw you to the dark side

Here is something to keep in mind when listening to EVERY PARANORMAL INVESTIGATOR EVER (it seems) who is telling you his favorite “It happened to me” story. They will insert the phrase “I used to be a skeptic” in order to elevate the believability of their story. It’s a ploy they use without even knowing, in order to make themselves appear more credible.

This may seem obvious but a new study has come out to demonstrate this in quantitative terms with experimental evidence.

First, definitions:

“Avowal of prior skepticism (APS)” – a narrative device designed to enhance the credibility of the narrator and meant to increase the likelihood that the listener will attribute the event to a paranormal cause. The technique “At first I was skeptical” is followed by a description of a potentially paranormal occurrence and then admission of conversion to belief.

People will use this technique in conversation in order to show he is a normally rational person, not prone to silly ideas. It bolsters the source credibility which is really important if you are trying to influence the listener. It also is a way to be more potentially dramatic in a story. It’s a clue that something rather unbelievable is coming up and you should pay attention.

“Stake inoculation” – a way that the narrator addresses in advance an expected counter argument.

APS is a form of state inoculation since one of the obvious arguments against a person providing a questionable claim regards their believability and credibility. They don’t want you to think they are a gullible fool.

Sheep-goat – the divide between “believers” (sheep, suggesting followers) and “skeptics”(goats, suggesting stubborn rejection). I prefer to use advocates versus counter-advocates. It’s less inflammatory. Also, I didn’t know that was a real thing people understood but I must have heard it a dozen times the past few months with regards to psychical research.

The study showed that if you admitted you were a sheep before telling your amazing story, it wasn’t very convincing. People possibly saw you as overly-credulous. But if you preface the claim by saying you are a goat, people are more impressed and more likely to buy your amazing claim. UNLESS… they know you are doing this on purpose. When people knew of the strategy, they were likely to notice and see it as an attempt at manipulation. Being aware of this APS ploy is at least a little guard against how the narrative attempts to sway you. You may be more likely to focus on the evidence, not the flowery details designed to pull you in. When someone says “I was skeptical,” YOU should be more skeptical.

Narratives are more persuasive than dry statistics or scientific messages because they carry value and emotion in the social act of communication. But narratives, we also call them anecdotes, are one person’s interpretation. They are unreliable for accuracy. Yet, it’s how we get most of our knowledge every day. We rely on what people tell us. HOW they tell affects what we believe.

You can find out more about the study here.

A few other tidbits were notable in this study.

- Anna Stone coauthored An Anomalistic Psychology with Professor Chris French. I love the concept of this branch of psychology – to examine people’s strange experiences without presuming a paranormal cause. It’s a (big) step above parapsychology and I think the way this field is going. It certainly has the promise of progress, there is no house of cards being supported.

- Women are still seen to be more gullible and less credible than men. Is this an old stereotype still hanging on? It’s worrisome to see that. I suggest skeptical woman provide more examples of why that’s not true.

- It may not be education level that is a predictor of belief in the paranormal but cognitive performance. The author notes that students who are more analytical in their thinking are more prone to skepticism and thus a lower level of belief. Are we born with skeptical minds? Or are they made? I argue they CAN be made if guided early.

- Finally, there was mention of peer pressure. You are less likely to express doubt if everyone else is on board. But, your expression of doubt can trigger the same in others! So stand up after that talk and express your doubts and ask the tough questions. The appearance of consensus can be influential to the person still sitting on the metaphorical fence. Once a belief is established, it’s REALLY hard to dislodge. So, it’s far better to prevent it from taking root.