A ruse by any other name still stinks

Standard

As one who runs a website about weird news, it’s been a crazy start to the year. A number of hoaxes proliferating around the media the first week of this year. They are passed on almost with the same respect as actual news. If you resolve to do anything this year, resolve to doubt the news when it sounds too outrageous or too weird to be true. Because it’s probably not.

There are too many urban legends and popular rumors going around to follow at any one time, but let’s take a quick look at some of the major hoaxes that recently created hype in the media.

Made for TV hoaxes

Not counting the Punk’d and Candid Camera-type practical joke setups that are humorous (if rather mean), several television programs aim their hoaxes at the public, making them realistic, and keeping the background a secret as the bizarre video goes viral across the web.

In July, in Whitstable, Kent, U.K, a video from a medicine shop’s closed circuit television showed a man surprised by a falling box. But before the fall, the camera captures the box defying gravity, levitating off the shelf, hanging there for a moment, then dropping.

Was this paranormal activity? (There were obvious signs that it was not.) It was such a fun video that it was passed around extensively. Finally, in December, it was revealed as a hoax for a TV show. The reveal happened on a broadcast that did not get good ratings. Most people may still assume the video was actual evidence for paranormal activity.

The case of the glowing squid-like mystery creature in Bristol harbor, also in the U.K., didn’t hang on quite as long. People in the harbor sounded amazed to see and film a bright, pulsating animal that did not look like a machine. It looked like something out of this world!

The prank was released on YouTube as part of a marketing stunt by UKTV’s entertainment channel, Watch, to launch the show “The Happenings”. I really wanted that bioluminescent beastie to be real.

Continue reading

Feeling versus Thinking: Spent the weekend at a paranormal convention

Standard

I spent the weekend at a paranormal convention in Gettysburg, PA. Now, to most Skeptics, they may not have been able to hold out three days but, actually, it’s a truly enlightening experience. I’ve been to a few paranormal events like this before. I’m certain I was the only card-carrying Skeptic at this one. I’ll be writing and talking about it in various outlets soon but I wanted to give you the quick takeaways.

These conferences are fun and rewarding for the people who attend. They feel like they are among their “kind”. In their spare time, they do paranormal investigations so their regular jobs do not compare. This is no different than a skeptical or any other hobby con. But the big difference between a skeptic event like Skepticamp or a conference is the worldview of the attendees. At a Skeptics convention, the scholarship is high, mistakes are pointed out, serious critiques are brought up in the questioning and it’s all about thinking, not feelings. For this event it was very much the opposite. It was all about suspending scientific thought, very much more spiritual (in the religious sense) than I anticipated. It did not matter what religion you subscribed to (it all sort of mashed together) but your belief will protect and heal you. References and evidence were weak, emotion was strong. Personal stories are welcomed – when were you most scared and most vulnerable? People are very profoundly altered by experiences they had and are struggling to understand them. Without critical thinking tools or framework, it appears explainable in the spiritual sense. Often, what is lacking from Skeptics is empathy towards others’ struggles to understand their frightening experiences. In fact, empathy is downright rare.

Continue reading

Vampires in Serbia. What’s up with that?

Standard

On November 24, a story appeared in the Austrian Times relating fear of a vampire roaming the remote village of Zarozje,Serbia.

That seemed odd. Vampires aren’t something we assume people actually believe are real.

The story, however, was legendary. According to Serbian folklore, a man, Sava Savanovic, lived in a wooden house near a mill on the Rogačica river. He was a horrible guy, a vampire, who would attack villagers and drink their blood. These stories went on as late as the beginning of the 20th century. For several decades, the watermill was owned by the Jagodić family and was in operation until the late 1950s. After its closure, it became a tourist site. The legend of Savanovic appears to play a part in that draw for tourists.

The Balkans, of which Serbia is a part, has a rich history of superstitions involving vampires. As late as the 18th century, the accusation of a person being a vampire brought on mass hysteria, mob violence and public executions.

Back in the village… the Savonovic house by the old mill stream recently collapsed. That was followed by reported misfortune upon the local towns – five deaths and a suicide occurred. I also found in news reports that people were hearing strange sounds and footsteps in the woods. OOoo, spooky. Also rumored is that Sava can exist not as a bat but as a butterfly.

Continue reading

Going off-track: A visit to the paranormal side of Dragon Con

Standard

I have finally experienced Dragon Con, the world’s largest sci-fi/fantasy convention, which was held August 31 to Sept 3 in Atlanta, Georgia. Encompassing 5 hotels and including 40,000 or so attendees, many of whom were in costume, it was a bit overwhelming at times. But, I was determined to squeeze the most out of my participation, hosting a great discussion panel on Monday about skeptics and believers, and attending as many talks as I possibly could.

Besides the uniqueness inherent in a convention fueled by artistic flare, this conference is different from all others I’ve been to in that the various “tracks” (themed schedules) are visited by others who may not attend a conference based solely on that particular theme. Certainly many people wandered into the Skeptic track room as they made their way to events in the nearby Science or Space tracks. This buffet of choices allowed me to see how other fields discuss their content. So, I wanted to share my observations on the Paranormal track, the sessions featuring the TV ghost hunters, and the fantastic talks about monsters.

Continue reading

Your friendly neighborhood mon$ter

Standard

In a recent post on Skeptoid blog, I suggest that paranormal-based tourism, such as ghost tours and monster festivals, which are growing in popularity, border on fraud.

“Even if there are long-standing legends of strange events occurring at some location, to suggest that a place is haunted just to freak people out is contemptible.”

“Ghost tours and monster festivals are fun. But, their apparent frivolity disguise an underlying invitation to buy into an idea just because it’s entertaining while having no basis in reality.”

Commenters remarked that I might be getting too worked up over it. Meanwhile, I found this commentary from a local who thinks his town needs one of them monsters to draw tourists and he is not beyond creating one from scratch. Continue reading

On the shoulders of giants: Using references

Standard

Science as knowledge is cumulative. It is built upon that which was discovered by those that came before. The profession of science relies on getting (and giving) credit where it’s due and demonstrating you know what the heck you are talking about (1).

Good nonfiction books (not just science books) have references to show that the authors have based their writings on the foundation of what others have established and they acknowledge those authors for their work.

I use a list of references in a book or paper to judge the quality of the research. A nice comprehensive list not only shows that the author was diligent about citing sources for their info (i.e., was a careful researcher), but also tells me that he/she has made an effort to become familiar with the literature that’s already out there. This process is called literature review and it’s a primary step in doing scientific research. It sort of makes you “well versed” which you ought to attempt to be before writing a book of your own. Continue reading

Scientific or Scientifical?

Standard

About half of all amateur research and investigation groups (ARIGs – those self-forming groups that do ghost hunting, Bigfoot searches, cataloging of UFO sightings, and other paranormalia) on the Internet say they use scientific methods and equipment and/or their field is based in science. [1]

As one who actually did scientific work in a lab (geochemistry) and geologic investigations, I had a hard time with their claims about scientificity. To be scientific, in a strict sense, there is no substitute for academic training. Long ago, we exhausted all the relatively simple ways of learning about the world and science rocketed out of the reach of amateurs. Now, like it or not, science takes a big effort – careful planning, funding, collaboration and eventual publication so that results can be critically evaluated by the community. In Western society, science is a privileged method of inquiry. The public generally understands that the methods of science are rigorous and the results are authoritative. So, to say that one is “scientific” is to set a very high bar. I could not help but wonder just how close to the bar these ARIG participants could get. So, I looked at their websites and read their publications. Continue reading

Balticon: Scientifical and Real Mad Scientists

Standard

Balticon is a conference done by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. I was asked to participate in their new mini-skeptic track that was developed by Marv Zelkowitz of the National Capital Area Skeptics (NCAS). I thought it was a success. Throughout the day I was there, on Sunday, I saw a big skeptical respresentation. But, also, there were many people who hold that critical, thoughtful mindset but don’t associate themselves with that community. I was glad to speak to them.

My talk was on Being Scientifical: Amateur Research and Investigation Groups. I looked at 1000 web sites of these groups in the U.S. who investigate ghosts, UFOs, cryptids, and general paranormal phenomena. By mimicking science, or doing what they think is science (hence “scientifical”), amateur investigation groups appear serious and credible to the public. This image is effective in selling the public the idea that they find legitimate evidence of the paranormal. It’s concerning.

Continue reading

Pop descent into low quality

Standard

As a follow up to my last post on why cryptozoology may or may not be called a pseudoscience (depending on your criteria), I was reminding of the idea of “deviant” science as discussed by Dolby.

When a “deviant” science, or what might be labeled pejoratively as “pseudoscience” by mainstream scientists or commentators, appeals to a niche group and takes off primarily outside the scientific community, active enthusiasts keep it afloat instead of allowing it to die off like most popular trends. One can argue that this process has happened to many fringe topics such as UFOlogy, cryptozoology and ghosts (possibly add Creationism and global warming denialism as well). Here is a gem of a quote I found while researching “deviant” science:

“…work [on this deviant topic] is disseminated to a wider more passive group from which further enthusiasts are drawn…[T]hose with a mild and passive interest in the deviant science are sufficient in number to provide a market for further journalistic activity. They buy books and read popular articles on the subject. As their critical standards are usually not very high, the commercial pressures of writing for as large a market as possible encourage professional writers to write at a low intellectual level and discourage the display of the apparatus of scholarship. Popular literary traditions in deviant science therefore may be of low quality…”
Continue reading