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Scottish poltergeist story is highly questionable, even if the police say they saw something

A story about a family in Rutherglen, Scotland, who called in police to report paranormal phenomena, rode the media wave yesterday into today. The original source was the local Rutherglen Reformer paper that appears digitally on the Daily Record (UK) website. Here is the main story: Rutherglen family call in police after witnessing paranormal activity

A desperate Rutherglen family were forced to call in the police after witnessing apparent paranormal activity in this home.

[…] officers were left stunned when they witnessed clothes flying across a room, lights going on and off, oven doors opening, mobile phones flying through the air and even a chihuahua dog on top of a seven foot hedge.

The terrified family, who live on Stonelaw Road, called police in a panic on August 8 and 9 after two days of bizarre occurances. It is understood a sergeant and two PCs witnessed the incidents.

Several question IMMEDIATELY arise and are not answered by any of the news reports:

  • Who were the officers who responded?
  • Did the offices actually witness what is described? Where are the detailed reports?
  • Did the family call on both days? Why?
  • “It is understood” that various policeman witnessed it – what does that mean? Why are no names included?
chihuaua
OK, fine, here ya go!

I looked for all reports of the incident. What I found was a repetition of the Daily Record story with the same unsourced quotes. All stories include a stock photo of a chihuahua as well, which I thought was humorous. Adding the bit that the dog was affected by the phenomena adds greatly to the interest in the story, but also allowed for some egregious exaggeration as I note later on.

Let’s establish the situation, though. In a nutshell, the story is a parade of second or third hand anecdotes, lacking details and specifics, by the family (a mother and teenaged son) and unnamed police sources. Not very credible at all. Here’s what else we get from the same piece [with a timestamp of 10:09, 13 AUG 2016 BY DOUGLAS DICKIE]

And another source was quoted in our sister paper, the Daily Record, saying: ““These were incidents that were witnessed by our own officers. Incidents that are not easily explained.”

“But officers with more than 20 years’ service are saying they’ve never seen anything like this. It really is something that down-to-earth police officers are having trouble getting their heads round.”

Is this “source” an official police spokesperson? Why no name? That is very suspicious and not credible. Another article from same media source provides this incredible headline.

‘Poltergeist’ baffles hardened Police Scotland officers after they witness paranormal activity including levitating dog [13:00, 13 AUG 2016 BY JANE HAMILTON]

“Baffled” is used far too often. But did they really witness a levitating dog?

Even a chihuahua dog which was playing in the garden was then discovered sitting on top of a seven-foot hedge.

A source said: “The officers attended expecting it to be a mental health issue but they witnessed the lights going off, clothes flying across the room and the dog sitting on top of the hedge.”

Apparently, the dog just appeared on a high hedge and there is not a witness that it levitated. So, this headline claim is, technically, a lie. All we get from a sourced spokesperson is this:

A spokesman for Police Scotland said: “On 8 and 9 August police attended a house in Rutherglen to reports of a disturbance. No evidence of criminality was found and advice and guidance was given to the family.”

That’s a typical official statement. But it’s not at all like the unnamed source info. Was one of the officers providing the source information? Was it firsthand? We just do not know but that would be actually important details to have.  So, we can list what seems to be reliably true as follows:

  1. A family is having some serious issues in their home, and
  2. The cops investigate and find no criminal activity, but confirm the serious issues exist. They provide no explanation – that’s not their job.
  3. The police are not used to seeing this type of report so it’s a bit bizarre for them and they don’t know how to handle it. (Baffled might not be the exact right word for this, then.)

The family is said to be “devoutly Catholic” and “extremely distressed” having “experiencing violent and unexplained circumstances”. They left the residence and are living with relatives. There is no word on if the activity followed. The new report says the cops contacted the Catholic Church.

The family at the centre of the drama are devoutly Catholic and police did seek assistance from the church.

A priest has been to the house in Stonelaw Road and performed what has been described as a ‘blessing’ at the property.

The police also appear to be investigating the family’s background and history of the property to see if similar reports occurred. It’s also noted that they are “working with doctors and social services to provide support.” That’s a very reasonable course of action.

What should we think of this story? First, note the popularity of Enfield poltergeist tale this past year. There were two movies about it including the big budget and completely fictionalized “The Conjuring 2” giving the story from 1977 new life. When such stories are passed around, they are more apt to be remembered and believed as true, even if portrayed as fiction.

Second, I immediately noticed the similarities to the Ammon family case of early 2014. This case also had Hollywood-like depictions of a haunting and played up the points that credible witnesses like the police and medical staff had been a bit freaked out by the events. The same exaggeration of anecdotes took place. The facts were almost certainly less dramatic. Professional investigators weren’t allowed in. Another common point is that the Ammon family was religious as well, believing in demons. It’s worth consideration that these two cases stem from religious families because their beliefs frame and direct the interpretation of anomalous events and what to do about them. Then some rather mundane or innocent events take on a frightening life of their own.

This Rutherglen story was posted on my Facebook group Group of Fort – a serious discussion about anomalies and paranormal claims in the news. Again, the idea that police witnessed it was used to bolster the idea that it’s true and should be taken at face value. I disagree. It’s a fallacy to assume that just because a police officer (or a doctor or a pilot or a scientist) says they saw something weird means it should be considered more reliable. It bears attention, for sure, since they are not motivated to suggest they have experienced the unexplainable. But, even police make bad witnesses sometimes and can be fooled by misinterpretation. Everyone can. Anecdotes are really poor evidence because the witnesses are inherently biased by their worldview and are not usually in a position to objectively observe what is happening. The situation is certainly not controlled and usually can’t be replicated under controlled conditions. Why give special weight to the police observations regarding these observations as paranormal? Any visitor to the house could have reported seeing the exact same, unexpected, things.

Today, the mother has spoken out about the unwanted attention they are receiving. Unfortunately, the Shreenan family is experiencing the backlash of paranormal news events as well as being deluged by many self-proclaimed “experts” of the paranormal offering their services. The Daily Record reporter of this story also takes these “experts” ridiculous claims of paranormal interventions as true. None of these folks are objective or scientific. They believe in the paranormal and work to reinforce that belief. It’s guaranteed they would find something in the house if they are allowed to go in. And it’s certain that an objective comparison of all their independent reports (controlling for cross-contamination, of course) would be different and not provide any testable hypothesis or reliable conclusions that could be used as convincing evidence of a poltergeist phenomena. I say that securely because in over 100 years, we still have no convincing body of evidence to say what, if anything, poltergeist (or hauntings) are. We have a lot of stories. We have a lot of speculation. That’s all.

The Daily Record keeps updating the story with new pieces, knowing a hit when they see it. They contacted “Scotland’s only official demonologist,” Jason Love. Love commits the same fallacy as the others by thinking that, “The testimonies from the police strengthens the case that this was poltergeist activity.” It does no such thing.

Love is a psychiatric nurse and, as such, provides some good advice about what he would first explore such as physical or mental activities going on in the background, psychiatric issues, or medications that can cause hallucinations. He also points out that, “If you have a parent who says they’re hearing and seeing things, soon the child will pick up on that and begin to ‘feel’ these things too.”

In other words, if the parent is a believer and frames these concerns in a way that suggests paranormal or supernatural entities, the child can be deeply affected and will be drawn into that scenario as well. It’s too bad that Love then goes off the deep end with talk about “residual energy” and baseless (and wrong) paranormal tropes:

This is when visual ghosts actually manifest on the property and are usually connected to the house or the land. It could be that the property was built on an old graveyard, battlefield or even a convent.

He puts forth unsupported speculation about the “negative energy” of adolescents causing poltergeist activity, speaking as if he is an credentialed expert in polt activity. I would refer instead to actual professionals in parapsychology who have studied poltergeists and who admit they don’t know what causes the incidents. Psychic “energy” isn’t plausible, doesn’t make scientific sense, and isn’t supported by solid evidence. Rampant speculation that sounds more like it came from a movie script (which is might have) is very different than the tone from historical parapsychology researchers. To top it all off, the Daily Record mentions that the TV show Most Haunted was contacted. So, you know where this is going – on to the faux-documentary para-reality junket. How annoying. If this really IS unusual activity, it should not be relegated to pretend investigation for a TV show.

Many readers of The Telegraph (UK) think the Rutherglen polt is supernatural.
Many readers of The Telegraph (UK) think the Rutherglen polt is supernatural.

This is where we run into a big problem – one that I’ve been focused on for the past several years. The media reports these stories as real, and self-styled inexperienced paranormal researchers and “psychics” descend on the story and play the investigator role. Then, journalists treat them as actual experts and as knowledgable. It presents a distorted view of logical and rational investigation since what these ghost hunters are doing is not investigation but reinforcing the socially popular belief in the paranormal. It’s sham inquiry in order to present a dramatic setup and conclusion that the world is mysterious and baffling, and that paranormal activity exists. This is not how we establish facts and reasonable conclusions to questions about the world. Inquiring minds just don’t want to believe, we want to KNOW.

Science is the best way we have of gaining reliable knowledge. Science is a long and difficult process undertaken by a community with resources and rules to follow. What science isn’t is one or even a number of people with anecdotes that can’t be reproduced, tested, or verified multiple times. A sound conclusion requires a collection of evidence with threads that intertwine and reinforce each other to support a common plausible explanation for what is going on. It can even be a new and bizarre explanation but it has to be supported by things we already know to be true and to make internal sense.

Poltergeists, ghosts and hauntings have been studied exhaustively by amateurs and professionals for over a hundred years. We still can’t even define what they are or how to reliably experience them. So how can we come up with well-rounded explanations about them? Sources like the Daily Record and all tabloid news sites that love to cover stories like these, write shallow accounts in contrast to the type of thorough, careful reporting that I would like to see. I’m afraid a boatload of cases will never be enough unless these data collectively can be verified and ultimately provide an internally consistent, testable theory about the phenomenon.

That doesn’t mean that cases like this aren’t really interesting. They probably have some fascinating explanation (or several explanations). Just not a paranormal one. The Daily Record editorial staff noted that this family needs support. They do. They deserve help. Just not from amateur investigation groups or people who call themselves “demonologists”. But, once again, this media outlet mischaracterizes the situation by reinforcing the police officer’s credibility as witnesses. The Daily Record has overblown the reports by the police and provided very little facts to back up their dramatic headlines. Instead, they are rolling with the popular appeal of the story, even providing related footage that is not only hoaxed but misattributed and unchecked.

Inline with the Rutherglen story updates is this one: Spooky Footage Shows Poltergeist Trashing Man’s Home as It Hurls Utensils and Slams Doors, dated 13 August 2016, claiming a video titled Angry Demon Ghost destroys kitchen shows a kitchen being trashed by a polt. The Daily Record says it was recent, by a man named Brad Prior. But Prior’s YouTube page dates the video January, 2016. And, Brad looks exactly like a known YouTuber called Mellowb1rd who produced a series of videos just like this years ago. Oh, wait, the same video was posted on Oct 1, 2010, also as “genuine” even though Mellowb1rd has been roundly accused of faking every one of these sensational videos with clear thread. That’s some extraordinarily crappy “journalism” there Daily Record.

Notice the drawer and cabinet door open and things fly around, but they don’t close and nothing defies gravity. Only the open oven door closes. Conveniently left open. The videos are immediately dubious as they can be reproduced without recourse to supernatural entities.

This startling local paranormal story reveals that the Daily Record is a poor source of factual news. If this was a real confounding case, I would hardly look to them to provide respectable reporting of it.

I have reached out to the Society of Psychical Research in the UK to see if they have been contacted and if they will investigate this spontaneous case. They don’t commonly do that as much as they have in the past. And, ideally, such an investigation should include trained skeptical investigators who have definitively exposed past hoaxes. I’d like to see some reliable, objective and informed reporting on this curious case, especially in the media. I’ll keep wishing… but it won’t happen. Spooky tales get eyeballs and clicks – that’s all that seems to matter to the media.

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5 thoughts on “Scottish poltergeist story is highly questionable, even if the police say they saw something

  1. I was intrugued by this story because I am originally from Rutherglen and attended the same parish church as the people affected. But I quickly tired of the lack of substance provided by the various media outlets who reported on it.

    However I too heard anecdotes that the police reports were kosher. Concerned that I was being too easily swayed by what probably is a fishwife’s tale that has grown arms and legs, I decided to look for a sceptic’s viewpoint. And here we have one. Most ebjoyable, very balanced and exactly how I would like to articulate myself if I was discussing the subject.

    Thank you!

  2. Thanks for exploding this false report with your sizzling hot acumen, Sharon. I wish we could see you uncovering the bare facts firsthand, instead of these frauds.

  3. The whole story is troubling. As you said, the lack of specific names for sources is concerning. When the media quotes a source, it generally names the person unless the media has been specifically asked not to, in which case the media reports that fact as well. Here we have nothing. Not even the name of the “official” police spokesperson. That’s rather unusual, at least here in the US.

    The actual police report doesn’t do anything to corroborate the paranormal claims either. It says simply the officers saw something odd, that it wasn’t criminal in nature, and then left. That’s it. Police reports are generally much more detailed than that, especially if something truly strange happened, because those reports are often used as evidence later. I suppose they could have falsified the report in the belief that it would have placed their jobs in jeopardy if they reported the events described, but lying on a police report is a serious crime in itself. Since it seems the story is general knowledge, why would they bother lying?

  4. The excuse I can think of is that they are considering hoax and suspect is may be an internal family issue that they can’t really do anything about. So they chose to limit details. Or, the case is so bizarre, they feel they will be ridiculed if they provide details. So, either way, I can understand why it is the way it is but if it’s the latter, they should call in the Scottish SPR as the most reputable source to assist instead of the parade of pretenders who will claim investigation credibility.

  5. Very well put. If the journalist or paper won’t explain why they won’t name their sources, the whole story should be dismissed out of hand. It’s not exactly an event involving national security, so no explanation equals no credibility.

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