The coelacanth as a red herring

This post is updated from its original publication in 2009.– SH

In researching three areas of what I concluded were mostly “scientifical” fields of inquiry for my book – cryptozoology, ghost hunting, and creationism – I was amused to find one example used to the same end for all three – the discovery of the coelacanth in 1938. Its frequent use, however, as a symbol of hidden nature and incomplete science, is not what scientifical claimants portray it to be.

In an attempt to showcase how orthodox science is “wrong” or “blind”, proponents of ghosts, creationism, and cryptozoology all cited the finding of the rare, bottom-feeding coelacanth fish as a scientific shocker.

Coelacanth in the wild

Paranormal investigators cite the coelacanth

Ghost hunters say the coelacanth represents unexpected findings still left in nature.

Joshua Warren, in How to Hunt Ghosts (2003), highlights that the discovery was unexpected and the fish’s existence unknown to scientists. Therefore, he surmises, there may be many more unexpected findings left in nature to come to light. Perhaps, paranormalists suggest, we are just around the corner from scientifically proving ghosts exists. That’s quite a stretch – to compare a cave-loving, rare marine fish with spirits of the dead (or whatever ghosts might actually be). It’s hardly a reasonable comparison.

Creationists love so called “living fossils”

Creationists love the prehistoric-looking coelacanth because it appears to not have evolved – looking much like it did from the last fossil find 65 million years ago. If evolution is true, they proclaim, why didn’t it sprout legs and walk by now? (From M. Issak, The Counter-Creationism Handbook, Univ of Calif. Press., 2007, p. 99.) One can find many examples in Creationist-based information that point out similar examples where species alive today do not appear to have changed much from their fossil ancestors. These examples, they say, are weaknesses for evolution as the method of creating diversity on earth. Such claims egregiously misrepresent evolution and life on earth across deep time.

Coelacanth as cryptid symbol

The coelacanth is an iconic species for cryptozoologists – those who pursue mystery sightings based on conjecture that such sightings represent a scientifically unrecognized animal. The fish is frequently used as an example of the possibility of large, interesting animals that might yet be discovered. Several cryptozoology books cite a statement by Georges Cuvier in 1812 who proposed we already know all the large animals out there and that it was likely no more would be discovered. This was a “rash dictum” indeed, and was unreasonable for the time and still is even now. To over-generalize and paint all of the scientific community as a naysaying, closed-minded lot is a silly and unreasonable argument. We know there are plenty of new species yet to be found in the deep sea, in the dense forests, and in the dusty, unattended drawers of the museum.

The coelancanth is a dubious cryptid, regardless of its prominent place in cryptozoology. It had no substantive legend attached to it. No one was actively seeking it. Sure, it was a surprise when found and it was a new species (contrary to the Creationist arguments that emphasize it hadn’t evolved). But a slow, bottom-feeding, fish that was occasionally caught by locals does not compare to the more elaborate tales of Yeti, Bigfoot, large lake creatures, and sea serpents. It does not follow that modern discoveries of new species are support for the claim that certain legendary creatures are real animals.

Coelacanth as a wonderful surprise

This poor fish has been abused as a symbol for the weaknesses and failures of science – but the version of science invoked by pseudoscientifical researchers is false. The coelacanth is serving as a red herring – distracting the viewers from seeing the lack of rigor in these fields through a dramatic but misrepresented example. No reputable scientists are pronouncing that there is nothing new to discover in the world. It’s not the fault of science that many scientific-minded thinkers doubt the reality of ghosts, God, or Bigfoot. That’s entirely due to lack of evidence and suitable explanatory mechanisms.

The finding of the coelacanth was in no way an example of how science as an institution or method is misguided or inadequate. Instead, the finding of the modern coelacanth is a testament to the wonderful ability of nature to still hold surprises for us. And we must credit the fast-thinking museum curator, Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who preserved the carcass as best she could, then contacted a genuine expert to examine it before declaring the jaw-dropping discovery. One can only hope if a sasquatch is found, someone will be that diligent instead of negotiating a fee for viewing the remains. We must realize that scientific efforts by careful, experienced and legitimate researchers are useful and should be supported because another amazing discovery most certainly awaits.

Many pseudoscience proponents will jump at a chance to show that science has a flaw because they wish to promote their own wishful views that can’t quite compete. The lovely coelacanth doesn’t deserve that association.

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Ghost Studies and Lightforms: A review of two paranormal research books

Long ago, my interest in paranormal topics became jaded because popular books were repetitive, full of the same information and stories as the last one. For decades, books written on cryptozoology and ufology advanced no closer to definitively documenting or explaining these phenomena. Some advocates are persuaded that the many similar stories and imaginative speculation, often tenuously tied to scientific concepts, are sufficient to make remaining skeptics (those that have not been persuaded) or rejectors look absurd. I am not persuaded.

The history of serious ghost research spans even longer than cryptids and UFOs. Scientists have been trying to figure out ghostly experiences for centuries. Scientific-sounding concepts abound to attempt to explain ghosts.

One glaring problem with ghosts is that there are many definitions of ghosts/hauntings and various ideas about what they could be from spiritual to scientific (spirits of the dead, demons or other supernatural entities, psychic transmissions, trans-dimensional receptions, time-slips, environmental recording-playback). Where understanding of the natural world via science has advanced by incredible measure, ghost investigation has decidedly not. Therefore, I am justified in being skeptical of any book that claims to use “cutting edge research” and “new theories” to explain this eternal mysterious human experience. 

Older books about ghostly episodes (and hauntings and poltergeists, as well) were frequently much better. Maybe that was because it was more difficult to write a book before the 21st century. To contract a publisher, you had to have some credibility, experience, and substance. Today, you don’t need to impress anyone but yourself, so the field of the paranormal is polluted with unreadable, useless volumes from part-time or celebrity paranormal investigators. Some of these authors truly believe they are doing something new but have failed to examine what has already been done. Many attempt to do science when they have zero scientific background – these are the topic of my book Scientifical Americans. Then, there are those that do have some science background but are outside their wheelhouse. These authors use abundant scientific jargon, analogies, and experiments to push their ideas. They may publish in parapsychology-related or minor journals. Their work might be heavily referenced by others because it is positive and seemingly impressive. But it often does not get wider scientific acceptance because it is flawed and/or has failed to be reproduced. Or, it just has not proved useful in the real world because it doesn’t accurately predict anything. I recently finished two paranormal-themed books that cited one author that could fall into that category – Michael Persinger. Of note, I no longer take Persinger as seriously as I once did and now find his work relating to paranormal experiences lacking. His ideas about the effects of weak, complex electromagnetic fields may be valid but not to the extent they are promoted. And, the tectonic strain theory was very much a house of cards that could not withstand scrutiny.  Persinger is so frequently cited in scientifical paranormal books that he could be on a Ghost Hunters Bingo card. 

The first book I’ll talk about was advertised as using the latest scientific research and new theories to provide scientific explanations for ghostly episodes. Promises, promises…  Disappointingly, the research was tenuous or out of context, the ideas weren’t new (or logical), and the scope of ghostly episodes was ill-defined and narrow. Listen, everyone: you can’t revolutionize any field with a lightweight paperback for general readers. The Ghost Studies: New Perspectives on the Origins of Paranormal Experiences by Brandon Massullo landed far short of the mark. The author admitted this is a complex subject but then writes in a breezy, affected way with stories, much reiteration, and end-of-chapter summary paragraphs (which I personally find off-putting because it was only few pages and I just read it). 

Curiously, this book was written in 2017 and touches on a few topics (popular ghost theories and use of technology) that were also in my own book published the same year. I found some agreement and was hopeful, but the content was too sparse. The major turn in this book happened when the author describes his version of “ingredients for a ghostly experience”. That is, his “theory” is that the following are necessary for a ghost episode: psychological aspects, changes in internal energy, and external acquisition of information.

Depending on what is meant here, psychological aspects are a given for any ghost experience. With “changes in internal energy”, the pseudoscience flag goes flying. He describes how a ghostly experience requires the energy of a person to be involved – their electrical field, which is powered by emotions. The author puts forward the idea (based on dubious research) that our emotions cause bodily changes that alter our human electric field, which then affects the earth’s electromagnetic field allowing for the transmission of information. Finally, a receiver taps into that frequency and receives the information. None of that is supported by good evidence, logic, or math.

There is the typical misuse of the conservation of energy law that energy can’t be destroyed so something of us must live on after we die. As expected, the entire chapter on energy is overly simplistic and the concepts misapplied.

Other chapters cite work by not only Persinger, but Sheldrake. The author repeats that this is scientific research to give it credibility. Unfortunately, he accepts that this research is perfectly valid and ignores the mountains of criticism about it. Science works as a community effort over time, building on what is confirmed. Persinger’s and Sheldrake’s ideas about electromagnetic fields and morphic resonance, respectively, are not accepted as confirmed. Not even close. But they are convenient to use to promote the author’s imaginative idea and those who aren’t specialists are not going to know that. This is how many people get away with promoting pseudoscience in general as it is hard to check and sounds impressive.

This unconfirmed research constitutes the “studies” of the title and is presented as amazing new results to inform the author’s theory of ghosts. The book quickly became tedious to read as Massullo admits possible weaknesses in the explanations but then cites the few studies as confirmation that we now “know” these things are real/true. By page 51, Massullo tells the reader that they now have “a strong foundation regarding research and possible explanation for hauntings”. I cringe when those making quick and shallow arguments assume they have done a fine job of instructing the reader.

I had a problem with the narrow focus of ghostly episodes. As a parapsychologist, his view is that psi events are the cause of ghosts. This is very much “phantasms of the living” category of ghosts. But this type ignores the much broader range of experiences people consider “ghostly” around the world and through time. The huge span of ghost literature reveals that the concept of ghosts is diverse and culturally-influenced. So, this narrowness of situation is limiting. Additionally, I am not convinced by the evidence of psi as it has not gotten better over time and no reasonable mechanism has been put forward.

Throughout, he repeatedly states he “believes” this or that is happening. Science-based work has no place for “belief”. You either have demonstrated something to satisfaction or not. The author is highly intelligent and probably a fine therapist. However, the volume fails to take seriously the very real effects of social suggestion and exaggeration of experiences for storytelling purposes. People frequently feel what they are told to feel in places they view as haunted. And, those who experience the death of a loved one have unique personal responses that have nothing to do with “biological radio” transmitted via the earth’s electromagnetic field. Books are difficult to write, for sure. I support expressing opinions and concepts about mysterious things but I do not support dressing up suppositions with sciencey language. This is deceptive and confuses the lay reader into thinking the ideas have more merit than they really do.

The second book was Lightforms: Spiritual Encounters with Unusual Light Phenomena by Mark Fox. This second edition, published in 2016, has been retitled from the first. The author promotes the term “lightforms” as a description of these experiences of light. It is deliberate that it sounds like “lifeforms”. This book is also called a “study” suggesting it is original research. I enjoyed the intro and Chapter 1. It was well-written and entertaining as well as effectively framing the previous research for this topic. Fox’s work was to distill 400 personal accounts of experiences with unusual light phenomena collected by the Religious Experiences Research Centre. I was hoping the experiences and analysis would not be constrained by the religious aspects, but, unfortunately, they were. There was very little on what is called “earth lights” that I am interested in. And an argument could be made for a crossover with UFO experiences. Yet, the author did note that accounts where “angels” were mentioned, other than a reference to NDEs, were nonexistent. Since the database used included accounts that were 30 years old up to relatively recent (I assumed, it’s not clear), the cultural aspects are muddled.  

The accounts were categorized weirdly by some lesser characteristic: seen by many, seen alone, lights that embrace and fill, that illuminate landscapes or people, that penetrate (beams, rays, shafts), that invoke visionary experiences, brighter than the sun. I could not make any sense of this division. I quickly got bored with short account after account, chapter after chapter. As I noted at the start of this piece, that’s what turned me off to paranormal lit in general. I admit to skimming beginning around page 115 because the text was mostly anecdotes.

The author does very little with these accounts except to count them and call that a “statistical analysis”. Then he tries to be precise with this volume of highly imprecise anecdotal data by categorizing percentages of accounts that produced positive feelings, occurred during a personal “crisis”, those followed by positive “fruits” (outcomes) – a word the author overuses ad nauseam. Because the anecdotes do not follow a set structure, this is a flawed approach. He then presents a model of these experiences by mashing all of those most noted features together. There is no detailed analysis here. 

Then, the author explores some possible explanations from psychology and neurosciences. Along with a decent array of other researchers, here is where Persinger is invoked regarding his work on Temporal Lobe Transients. Again, I see the word “cutting-edge” appear to describe the research. But is it? It’s fringe, but is it expanding our understanding, pushing the limits? Is it predicting anything? Is it paving the way for more research? I’m not convinced it did any of that. Fox does not consider Persinger’s work as particularly enlightening toward an explanation he seeks because of the difference in response by experiencers – Fox’s respondents interpreted a more fulfilling experience. While the book leans fairly heavily towards a Christian version of God, Fox ultimately fails to arrive at a solid conclusion for lightforms. It remains a mystery, he says, but they are “proof that this world is not all there is”. Well, I agree that people can certainly imagine another world that isn’t this one but, again, stories and speculation alone aren’t going to get all of us on board. I finished the book a bit more knowledgeable about the variety of personal spiritual encounters with light, but that’s it.

Meanwhile, I’m always hoping the NEXT book will leave me pleasantly surprised. Am I too critical? I don’t think so. Writing a book is tough but I expect an author to write thoughtfully, logically, and to do a good job of laying out a decent argument. Those qualities seems difficult to come by. 

Believers are the majority: Paranormal acceptance in America is rising

The results of the 2018 Chapman University survey of American Fears have been released and they suggest that America (that is, even well-educated America) is even more accepting of the paranormal than in the past three years. You can view the entire survey here but let me highlight the major points as well as some possible explanations for the numbers and some problems with applying them.

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Sometimes, an alien artifact is just a rock

Paranormal investigators often lament the lack of scientific interest in anomalous or paranormal claims. Many have stated they want to contribute to a shift in thinking about these anomalies, to “prove to science” (or scientists) that “the paranormal” exists. Some want to “change the science”. None of this makes any sense, though, since science is not a monolithic thing, it’s a body of knowledge, a process to obtain that knowledge, and a network that collects, analyses and distributes that knowledge. A few bold people can’t overturn centuries of accumulated knowledge and an established process by their collected anecdotes and bits of questionable evidence.

It’s also a mistake to say that science hasn’t paid any attention to such claims. As I describe in my book Scientifical Americans, the most reputable scientists diligently examined and argued the reality and explanation for encounters with ghosts, UFOs, sea serpents, and Bigfoot. They found nothing worth pursuing.

Yet, here I am, a scientist by training, who is willing to examine your evidence of the paranormal. It’s funny, though, not many people contact me with pieces of evidence. But when they do, it’s often very clearly something quite ordinary.

This week I experienced another incident of an amateur paranormalist imbuing a find with far more meaning that it deserves. I’ll leave out names because, as I describe, I did not get permission to share the details as it was on a mutual Facebook friend’s wall, which was not public. I’ll do my best to describe the exchange. A little sleuthing might reveal details if you want that or contact me privately. But specifics aren’t really the point. This incident illustrates a number of common egregious errors that paranormalists make. (I use the term paranormalist to mean a person who is outwardly promoting the existence of something beyond our current scientific knowledge as an explanatory cause.)

My acquaintance posted a thread about an object from several years back that was purported to be an alien artifact – a piece of a UFO perhaps. This object is substantial, but it does not look manufactured or particularly technological. As a geologist, it looked like a stalactite of some sort, perhaps from a foundry operation. It turns out that’s what it probably was. Further on in the thread, a New England-based paranormal investigator (I’ll call him P.I.) posted a screen capture photo of what he described as himself holding what he believed could be an alien artifact. I don’t have permission to share the picture and can’t find it online. He did not disclose the location except to say it was from a “secret” investigation in Pennsylvania that was still “ongoing”. He said it was from a site that had many other strange goings-on which I assumed to be not only UFO sightings (obvious from the alien source of the artifact) but perhaps unusual creatures or environmental observations. Such reports have been associated with “window” areas of “high strangeness”.

I don’t know anything about the case, but what was quite obvious to me was that he was holding a rock that looked like a typical iron concretion type commonly found in PA. These can look odd. They are heavy, usually nodular, or elongated because they were subjected to geologic stresses over hundreds of millions of years. They have various regional names (one of which is unforgivably racist). I would find them all the time in the anthracite region of Columbia and Schuylkill Counties. To show you how bizarre they can be, here are pictures of one I have obtained near Centralia, PA some 20 years ago.

There are old-timers who considered concretions like this to be human artifacts and hyped them as evidence that the rock and coal veins were not ancient but only thousands of years old. This is ridiculous as many and various lines of evidence tell us how old the Pennsylvanian geological epoch is. One guy with a kooky interpretation isn’t going to overturn that. But people see what they want to see in nature. Some see my concretion as an alien head. I see it as entirely coincidental shape explainable by our human tendency to see familiar forms in random things.

Anyway, back to the claim about this new PA alien artifact. P.I. noted that it looked like metal but was not magnetic. You could see bits of dark material in relief above the orange iron oxide coating similar to this:

He said pieces were “sent out to different institutes and they had no clue what it is”. I replied with the following:

This looks quite natural – an iron oxide with other minerals. I’ve seen such things just outside the coal regions in PA. Did these “institutes” respond or did they just say “it’s a rock” and not respond at all.

I’ve seen many a piece of clinker that people think is from space. It’s a fallacy to assume it’s out of this world just because it looks weird or you’ve never seen anything like it before.

P.I. reiterated it was not a rock or metal and that “they” from a “very top place” couldn’t identify it. What is a “very top place”? Was it a top place for identifying alien artifacts? (That would be rather weird.) Top geologists looked at it? A University? Who? What exactly were they given? I asked for documentation. He said it will be forthcoming. No timetable or location of the upcoming report was provided. Typically, such report never appear as promised. Paranormal investigators rarely publish a complete report, and if they do, it’s put on a website or as part of commercial media. When our mutual acquaintance suggested to P.I. that we all cooperate and inquired about what form the published findings would take, P.I. resorted to an excuse of confidentiality to “protect” the owners. The owners of the artifact, he said, did not wish to loan it out for examination, which strongly suggests they feel it is otherworldly or special. This investigation seems tainted.

Another person then chimed in to say that my above comments were insulting. I inquired about exactly what was it I said that was insulting but he didn’t explain. Many people construe fair criticism as hostile. It’s not. He made the extraordinary claim, not me. As such, I feel perfectly within acceptable social norms to question such speculation. If you state that you are a researcher, I expect you will be fair-minded in a discussion about the topic and not peddle nonsense. I wasn’t insulting him; I was providing an informed, qualified opinion that should have been given some consideration. But it wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Real life is that way sometimes.

I tried to go back to review the rest of the exchange to summarize here but it’s been deleted. Checking with the host of the thread, he tells me he did not delete it. Perhaps P.I. felt he’d said too much or I had backed him into a corner he couldn’t get out of so he deleted his subthread. I messaged P.I. privately offering my help to examine the case confidentially, in good faith, and I apologized for coming off as “insulting”. My intent, I made clear, was to find answers, because I am curious too. I got no reply. That’s when I looked further into his online presence to find he is a regular podcaster and speaker at paranormal events but has no noted scientific credentials. I also looked for more info on this case when I came across a list on the webpage of another team that cooperates with P.I. It explicitly stated they were all investigating a case in Western Pennsylvania from 2016 to the present which was described as “a wide-ranging paranormal flap involving Bigfoot, shadow people, UFOs and apparent government monitoring.” Sounds like this could be the case. No other details were given. Why advertise this if you aren’t willing to share information?

If researchers are serious about finding out the real solutions to these claims, why would they not want the help of a geologist and fellow paranormal researcher nearby? Why wouldn’t he say who “they” were who failed to ID the object? Why is this all so secret? Why did he overlook the obvious?Why would he think this is a piece of machinery when it doesn’t look manufactured? I think the answer is pretty clear.

P.I. and others like him portray themselves to their network and to the public as professional, serious, knowledgeable, even scientific, yet they are bluffing. This hyped-up mystery mongering is why ARIGs get a bad reputation with scientists. There are plenty of us who are willing to help research their questions. They appear to not really want to know the answers and instead engage in a sham version of inquiry that starts with a paranormal premise and looks only for support for that premise. This exchange has resulted in me doubting his quality of “research” and his integrity. A researcher/investigator is obliged to seek out the best information, not create additional layers of fantasy, mystery and drama. Hundreds of people go to paranormal investigators promoted on the web as reputable hoping they will get an expert opinion. That’s not happening. I do hope P.I. changes his mind or at least considers that this alien artifact is entirely terrestrial and delivers that straight to his client.

I remain open to requests to examine potentially paranormal evidence. I can’t personally investigate them all but I will take a look. I will not hesitate to conclude “I don’t know” if I really have no idea. Paranormalists make such extraordinary efforts to gather evidence and ponder cases yet remain overly committed to supernatural ideas – such a waste of time! It’s not fair to their clients that they ignore obvious conclusions in order to advance their personal paranormal agendas. This happens every day, everywhere, from Bigfoot in the backyard to lights in the sky. And they call skeptics mean and closed-minded! I’m not having it. This kind of nonsense makes me angry and it should make all ethical researchers angry. If you make an extraordinary claim, such as saying something is a suspected alien artifact, you sure as hell better have more to back it up than wishful thinking and personal weird experiences. I’m sure P.I. now thinks I’m one of those nasty skeptics, but he’s the one who could end up being disingenuous and taking people for a ride.

Why the Darwin Awards Should Die

A recent tragic story in the news reminded me once again that people can be callous and unthinking in reaction to others’ misfortune. A 19-year old girl shot her boyfriend by his request with the goal of making a viral YouTube video showing how a book can stop a bullet. It didn’t stop it. He’s dead. With the basic information – the high-caliber gun, the close-range shot, the completely faulty assumption of protection, and the intent of the act – many people tut-tutted the stupidity of “kids today”. Some even outright laughed, called them “dumb as bricks” and either insinuating or outright saying that he deserved to be dead. Not only is this detestable sentiment, but it reflects how ignorant and thoughtless the commenters were. They didn’t know the circumstances at all. They’d just read the headlines and maybe a short news piece about it.

What if these kids were not well-educated, mislead by pop cultural myths about guns and books stopping guns?
What if they had no jobs and needed money to support their family?
It appears the girl was pressured into doing the shooting she didn’t wish to do. Why?
Did they have psychological problems?

Many factors unknown to us were certainly at play. A multitude of tiny, harmless steps can take a person very far away from reason and result in harm. Would we laugh at this if they were our neighbors, friends or families? I doubt it.Read More »

The “Stone Tape Theory” of hauntings: A geological perspective

As with many cultural products, inspirations and influence for a widely-known idea originated from a variety of places and in alternative flavors. It’s unpredictable what bits and pieces will glom on to the original idea or which paths the notion (good or bad) will take that results in propelling it into mainstream popularity. Then, the idea can take on a life of its own whereby many people who later adopt it don’t know of its long history. This convoluted evolution of an idea applies to the “Stone Tape Theory” of hauntings often invoked by amateur paranormal investigators or mentioned on ghost hunting TV shows.

For years, I have heard of the “stone tape theory” as a potential explanation for residual hauntings but was not able to track it to an explicit source. It seemed to just exist in paranormal culture. The current premise of the stone tape concept is that crystalline rock (bedrock or building stone) at a time in the past captured emotional energy from a traumatic event. The preferred rock type is said to be quartz but limestone is mentioned nearly as frequently. The sound and visual representations of an event are “recorded” into the rock media in a process analogous to magnetic tape recording of data. At a much later time, a person sensitive to this stored recording can receive the “playback” or, the past event can be replayed when triggered by certain conditions. The recording/playback sequence has been used as an explanation for apparition sightings, hauntings and negative feelings associated with a location. Thus, the stone tape idea is the ultimate example of “spooky geology”.

The stone tape idea was actually the first idea I had for my Spooky Geology blog. (A condensed version of this post appears there for a different audience.) I have been seeking out references for a few years now. I found different information about the origin of the stone tape. For non-geologists, and, hopefully, the paranormal researchers, who are looking for additional information on the topic, this will be a good primer and provide a foundation for the further use (or not) of it as an explanation (or as a non-explanation). But geologists (or any scientist for that matter) will recognize the obvious flaws with this proposed mechanism to explain hauntings. Finally, I will explain why it’s still popular with ghost hunters today.

Assumptions

Initially, the stone tape theory (STT, since I’m going to be typing that a lot) requires the assumption that there is a real phenomenon where people repeatedly experience an anomalous event explicitly related to a certain location. The individual may perceive this event as a ghost encounter or haunting, a place-memory, a reaction to or sense about the location, or a feeling of time travel. Paranormal researchers who have assumed this location-specific phenomenon occurs look for an explanation. A popular modern explanation for this is the STT.

Let’s be clear about one more term: “theory”. A “theory” in science is not a guess or a supposition. It is a well-tested model to describe how something in nature works – evolution, gravity, relativity, etc. Therefore, the STT isn’t a scientific theory, it’s speculation and the word “theory” is used to connote “guess”. The following questions remain unanswered:

How do things get recorded?
What gets recorded and what doesn’t?
How does it get preserved?
How does it get played back?

Therefore, we have an incomplete concept far from being a worthwhile explanation. There are many psychological and physical explanations for perceptions of hauntings and a sense of spookiness that should rationally be applied before suggesting the STT. But my goal here is to drill down into the idea of the stone tape to see where it came from and its place in paranormal discussions.

Origin

Modern paranormal media frequently states the STT originated in the 1970s. The STT proper name did, but not the concept which goes back over a century before. Ideas of events or information imprinting on the environment for later retrieval has a long history. In fact, the concept that apparitions were created in or by the human mind was part of early scientific thinking about the subject.

To fully explore the evolution of the STT idea, we must take several leaps back in time. As I said, the name “Stone Tape” was first used in the 70’s. It was the title of a 1972 BBC drama by Nigel Kneale directed by Peter Sasdy. In the movie titled “The Stone Tape”, a team from an electronics company move into an old house to work on a new project. Renovations that include busting up the paneling reveal a very old stone stairway and strange phenomena occurs in the room. Not everyone can hear the screams or see the apparition of a young woman on the stairs. The physical equipment does not record it. The playback is dependent upon another human who has the ability to perceive it in their own brains. The story centers on the only woman on the team, Jill, who has this ability. The Wikipedia entry for this film describes the plot along with the previous and subsequent connections to other entertainment products.  The success of the movie popularized the idea that old stone blocks can store sounds and images that possibly could be the mechanism for hauntings.

The apparition on the stairs seen by Jill in The Stone Tape.

With the popularity of the concept, the STT name was retroactively imposed on the ideas of Thomas Charles Lethbridge, a controversial and colorful archaeologist who left academia for paranormal research. Lethbridge’s 1961 book, Ghost and Ghoul (1961) is also frequently cited by amateur paranormal investigators as the origin of the STT. Lethbridge, however, never referenced the term “stone tape” in this or subsequent books. He died in 1971 before the movie aired. So, it is incorrect to say he coined the term “stone tape”. In his book, though, Lethbridge hints that some memories may be connected with inanimate objects via “a sort of surrounding ether.” He also stated that all cells resonate and he uses examples related to psychometry to speculate that this vibration frequency could explain memory transferences. His often-repeated story about experiencing an apparition near a stream is repeated in his later book, Ghost and Divining Rod (1963). For this book, he develops this idea more thoroughly. Lethbridge does not contend that ghosts are supernatural but argues they are attributable to invisible fields that recorded an image of a person. He states these various fields of energy – around forests, mountains, and streams and even from the earth – are “scientific fact”. They aren’t, but Lethbridge was characteristically arrogant in his presentation of parapsychological speculation assuming that if he said they were solid, that would make them so. Lethbridge’s ideas were around during the time that Kneale was working. It’s almost certain that they influenced the plot device in The Stone Tape but I haven’t found any direct connection.

A confounding factor in the history of the STT concept is that plenty of other people had similar ideas and it’s difficult to trace if they borrowed from each other or came to such thinking independently. Lethbridge cites the work of H.H. Price on place-memories. Price was a professor of logic at the University of Oxford and a former President of the Society for Psychical Research. In his presidential address in volume 45 of the Proceedings of the SPR (1938-1939) titled Haunting and the “psychic ether” hypothesis, Price asserts that objects carry memory traces. If a suitably sensitive person come to the place or handles the object, these memory traces will cause him to have a retrospective experience. In this loose set of ideas, Price contends that “psychic ether” is an intermediate media between spirit and physical matter where images and memory traces were held. Credited to Raynor C. Johnson, Price connects it to hauntings saying ghosts (as people describe them) are not supernatural but that they are  “traces … [a] result of the emotions or other experiences of some person who formerly inhabited the room, much as finger-prints result automatically from our handling of a wine-glass or a poker.” They were like photographic negatives that would be “developed” by those who were endowed with the ability to perceive it. Jill, from the movie, was so (un)lucky.

The traces and the “psychic ether” are not independently observable, though, making them unmeasurable, a serious drawback for scientific acceptance. However, Price remarks that if these traces were real, “they must consist in some more or less permanent mode of arrangement of the molecules or atoms or infra-atomic particles, of which the walls, furniture, etc., are composed. And in that case, it ought to be possible to verify their existence by the ordinary methods of physical Science — by physical or chemical tests of some sort or other. But so far as we know, this cannot be done.”

This “residua of past experiences” was also explained by Price as a form of “deferred telepathy” as the impulse was stored (in some unknown way by an unknown method) until a person could experience the anima loci or place-memory. Lethbridge’s idea for this recording/playback was different. He rejected Price’s “psychic ether” mechanism for his own special “fields”. Lethbridge instead thought that the potential of these natural “fields” was high, and persons who had low personal “psyche-fields” of their own, would receive the existing imprints on the field because higher potential flowed naturally to a lower potential. This would explain why some could experience the imprints (those with this “sixth sense”) and others would not.

The concept of the environment or fields recording impressions from humans was elucidated even earlier by mathematician Charles Babbage in 1838. He believed that words made permanent impressions on the world and that “the air itself is a vast library, on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered”.

In The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1838) he stated:

“The pulsations of the air, once set in motion by the human voice, cease not to exist with the sounds to which they gave rise. Strong and audible as they may be in the immediate neighbourhood of the speaker, and at the immediate moment of utterance, their quickly attenuated force soon becomes inaudible to human ears. The motions they have impressed on the particles of one portion of our atmosphere, are communicated to constantly increasing numbers, but the total quantity of motion measured in the same direction receives no addition.”

Babbage is called the “father of computing” as he conceived of the first concepts of a calculating machine, or computer. Curiously, in The Stone Tape movie, anomalies start coming in through the onsite computers.

The place-memory idea rolled around the early days of the SPR as a hypothesis to account for apparitions that seemed distinctly associated with a location. Eleanor Sidgwick suggested in 1888 that there was “something in the actual building itself”. Edmund Gurney, a few years later, also iterated that survival of an image, generated by the mind of a person, was later perceptible by certain other sensitive minds (also open to other anomalous mental communication). Frederic Myers and Oliver Lodge also expressed similar ideas (See Heath, 2005).

Mechanism

While all these suggestions sound superficially plausible, the crucial problem with the STT is that there has never been demonstrated a way to record, preserve or play events in natural environmental substances as proposed. There have been hoaxes and fictional accounts of it, however. (See the Popularity section below.) The mechanisms for the recording of these psychic imprints are diverse relating to invisible “fields”, molecular architecture of crystalline quartz, energy fields from dead organisms that make up limestone, resonant frequencies, encoded of iron oxide crystals, inductive electromagnetism, and quantum entanglement.

Unlike fossils, where a physical record is preserved as an impression in sediment, or sea-floor spreading ridges which freeze crystals in molten rock to reflect the prevailing magnetic declination of the earth, STT relies on emotional “energy”, which is non-material. Emotion is not physically recordable outside of the body because nothing related to emotion leaves the body. Emotional “energy” is a term specific to human experience of feelings. This scuttles the STT idea at square one. There is nothing to record. However, paranormalists invoke a handy trope to get around this problem – “quantum”. Paranormalists are quite fond of using Einstein’s view of “spooky action at a distance” which he used to describe quantum entanglement. They also assert (from laws of thermodynamics) that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. But the concept is grossly misapplied. I’ll refrain from delving into quantum physics here but will simply point out that there is no evidence that this concept is relatable to human events in the past being replayed in the present. Go ask your resident quantum physicist if he or she has explained ghosts.

The idea of memories captured in rock is older than the concepts of quanta and the invention of magnetic tape. As I described in my post about psychometry, it was a temporary fad to think that geology and archaeology would be revolutionized by psychically “reading” the impressions and memories of the objects. Psychometry is the kernel of the idea of STT.

As described above, Babbage thought that the particles in the atmosphere kept moving with sound forever. But as with natural substances, they don’t last forever. Molecules move away from a location or change, rocks erode, the wind blows, energy dissipates. Price relied on the psychic ether to hold the imprints later experienced as a hallucination by a lucky observer. Lethbridge assumed there were other specific fields that capture the memory. These fields were recharged by ions in the air and enhanced by additional imprints by a person’s own field (psyche-field). Lethbridge thought some places would accumulate these thoughts in sort of a snowball effect. Bad thoughts produced more bad thoughts which were then imprinted onto the field. After a while, “thought forms” would be produced at these notorious spots. Humid conditions enhanced conductance of the fields because of the benefit of conductance of water molecules. Because the imprint was on the “field” not on the individual molecules, the memories would remain at a place, even those around a flowing stream. Modern ghost hunters sometimes invoke a “water tape” idea where the water molecule retains the memory (they link this to unsupported ideas related to homeopathy). This is absurd since the water molecules in a stream flow away to be replaced by other molecules (presumably with their own memories). Rocks don’t have this problem to the same degree. Building stones can remain for hundreds, even thousands of years.

In Secret Language of Stone (1988), by Don Robins, a chemist, we find one of the most technical-sounding attempts to explain the capture and storage of memories in stone. Robins supposes that defects in the crystal lattice of minerals (the array of atoms that make up a mineral which is shaped by electrical forces) allow for reservoirs of energy. The crystal architecture creates a “vortex of energy at the heart of the crystal” where memory traces could be stored (he mainly focusing on sound). These traces could be accessed directly by the human brain later by producing a resonating sound wave or physical pressure such as walking on the ground. Robins also does not use the term “stone tape” but calls the energy network of stone a “macrochip” and associates this network with sacred places where paranormal events are said to occur.

Heath (2005) updated Price’s place-memory with a modern tech attitude by putting forth that passive place-memories were stored in the electron cloud or molecular structures. She did not cite Lethbridge even though she remarked on the importance of memories associated with water and even mentioned his early favored concept of resonance – vibration at the same frequency. However, “quantum” was applied. She stated when resonant frequencies are equivalent, then the objects can maximally absorb energy. Heath connected resonance to ESP (a commonly made connection). And, like in The Stone Tape movie, the traces can be erased, disrupted by heat or magnetic fields, or otherwise overwritten.

Persinger & Koren (2001) take the “field” ideas in a different direction by considering the earth as a photographic exposure plate. Matched inductance between geomagnetic activity and the local static field, they say, creates a representation recorded in the crystalline structure of the rock – a geologic hologram to be replayed directly to the brain when conditions are just right.

In the most extreme and metaphysical explanation for hauntings, a few parapsychologists or speculative paranormalists say that we create our own reality. Based on Roy Friedan’s (1998) invocation of the concept of “observer participancy” information can be imparted by just observing. That information can flow from one object to another.

The amateur paranormal investigator commonly cites the “recording” onto local materials such as quartz or limestone rock or building materials or rust on metal objects, like nails, screws, wires and structural components. It sounds superficially plausible that high emotion events, like violent death, can release emotional “energy” (akin to electricity) that gets recorded onto these mineral crystals or coatings as sound or images are recorded onto magnetic tape in a tape recorder. The idea of recording onto a magnetic wire (via Smith and Poulsen in 1888-9) became a usable technology with magnetic tape records around 1930.

This concept, like all the others, is severally flawed. Just because it sounds good does not mean that the proposed mechanisms are possible. There are specific technical components of these systems (like magnetic heads on recorders) that do not have a natural analog. The earth’s magnetic field may be strong enough to align the polarity of newly produced rock from mid-ocean ridges, but it is not strong enough or precise enough to imprint a distinct sound or image into random existing crystals in surrounding materials. Emotion is not an energy like electricity (a stream of charged particles we can measure.) Also, humans do not have a sophisticated response to magnetic fields (regardless of what alternative health gurus tell you), so how are we to “read” such tapes? Can we perceive the content of recording tape by running our fingers over it? Nope.

Popularity

It’s abundantly clear that this concept of environmental recording of human feelings, sounds, and images that can be stored and retrieved is useful in different contexts. It’s also obvious that there is no current reasonable mechanism to accomplish it. All the “theories” are imaginative speculation or suppositions. They have not been tested or confirmed to any degree. And those that have some basis in scientific theory have not been shown to be applicable to real-world situations or the claims of hauntings reported. But because the concepts sounds sciencey and plausible to those without scientific backgrounds, they have been popular.

I contacted Alan Murdie of the SPR, expert ghost historian, to ask him about the history and popularity of the STT. He confirmed that the “tape” recording idea came far later, spurred by the movie, but the general ideas predated the invention of magnetic tape. He confirmed Lethbridge was critical to reinforcing the popularizing the notion but his ideas “have got rather muddled in being recycled over the last 45 years through various authors”. Curiously, Murdie opines that Lethbridge might have been forgotten after his death, strange ideas and all, if not for popular paranormal writer Colin Wilson. Wilson reinjected Lethbridge’s ideas into popular discussion, particularly in his book Mysteries (1978) “where he linked dowsing with then fashionable ideas about ley lines supposedly flowing through prehistoric and haunted sites.” (Lethbridge invoked his special “fields” for all things paranormal.) Wilson’s books were immensely popular with paranormal enthusiasts from the 70s to the 2000s. Thus, Lethbridge’s poorly formed speculation about location-specific fields as an explanation for hauntings was discovered by a new generation who were not going to dig through the SPR archives to find the historical precursors to it.

Psychology professor Terence Hines messaged me with a personal story of his own regarding the pop culture influence of STT. From 1955 to 1957, a half-hour syndicated TV show called Science Fiction Theatre aired. Hines recalled specifically an episode titled “The Frozen Sound” (aired July 30, 1955). The plot concerned something called “sonic saturation” used by devious Communist spies to steal our research secrets.  A slow-hardening synthetic crystal recorded surrounding voices making for an elusive spying system. The story also included the discovery of an ancient piece of lava rock from Vesuvius that had recorded human voices when it hardened thousands of years previously. The opening sequence included a demonstration of the piezoelectrical properties of quartz and the emphasis on research into crystals. Thus, the idea for recording in stone and crystals was around decades before it was incorporated as a plot device in The Stone Tape.

Conclusion

The explosion of amateur ghost hunting groups around 2000 and continuing even today has placed the STT into the paranormal patois. It’s frequently noted on paranormal investigation websites as a “scientific” theory and one that has some evidentiary support. As I’ve documented here, it doesn’t have empirical support. Professional parapsychologists and the SPR (still considered to be the foremost investigation body of paranormal claims) do not rely on it and hardly even mention the term in their professional literature. Cornell (2002) reiterated that the STT still is unconfirmed with no plausible mechanism and the theory has not been developed any further. Murdie declared it was “a hypothesis yet to be tested”.  Even though we have been talking about this general concept for over a century, we are no closer to having it make sense and it remains an unsupported, but appealing and convenient, notion to apply in paranormal discussions with the public.

STT does not make sense in whichever context it is implemented. Not only do we still not have a reasonable mechanism to record, store, and retrieve traces but there remain many vexing questions about the idea: Why is just one event recorded and not a jumble of events? Why does the “recording” last for decades or centuries instead of getting overwritten? Why do only certain places have place memories? It’s disingenuous of paranormal researchers to utilize STT as an explanation, or even to suggest it because it sounds sciencey.

Even more egregious are those paranormalists who geologize without having suitable knowledge of what they speak about and promote a pseudoscientific foundation for it. You will find several people speaking authoritatively about the properties of limestone bedrock (they have assumed exists under a location) that triggers hauntings. And there are those who publish or relate to tourists that the “quartz” and “granite” at Gettysburg, the world-famous Civil War battlefield, is responsible for preserving the ghostly phenomena that people constantly report there. To shut the door on the STT at Gettysburg, the rock there is not granite. It is diabase, which is quartz-poor. This is not in dispute. The mudstone/siltstone rocks among the famous diabase dike ridges (Seminary and Cemetery) and exposed boulders (Devil’s Den and Little Round Top) have no special properties either, with many other minerals making up the bedrock that lacks any abundance of quartz (and no limestone at all). There are other empirical factors involved in why people say they perceive spooky things at Gettysburg but I’ll leave that for another time.

There you have it on the Stone Tape theory. It’s not a theory, it doesn’t make physical sense, and there is no known mechanism for how it works at all. It was simply a good fictional movie.

Tell your friends.

Note: A different and condensed version of this piece is available at SpookyGeology.com

Bibliography

Babbage, C.  The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1838)

Callis, N. “Stone Tapes”. The Bent Spoon No. 7. 2012.

Cornell, T. Investigating the Paranormal. 2002. p. 391.

Denton, W. The Soul of Things. 1863. 

Fleeger, G. Geology of the Gettysburg Mesozoic Basin and Military Geology of the Gettysburg Campaign. Guidebook for the 73rd Field Conference of Pennsylvania Geologists.

Heath, P.R. “A New Theory on Place Memory.” Austr J. of Parapsychology. 2005. 5:1:40-58.

Hines, Terrance. Personal Communication. May 2017.

Kneale, N. The Stone Tape [movie] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtvJWKaDI9s&t=2s

Lander, K. Stone Tape Theory – Light, magnetic fields and the mind? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xta__gsUpug

Lethbridge, T.C. Ghost and Ghoul. 1961.

Lethbridge, T.C. Ghost and Divining Rod. 1963.

Murdie, Alan. Personal Communication. April 2017.

Persinger, M. and S. Koren. “Predicting the Characteristics of Haunt Phenomena from Geomagnetic Factors and Brain Sensitivity: Evidence from Field and Experimental Studies” 2001. In Houran & Lange’s Hauntings and Poltergeists: A Multidisciplinary Perspective.

Price, H.H.  “Haunting and the “psychic ether” hypothesis; with some preliminary reflections on the present condition and possible future of psychical research” Proceedings of the SPR (1938-1939) Vol 45.

Robins, D. Secret Language of Stone. 1988.

Ventola, A. “Anomalous Experiences Primer: Theories and Perspectives on Apparitions”. 2010. http://publicparapsychology.blogspot.com/2010/01/anomalous-experiences-primer-theories.html.

Yohe, T. Limestone and Its Paranormal Properties: A Comprehensive Approach to the Possibilities. 2015.

Confusing speculative “language of stone” (Book Review)

I’m researching the history of the Stone Tape “theory” of haunting for my Spooky Geology site. It’s something I’ve been working on in bits and pieces for several years now. I’ve watched the movie The Stone Tape (thanks to mooching off Blake Smith’s Plex account) and have keyed into any mention of the idea from various paranormalists. One website mentioned that some paranormalists may have been influenced by a book by Don Robins called The Secret Language of Stone. From 1988, it obviously is later than the 1972 movie. But the write-up seemed interesting. With no luck finding a copy in a library, I picked up a used copy and read it in a week. By the time I was done, I was ready to punch Robins. It’s an annoying book. I don’t think it would have influenced many people who could have made it through the techno-babbling, tangents, and connecting of random threads to get to a frustrating end. Here’s another case of me reading a book so you don’t have to…Read More »

Animal Planet’s Monster Week tones down the hype for 2016

jump_the_sharkIt’s business as usual at Animal Planet channel. It’s Monster Week. You know, it’s not that bad to air shows like The Cannibal in the Jungle for one week or on occasion. But AnPlan has gone too far in the past several years by suggesting that mermaids, Megalodon and cryptids exist by co-opting bad or outright FAKE science to make people think there is more support for these claims than there really are.

Animal Planet and Discovery channel (both of Discovery Network) often share shows so you may have seen a variety of strange offerings on both. (A complete list of paranormal programming in English, go to my list here.) For AnPlan in particular, fiction began to overtake nature programming in 1997 with the show Animal X about mystery cryptids. Then, they got into the Pet Psychic shows from 2002-2004 and again in 2010. But seriously, pet psychic shows are not even interesting and are kind of ridiculous even to the average person who believes in psychic abilities. River Monsters began in 2009 and is still going. It’s not exactly an unnatural program but occasionally does hype up the drama and lead viewers to misleading ideas. This hinted at what was to come – actual cryptid hunting.

Finding Bigfoot was a ratings success at AnPlan starting in 2011, becoming its top rated series (for a time – I think River Monsters may now hold that spot). Then, in 2012, the shit really began to hit the TV screen. Mermaids: A Body Found was a fictional show that was made to look like an actual documentary. The two-hour special used fake footage, CGI, fake “underwater sound recordings”, and had actors portray scientists to discuss the thoroughly dismissed “aquatic ape theory”. There was an immediate response. People who expect to see science on AnPlan thought this was science! There were some who actually believed mermaids were real and the government was hiding the truth! The NOAA had to issue a public statement to assure the nation that, no, mermaids were NOT real. The network had gone off the deep end but took the position that ratings were more important than information about real animals. After the raging success of Mermaids for Monster Week 2012, a sequel came in 2013 with even more misleading content and fake scientists. Also included in the 2013 Monster Week were programs that sounded like Roger Corman movies: Man-eating Squid, Invasion of the Swamp Monsters, and Invasion of the Mutant Pigs. Discovery Channel meanwhile was basking in the glow of confusing the public again with a fake documentary on an extinct giant shark that they wanted you to think was still around. Cue fake footage and doctored photos. This was the end of association with the network by many scientists who had had enough.mermaids-e1368894096230

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Paranormal investigators and Velikovsky sound similarly sciencey

worlds in collisionIn January 2013, I wrote about Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, and pseudoscience, referencing Michael Gordin’s excellent book The Pseudoscience Wars (2012). Well, I’m writing about it again, to be included in a book about amateur investigation groups “sounding sciencey” and fooling the public. I went back to some of my old sources and found a good one. It’s nice to know that even though you forgot you ever thought about this thing before, you actually wrote it down, and now realize you were on the right track.

 

A fascinating discussion by R.G.A. Dolby (1975) provides a case study about a popular idea that was nearly universally rejected by orthodox scientists, sold directly to the public by a non-expert, and even involved religious connections. It is a classic case of what we call pseudoscience.

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The State of the Science: Parapsychology (Book Review)

In October of last year I wrote a blog post about a review of a new parapsychology compendium. Finally, I’ve gotten to read the entire book referenced for myself, cover to cover, 400+ pages.

cardena coverParapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (2015) edited by Etzel Cardeña, John Palmer, David Marcusson-Clavertz

It took about 7 weeks to get through the whole thing. I took copious notes, as I always do, to help me remember and understand. But why do this? Most people have zero interest in academic parapsychology. They can’t even explain what it is or why I might pay any mind to it. Most of my skeptic friends dismiss it outright. I’ve been interested in professional and amateur endeavors in this subject area for 20 years. There are two main reasons why I spent so much time crawling through this book:

  1. I wanted to see what they have to offer. What is the state of the science? Where has it been? Where is it going? What is the feel of the academic scene? What do they consider important? What does the future of parapsychology look like?
  2. I have been working on amateur research and investigation groups and it was necessary to consult an expert source in order to compare to professional standards. In both respects, this book was incredibly helpful and perfect for that need.

An academic book like this is not well suited for a typical review. You can scan the contents online. So, perhaps the most useful thing I can do is to explain what I derived from the information provided as a person educated in science with a great interest in the scientific and popular aspects of this particular field. It’s an outsider’s view, certainly, but as the book itself alludes, there really aren’t that many insiders. If this book can compel me to be motivated about parapsychology research, it’s a real prize.

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A Guide to Ghost Hunting Guidebooks: NO MORE! Please!

This might come as a shock to the millions of ghost enthusiasts out there: The scientific consensus is that ghosts are NOT spirits, remnants of the dead, recordings of energy, or supernatural entities. Our existing knowledge about nature does not point to a conclusion that ghosts are a single definable thing, paranormal or normal, that you can find, observe, measure, or study. Yet, there are about 200 guides to “ghost hunting” in print or e-book form that lay out ways to obtain evidence of or make contact with ghosts. Therefore, we have a conundrum at step one of any attempt at ghost hunting – we can’t define what a ghost is, and we do not know its properties because we’ve never determined that they exist and measured them. No ghost handbook has ever led anyone to catch and identify ghosts, they can only lead you to interpret something as a ghost.

In that sense, all ghost hunting books are worthless. So why bother with them?

First, it’s an interesting cultural phenomena. Actively investigating reports of ghosts and paranormal activity is mainstream and a popular hobby and tourism draw. In 2010, there were over 1000 paranormal investigation groups in the US, the majority of which researched hauntings. (Hill, 2010) It’s not worthless to examine why people spend their time and money on this hobby and how they go about doing it.

Second, the idea of paranormal investigation contains important aspects of society’s attitudes towards finding out about the world, decided what is meaningful and true, using science to examine questions, cooperation and trust in a community, and taking part in a larger effort beyond one’s own small role in life.

I’m deeply interested in the second point. I’ve found that examining amateur paranormal group behaviors and output highlights concepts about science education and public discourse about belief and reality. This piece mentions 11 books on ghost hunting that I have examined. They have broad similarities and distinct differences.  In the main portion, I review 4 books on the basis of the following:

  1. Readability (language, errors, quality of writing)
  2. Credibility (sources, supported arguments vs speculation, factual correctness)
  3. Overall value as a cultural product (Buy it or not?)

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The stupidiocy of Ancient Aliens for kids

There are few good skeptical books for kids. But there are a shit-ton of terrible books promoting mystery and pseudoscientific nonsense aimed at kids or those getting started exploring a paranormal topic.

I often peruse the 001 section of Juvenile Literature in the library. Mostly, I’m sickened. Occasionally, I’m surprised. There is a need for better quality, more critical books on the paranormal and “mystery” topics aimed at non-specialist at middle-reader levels.

Here is an example of such a book at my local library, which is where I obtained it and had a look.

IMG_6292

The Young Investigator’s Guide to Ancient Aliens was published July 21, 2015 by History Channel/A&E Network. It lists NO actual authors because no one would want their name connected to this tripe.

There is NO WAY I would purchase such a book, so thank you, libraries, for providing access. It’s important to view media that is out there and consider if this is what we want to be published. However, its presence in the library lends an air of credibility to it. I suspect that the publishers made an effort to get it into libraries by using the HISTORY Channel brand as leverage. Because it’s there, it will get read. This is unfortunate because this book is a piece of garbage.

You might have guessed as much being that it’s based on the TV show Ancient Aliens which is also garbage. I don’t watch the show but know enough about it to justify why I refuse to watch. So, I am coming at this book knowing enough of the names and fantastical speculation behind pseudo-archaeology and pseudo-history topics, but I honestly have not delved deeply into this genre. I was a bit shocked at how awful it is.

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Parapsychology continues to fail to impress reviewers

A correspondent clued me in to what he called a “devastating commentary on parapsychology.” I agree. The review on the Magonia Review of Books meshes with what I had written in June 2014 when I looked into parapsychology, comparing then and now. It’s helpful to see an independent critique that notes the same flaws as you did. I’m not the only one who notices that the standard-bearers of parapsychology are unhelpful to their own cause. 

I enjoy the Magonia Blog review of books because the review are often in-depth and I typically learn something new whether I read the highlighted book or not. I also love to learn about what’s cooking with publishing these days, what is out there for people to access, and I’m often left to wonder who the hell thought it was a good idea to publish THAT!

In the review entitled Believing Impossible Things, Peter Rogerson examines Parapsychology: A Handbook for the 21st Century (2015) edited byEtzel Cardeña , John Palmer, and David Marcusson-Clavertz (edit: names fixed). It’s not a book I would read since it’s not aimed at me, since I’m not parapsychology expert, but for PhD level students of parapsychology. (I’m thinking that must be a pretty small audience.) Rogerson describes it as a “large, 400-plus page work [that] presents 31 papers under nine headings, which seeks to update the original Handbook of Parapsychology… devoted to experimental parapsychology and is highly dependent on statistics.”

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Sciencey: People get it

In the course of writing, there are times when you have to either create a new word because there isn’t just the right one coined yet or you adopt a word, use it three times, and make it your own.

My research and writing for the public has often been about how activities, advertisements, and ideas might sound a lot like science, using science-sounding terms, but are not in the mode of science at all. They are false science, dressed up as science, pretending to be or imitating science. I call it “sciencey” stuff because it appears to pertain to science. This word existed but I made it my own, applying it to this construction.

You can read articles on this theme from my column for Center of Inquiry online called “Sounds Sciencey” for many and various examples.

ghostbusters-pushcart-2

Just because you are “sciencey” does not mean you are “scientific”. I use the word “scientifical” to describe the activities of those who deliberately pretend to act like scientists. This does a fine job of fooling the public from product advertisements to non-traditional cures and treatments and even on television where people hunt for ghosts, Bigfoot and UFOs. Keep using that word, I would love to see that get into the mainstream as well.

I hold that the reason the public is so easy to fool with sciencey and scientifical ploys is that, at least the American public, is not well-versed in what science is and how it works. We don’t have good science education in school and science as a career or even an interest is not encouraged. So, we will end up with what Carl Sagan said:

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.
~Carl Sagan

That’s a very bad thing not just because we can’t fix our own gadgets these days, but because we risk being snookered by a sciencey put-on without scientific merit.

I contributed a small part to the marvelous book Abominable Science by Loxton and Prothero. Daniel Loxton was thoughtful to send along a copy of a recent review of the book done by Robert Bishop for Christianity Today magazine’s Books & Culture site. The review was titled “Scientific or Sciencey? Yeti, Nessie, et al.”  Apparently, the “sciencey” aspect of cryptozoology is resonating. He writes:

One possibility for why belief in cryptids is so high in America is that few Americans—even the highly educated—actually understand much about the processes and principles of scientific inquiry. Cryptozoology superficially appears to be scientific, and a number of people mistake it for scientific activity. It sounds and looks “sciencey,” to use Sharon Hill’s lovely term, but that’s it. Cryptozoologists typically don’t begin with a theory to generate a viable hypothesis, deduce consequences from that hypothesis (predictions), test those consequences, analyze the data, check for errors, critically sift assumptions, and so forth. Rather, they begin with a bias (belief in the existence of a mystery creature such as Bigfoot) and then hunt for evidence to substantiate their belief. This leads cryptozoologists to force what they find to fit into their pre-established expectations. Moreover, they accept any evidence that remotely supports their belief no matter how weak or questionable, and discount any contrary evidence no matter how strong.

YES! He gets it.

It’s my hope that what I share publicly (outside my everyday job) makes some sort of impact. That’s a goal, but a difficult one to measure. It feels so good to have those few moments where you see something you do gets understood, appreciated and passed along to other audiences. A Christian magazine? Who would have thought? But it’s great. There have been other occasions, too, where people are clearly “getting it” – a topic is not science but sciencey. It really is important to distinguish between the two.

are you scienceyLater this month I’ll be giving a talk at the Albatwitch festival to a crowd that, probably even more so than the general public, is inclined to believe in the paranormal. My goal for this is to not be the grumpy debunker but to explain how science has previously looked at the paranormal and why it was rejected. Then, I intend to show how these lessons can be useful for today’s paranormal investigator. In other words, don’t pretend to be a scientist, don’t be sciencey or act scientifical. Do solid work instead.

If they get it, like Bishop got it in his review, that’s a huge win for me.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

—————

References

Hill, 2010. “Being Scientifical: Popularity, Purpose and Promotion of Amateur Research and Investigation Groups in the U.S.”  https://idoubtit.files.wordpress.com/2012/07/hill_arigs_being_scientifical_thesis.pdf

Hill, 2012. “Amateur Paranormal Research and Investigation Groups Doing ‘Sciencey’ Things”, Skeptical Inquirer 36:2 March/April 2012.  http://www.csicop.org/si/show/amateur_paranormal_research_and_investigation_groups_doing_sciencey_things

“Scientific or Sciencey? Yeti, Nessie, et al.” http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2015/sepoct/scientific-or- sciencey.html [Full text here, please do not distribute.]

100 Things Popular Science Thinks Science Got Wrong, but Didn’t Quite

I was in the grocery checkout line a few weeks ago. I sometimes scan the magazine rack impulse grabs but never buy them. This week, the crop circle cover photo of a special edition of Popular Science caught my attention: Mistakes and Hoaxes – 100 Things Science Got Wrong

PopSci

What did science get wrong about crop circles? “Science” (be wary of the tone of generality used in the title) never assumed there was anything worthwhile about crop circles. They were a man-made (and quite nifty) phenomenon. Thumbing through the issue, I saw pages about phrenology, cigarettes are good for you, bloodletting, humans evolved from apes, and so on – topics that may appear to have once had scientific backing. But several other standard hoaxes were cited in the list – spirit photography, alien autopsy, Loch Ness Monster, King Tut’s curse…

So, it was a mishmash of rejected thinking, errors, and hoaxes but not everything had to do with science. Lots of these “myths” were popular in the public or the media but gained zero traction as legitimate science. I bought it to see how these popular myths (if not popular “science”) were treated. It was a mixed bag.

The issue, considered a Time Inc. Book, priced at $13.99 is a snazzy coffee table edition. Each “myth” takes up one page or less. It’s well illustrated and a casual read for those who are not specialists in science. I would recommend it to those who find science stuff interesting but don’t have a formal background in it. As with typical “popular science”, specialists will find plenty of nits to pick in the text. But overall, it’s not flawed except in the egregiously wrong title. There was no introduction or editor’s note, the content started immediately with Myth #1: Neutrinos Are Faster Than Light – a legitimate story that described how an experiment went awry. Read More »

I know, not just believe, this book is nonsense: Book Review

IMG_5484Sometimes publishers and authors send me stuff. I’m not sure why they think I’ll suddenly be open to unscientific, fringe ideas about how the world works and overthrow what we know via just one book. Yes, that’s right, KNOW. This book, Paradigm Busters, from the Atlantis Rising magazine library, starts off by confusing conditional scientific knowledge with belief. “We don’t KNOW, we BELIEVE”. Maybe YOU do, but that’s not how I roll. Science is the most reliable way of gaining knowledge, in short because it removes as much error as humanly possible and is open to many people’s scrutiny and new evidence as it comes along. Some knowledge is certainly tentative but your kooky theory about pyramids is not going to overturn the entire field of archaeology and Egyptian history.

“Know” is interchangeable as “believe” in this book, that’s clear: “We already know… [that ancient spiritual places concentrate electromagnetic fields]” Oh? Where are the scientific references? There are none. This book is a collection of terribly researched, mystery mongering speculation and hopeful belief in something beyond reality.

We go way off on the wrong path right from the beginning as one writer suggests that magicians and entertainers may indeed have paranormal powers; that is, David Copperfield is NOT doing an illusion, he’s really supernatural! This book also suggests that people really are magnetic (nope), chi (which you can’t measure) could be the primal source of all matter and energy, animals can do complex math equations (in English), there are healing properties of coral slabs, energy beams are focused by the Georgia Guidestones, Mary Magdalene founded the Royal Dutch House of Orange, spirits can invade humans, ETs have visited us in the past, and that ideas about quantum physics were known in ancient Egypt. All baseless.

The contributors disregard normal explanations and sneer at anything related to orthodox “science”. Appealing to neuroscience and psychology, they still use sciencey language in that typical “I hate you but want you to accept me” relationship. Science is wrong, they conclude, let us upturn it for you.

Old and investigated tales are taken at face value with the non-supernormal explanation rejected out of hand (or not even mentioned). Therefore, there is more to fire walking than simple physics of insulation and heat exchange, the DaVinci code is real and reveals ancient secrets, and the Montauk Monster was a mutant from Plum Island research facility, not a long-drowned raccoon. It’s pretty much ridiculous stuff like this cover to cover.

I don’t have anything positive to say about a conspiratorial, anti-science book written by non-specialists who seem to have never studied the foundational literature of these fields. Oh, I didn’t find any typos and the grammar was acceptable. There.

The 1988 US Army commissioned report on Enhancing Human Performance

It was news to me that back in 1985, the US Army commissioned an analysis of certain techniques that were proposed to enhance human performance. The Army Research Institute asked the National Academies to form a committee to examine these questionable strategies. The report is available here where you can read it for free.

Enhancing Human Performance Issues, Theories, and Techniques (1988)
Daniel Druckman and John A. Swets, Editors; Committee on Techniques for the Enhancement of Human Performance, National Research Council

The following is my takeaway from this curious report.

The committee’s task was to “evaluate the existing scientific evidence for a wide range of techniques that have been proposed to enhance human performance” and to “develop general guidelines for evaluating newly proposed techniques and their potential application”. (p 15)

The committee looked at the relevant scientific literature and unpublished documents; each sub committee reported on their findings. Personal experiences and testimonials were not regarded as an acceptable alternative to scientific evidence, even though, as they note, people may hold them with a high level of conviction.

The study was prompted by military people who may have been well respected and felt these phenomena had military potential, as learning and communication tools, or as threats or aids to defense. For example, random number generators (RNGs) were used to test for the ability of micro PK (psychokinesis). Those with this ability were said to be able to mentally bias the machine to produce non-random numbers. Ideally such power could be used to affect enemy equipment.

Some types of enhancements examined are not that well-known to me or in my realm of interest: learning during sleep (concluded no evidence but a second look is warranted), accelerated learning (found little scientific evidence, but more investigation is needed), guided imagery, biofeedback, split brain effects, stress management, cohesion, influence, and parapsychology. (“The committee finds no scientific justification from research conducted over a period of 130 for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.” Therefore, the Army should drop it.) It was this last section, a subcommittee chaired by Ray Hyman, that was my focus.

I found the entire report to be readable and rather interesting and wondered why I hadn’t come across it before. If anything, the appendix of key terms at the end is extraordinarily useful.

The parapsychology section included examination of extraordinary mental abilities – remote viewing, micro PK, and the Ganzfeld technique for enhancing telepathy. I was familiar with the claims for remote viewing and Hyman’s critique of the Ganzfeld. I was interested in the state of parapsychology, having examined it through the Hyman/Honorton exchanges, therefore, this report added to my knowledge. I also knew of the academically-framed lab work of Jahn. Here in one place is a science-based committee fairly assessing ALL the evidence of these alleged paranormal powers. They concluded that none of it had merit and the military gave up on efforts to incorporate these techniques.

The committee concluded that after 15 years of research, the case for remote viewing was very weak, virtually nonexistent. There were certainly claims by some researcher of a clear effect but these claims were exaggerated. Two research programs – Helmut Schmidt and Robert Jahn (PEAR) made up 60% of the experiments that had been conducted. Their results revealed a small departure from chance. A tiny effect is enhanced by the volume of studies that were incorporated. The report notes Jahn did 78 million trials! The more studies that show a tiny effect end up looking statistically significant when grouped together. But regardless, the effects were extremely weak. The parapsychology committee argues that most influential positive effect in Jahn’s massive database is the result of testing one person. This is not a robust set of data.

Anomalies

In science, anomalies have a definition – they are a precise and specifiable departure from a well-defined expectation. In parapsychology, however, anomalies mean everything. They are vague and undefined – anything that looks odd is considered. With this wiggly definition, any one anomaly can have an infinite variety of possible causes, not all the same. That’s not particularly useful.

Because parapsychologists do not have a theory to explain the anomalies, there is no way to show that the anomaly of one experiment is the same as the anomaly in another. Without a theory to hang the data on, we do not have a coherent class of phenomena. Arguments are made that “There’s something there.” Perhaps there is. Odds are, it’s not something paranormal, it’s an artifact of the testing.

Then there is Cleve Backster who experimented on plants, testing them with a polygraph. His astonishing work on plant responses was popular in the press and appeared to be influential. People believed his study was scientifically solid. But it wasn’t. It was not repeatable with controls.  The questionableness of his work never got out to the wider audiences. The idea of “bioenergetic fields” as discovered by Backster, was put forth as part of the explanation for dowsing, energy healing and remote viewing. The idea of plant telepathy and special perception is still supported by New Age purveyors. The Backster idea was something certain people WANTED to believe in.

It’s a rare case, as noted in the report, that a person can make a distinction between his subjectively compelling personal belief and that which is scientifically justifiable. I’d previously researched this with regards to the interaction between Charles Honorton and Ray Hyman. Hyman’s 3 types of criticisms show up in this report:

  1. Smoking gun – cause is due to factor X
  2. Plausible alternative – cause could be due to factor X
  3. Dirty test tube – cause is from some artifact resulting from unacceptable standards

The dirty test tube critique was used by Hyman to criticize the Ganzfeld results. (And also the basis of Jim Alcock’s critique regarding remote viewing).

Honorton eventually agreed with Hyman that the Ganzfeld experiments were not of optimal design, but insisted that didn’t affect results. If the scientific methods are not appropriate, error creeps in, the results are unreliable. In the conclusions of the parapsychology section, the committee determined that what they found, the research methods and results, were too weak to establish the existence of paranormal phenomena. Thus, it was recommended that such techniques were not worthy of investment.

Yet, you will regularly encounter those who INSIST remote viewing works and has been successfully used. And there are those who insist parapsychology is/was successfully used by the military, and will eventually breakthrough and show all of us naysayers. I doubt it. It’s been a very long time, there’s been plenty of opportunity, but they’ve produced nothing convincing. If the military discarded the idea that the mind can be used as any sort of extrasensory tool or weapon, that clearly signals it’s not worth academic efforts to pursue either.

Warnings of impending danger: Science and Social Factors

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

Reality Check: We all need it (Book review)

There are some writers for which you know pretty much exactly what you are going to get. Donald R. Prothero is one of those writers. I expect a well-researched, comprehensive treatment of the topic with a flavor of emotion here and there. That’s what I got with Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future, 2013, Indiana Univ Press.

The core of the book is summed up in the John Burroughs quote given on page 1:

To treat your facts with imagination is one thing, but to imagine your facts is another.

Once you observe the methods of creationists as the classic example of science denialists, you can recognize the same tactics in those that reject climate change. I have also noted the same tricks in environmentalists or those holding contrarian views about vaccines, the paranormal, and various consumer products.

The premise of Reality Check is that when “a well-entrenched belief system comes in conflict with scientific or historic reality” the believers in this system will actively discount, ignore or distort the facts that go against it. They may stop at nothing to defend their belief – they will lie, hide evidence, manufacture evidence, pay people off, bully, harass, discredit, and even threaten the scientists who are  supporting the “inconvenient” conclusion.

The book highlights denialism rampant in the fields of environmentalism, global warming, evolution education, vaccine information, AIDS treatment policy, medical claims, energy policy and population size and growth. Each chapter exposes the hidden agendas of those who reject the scientific consensus and provides the reader with the solid, established evidence.

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Ketchum’s Galileo Gambit

One of my essential reading blogs, Respectful Insolence, has resurrected an older post on The Galileo Gambit. It was timely. It was in reference mainly to the day to day parade of quackery that passes by in the media. Orac coined the term “Galileo gambit” to describe a very common ploy used by quacks – they compare their persecution and non-acceptance to that of Galileo.

At least, I think I was the first to coin this term. I haven’t been able to find a reference to the “Galileo Gambit” dating before I wrote the original version of this post way back in 2005.”

Immediately, I thought of Dr. Melba Ketchum who recently pulled the Galileo Gambit when she announced the publication of her Sasquatch DNA paper.

We encountered the worst scientific bias in the peer review process in recent history.  I am calling it the “Galileo Effect”.  Several journals wouldn’t even read our manuscript when we sent them a pre-submission inquiry.  Another one leaked our peer reviews.  We were even mocked by one reviewer in his peer review.

Sorry, a lame excuse. It’s special pleading for why she had such trouble with her paper.

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