Monday, December 31, 2007

The impending 2008.

I notice the last few posts all start with ‘no’, which is depressing and overly negative. On the other hand, it is New Year’s Eve, a time to reflect on how miserable last year was and how much worse it can get next year. So perhaps the atmosphere of gloom is appropriate.

Here, the year is set to start with very cold weather, ice and snow. So it’s not all bad. There is traffic chaos predicted for the return to work on January 3rd (the Scots take New Year very seriously, so they are in no state to drive anywhere for two days afterwards).

Since I’m self-employed I don’t have to start on that date. I’ll let it all settle down a bit first. Besides, I plan to look over some derelict buildings and I won’t be doing that in the snow.

So I’ll be settling in for a week or so, going over data and looking for clues. Plenty of food, plenty of whisky, a good stock of cigars and windows shut tight. The cold spell is forecast to last only a few days so it should be business as usual shortly afterwards. Tonight I’m going out, tomorrow I’ll probably sleep late because even telemarketers take that day off so it’s the best day of the year for a lie in.

Happy New Year to all – I think this is the only purely secular holiday, other than bank holidays (which might be peculiar to the UK) so when I say ‘all’, I mean all.

Nothing so far.

No sign of anything on tape. I have a couple of bits to recheck but I think they'll be headlight reflections.

Since the eyewitness accounts are just that - eyewitness - if there was anything it should have been visible to me while I stood there. So I hold out little hope of finding anything on film or video.

Never mind. There are many more such events, and there are many more investigations to do.

Most of them are going to be duds but that's just the way it goes.

Fortunately my glass is half full, currently with Laphroaig.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

No humbug.


I wanted to pass out cyber-humbugs to everyone but couldn’t find any, so you’ll just have to suck one of Uncle Joe’s balls instead.

Thanks go to Southern Writer for the E-card. One day I’ll have to work out how to do that.

Merry Christmas, or Happy Tuesday, depending on your personal preferences.

Time for a little whisky, I think.

Monday, December 24, 2007

No Jacobites this year.

No luck.

I went out again tonight, in case it was the 23rd after all, and not the 22nd. I was there from sunset (3:30 pm) until 5 pm, and I’m sure it was the right place. Nothing appeared to my eyes, but I have a lot of film to look through. I’m not too hopeful though.

Why nothing? Well, there are a few possibilities.

One. There never was anything, it was an urban legend. If so, I console myself with the decency of the urban-legend-generator who placed this particular story at a reasonable time of day. It might have been started to attract tourists here. It was the last-but-one battle fought on British soil after all. If that was the case, it didn’t work. I was the only one there.

Two. The bridge might have been built over the ford after all, so if there is any replay it’s going through the granite bridge supports. One of my video cameras was facing that way so if that’s the case I might yet spot something. Although if these are images imprinted on the environment, it’s possible that constructing the bridge has deleted that recording forever.

Three. The phenomenon is highly specific in time and location. Perhaps the conditions need to be exactly right. That would mean checking it next year too, and the following year. I’ll get some of those electrically heated gloves before then. The 22nd I thought would have been a reasonable match, with clear sky and a nearly full moon. Tonight (23rd) was overcast, very windy, and cold enough to make any brass monkeys reach for the thermal underwear. Well, I can rule out overcast/cold/windy so I won’t have to go there again in those conditions.

I heard no sounds of advancing soldiers but then that’s not surprising. The bridge was loaded with traffic the whole time, and soldiers approaching an enemy try to get as close as possible before they’re spotted. They wouldn’t be shouting.

A lot of these ‘replay’ phenomena are reported to take place in silence, pictures but no sound. So the absence of sound isn’t an issue. Pity though, if I had heard something I could have zoomed in those cameras.

Could such a phenomenon happen, right next to a busy bridge at the busiest time of year, with nobody ever noticing?

Definitely. From the bridge, you can see the river but you can’t see down over the side where I was standing. The traffic was seriously bad so every driver is watching ahead anyway. I’ve ridden the bus over that bridge many times, and in winter the sides of the bus are coated with road salt. You can barely see through them in the daytime, you can’t see a thing at night. If a full marching band materialised and stomped across that part of the river, they could do so without anyone seeing a thing.

No houses overlook this area. There’s a builder’s yard behind this stretch of river and that’s closed at the time the phenomenon is supposed to occur. As I said, I was the only one there, both nights. Fishing season is closed, and even dog-walkers don’t brave that stretch of riverbank when it’s dark and freezing. Besides, everyone else is last-minute shopping now.

The far side of the river has the old opening for the defunct canal. It’s overgrown and impassable. Nobody with any sense ever goes there, at any time of year. There’s no path on that side and no bridge over the remains of the canal.

Anyway, I didn’t see anything this time. Since it’s close to me and costs nothing apart from a roll or two of film, I’ll take another look next year. It gets me out in the fresh air.

I took two video cameras, each ran for 90 minutes each night so I have six hours of video to watch. I’m not doing that in one sitting because it’s hardly Cannes material. I’ll fall asleep for sure. I’ll do it in 15-minute chunks. Digital camera pics showed nothing, I won’t know about the films until I get them developed – and I doubt I can get that done before Christmas now. Still, I have enough to keep me busy.

I did run a voice recorder. I’ll save the files for later because I really don’t expect to have anything on that other than traffic noise. These replays aren’t ghosts, they’re replays. There’s no actual spirit present so no reason to expect voices. So I’ll store the files, and if any pictures show anything I can then go back to those recordings – just in case it wasn’t a silent film.

I could just delete this from my list of places to visit, and there are circumstances in which I would do that. If there were heavy travel and accommodation costs, if I had to hang around and risk hypothermia until two in the morning, if the place was in full view of anyone at all, then one investigation would be enough.

However, I can walk to this place. The alleged event takes place an hour after sunset, which is just around teatime here. The location is impossible to see unless you go there.

Now, the idea that these replay events are somehow imprinted on the environment is just that – an idea. It would be a much stronger idea if we can determine exactly what conditions are required to activate the replay. If we knew that, we might be able to reproduce those conditions at will and set the thing playing whenever we like. If we can do that, then we can start to determine where in the environment the images are stored, and that leads to a way of working out how they became stored there in the first place. And then, a way of storing any images we like on anything we like, to replay as holograms when activated. So yes, this might one day turn out to have a particularly lucrative application.

I have one of these events on my doorstep and all that’s required of me is to spend an hour or so, two evenings a year, checking it out. Those Jacobites might never appear: the bridge might have destroyed the recording or the whole thing might be an urban legend.

Still, it hardly involves any effort and, aside from the cold, it’s actually a very quiet and pleasant place to spend a little time. So I’ll go back next year.

It’s just a pity both the trout and salmon seasons are closed.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Jacobites are coming. I hope.

The Battle of Inverurie, 1745, in which the Jacobites ousted the Royalists from Inverurie, started an hour after sunset on the 22nd December. There was a full moon at the time. This year, there will be a full moon on the 24th, so there is currently plenty of light when the clouds break.

If you look in Wikipedia, it places the battle on the 23rd December, but that’s when it ended. They fought overnight and into the morning.

Now, the main force of the Jacobites came at Inverurie by a circuitous route, and arrived across the River Urie from the east. A smaller force took the direct route, crossing the River Don at the ford. This smaller force drew the Royalists’ attention, and the larger force striking from the side came as a very unpleasant surprise.

There have been reports, sketchy and never with any kind of photographic evidence, that the Jacobites still cross that ford on the anniversary of the battle. Since it’s literally a twenty-minute walk away, I’m going to take a look for myself this year. It’s not even an onerous task: an hour after sunset makes it about 4:30 pm. There’ll be a lot of traffic on the bridge at that time. They won’t see me over the parapet but the headlights and vibration might cause me some problems, as might interfering pedestrians.

I don’t expect to meet any spirits. This is not a haunting, the reports say only that the Jacobites cross the river. They don’t interact with anyone, they never deviate from their original actions. This is a recording, if it exists at all. I hope, with the moon full as it was for the original event, that it will replay while I’m there.

The weather is reasonable, not much rain and mainly clear skies – but that can change in an instant here. Fingers will remain crossed. The only serious difficulty is the precise location.

The place has changed a little in the last 262 years. There have been two bridges, one replaced by the other, both in the same place, and these are placed close to or maybe even on the place where the ford once was. The sketchy reproduction map I have places the ford directly in line with the main street and at the end of the island. However, the bridge—which also stands at the end of the island—is offset from the main street by some distance. So, is the map right based on alignment with the main street, or is it right based on alignment with the island? Fortunately there has been no building work along this stretch of the river (the locals are too fond of their fishing rights), aside from the bridge, so it’s easy to walk from one point to another. There are even lights along most of the riverbank.

On the other side of the river there are remains of a canal, built in the 1800’s, then abandoned and mostly filled in. That side of the river offers no clue as to where the ford might have been.

Comparing maps (I don’t think I can post them here without getting into copyright problems), I think the ford lies just west of the bridge. Now, a lot depends on whether the environment was affected by the building of the bridge, since any recording theory is going to have to fall apart if the environment—that structure that I think contains the recording—has been significantly altered. I’ve walked that riverbank many times, and I currently think that (erosion aside) it looks pretty much the same as it did in 1745. So a sighting is a possibility. It is, naturally, never guaranteed.

There is a fishing map here. At the bottom, you see a road marked ‘To Aberdeen’. Just above that is the bridge, and to the right of the bridge is the island. The ford, I think, lay between the bridge and the island. The ‘river’ lines between the circled 10 and 11, and from 12 south, are parts of the old canal. There’s a better map on streetmap.co.uk . If it refuses to come up from this link, just enter ‘Inverurie’ and check the ‘GB place’ option. There’s only one.

That’s the plan for tomorrow night then. One hour after sunset, at a point just west of the bridge, with (hopefully) a nearly-full moon to light the scene, I hope to see and photograph the Jacobite soldiers crossing the River Don on their way to battle the Royalists.

That’s assuming the previous sightings were done while sober. At this time of year, in this part of the world, there can be no guarantee of that. We’ll see. At least I won’t have to stay there all night.

Monday, December 17, 2007

David Blaine- Wrong Number

Sometimes the magicians pick the wrong mark.

A two digit number between 10 and 50, with both digits odd. Higher than 37? Could it be that this one's too odd for odd numbers?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Magic and fakery.

I spend time watching magic acts on TV and on YouTube, partly because they’re a lot of fun to watch and partly because, if a magician can do it without paranormal powers, then anyone claiming to do the same thing with paranormal powers must be examined with more than usual scrutiny. I don’t like to start any investigation by assuming I’m talking to a liar, but if I ever found myself in the position of checking out a spoon-bender, say, then I would have to be very careful indeed to watch for the magician’s tricks.

One thing I found hilarious was the comments beneath some of the videos. This week, I’ve been concentrating on Derren Brown, a magician who does most of his work with suggestion and hypnosis, and is extremely good at it. The comments included ‘He is a fake. It’s not real’.

Well, duh. He’s a magician. He states at the start of the show he’s going to use illusion and mental trickery. At the end of his shows, he often explains how he did it. That’s why I like this one so much.

In the argument with Dikkii, I voiced the opinion that people watching magic shows know it’s just illusion from the beginning. I know I’ve often said that most people are dolts, but even I didn’t think anyone would be daft enough to cry ‘fake’ at a show that’s meant to be just that. It’s all illusion. No hay banda. (Anyone get that reference?).

So, if a magician can do it, anyone claiming to do the same thing without trickery is going to have a tough time.

On the other hand, just because a magician can replicate a paranormal event does not prove that nobody can do it by paranormal means. It’s not debunking. It’s replication.

Derren Brown did a marvellous job of cold reading to a group who believed he was a psychic. Better than some stage psychics, in fact. Other magicians have replicated this also. There’s a common procedure where a group of people are given ‘horoscopes’ of one kind or another. These ‘horoscopes’ seem to be very specific to that person but, as is later revealed, they are all identical.

These are taken as proof that these areas of the paranormal are not real. They don’t prove it. They prove that there are fakes out there who can, with a little trickery, psychology and suggestion, convince people they are real.

We knew that. There are massive numbers of fakes. Some are earning huge amounts of money with these tricks. Most refuse absolutely to submit to any kind of test, and with good reason. Refusing the test doesn’t hurt their income. Taking the test would.

But that still doesn’t prove that all who profess to have these abilities are fakes. It doesn’t prove that the action itself, in all instances, is faked. That’s extremely difficult to do.

So is it worth continuing to investigate these things? Doesn’t it fail the falsifiability test if the negative can’t be proved?

Well, those who are fakes are taking money under false pretences. They are also causing so much background noise in investigations that they mask any potential real effect, and it should come as no surprise that the non-scientist will conclude that the whole subject must be fake, based on what they see and hear. So we need to remove the fakes, for scientific, legal and moral reasons.

The horoscope example involves a series of statements constructed by a psychologist or magician. No astrologer is being tested here, so there’s no debunking. If you want to test an astrologer you’d need to have them produce real horoscopes for a group of people, then give those horoscopes to the wrong people and see how they fit. Get them to rate their horoscopes, exchange them, and rate the new one. Everyone reads and rates every horoscope but there is no indication on the sheet of who each is intended for. If the astrologer shows real ability, the test subjects will rate the horoscope meant for them as the closest fit. Showing that it can be faked proves nothing new. We already know it can be. What we want to know is, is it always?

Take the psychic reading example. There’s an interview with John Edward on YouTube in which he claims he is honest and real. Then he gets a caller, who he gives a reading for. Watch closely. Watch a few times, then answer these:

If someone calls in to a show like this, how likely are they to give a false name?

Did he specify the name of the caller’s youngest son, or that the letters he had said belonged to anyone in particular?

When the caller said ‘youngest’ rather than ‘younger’, did that allow Edward to assume that there were more than two children?

Since he has three children, what are the most likely combinations of boys and girls? Three of one, or two of one and one of the other?

Since he has three children, and does not sound very old, what are the chances he’s a Catholic?

Now, what is the likelihood of a Catholic in New York having Irish descent, and how many of these are likely to have family in the police force? Would you have tried that guess?

There are many more, but one stands out. Edward did not know where the caller was located. The caller, I’ll bet, has no idea where the TV studios are. Did his dead father know? So how did his father’s ghost manage to find John Edward in a split-second after the call started? Whether you consider psychic ability to be real or not, there is no reason to suppose that ghosts are not subject to the laws of physics.

Finally, there’s a trick he uses that all fake mediums use. Lots of information, very fast, keeps the target confused and helps them forget the ‘misses’. Insisting you’re right and they’re wrong will, 99% of the time, cause them to concede. The psychic is famous, the target is not, and attention is on the target. Everyone expects the psychic to be right so if it’s wrong, it’s seen as the target’s fault. Almost all will cave in. This one didn’t.

None of the above proves that all psychics are fake. It proves that most of them are, which makes it almost impossible for a real psychic to prove themselves. So real ones rarely show up. Why bother? Nobody’s going to believe it, because it can be replicated so effectively by the fakes. When a psychic knows someone’s died before anyone else knows it, that’s pretty strong evidence, but proving it is close to impossible. It’s sheer luck (good or bad?) if that were to happen while the psychic was in the laboratory. Plus, the psychic then has a moral dilemma: how to tell the researcher his mother’s just died, say? Not a pleasant position to be in, I think you’ll agree.

We need these fakes out of the way. Only then is there any chance of finding any real effect. Unfortunately, fakes are like the mythical Hydra. Cut off one head, two more pop up. They are harder to get rid of than cockroaches.

Well, I don’t like to end on a negative note, so here’s something of Derren Brown’s that made me laugh. Nothing at all to do with the paranormal, just the best practical joke I’ve seen in a very long time.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Pleiadean liquid light technology (yes, really!).

Some aspects of alternative medicine go back a long way in time, long enough that I won't just say 'bunk' at them without taking a closer look. I don't have time to take a closer look, so I leave them to others to examine.

This one though, I did look at, only because it was mentioned in New Scientist in derisory terms. It's not old and established, it's a new one. I didn't get further than the first few FAQ entries before deciding what I thought of it.

It's utter bunk. We are not talking about a single bunk here, we are talking every bunk on the biggest ship on the sea, added together and compressed into a mass so dense it forms a black hole of bunkiness.

One example: the site states that since silicon and carbon are close together on the periodic table, and since carbon is the basis of all life on Earth, then anything made of silicon must also be alive. Rocks, in other words, can be pets.

Here's a periodic table. Silicon is directly below carbon. below that is germanium, then tin, then lead. Lead? A potential basis for life? Why not - if silicon can do it, so can lead. It has the same valency. I bet a lead based life form won't move too fast. Still, it's good news for the Tin Man in the 'Wizard of Oz'.

Move two to the right of carbon, and you get to oxygen. Directly below oxygen is sulphur, so if silicon can be a basis of life, then by the same bizarre logic, sulphur must be safe to breathe. I'm not going to be first to try that.

This week's New Scientist has an article on the medications used by the ancient Egyptians. Many of the preparations they used are still in use today - although they are now in synthetic form rather than as plant extracts. They did not claim to have access to the liquid light of Pleiades, nor did they claim to have Atlantean or Lemurian formulae. They used things that worked. If this guy had been born in Ancient Egypt, they'd have laughed as hard as today's scientists at this nonsense.

They would not have laughed at astrology, they would not have laughed at the idea of life after death. They took those things very seriously indeed. They might have laughed at homeopathy (it hadn't been invented then) but this idea of dipping a rock in water and selling the water, they would have laughed very hard at that.

And yet now, in this modern world, you know and I know that this stuff is going to sell. Read the FAQ's and tell me this guy, if he believes half of what he claims, shouldn't be sectioned. People will believe it. People will read about 'Zargunel, the Deva of Zircon' and nod in sage incomprehension. They will give this guy money. Heck, it worked with Thetans, why shouldn't it work with Zargunel?

Why do I care? Because people will say this is part of the 'paranormal'. It is not, any more than a bicycle is part of the auto industry. This is a con trick. Well, if he doesn't believe what he's saying, it's a con trick. If he does believe it, he should be on medication.

Sometimes people tell me they hear voices in their heads. I suggest they visit a psychiatrist, and if he gives them the all-clear, talk to me again.

This guy could keep a whole psychiatric department busy for years. He could keep a chemistry department busy for about ten minutes, or however long it takes them to stop laughing. Nobody is going to test this. No scientist is going beyond 'placebo effect' here. This is not a case of 'It's been seen/used for thousands of years, let's take a look at it and see if it has any merit'.

This is a case for the long-sleeved jacket and the room with soft walls. It is not part of that area of study known as 'paranormal'. All this sort of thing does is make it easy to dismiss a whole field of study, a field where this absolute and utter crap does not, and never will, belong.

There is nothing paranormal about a con trick.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

An aura test

I hope this works. They don't always come through.

This is a test conducted of an aura reader by James Randi. it's not a full scientific test, but then it's on TV. No audience would sit through a full test. It would take days.

The test is flawed, too. Randi states (correctly) that the aura reader would be expected to get one in five right by guessing. In the event, he gets two. Better than chance?

If he had correctly identified all five, would that be enough proof to hand over the million dollars?

Not if it was my money.

See, there's a common misconception about 'chance' in the statistical sense. I'm not knocking Randi for this (for once!). It's something that's not apparent if you don't work with statistics all the time.

The missing words are 'on average'. On average, if someone was guessing, they'd get one in five right. Sometimes they'd get none. Sometimes three. If you did this test by guesswork a hundred times, your average 'correct rate' would be one in five.

Once in a while, you might guess all five correctly. It's like the lottery - someone wins, but on average the lottery owner always comes out in profit. On average, your chances of getting all the numbers are very low indeed, but once in a while, someone will get them. Chance is not a fixed value. It's an average over a large number of tests.

So if he had correctly identified all five subjects, I'd certainly perk up, but he would have to do it again. If he can do all five, three times in a row, no mistakes, then I'd take that as proof. Proof that this one person can see auras, not proof that all aura readers can do it.

Better, do it twice more with five different people each time.

Now, let's be fair to the guy. Auras are reportedly best viewed in low light. Studio lighting is seriously bright. A dim light would be harder to distinguish, if not impossible. He didn't say that, but if he had said it on TV it would just have sounded like an excuse. So it's just as well he didn't.

So, for a scientific version, you want muted room lighting (but still enough so you'd see if there was any cheating. Better yet, let him have it as dark as he likes, but don't tell him you have an infrared camera covering the scene. Then you can be sure it's on the level.)

Then, he needs to correctly identify all five. He can't be right for four out of five - if four are right, the fifth is right by default. Three isn't good enough.

Can he do it three times in a row? Best three out of five sets? I suspect only three perfect sets in a row would satisfy the skeptics.

Of course, then you have to do it again with more aura readers.

Then you take the whole thing to another laboratory and let another scientist try to replicate it.

It's a long process, proof.

Specific things.

I think Dikkii and I have come to, if not an agreement, at least a cease-fire for the moment. So I'll take the opportunity of this lull to state exactly what aspects of the paranormal I study, what I'd be interested in studying, and what I won't touch.

I study ghosts. Both kinds. By which I mean those 'replay' phenomena in which no spirit presence is required as an explanation, and those 'interacting' phenomena which would indicate that some (often not much) intelligence functions within them. Some I currently think are human ghosts, some I currently think are non-human spirits. I have seen more than one, so I continue to work on obtaining proof, but I have no proof that would stand up to scientific scrutiny as yet. So, no concrete claims from me. I can't try for Randi's prize unless I can conjure a ghost on request. I can't, and wouldn't anyway. I'm a scientist, not a necromancer.

I don't study God, angels or demons. The ghosts I have seen, the experiences I have had, give me no reason to conclude that anyone is running the show. If there is a Heaven or a Hell, studying ghosts will not find those places. Ghosts, by definition, are still here so they haven't gone to Heaven or Hell, so there's no reason to suppose they'd know anything about either. God cannot be proven to not exist, so there is no experiment to formulate.

Evolution is not evidence of not-God, which is why I wonder at the religious determination to stamp on it. Suppose a God did make this world. He/she/it must have known it would change, age, mature. He would therefore have created life in such a way that it could adapt to those changes. I don't hold with the view that the Earth is only 6000 years old. There is too much evidence, from too many scientific disciplines, for me to take that view. I know many will disagree. But then, wouldn't it be a dull world if there was nothing to argue about? Reasoned arguments I like. Abuse I ignore. Religion, I have none.

Cryptozoology is something I would very much like to become involved with, but the difficulties I have are all practical. It would involve extensive travel, outside my budget. Getting a grant to look for something that might or might not be real is, if you'll excuse the vulgarity, as likely as staying dry while pissing into the wind. So I'd be interested, but can't get involved for practical reasons. I'm only about 100 miles from Loch Ness, but it's a very, very big body of water, other researchers are better equipped to study it than I am, and I hate boats.

You would think, since I study ghosts, that I'd be interested in mediums. Well, yes I am, but there are serious practical problems here too. Suppose a medium comes up with something that's not in the historical record. It can't be checked. Suppose they come up with something that is in the historical record. They could have looked it up beforehand. Proof is impossible, therefore study is futile. Still, if a medium can prove themselves to my satisfaction, I might make use of them in my research - but whatever they come up with will never constitute proof in itself. They might lead towards it, but they'll never be it.

Stage and TV psychics are all bunk. Evangelist TV preachers are a special case of the TV psychic. Same techniques, more profit. They fail when presented with someone thay can't get prior information on, and always succeed when they can get prior information. You know what would prove them? Years from now, you go to a psychic, and instead of coming out with the normal 'Jimmy or James', they say 'You read the writings of someone called Romulus'. How many people do you know called 'John/Jimmy/James/Dave/Doris/Doreen/Charles/Jo or Joe'? Quick straw poll - who can say they don't, and never have, known anyone by those names? I can think of several examples of each. The stage psychic's tricks have been shown up by James Randi and by Penn and Teller, to name just three (two and a half, unless Teller is standing in a hole). Which leads us to...

Magicians. I object to magicians in scientific studies, perhaps that's scientist's arrogance but that's how I feel about it. I don't object at all to magicians exposing fakes on TV. It's their study, they can run it how they like. If the claimant makes the claim on TV, then they can have no objection to being tested on TV. Those who crave TV exposure always fail. I think (opinion) that real psychics wouldn't be likely to show up on TV.

Magicians can replicate many of the physical aspects of claimed psychic powers, but that doesn't prove the psychic powers aren't real. Only that they can be replicated by trickery. As long as the magician can show how the effect was achieved, and is willing to let that be published, then they can help. If the can't reveal the trick, then there is no way to show that the subject used that trick. In that case, the subject can't be proved wrong so the experiment was pointless.

Telepathy, I've so far seen no evidence to suggest it's worth following it up with experiments. Telekinesis should be easy to prove, if it's real. It should involve no hand-waving if it's the Power of the Mind. Tricks like blowing and use of invisible strings or magnets are easy to knock down. Using massive concentration to move a pencil is worthless. I'll get up an interest in telekinesis when someone can turn a car over, or at least do something you couldn't just do with your hands.

Spoon bending. Whether it's real or not - why? Why spoons? Does the paranormal have a pathological hatred of this particular implement of cutlery? It might be real, but if it is, it seems silly. Bending keys, likewise, doesn't seem like a sensible thing to do. Bending steel girders might be useful. Until then, not interested.

There are more, but it's getting late and I think I've made the point. I study one aspect of a scientific field known as the paranormal. I don't study all of it by any means. I'm a 'woo-merchant' with a specific agenda. Actually, I quite like the term 'woo-merchant'. I should get cards printed with that on.

Homeopathy, acupuncture, faith-healing, to me come under 'alternative medicine' and are none of my business. I actually considered acupuncture once in one of my desperate attempts to kick the nicotine habit. Everyone I spoke to who'd tried it agreed on one thing. It's far from painless. So I didn't. It might still work though - 'smoke, and you'll have to come back for another session' could well be just the impetus I need.

Nah. Smoking hurts less.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A USB Christmas

Today I saw a supermarket shelf full of things to plug into the USB ports of computers.

I'm not talking printers, memory sticks, scanners, video transfer widgets. I'm talking little lights, desktop fans, tiny rocket launchers, a glitter version of the lava lamp and just about anything else you'd never think of plugging in there.

Next to these was a whole lot of solar-powered gadgetry which you can buy to reduce your use of fossil fuels. None of the solar-powered gadgets were any more useful than the USB ones, so I suppose they were there to offset the power wasted by the USB stuff.

Who buys these things? I have an office fan, sure. It can get hot here in summer. Sometimes it tops 25C/80F. It doesn't plug into my already straining, overdue-for-replacement computer. I have lights, none of which plug into the computer either. Okay, I don't have a rocket launcher but that's because I have nothing to fire little plastic rockets at. Who does, I wonder?

Christmas brings forth, every year, a multitude of 'gifts' that nobody wants to receive and nobody should buy. If someone bought me a radio-controlled Volkswagen camper van, should I be thankful? I'm more likely to think 'What the hell do you think I am? Well, anyway, thanks for another surface for my growing collection of dust.' Now, a radio controlled monster truck can be fun, or a plane, or a helicopter. But a VW camper? Who's that for? It's one stage up from a radio controlled pedestrian. (Yes, I am interested in radio control, so don't try hoaxing me with it).

A perennial favourite is the pen with a voice-recorder built in. Now, I never take notes on a voice recorder. I know some people do, but I'd guess that's because they don't have time to hunt out a pen and write it down. But if you take out this voice recorder, you're holding a pen. Just buy a damn pen. Or a voice recorder. One or the other, please.

Don't buy these 'stocking fillers'. They just deplete your bank account and bemuse the recipients. Buy something useful, or at least something entertaining.

Christmas is coming. Humbug, anyone?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

More hypothesising.

The null hypothesis argument continues...

The only problem is that aura aficionados will adhoc their way out of any failure.

Yes, they will. That doesn’t affect the results though. If the experiment shows that none of those who claim to see auras can actually do so, there will be some, probably many, who will refuse to believe it. If the results are positive, similarly there will be many who will refuse to believe it. The results will stand, all the same. I work with data, not belief, and I'd only be interested in a refutation--either way--if the critic could point to an actual error in procedure or calculation.

There are still people convinced the Earth is flat. There are still people who insist orbs are more than dust, who insist those rods aren’t a product of insects and shutter speed, and so on. Some people are fixed in their ideas and won’t listen, even when presented with proof. On both sides.


Romulus, you appear to be taking a rather micro view of the term "hypothesis" and appending it on to the term "null hypothesis".

The null hypothesis is a special case. Hypothesis is a wider term.

And while this would be consistent with Popper's evaluation of what constitutes a "good" hypothesis, such an approach does some discredit to "macro" hypotheses that also meet Popper's falsafiability test.

The null hypothesis and macro hypotheses are very different things. Falsifiability is a different thing again. The orbiting teapot is actually a good example here - if there's no way to prove the orbiting teapot isn't there, then there's no point investigating it. An experiment must have two possible outcomes, 'yes' or 'no'. If there is only one possible outcome, there's no purpose to the experiment. It must be possible to prove the 'no' as well as the 'yes'. Sometimes you find you can't prove either, but they must both have been possible at the start of the experiment. that's where falsifiability comes in. The hypotheses formulated at the start of an experiment are done after the test for falsifiability. If something fails the falsifiability test, no hypotheses are ever formulated because the experiment won't be started.

Great example - forget ghosts or bigfoot. How about Richard Dawkins' "The God Hypothesis"?

You have declared yourself agnostic. I’m a ‘don’t care’. There might be a god, there might not be. I see no way to test that short of seeing something that could only be considered a miracle. Also, there's no way to prove God doesn't exist so he fails the falsifiability test, I'm afraid. Sorry, haven’t read either side’s books on this.

We have an extraordinary claim (that God exists), a null hypothesis (that there is no evidence to suggest that He does)

Well, that’s not really a hypothesis. If you add one word to make it ‘there is no scientific evidence to suggest that he does’, it’s not a hypothesis at all. It’s a fact, and will continue to be a fact until some evidence arises. I don't mean belief, or the conversion of a rabid atheist to religion. I mean recordable data. There is none, and stating so constitutes a fact, not a hypothesis. The null hypothesis here is ‘There is no God’, and the alternate hypothesis is ‘There is a God (or Gods)’. It could be better worded, but the principle is there. It's not an insult to religion, it just means what it says. Science has no evidence to suggest there is a god.

Contrast this with scientific disapproval of the use of the word "theory" in the Discovery Institute's Theory of Intelligent Design.

Ah, the discovery institute. This week’s New Scientist has bad news for them. The peppered moth is back. But that’s a digression. Science does indeed disapprove of misuse of terminology. That's why we're arguing.

The Theory of Intelligent Design, on the other hand isn't even a hypothesis, because there's no way of declaring it invalid.

Agreed – there is no experimental structure, so they can’t formulate a null hypothesis. There is no defined test, so the idea can’t be declared either valid or invalid. They can call it a theory in the general sense of the term, but not in the scientific sense. A scientific theory is based on accumulated data, not belief. Is this relevant? It’s just another example of misunderstanding of a scientific term.

You have a misconception of the null hypothesis.

No, I haven’t. Been using it for many years, in its proper application. It’s what I do. That’ll be an appeal to something, no doubt. It’s experience, in fact.

The null hypothesis is the default position. There is no requirement to "prove" the null hypothesis, because this would not only be a pointless exercise, it is reversing the burden of proof.

No, it doesn’t reverse the burden of proof. That still lies with the claimant. The null hypothesis is an experimental tool. It’s a baseline, if you like. It represents the results you’d get if the data arose purely by chance. To reject the null hypothesis in favour of the alternate hypothesis (that there is some real effect) then the recorded data has to differ significantly from that predicted by the null hypothesis. If it does not, then the assumption must be that the data could have arisen purely by chance and is therefore nothing special. That means the null hypothesis (that there is no real effect) is proven, or accepted if you prefer the statistician’s terminology.

Take the aura test. Any test, doesn't matter. Your statistician can work out, for a given number of 'tries', how many you'd expect someone to get right just by guessing. That baseline formulates your null hypothesis; 'the results are no better than those obtained by guesswork'. You even have a graph already set up for the 'guess' data. Now, your aura-seer has to produce a significantly better-than-guess dataset to be taken seriously. At least to P<0.05, although for a claim this extraordinary you'd really want to see significances better than that.

In other words, we can "assume" the null hypothesis until such time that evidence becomes available that confirms the contrasting claim. We do not have to test the null hypothesis.

Nobody ‘tests’ a null hypothesis, because it is the test. It doesn’t have any use on its own. It’s applied to something you want to test. It isn’t testable on its own. It has a specific application in science, and is of no value as some stand-alone idea.

Of course, this does not mean that evidence that confirms the null hypothesis is not welcome.

The results, welcome or otherwise, must be accepted. Rejecting unwelcome information is not the way science works. I’m out for proof, remember, and it has to be watertight, especially given the nature of what I’m trying to prove. I can't afford to cut corners.

Your ghost example is a good one for that. But you went about this the wrong way.In your example, you are not testing for the null hypothesis at all. You are testing other possible explanations (hypotheses, even) by a filtering process in order to be able to say, "Looked for rodents - couldn't find evidence for them. Looked for flickering lights - couldn't find evidence for them."

No, I am not testing a null hypothesis at all. Nobody does. I’m testing a claimed haunting. The null hypothesis is a part of the test procedure, not the thing being tested.

Each of these has their own possible null hypothesis, although it's possible for some that the claim may in fact be the default position. In which case any other explanation becames the extraordinary claim.

Now you’re saying that each item within an investigation should have its own null hypothesis, which is a bit of a switch from an overall ‘The Null Hypothesis’, isn’t it? There’s no need for each item within an investigation to have its own hypothesis. Each investigation comprises a datapoint. There can be no statistical analysis of a single investigation. That can only be applied to a mass of accumulated data, over many investigations. There’s no need to set up each component of an investigation as an experiment in its own right, because I have only one thing to test – is it a haunting or not – and I then have to determine whether there is a ‘normal’ explanation for the observed effects. You’ve already said it looks to you like a ‘filtering’ process, well how much worse would it be if every component of an investigation had its own, separate experiment? To be honest, any scientist who set up an experiment that way would be a laughing stock.

Example: I'm on a country road and I see two bright lights shining on the road. The null hypothesis is that it is headlights. The extraordinary claim is that it is something other than headlights. If I don't assume the null hypothesis, there is a fairly great chance that I'll be run over.

Here, again, you are not assuming ‘The Null Hypothesis’, you are formulating specific null and alternate hypotheses in a specific situation. Whether you currently think the null or alternate hypotheses are correct is irrelevant to your safety though – if it’s coming towards you, whether it’s a thing with headlights or something else, it would be prudent to get out of the way. You can determine which of your hypotheses is correct as it passes.

I am intrigued to know where you are going with this. It started when I pointed out that you couldn’t apply some overall ‘Null Hypothesis’ idea to an overall question (Is there a Bigfoot) and you insisted I was wrong. Yet in your example, you apply a specific null hypothesis to a specific situation, which is the correct way to do it. Further, you now suggest I should break up one investigation into a subset of a dozen or more separate experiments, each with their own null hypotheses. That’s going too far the other way.

I could tell you how long I’ve been a scientist, how many degrees I have, how many years I spent researching and lecturing. I could tell you where to find definitions of the null hypothesis and other kinds of hypotheses, and how to detect (and avoid) the type 1 and type 2 errors associated with this approach. You will dismiss all that as ‘an appeal to authority’, ignore it, and continue to argue in circles.

Please, continue. I enjoy arguments.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Null hypothesis.

That's fine, except for the fact that some aura readers believe that everything has an aura. That, in itself is not a tight enough question.

If they claim everything has an aura, then there's nothing to test. I'd recommend a good optician because that sounds more like a sight defect than anything else.

It's all academic, since I don't study auras so won't be doing the tests. Let's deal with the other argument here.

-------------------------

This is a separate argument, by the way, on a non-paranormal subject. Nothing to do with any other argument. This argument is about the application of the null hypothesis in a scientific format and does not reflect on any points anyone has raised in any other argument.

On the 'null hypothesis', it's a common error to assume it has an overall applicability to a subject. It has a specific applicability to individual experiments.

No appeal to authority, no argument ad hominem, no 'style over substance'. The latter applies when someone tries to shoot down your argument by emphasising, say, a misspelling or the wrong use of a word or term. I haven't tried to shoot down Dikkii's argument, in fact we can agree that auras are unproven and the ability to see them, if it exists, is difficult to test. The only argument I see here is that he doesn't think it's worth trying, while I think it might be. Since I'm not planning to try, and neither is he, there's not even much of an argument at all.

I don't even have a claim to defend with those buzzword structures. All I was doing was trying to correct a common misconception about a specific component of any scientific experiment. Call it a hangover from my lecturer days, but I don't like to see incorrect interpretations of scientific terminology.

So, Dikkii, let me try again. If you have a hair you found in an area where Bigfoot is sighted, you can test it. Your null hypothesis for that test is 'the hair is from a known species'. With that in mind, you test it against every species known. Not just those indiginous to the area, because someone might have released a pet, or the hair could have been planted by a fraudster. Your null hypothesis holds true until you are certain the hair does not belong to a known species. If you find a match, the null hypothesis is proven. End of experiment.

However, 'bigfoot doesn't exist' sounds like a null hypothesis, but it isn't because there's no specific experiment to test it. 'Bigfoot doesnt exist' and 'Bigfoot exists' are, at this stage, opinions.
Better yet, let's make it 'ghosts' (because we're both of the opinion Bigfoot isn't real so we'd have nothing to argue about).

Now, your opinion is 'ghosts don't exist', mine is 'they do'. I can't prove they do, and I don't have a clear experimental protocol which would lead me to produce such proof. Likewise, you can't prove they don't - and you don't have an experimental protocol to prove that either. So neither of us can formulate a null hypothesis.

If we visit a specific site, where a haunting is claimed, then we can formulate a null hypothesis. We would both arrive at the same one, which is 'any physical effects observed have a non-paranormal explanation'.

Say the lights are flickering. Change the lightswitch, it stops. Null hypothesis proved for that case.

Scratching in the walls, accompanied by evidence of rodent infestation. Null hypothesis proved again.

Feelings of unease, shapes glimpsed from the corner of the eye - look for low frequency vibrations. Turn off the source, and if the symptoms vanish, the null hypothesis wins again.

In any such investigation, of course, the null hypothesis cannot be broken unless a ghost actually appears. In the absence of such an event, the investigation concludes 'no detectable physical explanation', but the null hypothesis is intact. The site remains of interest because the experiment was not concluded one way or the other.

Back to the bigfoot hair - again, the null hypothesis cannot be broken here because even if you don't find a match, it might be another unidentified species. No match doesn't prove it's bigfoot. However, if it's an unidentified species you can bet zoologists will carry on looking for that species, whether it's a bigfoot or a new kind of shrew.

That's how the null hypothesis works. I wasn't intending to 'have a go' at you, just correcting erroneous usage. It's a public blog, and if I let it go (and thereby tacitly agree to that usage) then my scientific credentials take a dent. It certainly wasn't any attempt to shoot you down by means of a personal attack.

I'm curious as to why, if it's not standard "use of jargon", as you describe it, you would imply that a scientist's comprehension skills are so deficient that they wouldn't be able to decipher such a simple statement?

Nobody would have any trouble working out what you meant, but what you meant wasn't a null hypothesis.

In any event, a quick search on Google brings up 18,700 hits for "assuming the null hypothesis" in quotes.

Not that many, considering there are far more than 18,700 scientists in the world. Also, it's such a common error that I'd have expected far more. Bad argument, and an appeal to Google's authority, perhaps? A good scientific/statistical textbook might be a better choice.

I would suggest that you steer clear of arguments such as these.

I never steer clear of arguments. Sometimes I start them just for fun.

You're just simply incorrect, is all.

Not this time. The null hypothesis has a specific application. It must be directly testable in an experimental format. It is not just a fancy way to say 'no it isn't'. I could direct you to a university statistics department website or two, or even Wikipedia's entry, but you'd just call that an 'appeal to authority' and ignore it. For anyone who does want to check up on me, the search term to use is 'null hypothesis definition'.

I've restricted this post to a discussion of the null hypothesis, and separated it from any other paranormal discussion so that it can't come across to anyone as if I'm trying to break an argument with semantics. In fact, I will state now that discussing the use of this term has no bearing on any of the points Dikkii has raised and is not at all a part of the arguments we are having now, or might (probably will) have in the future. This is an entirely separate argument.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Considering auras.

I get these from time to time, but I don't get the migraine headache. Just the light display. No black spot in the middle, but they blur my vision. They're a pain because I can't do anything about them. I just have to wait until they clear my vision so I can see again. Still, at least I don't get the headaches.

While sitting through one of these recently, I started wondering about the other kind of aura. The one many claim an ability to see around people.

There’s a good reason I don’t study auras. I can’t see them, and I have no way to test whether anyone else sees them.

Many people can describe an aura around a person, and the descriptions are consistent. Attempts have been made to photograph these auras but nothing has yet been convincingly shown. So, I don’t study auras.

That does not mean I dismiss them out of hand. It just means that, as yet, I can see no current way to test those who see them. I can, however, indulge in a thought experiment since it costs nothing but a little time and allows me to speculate on test devices that don’t exist yet.

Telepathy is an example of something that can be tested. I don’t think testing one telepath will do any good. I’d say you need two. There’s no reason to suppose a telepath could pick up anything I might try to send them, so no test where I look at something and expect the telepath to describe it can be valid. I’d be trying to ‘phone’ the message, when I don’t have a phone. Further, the guy with a phone, who didn’t receive the message, will get the blame.

So, take two telepaths. They can be in separate buildings. Take two copies of a set of a hundred random photos and give one copy to each. Tell them to sort them into whatever order they like, but that you want them both to come up with the same order. That’s a test, with results that can be statistically examined. All of the tests carried out so far are with one telepath, as far as I know. To me, that’s like Bell trying to test his first telephone before he’s built the second.

But how to test whether someone sees an aura? True, the human body does generate a weak electric field but I can’t see it. One possibility would be to take a group of volunteers, and four or five who can see auras. Let them examine the volunteers, separately and individually, and see if they all describe the same thing for each volunteer. The overall ‘aura’ description is well known so that doesn’t count. What you’d need to hear is that specific subjects showed colours, streaks, whatever – and they have to match.

Can it be faked? Sure. Card sharks can tell what you have in your hand by tiny markings on the backs of the cards. You don’t notice the marks, but the shark can spot them across the table. Suppose your group of aura-seers set up a code; “if the subject has a blue shirt, we all say there are red lines in his aura”, and so on. It doesn’t take many cues to make such a code. People can carry on semaphore conversations with only two flags each.

Even if they come from different areas of the country—or the world—the day before the test, it’s not possible to rule out a quick chat on the internet. So that test will never prove a thing, in that no matter how honest the experimenter and his subjects are, their honesty will be questioned. If there’s to be a way to test people’s ability to see an aura, it has to be controllable by the experimenter and cheat-proof.

First, you’d need to know what constitutes the aura these people see. Then you build a device that can generate the same thing. Starting with the body’s electric field seems reasonable to me. So you build a device that generates a field similar to that around the human body. Tweak and adjust until your subjects say they see an aura around the device. Now you have a test device, and can design a statistically-testable experiment.

The device must show no external indication whether it’s on or off. That will only be known to an operator who cannot see the experiment. Neither the subject, nor the experimenter taking notes in the room with the subject, have any idea when the machine is on.

At, say, fifteen-second intervals, the operator either turns the device on, turns it off or leaves it alone. The subject has fifteen seconds to decide whether there’s an aura or not. You’d need three runs with each subject: continuously on, continuously off and random on/off. Again, nobody but the operator knows which run is active. The operator can be a computer, for this kind of test.

Should this show that there are people who can see these electric fields as auras, then there’s a whole new study into just how they do it. Paranormal? Maybe, but there are precedents for such abilities in other species. Many marine predators ‘see’ electric fields and can track their prey using these fields. Some snakes, and some birds, detect infrared radiation and use it to track prey in the dark. How that information presents itself in their brains is unknown, but it is reasonable to assume that it’s overlaid on their overall view of the world. As what? An aura around the target animal?

Now, I know there are sceptics with the scoffometers turned up full at this point, but remember this is a thought experiment, not a claim. Remember I’m not actually talking about a paranormal ability, but an ability which has been demonstrated in other species but not, so far, in humans. Also, remember there are six billion people in the world. Are they all the same as you, with the same range of abilities as you? All identical?

I guess what you ultimately have to consider is, does evolution apply to humans or not? Are we, in terms of ability, six billion identical clones, or have a few mutants appeared from time to time, an occasional example of convergent evolution here and there? I’m not even asking ‘has it happened?’ at this stage. That question can’t be asked until after the thought-experiment device is really invented. I won’t invent it. As I said at the beginning, I don’t study auras.

I’m asking ‘is it possible?’

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The sound of silence.

Blogger is not currently sending me notifications of responses to posts. If you leave a comment, and I don't reply, I'm not ignoring you. I won't see it unless I log in here.

Also, I might not be in too much for a couple of days. I have a cold which should be abating soon. I've passed the 'face-like-a-salted-slug' stage but still have a cough that sounds like migrating geese. I'm afraid to go outside in case I find a V-formation of them behind me. Note to the ladies: we men only play these things for all they're worth when you're around. When you're not looking, we're perfectly capable of looking after ourselves.

Perhaps it's all those skeptics sending me negative vibes. Anyone know how to make a tinfoil helmet?

Anyway, I'm going to apply the tried and tested whisky treatment. I'll still have a cold, but I won't care. It's best I don't post in that condition though.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

In fairness to Randi...

Sorry, I had another espresso... Well, it's cold, wet and windy so I'm not going out tonight.

This article does not originate at the link shown. They reproduced it from somewhere else.

Now, I have no time for the way Randi works. Too much of the stage-act and not enough of the steady pace of science. However, this article borders on the insane.

I have no time for Uri Geller either. If he's making money from his alleged abilities, he should prove them. It's like me claiming I can build a wall, getting a job on a building site, and nobody ever checking whether I'd even lifted a brick. There's no indication this particular conspiracy madness originated with Geller, so I'm not laying the blame at his door.

Claiming that James Randi organised the sabotage of a psychic experiment by getting all of his 'skeptic friends' to block it, using paranormal powers none of them believe exist, is the most bizarre thing I've heard in a very long time.

I'm not a fan of Randi by any means, but this is going too far.

More ranting.

Look at this . Look at what those TV programmes are doing. And this.

The first starts out with 'We are looking for experienced investigators...', then continues through a description of the equipment provided, which includes 'meters to measure changes in frequency' (after editing out the swear words, my comment has no words left in it), motion detectors (oh, so very useful when the place is overrun with 'investigators'), thermometers (infrared no doubt. I hope they have insurance because those things have laser sighting beams) and 'devices to record EVP' (just say tape recorders, for %$*! sake!). You are encouraged to bring your own digital camera (why do they specify digital? It's the least useful kind) and night vision equipment (I guess so they can save on their lighting bill).

Right at the end you find it costs £99 per person. Naturally, you have to give back all that equipment, which means if you did record a voice, you can't keep it. There wouldn't be much point anyway. There'll be 24 of you on that little excursion. A recorded voice would be useless. You'll get orbs for sure, if you take a digital camera and have 24 people plus staff churning up dust. It's a night out on the modern equivalent of the fairground ghost train.

The second is worse. English Heritage, who look after historical buildings, have forgotten they don't actually own them and are cashing in on the popularity of the ghost hunt. All this is because of those programmes, the shows where everyone's a winner, every investigation gets a result. Just one night, and you can experience the wonders of the afterlife. Bollocks.

It's cashing in on the gullible, taking money from those who hope to contact the dead. It's exactly the same thing a stage psychic does, and it's just as deplorable.

Don't fall for it.



(okay, I'm laying off the caffiene now).

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

And now, a rant…

Televised investigations are entertainment, not science. How is anyone expected to measure subtle changes in electrical fields when the whole place is strewn with wires? Turn the power off. At the mains. And no radio mikes, please.

Infrared cameras let us see in the dark. Where’s the evidence that they can see ghosts? There is none. They can see dust, for sure. These cameras are useful to ensure you don’t fall down a hole in the dark, but why does it even have to be dark? If I can’t see my hand in front of my face, can a ghost? I use infrared in daytime, mostly, because it’s a low-effort, low-cost addition to my data. It might never show anything but it’s not costing me to collect that data. Consider: none of the reported sightings of any ghosts, ever, took place in total darkness. Also, if people see them with their eyes, then they show up in visible light. There’s no need to wander about in a black hole. Light a candle, at least. My preference is for low-power LED lights but then I’m not a traditionalist.

EMF meters are not ghost detectors. They are EMF detectors. That distinction is lost on many because of these programmes. Someone makes money out of selling them, but few people even realize that an EMF field has three dimensions, not one. Readings on one axis constitute one-third of the data. Random measurements here and there don’t constitute data at all. Tri-Field meters are designed for specific applications, and none of those applications are paranormal. They are expensive and sensitive enough to detect your pocket change moving about. You need a degree in physics even to understand how to use it!

Oh, that’s enough ranting. There is a whole mass of it on ways to deceive the human senses, but I’ll save that for later. I hope that gives enough of an impression of my approach to this to let you know I’m not just poking around with this subject. I am not going to appear on TV with anecdotal evidence, I am not going to appear in newspapers, nor am I going to attempt to publish anything until I am absolutely certain I can’t have been mistaken. I never take any report at face value. Ever.

I doubt that paper would be titled ‘Hey, I found a spook’ anyway. It’s more likely to be something like: ‘Anomalous and repeatable changes in local electric fields associated with reports of alleged paranormal activity’. Followed by something along the lines of ‘Coherence in moving electric fields within the confines of enclosed premises’. It all depends on where it leads. The ‘Hey, I found a spook’ paper is a long way off yet.

Told you I was cautious.

Oh, and I don’t charge for investigations. That does mean I can’t wander the world at will, but if I charged, I’d lose all credibility in my own eyes, never mind anyone else’s.

I know many out there don’t believe me. Good. As I said, I don’t want belief. I want to prove it. It’s going to take a lot longer this way. It’s not going to be easy. I could honestly say, at the moment, I don’t want you to believe me at all. I could say I want to be called crank, laughed at, dismissed. Why would I want that?

Do you have any idea how many investigation groups those TV programmes have spawned? They’re everywhere. Some are set up well, most are just a bunch of folk who think it’ll be fun to wander around an old house at night. Old houses are dusty. They have cameras with built-in flash. Those damned orb photos just keep coming. So I don’t want you to believe me because I really don’t want to be responsible for any more of those groups. There are too many already and their output, while prodigious, contains so much crap that if any of them did catch something real you’d never find it. Some think those TV programmes are great publicity for investigators of the paranormal. They are not. They make a joke of the subject. Science is not a game show. Set up a group of your own if you like, but spend a lot of time checking what’s already been shown to be wrong before you start. Please, no more orbs.

Should I ditch all this and go for easy money? Oh, I could. With what I learned from the mediums I could do as good a job as any on TV and make a fortune by lying to vulnerable people. That would be easy. I’d be working in warm, well-lit places all the time. I’d never be scrabbling around under floorboards checking for rodent droppings. I wouldn’t be the one saying ‘You don’t need an exorcist. You need a plumber/electrician/pest control’. I’d never be sat in tumbledown buildings in the cold, hoping it wasn’t going to finish tumbling down while I was inside it. Yes, the stage psychic game would be an easier, richer and more pleasant life. There’s no shortage of gullible idiots on this planet. But it would be living a lie.

I won’t live a lie.

More discussion.

More response to Dikkii. This argument's petering out, I think. Anyone else want to chime in?


...you’re going to have to make some calls that you won’t like.

This includes acceptance of more mundane explanations for anything other than repeatable sightings.


I do that all the time. I’m not at all interested in orb sightings, and those rods had been demonstrated to be insects before I even found out about them. You assume I’m starting from the premise that every investigation is a real haunting. I am not. I start looking for alternative explanations from the moment I hear the first report. Flickering lights? Check the wiring in the switch first. That’s very common among older UK houses. You can ‘exorcise’ that one with a screwdriver.


In other words, you are, for example, going to have to explain how you are 100% convinced that someone wasn’t, for example, hallucinating when they saw something.

I can’t be convinced about that. Ever. Someone else’s sighting might lead me to look into the matter, but there needs to be more than one sighting, and by different people. One thing I have in common with Randi, I suppose – you won’t convince me 100% unless I see it for myself. Except I’m not offering a million dollars.


Explaining why you are 100% convinced that there was no hoaxes perpetrated.

That takes a looong time. Example: nowadays I’m not much interested in those hotel haunts unless it’s really spectacular. Haunts are good for business, and in a hotel there are too many rooms and cupboards for someone to hide in and tap the walls, or moan through the vents. That doesn’t mean all their ghosts are fakes, of course, but it means it’s extremely hard to be certain there’s no fakery going on. Almost impossible to reach 100% certainty, I’d say. With no chance of reaching certainty, there's no point investigating. Hotels will need a full apparition, seen by multiple people, before I'll pay for a room.


Optical illusions, corneal imperfections, lights, mirrors, carbon monoxide poisoning etc. You have to explain away each of these possibilities explicitly. Even then, you won’t catch all of them.

Optical illusions are extremely common. Lens flare, film imperfections, a leaky camera (red lines on film, usually), reflections from dust, breath, mirrors, and any other polished surface, floaters in the eye (I have these so I recognize the symptoms), too slow shutter speed so moving lights form streaks… the list grows by the day. Digital cameras have caused a flood of new artifacts. Doesn’t make life easy.


You should immediately dismiss anything that is not regularly repeated.

Your comments suggest that you think I, and anyone else interested in the subject, is a gullible idiot. I’ve covered all these points and more on the blog. I’ve even documented a couple of my own ‘failures’, although they weren’t failures from a scientific point of view. I found an explanation, there was a conclusion, it just wasn’t paranormal.


You also have to accept that you are prone to error and that you can be affected personally by, for example, the four H's - hysteria, hypnogogia, hoax and hallucination. I personally get the odd hypnogogic hallucination from time to time, but I only have myself to blame for that.

Me? Prone to error? Seriously, I’ve never had an hysterical reaction to anything, but I’ve seen many. There’s also the common mistake that I made myself in my early days – going out for a night’s investigation after a full and active day. Very, very bad idea. By dawn, everything looks alive. Hypnogogia occurs as you fall asleep or wake up, but fatigue can cause hallucinations, and worse, it can make you very open to suggestions. I’ll post about that – it happens a lot. Hoax, I think I’ve made my position clear on that one.


We all hear so much about haunted houses. I lived in one for 5 years. Didn’t hear so much as a bump in the night. But the previous occupants swear blind that ghostly apparitions regularly appeared on an almost weekly basis. You have to accept that people can and do make exaggerated claims.

Well, of course I accept that. I’ve already said as much. Every story gets embellished because, let’s face it, a set of footsteps doesn’t sound too impressive. Easily explained by cooling structures in any building. So you get ‘it touched me’, which often you can replicate by simple and definitely non-paranormal means. Okay, it doesn’t prove the subject wasn’t touched, but it does show that they could have mistaken something simple for a touch. Ever sat in front of your computer and felt a touch to your head? A lock of hair shifting will do that. I will admit to a certain malicious delight in pretending to call up the ghost, and asking for a repeat touch on the subject (who has their eyes closed). I always admit it afterwards, naturally.

I’m not going to ask where the house is because from what you say, it’s not going to be interesting. If I found it while the previous occupants were in place, I’d have to find out a lot about them. Do they drink? Take drugs? Have they placed heavy furniture against a non-supporting wall? When did they last bleed the radiators? Many, many questions before I settle in for a night. I actually have a radiator bleed key in my equipment case, because I’m amazed at how many people don’t realize you need to do that.



All of this is mandatory before you can even begin to consider your classic (or even non-standard) ghost story. And when you do, it has to be repeatable.

I think we’ve come full circle. You’re not saying anything I haven’t already answered.


Even then, only a demonstration in front of skeptical bunch of onlookers will convince anyone.

Exactly true. I started out debunking fake mediums. It was easy work, daytime, in warm places. I could have carried on, there are plenty left and now they’re even on the TV. Then I experienced just such a ‘demonstration’.

I’ve experienced more since. No point going into details because just like photos or videos, relating a singlet observation proves nothing. It’s bad science. All it would do is let you label me ‘credulous woo-merchant’, and that would be a reasonable thing to do in those circumstances.

My position is currently this. I know there’s something that science hasn’t documented that’s capable of producing inexplicable events. It’s capable of producing an image of a human, and of interacting with people. My working hypothesis, based on my own observation, is that these are dead people. I can’t produce proof of any of the above so am wide open to anyone who wants to have a little chortle behind their fingers. Can’t be helped.

It’s a phenomenon. I’ve experienced it. I’m a scientist, have been for a long time. I can’t just let it go. Sure, I might go to my grave without finding proof, although then I’ll know for certain but it’ll be too late to tell anyone. Perhaps my funeral will be surrounded by chortlers. Perhaps my headstone will read ‘Here lies Romulus Crowe. He was nuts.’ Too bad. I’ve observed something unusual and I’m not going to just drop it.

If you haven’t observed anything like it yourself, then sure, go ahead and call me a gullible moron. Why not? I used the term an awful lot myself in the past, on an awful lot of people. Turns out one or two weren’t quite as gullible as I thought. Most still are.

The problem is, even if I could arrange a demonstration to a bunch of skeptical onlookers, I would only convince those present. If you weren’t present, you wouldn’t believe them, no matter who they were. If I did this, and Randi was present, and convinced, what do you think the skeptics would say?

‘Romulus Crowe, the man who finally Proved IT’, or

‘Romulus Crowe, the man who managed to fool James Randi’.

Be honest. Which would you say?

I could go that route. I could set myself up as some kind of evangelist skeptic-convincer and drag you all out on investigations, one by one, until you see something. That could take a long, long time, and what would be the point? You might be convinced, but who’s going to believe you? Showing people one at a time is a daft way to proceed.

Slow and steady accumulation of data. Filtering out the definite crap, of which there is an extraordinary amount. Both eyes always open in case of hoax, because some are very, very good. Every day brings a new possibility of mistaken identity or misunderstanding. The list of ‘wrong’ grows, and eventually I’ll have it whittled down to the remaining ‘very likely’ instances.

That’s when the real work will start.

Monday, December 03, 2007

The Rules of the Game.

Dikkii's really keen to get hold of Randi's million dollars. Unfortunately, I can't help. Still, I did go through the rules of Randi's challenge, just to see.


Now to those rules. I see they’ve been updated since last I browsed his site (yes, I do go there occasionally. He has more information than he realizes in there).

Rule 1 is pretty much a rule I’d impose myself. No argument there.

Rule 2 is also fair, but it has implications for my line of work. Only an actual demonstration will do. If you can demonstrate telepathy or telekinesis, something along those lines, you’re in with a chance. I’d have to present him with a full-form apparition. Photos won’t do, nor video, nor sound. Only the real thing will win the game.

Rule 3. Statisticians and experimental design – fine – and he cares nothing for the mechanism. How it works doesn’t matter to him, he just wants proof that it does. I don't agree with that attitude, but can't argue with the rule.

Rule 4 is a killer. Everything in that experiment is the property of Randi. You can’t argue with that – he’s paid you a million dollars for it, after all. Still, it means you’ve just sold your proof to him. He’s a smart one – if nobody succeeds, he keeps the money. If anyone wins, he gets the proof to profit from in any way he chooses. At a bargain price, I think.

Rules 5 and 6 – no argument from me. The preliminary test is to make sure he’s not going to be forever wasting his time wandering the globe. Fair enough.

Rule 7. The applicant pays all costs. If I have to ship Randi and possibly others from the US to the UK, and provide full room and board, then that’s going to make a dent in that million dollars before I even start. I do see his point. He can’t be running around the world at his own expense every time a crank claims he can levitate cutlery. Still, it cuts down the value of that money.

Rule 8. No legal action of any kind, ever. Sounds okay, but it does give him carte blanche to call you any name he wants in the press, and you can’t touch him for it. There is no reciprocal arrangement. I guess you could insist on it, in the interests of fairness.

Rules 9, 10 and 11, cash and form details. Nothing that needs any comment.

Rule 12. You must have a ‘media presence’. Your abilities or claims must have been reported in the press somewhere. Hmm. Precisely what I’d avoid doing. If I put all my info up on the blog, much less in a newspaper, I’d blow my chances of getting into a good journal. It counts as published, and journals need to be first with the news, not second. None of the big journals would touch something that’s already in the public domain.

The remaining rules are technical details, nothing to argue about.

Well, I can’t meet rule 12 unless I forget about later publication. I would have problems with rule 2 – I can’t guarantee an apparition, nor that everyone present will see it. That latter issue could be taken care of by agreeing that, say, fifty percent of those present are able to see at least fifty percent of a figure. But I still can’t guarantee one will show up.

Rule 4, well I’m not going to agree to that. No way. So I rule myself out of this competition on that point alone.



In fact, I'd put it to you that you would have a harder time passing peer-review than winning Randi's challenge.

Very likely true. That’s how I do things though, the methodical, non-sensational way.



I'm not going to make that call either. But what I will do is this: Can I have the evidence you've compiled? I'd rather like Randi's money. I promise that I'll keep your name secret, as you don't appear to want to go near the public domain?

Evidence won’t cut it with that competition. You have to demonstrate an actual event. Photos, recordings, videos, none of them will win it. I can’t complain about that because as I’ve said, there are ways to fake all those things. Evidence is not proof. It won’t cut it in a publication at this stage either. So I’ll wait and collect data, and look for a way to produce incontestable proof. I don’t want to make the same mistake Benveniste did. Nothing gets out until I’ve checked, double-checked and then checked all over again.

Mistakes happen. It's really only just occurred to me that a videotape might retain a previous image. Tom's comment that he's experienced a similar effect with audio tape is going to make a good few EVP-collectors bang their heads off the wall. There are likely to be other sources of error out there, and I need to know them all.

It won’t be easy. Suppose I invented a machine that could trap, dissect and analyse a ghost? That would lead to proof, sure, but also to serious ethical issues. If ghosts are human spirits, then it’s a form of torture. Even if they’re not, if I were to do that while working on the assumption that they are, then I’d be in a serious ethical dilemma anyway. I wouldn’t know if I was right or wrong until the ghost was in pieces, and what then? Can I reverse what I did? Do I just say ‘Sorry’ and send him on his way? Even if it turns out to be something non-human, if it was in any way intelligent then it’s no different to tormenting people.

That machine would win Randi’s competition. But I couldn’t use it, even if it existed. Okay, my assumption of dead-people is restricting my actions, but if I assume the opposite--that all phenomena are non-human and therefore fair game for any kind of dissection--then what happens if they turn out to be human after all? It's better to take the cautious approach. Yes, it takes longer but the options are simple. Do it faster, or do it properly.

One gadget high on my wish-list is a device than can detect, for example, the energy fields that define the presence of such a spirit. Electrical, magnetic, some other form, a combination, who knows? Yet. Then I can track them. I can work out whether they are permanently around or whether they are transient. Do they just vanish from sight, or do they disappear altogether? I’ll know where to concentrate investigations. From my point of view, that would at least mean a lot less time spent in cold and damp places on the off-chance that somebody’s sighting might be real.

Just think – at the moment, every investigator is doing just that. Spending a lot of time in places where hauntings are reported, and finding nothing at all at least 90% of the time. When something comes up, the effect doesn’t hang around too long. What if you could follow the effect, or what if you could scan a building to see if there’s a particular ‘signature’ set of localized fields before you set up for the night? That 90% timewasting rate immediately drops to, perhaps, 10%. All those investigators would be spending 90% of their time collecting data rather than spending 90% of it catching colds.

So, what fields? Which wavelengths? What meter(s) to use? Range? Sensitivity? The answer to all that can only come from an accumulation of data, and unfortunately that’s only getting collected 10% of the time, or less. Much less since most people buying things like EMF meters don’t really know what they’re measuring. Eventually, though, there’ll be enough.

Finally, sorry, no. I’m not going to throw all that data around just yet. I don’t even know which parts are the most important, and which are going to eventually end up binned. Besides, it would do you no good. To win Randi’s prize in this field, you’ll have to show him a ghost.

That's especially difficult if you don't believe they exist.

Remembering water.

Dikkii's good at setting me off on rants. Mentioning Certain Names can do that...

[An appeal to impartiality.]

I've looked here and here, and I can't find this particular logical fallacy. Could you tell me whether it's known as something else?

[I’d rather have my data checked by someone who doesn’t have an agenda.]

OK. Now we have an appeal to motive - this may not in itself be a fallacious argument, however, Randi has deliberately (and explicitly) made every step of the Randi Challenge transparent in order to ensure that this allegation can never be made.

I have the impression you think scientists are derived from some Vulcan-like race of purely logical beings. We’re human, with human faults. You won’t believe how petty things can get in academia, how high arrogance can reach, how low deviousness can go. You must have experienced ‘office politics’ – imagine it when every participant is educated to PhD level. The plots I’ve seen hatched… You have to watch your back all the time.

Scientists are human. I’ve never met Randi, and have no wish to, because I'm human and one of the things humans do is take a dislike to people. It's not always purely on logical grounds, although he has done some absolutely disgraceful things in my opinion. One example – do you remember the ‘Memory of Water’ hullabaloo? In the interests of fair play, here’s a page against and a page for the idea.

Jacques Benveniste, a talented scientist, reported in Nature that water was capable of retaining a ‘memory’ of something that had been dissolved in it, even after dilution to the point where none of the compound could be left. My own objection to this was that none of the original water should be left either, but since I have only a basic grounding in chemistry, I can't judge.

You’d think, faced with such a claim, Nature would have checked. They didn’t, they published it because the data looked sound. Then there was one of those meetings of brown stuff and fan. Homeopathy was ecstatic. Science was horrified.

Well, Nature arranged to send a delegation to the good doctor’s laboratory. He agreed to this test because he expected his method to work. It had worked many times before. The idea was simple: they prepared three flasks of water, one of which had been treated as described in the method, the other two were just ordinary water. That’s a ‘blind’ experiment – Benveniste, and indeed most of the 'testers', had no idea which flask contained which sample – and it’s the ideal way to carry out any experiment, wherever possible. If Benveniste’s experiment was right, if he had made no mistakes, if there had been no contamination of his samples, then he should be able to find the treated one.

You’d think that a group of scientists and a representative from Nature would be enough to deal with this, but they took Randi along.

The information on which flask contained which sample was in a sealed envelope. Sealed before Benveniste could have seen it, so he couldn’t possibly cheat. Enough?

No, Randi insisted on taping the envelope to the ceiling. A serious study turned into a circus. Surely it would have been enough to keep the envelope in someone’s pocket? Or did he think scientists are capable of picking his pocket, steaming open the envelope, then resealing it without leaving a trace and putting it back?

Randi had gone in there not with the premise that Benveniste might have made a mistake, but that he was a deliberate fraud and was likely to tamper with that envelope, given half a chance. Further, he didn’t trust the other scientists, or even the Nature guy, with that envelope either. It was an unnecessary, childish, and grossly insulting act.

In the event, Benveniste’s experiment failed. So Randi chalked up another ‘debunking’. Benveniste’s career and reputation took a beating (to be fair, he really should have had someone else look at that data before sending in the first paper, but that’s hindsight for you). Still I wonder what would have happened had it worked? There were many dark mutterings about Randi’s Vaudeville version of the controlled experiment as it was. Really, there was no need for him to be there at all. And certainly no need to insult those present with that act.

That’s one example. I have others.

I don’t like the way he works. It’s more in tune with the stage than the laboratory, and that’s something I really want to stay clear of. This subject gets quite enough of that, thanks, and it doesn’t help.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Any video buffs out there?

I have a question and I don't know where to find the answer. What I need here is someone who knows all there is to know about videotape technology.

Here's the question. When you reuse a tape, is the previous recording always erased completely? Are there any circumstances, ever, where a previous image might show as a faint overlay on the new recording? Or is it an absolute that the previous recording is definitely gone for ever, and no trace of it could remain?

It's an important matter to me, because it would mean that every investigation would need a fresh tape. No re-use. Expensive, but if it's necessary, I'll do it. Or maybe I could dump all the tape-driven cameras and use hard-disk ones instead. They can't have this problem. Or can they? What about those solid-state ones that use memory cards? Surely reformatting the disk or the card would clean everything off it?

Anyone know?

Responding to Skepticism: 4.

I note towards the end of your post you agree that skepticism is vital and that you support it. This is good. But I will remind you that the opposite of skepticism is credulous gullibility. Don't fall into the trap of believing everything you read or hear.

I believe nothing. I’m always looking for alternative explanations. There might be an absolutely perfect ghost photo or video out there somewhere, among all those pictures of camera straps, breath and dust. I’ll look at them all but always with that ‘What else could it be?’ thought. Most times there is an answer. Once in a while there isn’t an obvious answer. That might be paranormal, or it might be something I haven’t thought of. I haven’t found a ‘Yes!’, but I’ve found quite a few ‘Maybe’.

Like the Valentown ghost footage. I couldn’t immediately see how it could have been faked, but commenters pointed out how it could be done. Looking into it, there are other ways it could have been done. That does not mean it was faked, but it does mean it could have been. It’s a ‘maybe’. It’s not proof because, even if it’s genuine, there are ways to reproduce it using technology. Proof will only be proof when there is no way to fake it. The trouble is, as video technology progresses, it’s getting easier to fake images and therefore harder to use images as proof. Levitating objects appear in movies all the time. I can’t see the strings, and I’m looking for them. Making things float around, making men appear to fly – easy. So faking a film of an outline of a man is no effort at all, which means a genuine film won’t stand up as proof.


Why not look for bosons and gravitons? At least we can see worthwhile applications.

I’m not a physicist. I’m interested in the subject but I have no training in that field. They’re not likely to let me near a cyclotron. What are the applications for bosons and gravitons, anyway? If they’re ever found, they’re already doing what they do. They’ll give particles mass and stick them together whether we find them or not. I had the impression that the search for these particles was a matter of making equations balance. Nothing wrong with that, it’s what science should be doing in my view, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to an application.


Ghosts - well no one has even managed to define one for research purposes, yet. Let alone find usefulness for them.

That’s the catch-22. We can’t define what a ghost is made of until we study one. We can’t study their nature until we have a machine that can detect them. We can’t make the machine until we know what to detect—what they’re made of. It’s not an unusual situation. Most of the things science studies start out that way. We pick at it and pick at it until we get hold of a loose thread, then we start unravelling.

Unfortunately, most of the first threads just come away in our fingers. Ectoplasm, it turns out, is a load of crap. Invented by fake mediums in the nineteenth century. A dead end (excuse pun) and not the only one. There is still no substance we can analyse to work out what we're investigating. I hope there will be, in my lifetime and hell yes - I hope I'm the one to find it. That's not going to happen if I stop, if I retrain in physics and join the boson hunt. Would that be any improvement anyway? Perhaps the boson won't be found in my lifetime either.

Usefulness? I'm not looking for a use. I'm looking because I want to know, and because I want to prove. If that leads to some sort of application, well and good, but it's not my aim.

Responding to Skepticism: 3.

That's like saying you can't be a movie critic unless you've directed a movie or that you can't write a blog post on Santa impersonators unless you've been one. In other words, an extremely poor argument and an appeal to authority to boot.

An appeal to impartiality. I’d rather have my data checked by someone who doesn’t have an agenda. When a scientist submits a paper for publication, it goes to peer review. Someone who works in the same field looks it over – and yes, they are looking for flaws. That’s their job. They are not, however, starting with the premise that the entire subject is a load of cobblers. They look for missing details, and if they find any, they send the paper back with notes. It’s a useful procedure since it’s easy to miss something when you’re immersed in an experiment.

The scientist then responds by plugging the gaps – further experimentation to cover the details raised by the reviewer. Or, if the reviewer has misread the work, the scientist revises the paper and points this out on resubmission. It might come back again with more notes. Getting a paper into print can be a long process, and nobody else knows anything about it until it’s in print.

If someone sends data to Randi, it’s in the public domain immediately. He’ll find a flaw, publicise it, and that’s that.

I have nothing against the man, really. It’s his million dollars and he can impose whatever conditions he likes on who he gives it to. But it’s not peer-reviewed science, it’s not a publication in Nature by any means. It’s a competition. I’m not interested. Why blow any chance of a Nobel prize by throwing something so momentous into the public domain, without proper peer review? No, a million isn't enough for that.


Lastly, I simply don't believe that you (or anyone) would pass up USD 1 million if all that was a required was to complete the cc field in an email. I hope that you don't mind me calling you on this one.

Well, let’s put it in perspective. A million dollars sounds like a lot of money. That’s about 500,000 UK pounds. Still sounds a lot. Houses in the cities of the UK routinely go for more than that. I can’t retire on that amount of money – not at 5% interest less tax, national insurance etc. These days, half a million pounds is, say, a small house in a village somewhere and a good second-hand car. Not much change left to live on.

To get it, I’d have to dump all my carefully-accumulated scientific ideals and enter a public competition. A competition where the judge wants me to fail. I’m not interested. If I ever find proof, I’ll go through proper scientific review channels.

It's rather more than sending an Email. Should I ever find real proof, and I might never get it, it will represent years of work. Years of sitting in cold and miserable locations, and most of the time with nothing to show for it. Years of being told I'm a crackpot for trying. I'm not going to hand over the results of all that work to a publicity-grabbing competition. Does that sound snooty? Perhaps it is, but I'll leave that million dollars on the table anyway. It's not why I'm doing this, and it's not what I expect to get at the end of it - if there is an end.

Responding to Skepticism: 2.

Another question from Dikkii...

On ghosts: yes, you should stop trying. They fail the usefulness test - what possible applications would ghosts have once you found them?

These are people, remember. Many living people fail the usefulness test, but we don’t brush them aside. We look after them, we even give them jobs as administrators and politicians. Besides, I dispute your test of usefulness. One of many schisms in science centres on the debate of consciousness. What is it? Where is it? Well, we all think it’s in our heads because that’s where we experience it, so that’s a good place to start looking.

Some believe that consciousness is a purely physical matter, derived from chemical reactions and electrical impulses in the brain. But they can’t prove it. Others believe that consciousness operates through the brain but can exist independently of it. They can’t prove it either. Until one or the other finds proof, the debate will continue. There is a third possibility – that both are right. Consciousness may indeed be formed through chemical and electrical activity, but what form does it take? Does it die when the brain does, or does it continue? Now, I know you’re going to say ‘It dies when the brain dies’, and I’m going to say ‘Prove it’. You can’t. I can’t prove the opposite.

Perhaps it happens that way. Perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps it sometimes happens and sometimes not. There’s only one way to know for sure at the moment. It’s a drastic step and a pointless one – if you died, and found that you did indeed still have consciousness, nobody in science will listen to you. A medium might, but that doesn’t help because science won’t listen to him or her either.

You could give the medium details of your life. If they are such intimate details that nobody can verify them, they prove nothing. If they are verifiable, the medium could have looked them up. Again, not proof.

It’s been tried. Earlier this century, an experimental procedure called cross-correspondences was applied to test whether the mind survived death. Participants agreed to send specific messages via mediums after their death (if possible, of course) and those left alive would collect these. The messages were coded, so the mediums would have no idea what they meant. Remember, they didn’t automatically believe the mediums were real either, so they didn’t use messages that a medium could get from cold reading.

Did it work? The answer is a resounding and disappointing ‘maybe’. The codes were so well done that those compiling them were dismissed with ‘Oh, you’re just taking random words and stringing them together’. Mediums were accused of using telepathy – which is odd because skeptics don’t believe in that either (I haven’t experienced it or studied it myself). Interest in the experiment faded after about 1935, because we were all a bit busy after that, and it was never revived. It takes a lot of setting up, and if nobody’s going to accept the results anyway, well, it’s difficult to find researchers willing to literally die for something that’s going to be ignored, and no scientist wants to be remembered as a kook.

There are a lot of references on the internet. Here’s a random one – I don’t endorse any of the views on any of the sites, I picked this one because it’s fairly complete. It's not unbiased but then I've never seen one that is, one way or the other. If people didn't have strong feelings on the subject they wouldn't go to the trouble of putting up websites.

A last note on the usefulness test. Science, in its true guise, is not interested in application. There's very little of that form of science left, now that even universities are run as businesses, but that's how it once was. They used to chase knowledge. Now they are forced to chase money. It's one of the reasons I'm not keen to go back.

Application came later. Knowledge was first. I doubt Einstein considered that his theories could be applied to produce atomic bombs. If he had, he might well have kept them to himself, and that would have held physics back by many years. On the other hand, we might not now be worried about getting vapourised in a flash. Knowledge leads to application, not the other way round, but there are also consequences to consider. Those are not always predictable.

More to follow.