Monthly Archives: October 2010

Final talks of 2010

Over the next few months a few BARsoc members will be delivering talks up and down the UK about a range of topics, it’s worth popping along if one of the talks is in your are.

Hayley Stevens will be talking at Oxford Skeptics in the Pub on November 9th with a lecture called “I’m a ghost hunter; get me out of here!” that looks at ghost research through the eyes of a skeptic from the inside of the research field.The venue is to be confirmed at the moment but check here for details.

Trystan Swale will also be delivering a talk on November 9th for the Nottingham Skeptics in the Pub called ‘Breaking the crop circle’ that offers an insight into the bad science, poor reasoning and denialism of those who still choose to believe. The talk will take place from 7:30pm at Fellows Morton and Clayton, Canal Street in Nottingham.

On November 21st Ashley Pryce will be deliverying his talk “An Introduction to Skepticism” for ‘part of Glasgow Skeptics in the Tron (formerly Skeptics in the Palace). You can read more about it here.

On December 16th Hayley Stevens will be delivering her “I’m a Ghost hunter; get me out of here!” talk again, but this time to the Merseryside Skeptics in the Pub. The talk will take place at The Vines on Lime Street in Liverpool from 7:30pm.

On December 20th Peter Harrison will be delivering a talk for the Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub called ‘The science of Lucid Dreaming’. This talk covers the reality of lucid dreaming, the scientific evidence and experiments in this interesting field, and the abundant myths and misunderstandings. You will also be shown how you too can take control of your dreamscape. The talk will take place at The Promised Land, Windsor Place, Cardiff from 7:30pm.

Finally, on December 21st Ashley Pryce will be talking at Leicester Skeptics in the Pub on ‘How to be a Psychic Conman’. You can find more details on this talk here.

We hope you can attend some of these talks. There are more talks lined up for 2011 so be sure to check back for more information in the new year.

 

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Breaking the glass divination myth

Written by Allyson

What is glass moving, what is its function and does it do what it’s supposed to?

For quite some time now people have associated glass moving or “divination” with contact from the spirit world. But how do we know this is the real deal?

Read the rest of this entry

Does York woman’s photo reveal ghostly image of UFO? No.

On Thursday 23rd September 2010 an article appeared in a York local newspaper called The Press that centred upon the photograph below taken by a woman called Abbey while on holiday in Nuremberg.

In fairness to the owner of the photograph she does say that she could not explain the image and would like help. So, I thought I would help her.

I’m as sure as I can be that it is one of these:

google images

The article quotes:

“I was taking lots of photos to show people where we’d been, but when I got back into the car I noticed there was something on this one,“ said Abbey, who is currently studying at Newcastle University “I just though, ‘What it that? That looks weird’, and couldn’t work out what it was.”

“I thought it looked like a cherub,” said Bev, Abbey’s mother. “I also thought it looked a bit like a naked Buzz Lightyear toy, but could be a bee or an insect or something.”

This is a cherub

google images

This is buzz lightyear from the Pixar film ‘Toy Story’.

google images

The image is very clearly an example of the Pareidolia effect. The photograph appears to have been taken through a window of a building and the ‘fly’ as I will call it was high above the streets, close to the window which gives the impression that it is further away and larger than it is.

What are you most likely to see in the sky? A fly? A chubby faced innocent child? or Buzz Lightyear, a fictional character from the film Toy Story?

An even more worrying (and completely unrelated) statement is made at the end of the article:

Looking into the region online, Bev found there had been a fatal crash at an airshow near Nuremberg earlier this summer.

“There was a crash on September 5 where one person was killed and nearly 40 injured. It’s really odd,” said Bev.

I have no idea what association this has with a photograph of a fly but this inference seems to be an attempt to add some spiritual meaning to the photograph. I find this quite shocking and completely unsubstantiated.

You may wonder why I am wasting my time writing about a silly photograph in a local newspaper and I will explain.  These types of articles are very common and the media is powerful in influencing beliefs, and beliefs which are not reality tested can be dangerous.

I was in my local farm shop recently browsing the shelves when a very sweet little girl approached me and we struck up a conversation about the unusual vegetables on sale. During the conversation she pointed to the ceiling and asked me ‘is that a fairy’? I don’t have children and probably gave the wrong answer in terms of how one should communication with children to encourage their imagination, but I said the first thing that came into my head which was ‘no , its a fly’ (which it was!).

I like to think that I have sent that child on her path to rational thinking but I suppose I ruined her fantasy too. What harm is belief? Well, I think it is an essential aspect of human thinking to believe but I also think that blind believing can be dangerous to the psyche.  In order to explain this more serious point I would like to detail how I believe beliefs are formed.

Beliefs oscillate at all levels of consciousness in response to stimuli and are constantly interacting with the world around us. Many beliefs are developed in childhood as the child attempts to make sense of the world using somewhat limited powers of reasoning. As adults our mental health depends on our ability to reality test beliefs. If we cannot do this with any certainty then we become very vulnerable and impressionable, and will take on board others’ views of ourselves and of the world, treating all information as fact.

Hence, to give a crude example, an individual who has poorly developed powers of rationalism and is told by a parent that they are stupid, will take this assertion on board as fact, in other words form a belief that they are stupid and have no means to consider otherwise. Likewise, assertions in the media, for example, that the world will end in 2012 or that world leaders are aliens (thank you for that one David Icke) will be blindly believed in by individuals who have insufficent rational powers.

This sort of belief can and does lead to serious mental health problems. Beliefs are intricately constructed, largely outside of consciousness with influences from deep within the psyche and one’s experience of the outside world. When we do not learn to reality test information as we receive it, we form blind beliefs. This means that amongst other influences, our relationship with the material we read and see in the media has the power to directly influence our beliefs.  Beliefs have to be conscious before we can examine them, and without this essential process of rational thinking we are just naive.

Perhaps, you might think I am writing here about a small minority of people. As a psychotherapist with over 10 years of experience in supporting people with emotional distress of all severities I can tell you that damaging beliefs are present in every single one of the people I have worked with in the form of anything from poor self esteem to full blown psychotic delusion.

In healthy development, during our interactions with others, we develop the capacity to mentalize (Fonagy, 2006, p. 81). We learn that our views are subjective. This is an incredibly important skill which I will stick my neck out and say is often not present in those with a disregard for skepticism. I do not at all wish to say that Abbey or her mother have no powers of rationalism. I couldn’t possibly say this as I do not know them and I am certain that the newspaper has done them no favours in their presentation of this story. However, I do think that this article is just one example of the power of the media to create ridiculous beliefs.

“Belief systems arise within an interpersonal matrix and thus will be directly or indirectly relational in their assumptions” (Horner, 1997, p. 76).

The point that Horner makes so succinctly here is that our relationships with one another as a society influences our beliefs in a massive, unguarded way.  Not only do we form beliefs in relational interactions but we cognitively hold beliefs and guard them in order to protect the psyche from the loss of certainty which is inherent in life. Awareness of beliefs as beliefs furnishes the individual with the opportunity to reality test and re-evaluate beliefs. The media acts as a medium for persuasion because it is seen to be an authority. Herein lies the importance of scepticism.

References

Bentall, R. P. (2003). Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature.  London: Penguin Books.

Britton, R. (1998). Belief and imagination. London: Routledge.

Fonagy, P. (2006). The mentalization-focused approach to social development. In J. Allen, & P. Fonagy (Eds.), Handbook of mentalization based treatment (pp. 53-77). London: Wiley.

Freud, S. (1955b). Group psychology and the analysis of the ego. In J. Strachey (Ed. and Trans.), The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, (Vol. 18, pp. 69-143). London: The Hogarth Press. (Original work published 1921).

Hinshelwood, R. D. (1987). What happens in groups: psychoanalysis, the individual and the community. London: Free Association Books Ltd.

Horner, A. J. (1997). Belief systems and the analytic work. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 57, 75-79.

Jacobs, M. (2000). Illusion: A psychodynamic interpretation of thinking and belief. London: Whurr Publishers.

Roe, C. A. (1999). Critical thinking and belief in the paranormal: A re-evaluation. British Journal of Psychology, 90, 85-98.

Smith, M. D., Foster, C. L., & Stovin, G. (1998). Intelligence and paranormal belief: Examining the role of context. Journal of Parapsychology, 62, 65-77.

The flaws of hair analysis: Longleat Leopard

A while ago I took part in a tracking session in Longleat forest with a group of cryptozoology researchers. We were looking for signs of a big cat being in the area after several eyewitnesses reported seeing a cat in the area of the forest.

The one thing found in the forest that was of interest was a single dark coloured hair that was found on a wire fence in the forest by three of the cryptozoology researchers who were joined by my younger brother, Charlie.

This hair was bagged up as “potential evidence” and taken away and after returning home I thought nothing more of it. A few weeks after the discovery of the hair the cryptozoology researchers that had been with us on the day were attending a conference called “The Weird Weekend” hosted by the CFZ (Centre for Fortean Zoology).

While at the conference they got Lars Thomas, a well-known cryptozoologist, to identify the hair on a piece of equipment he had at the conference that was designed to examine hairs and similar.

He did so and declared that it showed signs of being a leopard hair. the cryptozoology researchers got excited and saw this as evidence that there may be a big cat in Longleat Forest. However, I wasn’t as keen as them to make that assumption.

I didn’t think that one hair equals proof of a cat being present, also, I didn’t know enough about the testing process to gather a clear view of how it had been identified.

I wrote a piece detailing my exact position on the case. This received a lot of criticism from the cryptozoology researchers who accused me of being untrusting and having an agenda, a lot of people couldn’t understand why I didn’t agree with the hair being a leopard hair.

I am taking this chance to finally lay down the reasons I don’t trust the testing and the results and don’t count them as proof.

Problems with the initial hair testing

This is the picture I was provided of the testing of the hair.

This is a photo of the hair being tested.

Lars Thomas used an RGB colour camera which immediately reduces the working resolution to 1/3 of what he probably thinks it is. Apparently, using a black and white camera with a colour slider to create false-colour images would have preserved the resolution of the image much better.

A colour camera uses 3 pixels (a red, blue and a green) to describe a single colour pixel, so you reduce resolution drastically. He has, I note, also zoomed in and taken a photo of the monitor which is why you can see individual pixels in the first picture.

The lighting conditions are not great for microscopic analysis of a sample either. A bright room = bad for microscopy. According to a biologist I am in contact with, Lars should really have used polarised light which it really doesn’t look like he hasn’t done.

Also having your lunch around the microscope is generally not considered good scientific practice…

Not only were there issues with the testing conditions, but a single hair is just not enough. All biological samples display variation and the FBI recommend using at least 25 hairs to build up an accurate morphological profile.

Plus, although the hair in the picture does appear to display the segmented medulla (middle of the hair) that felines have (although due to the resolution of the image, it is hard to say to what degree they are segmented), it does not appear to display the characteristic overlapping cuticle (outer edge) of the feline hair (see picture C & D below) You can also see the segmented medulla in the dog hair photo (See picture E)

picture C:

picture D: 

Picture E:

Without a forensic analysis of this, the whole testing is inconclusive. There is no DNA evidence, a single sample, poorly imaged…

Ultimately what it boils down to is this: lacking any other evidence of a leopard (no kills, no bones with tooth impressions, no prints) this hair is more or less meaningless.

This is exaggerated by not a) providing images of known leopard hair and b) no side by side comparison with other hair from other animals likely to be in that environment.

Without a DNA profile you can’t say for sure anyway. The one thing taxonomists have come to realise over the last 100 years is that morphology alone is not a good system for defining a species. Let alone the morphology of one hair!

When an animal hair is found, it is identified to a particular type of animal and microscopically compared with a known hair sample from either an animal hair reference collection or a specific animal.

If the questioned hair exhibits the same microscopic characteristics as the known hairs, it is concluded that the hair is consistent with originating from that animal. It is noted, however, that animal hairs do not possess enough individual microscopic characteristics to be associated with a particular animal to the exclusion of other similar animals.

Now, the biologist that I have been speaking to believes this is a dog hair. To see if his was a common view he posted the picture of the hair on a scientific forum that he is a member of. He posted just the photo for analysis – no back story, and the common view from other members is that it looks very much like a dog hair.

Obviously there is no way to be 100% sure, but something I am sure of is this –  concluding that this one hair is proof of a leopard being in Longleat forest is clutching at straws.

That is why I held (and still hold) a skeptical and doubtful position on the case. I am not the one using flimsy evidence to support my beliefs and this will be the last I write of this case until more substantial evidence is provided by the cryptozoologists who are making claims about a leopard in Longleat Forest.

photos provided by 'A.D', the biologist who I consulted with over this case and the testing
of the hair. A.D wishes to remain anonymous, but can be contacted if you don't believe
he is real. Just ask.