Category Archives: thoughts

Shades of Grey

Organised Skepticism can be a double edged sword, a powerful tool if used correctly, but use it arbitrarily, or without understanding, and it can give you a nasty cut with the backswing. Such belief-based own goals were, for a long time, the preserve of the credulous believers and pseudo-scientific charlatans, people exploiting the easily led and deluded, yet the current rise of ultra-hardcore Skepticism at the fringes of what we do, with it’s seemingly arbitrary blanket judgements about how every believer in the unproven and unfounded is automatically either suffering from some form of undiagnosed mental aberration or knowingly exploiting the uneducated in an effort to turn a fast buck denies a fundamental rule of our collective experience of reality – the fact that our world is rarely black and white, but actually very many shades of grey.

As anyone who has stopped by my blog and read my fortnightly Woo Watch knows, I like to point the finger and laugh just as much as the next Skeptic, take a humorous snipe at those who make a career from believing the impossible or those who should in general know better, and for that very reason I never thought I’d become an advocate for a conscience within the Skeptical movement. But even I draw the line at the sort of black and white thinking that I have witnessed in numerous places recently, especially online, and the horrible thought that Skepticism itself might be falling into the same dogmatic patterns that we accuse others of. I didn’t come here to stand in the light of reason to watch my new island of truth sink into the same closed-minded belief based nonsense that I abhorred back when I was forced to attend a Church of England primary school in my distant youth, and I won’t watch it start down that slippery slope without voicing my concern.

For example, what do you think of when I say Psychic? Can there even be such a thing? Not according to our current understanding the world, no. I know that, you know that, and we all have a good laugh when we see one trying, and inevitably failing, Randi’s million dollar challenge. But not everyone is a Derek Accorah or Sylvia Browne. Some of these people actually believe in what they are doing, and they hold nothing but the desire to help others with what they erroneously perceive as their oh-so-special gifts. They are most likely not suffering from a mental illness, despite the frankly asinine statements I have heard recently, and while it could be argued that they are deluded, the most likely explanation is that they are uneducated and unable to understand exactly what is going on inside their own heads. They are seeking meaning in a world without a definite personal narrative, and just like the less hardcore Conspiracy believers, teen Witches and disinterested but loyal Religious adherents they make the best of the shreds of data that they have, never wondering if it is the right answer because they lack the vocabulary to even ask the question in the first place.

The bottom line is, we are the good guys in all this, helping to steer those who would know no better towards those very answers, as defined by the scientific method and critical thinking, and away from making the sorts of uninformed errors that result in them selling grandma to pay for just one more reading with Mystic Bob or donating the last of their wages to the slick preacher on cable TV. We should champion critical thinking, true, but that’s where the criticality should stop. While some of those out there in Woo Woo land are guilty of knowingly deceiving others, just as many are sadly convinced of their ability to defy the laws of our consensus reality, and through education, not humiliation, will we reach them. We are Skeptics, not cynics, and what use is our movement, our desire for change, if all we do is become that what we despise and see the world through the same black and white perceptual blinkers that leads inevitably to fundamentalism, in the process playing right into the hands of those who would accuse us all of adhering to a religion based upon science while seemingly pretending otherwise?


Interpreting The Personal

Those who observe and dissect anomalous incidents are often spurred into a continued quest for answers by seemingly paranormal experiences of their own, usually while quite young. Some accept these events on face value and happily weave them into a personal mythology that fails to live up to outside scrutiny, such as exhibited by most Spiritual or Magickal belief systems, while others attempt to find a place for them within a more rational world-view, striving to find answers without sacrificing their intellectual integrity in the process.

to see isn't always to believe...I have dipped my toes into the mindset of the former, less questioning group and paddled around in their viewpoint for a while, but ultimately I asked too many questions of the events that I have witnessed and soon enough drained all of the magic out of them. Just like Occam’s ever-present razor cut, I have come to realise that the bottom line in all of this is a simple one. No matter how special the feeling, anomalous the experience or frightening the encounter, the explanation is usually delightfully mundane, if you know how to ask the right questions. And as skeptics, asking the right questions is what we do.

As an example, I present an experience which I went through personally back in 2007. I was recovering from a simple, but painful operation which had required the deep, Sevoflurane induced sleep of general anaesthetic, and lay bored out of my otherwise active mind in a sparsely furnished side room on an equally drab hospital ward, awaiting release back to the much more colourful real world. It had been almost fifteen hours since I had been under the knife, and I was convinced that the anaesthetic had long worn off. As later events would show, I was most definitely wrong. Bored and preoccupied, I sat on the end of my bed looking listlessly out of the window over the roof of the hospital as the clouds rolled over, the prospect of another night spent in the building dampening my already deflated spirits far more than the slowly building rain ever could. Yet even as I sat there I was suddenly overtaken with such a compulsion to sleep that I found myself powerless to resist, and laying down on my side facing the window I passed into a deep and fitful slumber.

And then, even though I realized that I was still dreaming, I seemed to be awake, my already drab surroundings colourless but largely unchanged, my mind seized by such unrelenting terror that every movement seemed to be counterbalanced by the very real desire to just curl up into the smallest possible ball and ride out the experience, hoping that it would be over as quickly as possible. Yet instead I forced myself to roll onto my other side on the bed, away from the window and towards the door of my room, where I knew something terrible was waiting for me. The anomaly in question appeared, at first, to be a young girl of no older than ten or eleven, wearing an old-fashioned pastel blue party dress, the kind with puffy sleeves and a long, ankle length pleated skirt, and long blonde hair tied into ringlets that fell heavily to her shoulders. Yet her face was a blur of motion, indistinct and unknowable, not a blank but rendered to appear so by the all too quick vibration of her features, and her words, when she eventually did speak to me, were deep and forceful way beyond her seemingly tender years, though sadly mostly gibberish.

The whole time the entity was speaking the images associated with her voice continued to change. The most notable example of this was the outward appearance of the girl herself, for as I watched her dress evaporated and her flesh dissolved, to be replaced by an odd, clear blue gelatinous substance, her face still hidden from my perception by the undulating movements of the ooze which made up her now bloated and hairless frame. Then she turned and faded from view, to be replaced by an extreme close up of a human brain, the whole mood of the experience suddenly darkening as a blood-red filter was placed across my vision, leaving me to stare in confused and paralysed silence as a gnarled and rusty pair of tongs began to lift little clear plastic bags full of oddly inconsequential items and place them into draws which appeared for a second or two in the surface of the brain tissue itself, before closing again. Needless to say, when unconsciousness took me for the final time, I was more than a little grateful.

I was still exhausted, numb with shock and sweating profusely when I finally regained consciousness. I rose unsteadily to my feet and headed to the door of my room, intending to go down to the canteen for a can of cola and a chocolate bar to help steady my nerves. Yet my door was locked, the orderly explaining through the tiny little observation window that the elderly lady in the room next to me had passed away earlier that afternoon, while I had been asleep, and that I would have to stay where I was until they removed the body. An odd coincidence considering what I had experienced a mere few metres away, and made all the stranger by the fact that I had not been awoken by the understandable commotion caused by the nursing staff’s many and varied attempts to revive her. When the consultant released me back into the real world later that evening I couldn’t wait to tell my small but delightfully left-field circle of friends what I had experienced, and how it had occurred at the same time as the elderly woman’s passing; proof positive of its paranormal validity, or so I joked. Thus, for a while at least another interesting paranormal tale was born, discussed and soon enough discarded as more interesting events from my day-to-day life replaced it as topics of conversation. But I could not let it rest, and soon decided to get to the bottom of it.

This is where asking the right questions comes in. The first place I looked was in the medical literature, easily available online. A good example was authored by Wilson, Vaughan and Stephen (1975) in their study into awareness, dreams and hallucinations associated with anaesthesia. The trio investigated 490 adult patients undergoing operations requiring general anaesthetic, and reported an 11 percent incidence of, as they put it ‘mental aberrations’, including a majority of 8 percent involving dreams. But could I have experienced an inescapable chemically induced dream anything up to 15 hours after the initial procedure? Surprisingly, yes. General anaesthesia stays in the patient’s system for at least 24 hours, which is why medical professionals refuse to allow postoperative patients to drive themselves home. Coupled with the mental trauma and pain associated with the build up to the operation itself it is not no great a leap of faith to assume that whatever dreams may come would be more like nightmares, and have a decidedly surgical feel, gnarled tongs, bloody brain tissue and all.

Researchers in the field should also be aware of unrelated incidents that seemingly add secondary layers to the context of the anomalous event being reported, but in fact bear no relation to it whatsoever. Such events should be identified early on in the evaluation, and while acknowledged, need to be respectfully disregarded to prevent the investigator wasting their time chasing inconsequential issues down the rabbit hole. In my case, there was the purely coincidental, but nevertheless compellingly timed death in the room next door. As if the dream itself had not been weird enough, this concurrent event was just begging for the natural human desire to seek patterns in otherwise unrelated incidents to kick in. Indeed, while I sat on the bed waiting for the door to be unlocked I let my mind wander over the whole situation, both that within my room and the slightly more morbid one next door, and found myself happily adding two and two together with very few facts to play with. Needless to say, my calculations erroneously resulted in something closer to seventy-three and a half than four.

The danger of taking such immediate conclusions on face value without leaving the back door open for changes based upon cold hard facts is obvious, and the mistake of the non-critical thinker. While it is difficult to alter the perceived acceptance of the initial interpretation of events based purely upon later evidence, it is the obligation of the investigating party, be they personally involved in the anomalous incident or just making notes after the fact, to allow the ever-present cut of Occam’s Razor and good old clear thinking outweigh the need to explain the improbable in impossible terms. It might not be popular, but it is what we do, and I like to think that the world is a little more stable because of it.

The 5 Worst Ghosts of 2010

It’s fair to say that some of the ghost stories that grace the newspapers and news websites often leave the more rationally minded of us staring at our screens with sheer horror. Horrified, not by the latest ‘spectres’ to have been caught on camera or film, but by the fact that anyone could have thought what was caught was news worthy.

BARsoc researchers have touched upon such news stories in past articles and will continue to do so throughout 2011, but here at BARsoc HQ* we thought it would be fun to look back at the ghost stories covered by the media through 2010 and choose the 5 that made us weep the most. Again, not weep with horror, but with despair, despair that these ghosts made the news and gained so much attention and helped to mock the field of paranormal research (and in turn, people like us!)

So, behold!

The 5 Worst Ghosts of 2010

#5 – The Savannah Cemetery Ghost

This video came to our attention in November and it is claimed that a ‘ghost child’ can be seen running through the Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah Georgia. The image is seen running in the distance past some tombstones. We then see some object, which many think is also the ghost, shoot up a tree and moments later drop down.

It’s difficult to tell what could be the cause of the supposed ghost, but we all agree at BARsoc HQ* that this probably, in all reality, isn’t a ghost. It’s too vague because of the distance between the supposed ghost and the camera, as well as the fact that the person shooting the film didn’t bother to go towards the object to investigate.

Jumping to the conclusion that something odd, or something that cannot be explained must be a ghost is quite a leap of logic and doesn’t make sense because we can’t actually be sure of what a ghost is – after all, there is no testable definition of what a ghost is.

So, although we cannot explain away what the ghost in this video could be, we’ve included it because of the assumptions being made and the questions not answered by people making wild claims.

#4 – The Gwyrch Castle Ghost

It’s likely that at some point in 2010 you saw this ghost photo, if not, lucky you. The photo was taken by Mr. Kevin Horkin who claimed he did not notice the spooky figure while taking the shot and that it was only when he had downloaded the photos that he noticed it. Building the oddness to this tale, he claimed that the spot in which the girl is standing in the photo is a place in the building where it is impossible to stand.

The figure appears to be on the first floor, in what used to be a banquet hall where the floor crumbled away years ago, meaning there is nothing for a person to stand on. Weird, right?

Until you see this photo that shows a floor…

This is where the doubt started to set in for many who were following this particular story, Why lie about there not being a floor when there is? It may have been a simple mistake that Kevin Horkin made but, if we were going to the newspaper with a ghost photo (which is likely…) we’d make sure we had all the details first to avoid making such a mistake and looking a bit suspect.

After some digging it turned out that Kevin Horkin is the managing director of a ‘Psychic Management’ company in the U.K. called Parallel Management. According to the company’s website:

‘His wealth of experience encompasses expertise in artist management, events management, sponsorships, public relations, media relations, marketing and artist liaison.’

It gets even better because at the time the photo was taken and released, he and his team were scouting different locations for a “Psychic retreat”. In the Lancashine Telegraph an article reports how:

A RIBBLE Valley businessman is bidding to buy a huge castle to open Britain’s first ‘psychic school of excellence’. Clitheroe-based Kevin Horkin has put in an offer of £850,000 to buy the derelict Grade I-listed Gwrych Castle in Abergele, North Wales.

Mr Horkin, who owns psychic management company Parallel, wants to spend ’several millions’ renovating the 19th century castle, installing a hotel and facilities for psychics to connect with the spiritual world.

During an 18-month search for a base of psychic school of excellence, Mr Horkin and his staff at Parallel, based in Waddington Road, Clitheroe, visited around 20 houses and castles before deciding on Gwrych.

Mr Horkin added: “It is something different. There’s a risk with opening it but I just feel strongly about it.

“I love the place and I feel that people will love it too. There’s just something about it.”

Earlier this week, Mr Horkin revealed how a ghostly image had shown up on mobile phone photographs he took at Gwrych Castle.

What a big fat coincidence… right? Right guys? …guys?

#3 – The Wolfe Pub Ghost Video

You didn’t see this ghost video? WHERE WERE YOU?!

The Wolfe Pub in Little Dockray, Cumbria used to be a funeral parlour according to the landlord which is why it is haunted. Which makes sense… possibly.

The 35-second sequence recorded by a CCTV camera shows a supposed apparition that descends through the ceiling of the room. Numerous newspaper articles (like this one) claim the apparition then polishes a table before zooming upwards and going back through the ceiling – momentarily assuming the likeness of a face which is pretty spooky stuff!

Well, no, actually, it’s not spooky because it is a fly on the lens of the CCTV camera that is out of focus. See:

If you watch the video it’s really easy to see how it is a fly, you can even see the wings moving. The thing that makes this whole case a little frustrating is the claim that strange happenings have also been caught on the CCTV of the travel agents next door to the pub, such as a computer turning itself on, a computer mouse being thrown from a desk and a sign in the window falling down. Yet we’re just expected to believe that this happened because the footage has never been supplied.

When you add the anecdotes to the fly in the video it doesn’t make a convincing ghost story really, does it? Our theory is that the landlord is either credulous, or trying to raise the number of people who walk through his door – or both.


#2 – The Pint Glass Poltergeist

The New Inn, Gloucestershire, made the headlines earlier this year when an unattended pint of beer was caught on CCTV sliding off of a table all on its own, which is pretty impressive at first glance.

However, the story gets pretty suspicious, pretty fast. The video was featured on The Sun Newspaper website where it quoted Landlord Mark Cooke:

“I’d heard all these stories before we arrived and was pretty sceptical, like most people.But the moving pint was something else. When I saw it on the CCTV it made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. You just can’t explain it — the table’s dead steady, the floor’s not uneven, and no-one’s near it.”

We disagree with Mark because there are several ways in which a glass can slide from a table on its own. Those who drink alcohol, and more specifically beer will know that sometimes the pint glass in which your drink is served is wet from overspill at the pump. Sometimes different surfaces in pubs are also wet because they’ve had wet glasses on them.

In the video you can clearly see the customer take a full pint to the table where an empty pint glass is standing, chances are that the empty pint glass was wet (and thus, the table was slippery) and the new pint glass was wet which could have resulted in the glass sliding off of the surface – especially as the glass isn’t very far from the edge.

We also don’t know if the pub is on a slight hill or if the table was sloped/wobbly, Mark says that it isn’t, but we’re not quite ready just to accept that as a fact because people do tend to over exaggerate in such stories to make things seem a bit stranger than they actually are.

Another cause could be trickery, and numerous people have commented that the person sitting at the back of the room, to the right  in the video happens to move their hand just as the glass falls. This could be a coincidence and to make a fake ghost video people normally need to have a motive.

Enter ‘Gloucester Ghost Walks’ run by the ‘Gloucester Active Paranormal Society’ who have been conducting paranormal investigations at the premises in question for a while. In fact, a member of the team was actually in the bar when the glass fell off of the table. They also charge £25 for a ticket to one of their paranormal events at the pub in question.

We cannot be sure that it is a case of trickery, but this certainly made us rather cynical of the situation and video. Media coverage of this venue, the team and their ghost events would certainly be good for business…

Something like this would be easy to set up with a bit of wire and as it stands it is more likely that this alleged poltergeist is actually just the work of a slippery surface, a wet glass and gravity, or some sneaky tricksters with some wire.

#1 – The Dorset County Museum Ghost

If you have been following BARsoc since we were formed earlier this year then chances are that you knew this would be the case we put in 1st place. It was the first story that we really took to pieces and explored. You can read our entire article on the story here.

It started when this story was featured on the BBC website claiming that:

A group of investigators from Weymouth have released the findings of their investigation into paranormal activity in Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

They have photos which they believe to be of “hanging” Judge Jeffreys and local fossil collector Mary Anning in the museum’s main hall.

The article also states at one point that the fundraising officer for the museum, Nel Duke, is “unconvinced” that the place is haunted.

The team in question were ‘The P.I.T08’. The first thing that we noticed was that the image featured in the BBC article was heavily cropped. A cropped image provides little context for what it is we are looking at. Realistically it could be anything at all, from an out of focus light, to a drop of water on a sheet of glass. We contacted “The P.I.T.” to ask for the full uncropped version of the image and they kindly obliged.

We showed the photo to most of the members of BARsoc who all reached the same conclusion. The ‘ghost’ was simply an illusion caused by light reflection – the cropped picture used in the newspaper articles simply didn’t show the source of the reflection – it emphasised something that shouldn’t have been emphasised at all.

The images taken that night at the Dorset County Museum, are simply reflections of the camera flash, on a glass fronted display case/mirrored surface. You can clearly see this display case illuminated by the flash, to the north position of the “anomaly”.

We even managed to find other photos that showed the case the camera flash was reflected off, and it wasn’t very hard to do. It would also be safe to presume that people who worked at the museum would know that the display case was there which makes it odd that they would fail to mention this possibility, it may have been an oversight though and we always like to give people the benefit of doubt.

We were told by Steve from the P.I.T that The BBC had contacted the museum after seeing the photos on the P.I.T website and that the museum had then put them in touch with the team. In an email to us he said:

“I can confirm that the P.I.T as a whole do not  state these photos are paranormal and only after trying to prove they where not  did we as a team ‘stamp’ them as ‘possibly paranormal’. As a team we did not go to the press with it and instead quietly released the images on our website for review by its users. The BBC contacted the Museum directly who then gave the story and passed the P.I.Ts details.”

Something didn’t sit quite right with this whole situation, it didn’t make sense to us at BARsoc HQ* that a museum where staff are unconvinced it is haunted would be so keen to get such a story published by the BBC. As far we could tell there was nothing to gain financially other than a slight raise in the number of visitors who might be interested in visiting a haunted location.

However that didn’t seem likely to us after a BARsoc member phoned the museum and they wouldn’t comment about what happened or what activity had been witnessed by staff members, that just didn’t seem right for a place that was happy for news websites to feature the ghost photo taken by a paranormal team and wanted to attract people by using their supposed ghost.

It all clicked into place though about a month after our article on the case was published when Steve, the member of P.I.T that we had been in communication with posted a comment on the article. You could say that ‘the penny dropped’.

The Dorest County Museum are now charging £300 for paranormal teams to enter the building to conduct paranormal investigations to try to find the ghost that was in a photo that the British Anomalistic Research Society showed was actually just an illusion caused by a light reflection.

Yep. You can see why this made the #1 spot on our list.

…and there you have it.

The worst 5 Ghosts in 2010 according to BARsoc. It’s likely that you might have a different ghost related news item in mind that you thought should have made the list, and it was difficult to choose which ones to feature. Why not link to your own bad ghost story as a comment (it has to be a 2010 story).

The one downside to news articles that report ghost stories without any critical thought is that is makes it easy for such avenues of publicity to be abused by those who have something to gain from having a ghost at their premesis.It also makes the paranormal research field look a bit daft, which in all reality, doesn’t need any help in doing so.

Happy new year!

*no really, we have a HQ. Maybe.

A shark in Merseyside? Probably not…

On the 18th December, The Daily Mail reported that a large shark-like creature had been spotted in the Albert Dock of Merseyside.

A man named Simon Hoban had spotted the creature (pictured) on Google Earth saying:

I hope this won’t cause panic but the dock does free swimming sessions.
With temperatures the way they are it’s unlikely that anyone would dare go into the water purposefully anyway, but the question that instantly comes to mind is this,
Is it likely that this is really some sort of a shark in the water? Is there really any need to be worrying people about whether it is safe to go swimming?

Marine biology expert Tom Cornwell said the ‘large object’ could be a basking shark – which can grow to 35ft. He told The Daily Mail:

‘Water creatures have been known to cruise the wrong way up rivers and canals and become stranded, as with the whale on the Thames six years ago. Perhaps it was an old shark which was looking for a place to die.’

Or… perhaps it’s just a small boat turning on the water, causing a wake in the water behind it that gives the illusion of something more sinister?
A Rigid Inflatable Boat (pictured below) would certainly be smaller in size that the boats pictures moored up in the docks, and would certainly be capable of making such a manouver.
It’s also worth taking into consideration that we don’t know when the picture was taken from Google Earth (we can’t check for eye-witnesses or incident reports that may have backed up the shark theory).
Why the newspaper decided a shark would be the best theory for what is pictured is beyond me, but I feel reassured in knowing that the majority of people would have spotted this for the boat it most probably is. Hopefully.
In summary, it’s probably perfectly safe to go into the water in those areas, the only danger is hypothermia.