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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?

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The Paracorder

Originally written for the Righteous Indignation Podcast

This is going to be a tricky interview to follow for readers as it was conducted in two parts. I was originally meant to conduct this interview via Skype but due to power outages at the other end of the line and technical difficulties on my part delaying things, this wasn’t possible. Due to clashing schedules we instead decided to pass the Q&A back and forth via email. Due to the amount of questions I had, I split them into two.

The first set were sent across, the answers received, and then the second set off in response to the answers received in the first set.  Unfortunately the second set of questions remains unanswered.  Firstly I should explain what the interview was about and why I asked Al for an interview.

I was linked to the website of the Paracorder667 by a fellow BARsoc member a while ago when they pointed out that the claims were quite interesting and grand.  The gadget is just one of many sold by the US company Moditronic that they claim can help you to detect ghosts. In fact, one of the first things you read when you visit the Paracorder667 website is:

ENERGIZES AND DETECTS GHOSTS ! EASY TO USE ! PACKED WITH TECHNOLOGY !”

 Energises ghosts? How do they know how to do that? What with? How does it work? I needed to know. The rest of the site from which the $89/£56 gadget is sold is also filled with some rather impressive and bold claims, none more so than those on the ‘scientific evidence’ page. Read the rest of this entry

Analysis: Feeley case

By Bob Dezon & Hayley Stevens

On October the 12th 2010, Michael and Sarah Feeley, and a friend called Geoff decided to take a trip to Sutton Park. For those that may not know, Sutton Park is a forest near Birmingham. The reason for this excursion is presently unknown, however whilst they were there, they took several images using mobile phone cameras. The cameras used were the LG KC910 Renoir and the Nokia X6-00. There seemed to be some confusion over what they managed to capture that night, so they decided it would be best to ask the advice of Professor Chris French. Chris French is the Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit’s Department of Psychology in Goldsmiths College London.

We are not quite sure why they would contact a Psychologist to look at their images, but we are glad they did. Chris French has an incredibly demanding and time consuming schedule, so Chris thought it might be best, if BARsoc had a look at these images instead. We are better equipped to handle these type of requests, and he may end up with enough free time to finish his tea (and by tea, we mean Grolsch).

Read the rest of this entry

Did Tom Pickles photograph Bownessie?

Fellow BARsoc researcher, Paul Pearson, wrote an excellent article last week detailing the Bownessie monster case from the first sightings, all the way up to the recent photo that was reported to have been taken by Tom Pickles in February that shows a humped thing in the water that people claim is the Bownessie monster living in lake Windermere.

The story was reported in the local news [1] and has since spread across most news websites and the usual paranormal interest sites and has inspired much discussion, with most people coming to the conclusion that it’s a hoax. I tend to agree with that conclusion, especially as Dr Ian Winfield, a lake ecologist at the University of Lancaster has been quoted in several news articles as saying:

“It’s possible that it’s [the “monster”] a catfish from Eastern Europe and people are misjudging the size but there is no known fish as large as the descriptions we’re hearing [the size of three cars] that could be living in Windermere. We run echo sounding surveys every month and have never found anything.”

You’d think that would be enough to close the case, but still people are speculating about the chance of this photo showing the monster that many have seen. It has even created debate and (rather childish) rivalry between different areas with supposed lake monsters,[2] so, I decided that it might be worth digging into the latest photograph to see if I could discover anything telling.

Facts:

a) The photo was taken by Tom Pickles on a mobile phone. He was accompanied by work colleague Sarah Harrington.

b) The photo was apparently taken while they were in a Kayak during a team building exercise on lake Windermere.

c) The company seminar they were attending was by CapGemini and took place at Fallbarrow Hall, Bowness, Cumbria.

d) Tom Pickles told Westmorland Gazette reporter, Kate Proctor, that the photo was taken on Friday February 11th at 10:35am[3]

e) It is believed that the two islands in the background of the Bowness photo are either:

  1. Hen holme and Lady holme
  2. Or, as Pickles is quoted as saying they had “kayaked 300m out into the lake near Belle Isle when they spotted the beast to the south”[4] the islands could be the Lilies of the valley.

I decided that the best thing to do would be to try to establish contact with Tom Pickles himself but this has proved fruitless as my emails are unanswered. Also, a search online reveals no public profiles for a Tom Pickles living or working in the Shrewsbury area. The same with the colleague who was with him, Sarah.

This proves nothing, but it has made it difficult to try to establish contact with either of them which I wanted to do so that I could elaborate on the information already presented to the press. Also worth noting is the fact that Kate Proctor, the journalist who wrote the initial article on the Westmorland Gazette website has told me that Tom has since sold the photo to the Daily Mail. The West Moreland Gazette were unable to provide me with the photo because of the Copyright in place. I would like to thank Kate for her help.

The photo shows two bodies of land in the background, but it’s hard to distinguish which islands they may be. It is reported they had kayaked 300m into the lake near Belle Island and spotted the monster to the South, which suggests they were near the islands known as the Lilies of the valley, however, they may also have been near Hen holme and Lady holme islands.

circles indicate possible locations (5)

Due to the lack of quality in the photo (it was taken on a mobile phone, may have been cropped or zoomed in on and we don’t have the original) and no distinctive shoreline visible beyond the islands, it’s quite difficult to tell. Below are photos of each set of the islands mentioned, from similar angles to that in the Pickles photograph for comparison.

A trimmed version

The Lilies of the valley

Hen holme & Lady holme

I thought it would also be interesting to take the Pickles photo and position it onto these photos to see if they matched up but this proved inconclusive as they both seemed to match quite well. Without being told where the photo was actually taken it’s impossible to really be sure. Though, the two water buoys present in the Pickles photo (to the left of the photo) suggest to me that the photo was taken near Hen holme & Lady holme, but I cannot be 100% sure.

Lilies of the Valley

Hen holme & Lady holme

However, one thing that did become apparent to me as I made these comparisons with the photos of the islands is the fact that the ‘monster’ was much closer to the photographer (Pickles) than it had first seemed. My first impression was that it was nearer to the islands you see in the background than it was to the photographer, but the islands in the Pickles photo are quite small and because of

Bownessie photo taken by Tom Pickles

uncropped photo (click for big version)

the lack of any other detail in the photo (boats, objects in the water, a shore line in the distance) the distance between the islands, the object and the photographer is really quite misleading.

The ‘monster’ couldn’t have been the size of three cars and show up in the photo as it did. With the proximity of the ‘monster’ to the kayak, it’s more likely to be the approximate size of a large swan. The cropped version that many newspapers are using almost creates the illusion that it is further away from the photographer, however, the full version that the Westmorland Gazette printed (right) shows otherwise.

If you look back up at the photo of the Pickles photo stuck on top of the photo of the Lilies of the valley islands you will notice there is a boat moored close to the right island that looks quite small because of how far away it is from the camera. For the ‘monster’ to be the size of three cars as claimed by Pickles, the monster would have needed to be much nearer the islands that it was for it to appear the size that it is in the photo.

This leads to the question of what the object could be. A small lake monster that Pickles mistook the size of? Or something altogether more mundane?

Well, as I was researching the photo a story broke on the Westmorland Gazette website that suggested it could all have been a hoax brought about through the use of a tyre.  It was reported that John Phillips, from Solihull, photographed a car tyre cut into four humps which was left in a bush near the lake shore. [6]

tyre discovered close to the shore

This is an interesting development that suggests a possible way in which the photo was created. It’s certainly a more plausible theory many people have been suggesting. Of course, the John Philips discovery could itself be a hoax, but a tyre sliced open to create four segments does certainly resemble the oddity in the Pickles photograph when the tyre is straightened out.

Split tyre placed in the water

Does this mean it was all a hoax? Possibly and some would even say probably.

I would like to make it clear that I am in no way suggesting that Tom Pickles hoaxed the photo and I would even suggest that the tyre may have been simply discarded in the lake (tyres are often used as weights on boats, for example) and it happened to float past Tom and Sarah in their kayak at the right moment.

It may have become caught in the wake created by a boat had that passed by and may have been pulled up in the current (there are regular cruise tours of the lake that pass by the islands). We know that the currents caused by a boats wake can still hang around long after boat has passed without being seen (under water currents have caused lots of sightings of odd things in lakes that turn out to be drift wood emerging from beneath the water).[8]

Whether an intentional hoax, or simply misidentification – I feel confident enough to say that the Pickles photo is nothing more than a tyre in the water. I’m willing to change my mind though, should somebody decide to send BARsoc a copy of the orignal photo…

References:

1 – Original Westmorland Gazette news story http://bit.ly/hsMTlX

2 – embarrassing monster boasting: http://bit.ly/hWpRsR

3 – Kate Proctor informed me of the Daily Mail purchase via an email exchange

4 – Company name mentioned: http://bit.ly/hnAoi4

5 – Map produced with http://explore.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/

6 – Cut tyres story: http://bit.ly/ePSR3D

7 – ‘Killer croc’ example of driftwood monsters – http://bit.ly/cptVJO