Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The Huff Model: Disrespecting The Dead For Publicity and Financial Gain.

What is it about certain individuals and groups within the paranormal field that causes a complete abandonment of any idea or taste and decency with regards to the recently deceased? Where are these team's ethical standards when it comes to consideration of the loved ones, friends and family members of the recently deceased?

In the horrible example here, the only answer can be "completely absent".



Steve Huff (left) and a paranormal group who follow his reprehensible Modus Operandi

I've written about a repeat offender in this regard, Steve Huff, several times before (1). Huff's MO is supposedly using ITC methods, mostly with devices he builds and sells himself (2) to contact recently deceased celebrities. The most disgusting example of this was when Huff claimed to have contacted former Ghost Adventures star, Debbie Constantino (3), a few short days after she was brutally by her partner Mark. There was a groundswell of disgust at this from the paranormal community that had been absent during Huff's sessions with dead celebs. To many, Debbie was well known and well liked, and they saw Huff having crossed a line that he had previously not crossed.

None of this deterred Huff, after every celebrity passing you could predict with morbid certainty that Huff would be exploiting it shortly after with little regard for the hurt he caused. He continued this grim pattern undaunted until earlier this year, in early August, when he suddenly declared that as a result of "demonic attacks" he was quitting the paranormal/ITC community for good (4). There was a lot of suggestions as to what may actually be behind Huff's exit, with some suggesting possible legal woes on the horizon and others implying that various trading standards agencies were, at last, taking an interest in his sales practices. I myself was very curious about Huff's motivation, mulling over the possibility of this all being in view of a potential book deal. Whatever they suspected Huff's reasons for quitting were, few were surprised when Huff was back up to his old tricks a few weeks after quitting for good and fewer still were surprised that his operation hadn't changed one iota. Since Huff returned, he's conducted sessions in which he's alleged to contact Hugh Hefner and Tom Petty.

As I've stated before, I think Huff is utterly disgusting. He seems to have no issue with using the deaths of celebrities to promote himself. His practices are cold, cruel and completely devoid of compassion or empathy. I never thought I'd come across an individual or group more contemptible than Huff in the paranormal field, hobby or whatever you choose to call it.

That all changed today.

"Paranormal Den" is a group that predominantly produce EVP and ITC videos for Youtube and Facebook, where their page has almost 11,000 followers. They do not hide the fact that they are heavily influenced by the aforementioned Steve Huff, they use similar equipment, like his FB page and even have claimed to have contacted Huff's spirit energy in the past (6). Unsurprisingly, given this influence, they also conducted sessions with deceased celebrities, Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington. Clearly, this makes them as tasteless as Huff, but what makes them worse?

How have this group lowered the bar?

On October 7th Paranormal Den, presumably comprised of the two individuals pictured in the page's profile image, though they aren't specifically named on the page or the Youtube channel, decided that they would attempt to use a radio sweeping device to contact the spirits of the victims of the Las Vegas massacre.


"Crazy and unreal" they call it.

I call it crass and shameful.

At this point, I am posting their video, I am not going to give them the views and attention they desperately seek. Even though I've ripped it directly from their Facebook page. It's bad enough I had to watch it, I don't want to encourage you to do the same. It's here for completeness, nothing else.


video

The "session" is laughable. The purpose they claim is to question the spirits with regards to the ridiculous conspiracy theories circulating regarding the Las Vegas shooting, such as the debunked idea that there was a second shooter at the Mandalay Bay Hotel (7). You'll be unsurprised to learn that the usual tropes and errors associated with the presentation of EVPs are all here. The audio is presented with captions explaining what the "spirits" have supposedly said resulting in a highly suggestive experience. I listened without captions as I always do with ITC and didn't get any results that Paranormal Den caption. When they hear "execute" I hear "eggs" for example. In addition to this, the responses that were supposedly given barely line up to questions asked even if we accept Paranormal Den's interpretation of the snippets collected by the broken radio they consider a piece of scientific equipment. What is especially laughable about this is the footage is heavily edited with lots of cuts implying that the laughable responses are the cream of the crop in regards to what was collected.

I have to wonder if Steve Huff is aware of this group? Maybe, they're in his shitty ITC collective. I wonder if he is, does he have the balls to condemn this disgusting exploitation of innocent people gunned down by a lunatic. Steve, if you're not aware of them, they're certainly aware of you. They're following the model that you've established withs regards to high profile, exploitative ITC sessions.  This is your legacy. Hopefully, the next "attack" you suffer that prompts you to quit won't "demonic" but one of conscience. That said, I suspect that like demons, you're conscience is highly unlikely to actually exist. 


Sources

(1) http://skepticsboot.blogspot.co.uk/2016/04/grave-robbing-21st-century-style.html

(2) http://skepticsboot.blogspot.co.uk/2015/10/impossible-box-or-just-box-review-of.html

(3) http://skepticsboot.blogspot.co.uk/2015/09/counting-cost_23.html

(4) https://www.facebook.com/HuffParanormal/posts/1546650475399065

(5) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AnvYg5Km9Zk

     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aFGFp_Fkqg

(6) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9OB8JKsBpBE

(7) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/04/us/politics/fact-check-vegas-gunman.html

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Sargon and the "Skeptics".






I wanted to take some time out from my usual postings to discuss an event that happened over the weekend in the US. Now, I know that much more important and upsetting events have taken place in the US and to say this pales in comparison may well be the greatest understatement ever published on the internet. This isn't about Puerto Rico or the terrible events that unfolded in Las Vegas. This is far less severe, upsetting and frankly important as those events. That's not to say it doesn't matter though.


Last Saturday at Mythcon Milwaukee, an event organised by Mythicist Milwaukee, an organisation that promotes ideas such as freedom from religious bigotry and hatred, a discussion was held between Thomas Smith and Swindon's most viewed vlogger Carl Benjamin (left), better known by the screen name Sargon of Akkad. Before the event, there was a significant effort to have Carl "deplatformed" which I don't think was the right tactic, but I understand why it happened (and I suspect you will shortly). I don't believe in "deplatforming" in general, my argument for not including Carl was simply "he isn't even remotely rational or what I'd call skeptic" so why should he be there?

The organisers met these complaints by suggesting that Carl is an "entertainer" justifying his inclusion.

Sargon is currently being hailed as the leader of a new skeptical community by his supporters and critics alike, he's massively popular with well over half a million Youtube subscribers and he has over 3,000 Patreon doners paying him almost $9000 dollars a month. This is despite that fact that up until recently Carl was a 9-11 truther, he believes the Pizzagate conspiracy actually occurred and on a recent appearance on the Joe Rogan Show, he repeated an Alex Jones talking point. Namely that chemicals in drinking water are turning frogs "gay". This is the problem with these new "skeptics" they don't use the scientific method or critical thinking. The one time Carl attempted to use a scientific paper he fudged it so comprehensively it was laughable. There was a good case to be made that he failed to even read the first page of the study he cited. He's not alone: Armoured Skeptic, also a guest at the same convention, is frequently criticised for piss-poor research. Youtuber Naked Ape makes laughable videos about voting Trump not because he agreed with a single policy, but because it made him feel good and pissed off "SJWs".

The image below shows how Carl describes his "work" on Patreon. This is how he lays out his storefront.


"Sargon of Akkad is creating arguments" Indeed he is. But skepticism has never just been about creating contrary points. It's about the methodology you employ to do that. The lose definition Carl's supporters use to place him in the skeptical movement, would also be lax enough to also include Ray Comfort, who is creating arguments like "The Banana: an atheist's nightmare" against evolution into the skeptical community.

Ray Comfort creating arguments

Let me give an example of how exactly Carl goes about "creating arguments." In June last year, Mr Benjamin decided to respond to Jess Phillips, a member of Parliament in the UK, in response to a comment Phillips had made regarding rape threats she had received online.  Phillips was affiliated with a group that aimed to reduce the volume of harassment women receive online, which Carl took umbrage to. Quite why anyone would find the idea of reducing harassment offensive boggles the mind really. Even if you don't think women receive much harassment on the internet, and it isn't really a problem, surely the idea that there should be less is still a valid thing? I mean to most rational people less of any bad thing is a good thing.

Well, not to Carl.

He decried this movement as “social communism” one of a series of phrases that Carl uses without much apparent understanding (Here's the actual definition of "social communism": "Social communism is a system of government in which the state plans and controls the economy and a single, often authoritarian party holds the power, claiming to make progress toward a higher social order in which all goods are equally shared by the people."(1) ) So how did Carl decide to present his disagreement with Phillips' ideals? A well worded and considered blog post? A well researched and argued Vlog? A long social media post, which despite being light-weight made some valid points?

If you answered "yes" or even "maybe" to any of those questions, firstly: don't they're rhetorical. Secondly, you really don't know Carl. Benjamin decided that rather than take any of those courses of action, he would instead tweet Phillips a response.


Yeah, he responded to a woman commenting about rape threats by telling her he wasn't prepared to rape her. To add insult to injury, as normally happens when Carl decides to take issue with someone, it's prefaced by a deluge of sycophantic followers doing EXACTLY the same thing, in this case resulting in Phillips receiving over 600 tweets by morons telling her they would also not deem her attractive enough to rape.

If you didn't already think Carl was a vile little scumbag incapable of making a salient point, he attempted to defend his actions in an interview for the Times (2).
"“I never made any threats,” he says. “It was a classic example of how the regressive left tries to shame and silence anybody who disagrees with them. Any criticism of a woman by a man is called misogyny. It’s ridiculous.”"
Whether you consider what Benjamin said a threat or not is somewhat subjective, I personally don't. But that doesn't preclude it from being completely vile, hateful and unwarranted. And yes, it's deeply misogynistic. The irony here is Carl decided in order to counter the comments of a woman who believes talk of rape and misogyny is rampant on the internet, he actively increased the amount of misogyny and rape threats on the internet, therefore reinforcing Phillips' argument.

With enemies like Carl who needs allies?

In this article Carl also touches upon an idea that he frequently repeats, the people attempting to remove him from Twitter were "anti-free speech". What Carl and others don't get about this is that companies and organisations don't owe them a platform. Twitter removing Carl for violating terms of service isn't a blow against free-speech, nor is Youtube demonetising his videos. These companies don't have to host him and them choosing not to doesn't curtail his free-speech, he just has to find another soap-box. Despite being such a staunch advocate of "free-speech" Carl has absolutely no issue a reporting others to twitter and having their accounts suspended when they've offended him! Further to that, his stance on free-speech is so pronounced that he actually created a petition to have "universities" stop teaching "social justice courses".


Now picture that screeching caricature of a feminist there, demanding the rights of others be restricted. Isn't this EXACTLY what Carl is doing with this petition in demanding that university students rights to be exposed to ideas he doesn't agree with? Ideas that are offensive to him?

Hypocrisy thy name is Carl.

If you want an idea of just how facile this petition was, consider Carl never specified which Universities it was aimed at or which courses he objected to. His "letter" explaining these facts suggests that if intellectuals had weight classes, Carl would struggle to make bantamweight. I haven't edited this, below is legitimately his letter to "universities". Quite why they aren't paying attention to him bewilders me.



The fact is Carl is nothing more than a reactionary shit-lord. His sole purpose is to be "edgy" as exemplified by the video he created in which he screams various racial slurs at footage of a down-syndrome child who doesn't want him to use the term "retard" as a pejorative anymore. The video's on the left. If you want a sample of what Sargon is all about, watch it.

Its fucking horrible though.

All this should give you an idea of who Carl is so you won't be too surprised to learn that his appearance at Mythcon was pretty shameful. When Thomas Smith raised the subject of Carl's tweets to Jess Phillips, a significant portion of the crowd cheered. Carl proceeded to point to them in appreciation as lamely as one could expect for a rock star from Swindon. Buoyed by the support he stated he didn't care about the reaction people had to his tweets. I think this reaction from the crowd upset Smith as much as it did me.

You can watch that here: https://twitter.com/twitter/statuses/914264270740877314

I never thought I'd see the day when a crowd of "skeptics" would cheer the idea of tweeting about rape to anyone. I've listened to arguments from others who've left the skeptical community because they claimed it's becoming toxic, and I've argued against them.

How can I do that now?

Maybe they saw this element growing and I didn't. The fact that many of the people who warned me were women shames me.

That cheer blindsided me.

This support from a vile piece of shit from Swindon, caught me off guard. I genuinely thought he'd be laughed out of Mythcon. That he'd be booed off stage not welcomed as a hero. I'll always be a skeptic, I'll always use critical thinking and the scientific method to assess claims and ideas that are presented to me. But as far as I can make the change, I won't use that label to promote myself anymore. I can't and won't be associated with men like Carl of Swindon.

Little men, with little ideas, little charm, little wit and little intelligence.

Sources

(1) https://prezi.com/tufixf1axdxv/what-is-social-communism/

(2) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/i-set-out-to-troll-her-why-all-this-fuss-about-600-rape-tweets-56h38ts97

More about Carl Benjamin.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rc24YtUslCU

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XmKGPRXE-xw

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTfCkp0Juao&t=427s

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

5 Unexplainable "Ghost Sightings" Explained.

When websites and media outlets outside of paranormal specialist interest write an article about ghosts or the supernatural it's often presented as "unexplainable" or "undebunkable". As this recent article published on the website "oxygen" demonstrates though, this is most commonly a result of the author's own naivety, ignorance or failure/unwillingness to do even a modicum of research. The article in question, published on September 14th, titled "5 Documented 'Ghost' Sightings That Are Too Convincing Not To Believe" by Sowmya Krishnamurthy (1) begins:
"There are countless stories of human interactions with spirits and those that have "crossed over" beyond the grave. From Marilyn Monroe to Abraham Lincoln -- these documented encounters are hard to deny as paranormal activity."
So let's rise to that challenge and see we can do what Sowmya couldn't and find possible reasons to "deny" these five pieces of evidence provided is supernatural. Quotes describing the encounters or footage from Oxygen are in italics under the bold headings.

1. The Cleveland Museum "Claude Monet" ghost.
"In 2015, a special Claude Monet exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art was overshadowed when a mysterious figure who looks exactly like the late French Impressionist painter showed up in a photograph." 




If you're thinking "that just looks like a person who looks like Monet" then that's exactly what I was thinking too. We should we assume this is "a ghost". It looks pretty clear that the figure is there in the environment as the light is interacting with the figure. Is it a stretch to imagine a Monet enthusiast may style themselves after the man? They may well also take an interest in the setting up of a Monet exhibit. There is another possibility. Could this have intentionally been set up by the museum? What better way to start off an exhibit with loads of free attention from the local press? The story appeared first on WYKC.com, a Cleaveland TV station's website on October 8th, two days after the image was allegedly taken, in a short story with a link to the museum's website but no quotes from an employee (2). It was then picked up by Cleaveland.com (3) and published in the arts section with links to the specific exhibit's website and quotes from an e-mail sent to them from the museums' director of communication, Caroline Guscot:
"Caroline Guscott, the museum's communications director, said Friday that Jeffrey Strean, the director of architecture and design, took the picture of the mysterious visitor and posted it on his Facebook page.The photo shows the bearded, hat-wearing visitor looking down into the lower lobby outside the museum's special exhibition galleries, where preparations for the exhibit "Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse" were being completed on Tuesday.The visitor bears an odd resemblance to a banner-sized photo of the bearded, hat-wearing Monet, also visible in Strean's shot. Strean's image was not retouched, Guscott said. "What are the chances someone looks like that and happens to be at the museum the day we are finishing installation?" she wrote in an email.
The story was then picked up by various local news outlets and art related websites in turn-up up to Halloween (4) (5). Interestingly in these iterations of the story, the quotes remain the same as those given to Cleaveland.com by Guscot but this time are attributed to a lower ranking member of the communications team, Kelly Notaro.
""We thought it was such a coincidence that on the final day of installing Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse, this man resembling Claude Monet was seen peering down into the lower lobby outside the special exhibition hall," Kelley Notaro, communications associate with the museum, told TODAY.com. "This snapshot taken by a staff member is not retouched or Photoshopped. And we have heard from others that they’ve seen the man, but there hasn’t been a confirmation in his identification! This is the first exhibition leading into our centennial year, so we are excited to start it off with something as cool as capturing a photo of this Monet look-a-like standing directly above an actual photo of the artist himself," said Notaro."
 You may be thinking now would a museum really resort to circulating a story like this just outside Halloween in order to get people in through the doors of an exhibit, after all, this isn't an English public house we're talking about? I thought the same thing, but the Cleaveland Museum has blogged about haunted paintings before and of the building itself being haunted by a former director (6) in a 2010 post encouraging families to visit for the Halloween weekend. Ultimately, I don't blame the museum for attempting to garner this type of gaudy publicity but I think it's a great shame that they feel they have to resort of this to get people to engage with art.

Is this unexplainable? Hardly. Moving on.

2. The Dinner Guest


Oxygen tells us this is the "photobombing ghost" of a transvestite who used to dine in the restaurant the image was taken in, I'm not making this up. They also attempt to divert possible objections by appealing that:
"It can't possibly be a reflecton because there are no windows or mirrors in the Begue Room."
This would be more convincing was that the most likely explanation of this ghostly image. As it happens, I don't think this is a reflection as such. I just think it's an example of an image created by the slow shutter speed setting of the camera used to take the image. Artist Emilie Lauwes uses this photographic artefact directly (below) to create ghostly images for an opera publicity shot (7).


The article offers this rationale to point to indicate this is indeed a phantom crossdresser "If you look closely, the image even appears to be of a figure in women's clothing and accessories." The author doesn't seem to consider who else wears women's clothes and accessories, living female patrons of the restaurant. Heck, living transvestite patrons even. It's obvious to me that a fellow diner has wandered into the shot as the couple take their selfie. Once again, this goes from unexplainable to easily explainable with a tiny bit of research.

3. Ghostly Cemetry. 
"This video is from a cemetary in Liverpool known for housing over 58,000 bodies, including one renowned sea captain. The captain was stabbed to death under mysterious circumstances. The shadowy figure caught on tape is seen swaying back and forth, which could very well be that captain, still tortured by his demise, or keeping watch over the cemetary grounds. Another theory is that the ghost could be the limping figure of William Huskisson MP. He has a mausoleum on the grounds after he was killed, when run over by a locomotive in 1830."
This one is from my neck of the woods. The footage below was allegedly taken in St James cemetery, Liverpool and first appeared in the Liverpool Echo in August this year (8). The footage is actually much older than that. It was originally published on the YouTube channel "The Way I see Liverpool" back in May 2015.



Now I've had a few ideas other theories about this footage that Oxygen seemed to have neglected. It could be an artefact of video compression as suggested by a commenter on the original Echo article. There certainly is a lot of pixelation during the video, most notably at the top of the screen. Another possible explanation is some form of steam, smoke or water vapour rising from the pavement in a vague face-like shape and the pareidolia doing the extra work.

I've got another theory though. I think this is a rather clumsy fake. The clue is those silver fleks near the bottom of the screen (below). What are these fleks?


Looks to me like rainfall. The thing is, these fleks don't move during the video. As the steam or smoke forms the rough face then dissipates, the raindrops make no downward motion. There isn't any other motion anywhere else within the frame either. In fact, the smoke doesn't itself drift or slowly form, it moves and changes shape instantaneously. There's no transitional changing. There's no motion in the raindrops, but if you watch the whole screen, the frame itself shifts about several times. I think what we have here is a video that is composed of several versions of the same still shot, almost like an animated flip book. Obviously, some of these stills are doctored with photoshop of a brushes application to give us our ghostly face.

4. Marilyn Monroe in the Roosevelt Hotel. 
"The Roosevelt Hotel is an iconic landmark in Hollywood and is known for its famous spirt inhabitants. One of its most famous guests, actress Marilyn Monroe, loved the hotel. She would stay for extended periods of time and died of an overdose while here. Since then, legend has it that the tortured actress never checked out."
Let's start with a glaring and blatant inaccuracy. Monroe did not die at the Roosevelt Hotel! She died at her home in Brentwood Los Angeles (9). This one isn't specifically about one particular sighting, photo or video, but the various reports of encounters with the ghost of Marilyn Monroe in the Roosevelt hotel. There are various anomalous images and experiences collected at the Roosevelt all of which have been attributed of Monroe's "ghost". I'd say there's a great deal of suggestion involved here. I suspect many visitors to the Roosevelt over the past were well aware of Monroe's association with the hotel and we have to consider the psychological effect of suggestion here, also the desire to have a paranormal encounter of some kind, especially with such an iconic figure. It means that unremarkable images such as this one featured in the article, are ascribed to Monroe.


The featured image was taken in 2005 by Frontline Paranormal investigator John Cain, who believes that Marilyn's image can be seen above both inside and outside the mirror (10). Sorry John, but I don't see anything but a blur, I certainly don't see Marilyn or a figure at all. This is an example of the kind of suggestibility and shoehorning that occurs at sites of famous hauntings.

To read more about explanations for the Monroe ghost encounters at the Roosevelt including the most famous example Joe Nickell's column for CFI covers it well (11).

5. Abraham Lincoln and the Mumler image. 
"Seven years after his assassination, an image of what appears to be the late President was spotted in a photo with his wife Mary Todd Lincoln. As USA Today shares, the photo was taken in 1872 by spirit photographer William H. Mumler. Critics at the time claimed that Mumler was a fraud, possibly using a technique like double exposure to create the image, and he was brought to trial. However, he was acquitted, and since then, paranormal fans are convinced the late President was communicating through the grave to his widow."
Remarkably and with no sense of self-awareness it seems, our Oxygen author here explains their own "unexplainable" image.


Mumler was indeed brought to trial and acquitted, but he was also ruined professionally, a fact our Oxygen author neglects to mention of course. During the trial, PT Barnum demonstrated the double exposure effect which Mumler had used to scam Mary Todd and countless others who had lost relatives in the American civil war by faking an image of himself also with Abe Lincon (12). This image couldn't be easier to explain. Mumler used a previously imprinted glass plate in his camera. Far from being "unexplained" it was explained over a century ago.

This really exposes the Oxygen article as what it is, lazy, uninspired, insipid click-bait. Not only are the images featured far from "unexplainable" one was explained before anyone reading this was even born.

Next time you find an article that claims to be "unexplainable" on the internet, explain it, even if you just publish the explanation on your own social media. Let's start getting accurate information out on the net in the same volume as the click-bait bullshit.

Sources

(1) http://www.oxygen.com/blogs/5-documented-ghost-sightings-that-are-too-convincing-to-not-believe

(2) http://www.wkyc.com/news/local/cleveland/could-it-be-monet/13720506

(3) http://www.cleveland.com/arts/index.ssf/2015/10/did_monets_ghost_visit_the_cle.html

(4) https://news.artnet.com/art-world/claude-monets-ghost-haunting-cleveland-museum-art-345974

(5) https://www.today.com/money/claude-monets-ghost-haunting-cleveland-museum-art-see-photo-t51471

(6) http://www.clevelandart.org/blog/2010/10/29/mysteries-unveiled-museum-after-midnight

(7) http://emilielauwers.be/Portraits

(8) http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/ghost-caught-camera-st-james-13479249

(9) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/12305_Fifth_Helena_Drive

(10) http://ireport.cnn.com/docs/DOC-814833

(11) https://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/another_ghost_in_the_mirror_marilyn_at_the_hollywood_roosevelt/

(12) http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150629-the-intriguing-history-of-ghost-photography

Thursday, 14 September 2017

The Nun, the devil and the science "news" site. IFLS may "love" science but they seem to love clickbait a whole lot more.

Back in 2015 I wrote a blog post (1) examining a single day's output of the science news website "I Fucking Love Science" or IFLS, finding that the content was particularly poor as a representation of science in general, with the articles providing a focus on extremely flawed, commercially conducted surveys in particular. The reason I found this particularly worrying was due to the vast number of people that received their science news through IFLS, standing at almost 23 million on facebook alone at the time. It's now up to 25 million likes and almost as many people following the site, receiving regular updates in their newsfeeds. What concerns me is that if this was the only access these people had to science news then their view of science, in general, would be extremely malformed.

Since that post, I've regularly checked in on IFLS, and found the content hasn't generally improved. Sure, there is the odd interesting and legitimate article, many of which are copy and pasted from other sites, but the majority of the articles have been little more than pure click-bait.

Unfortunately, with a recent article, IFLS descends from the position of "questionable click-bait" to outright supernatural bunkum and the possible propagation of the very dangerous idea of demonic possession. The article in question entitled  "Letter Written By A "Possessed" Nun Decoded Using Software From The Deep Web" by Tom Hale, published on 11th September tells us of a letter composed by a 17th century "possessed" Sicilian nun named Sister Maria Crocifissa Della Concezione. The story was also covered by such esteemed science periodicals as the NY Post (3), The Daily Mail (4) and The Daily Star (5) among others. Is this the kind of bedfellows a science website should be keeping?

Also consider the source IFLS use as it's primary source here, an Italian radio station's website. (http://www.105.net/news/tutto-news/237723/lettera-del-diavolo-dopo-oltre-300-anni-un-algoritmo-la-decifra.html?refresh_ce)

Sure The Times also published a version of the story (6) but it's short and doesn't mention the concept of possession at all. To compare how the Times report downplays the supernatural element let's juxtapose it's introduction to the story to that of IFLS and one of the tabloid sources.

What the Times says:
"A letter written in code by a 17th century Italian nun, which she claimed was dictated to her by the Devil, has been deciphered by scientists using a code-cracking algorithm after centuries of failed attempts. The nun, Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione, is believed to have screamed and fainted while writing letters at the convent of Palma di Montechiaro that she said were Lucifer’s ploy to convince her to serve evil rather than God."
What IFLS says:
"Back in the 17th century, a Sicilian nun wrote a letter claiming she had been possessed by the devil. Over 340 years later, scientists have finally deciphered this rambling message using a decryption program they came across on the deep web.The letter was supposedly written by Sister Maria Crocifissa Della Concezione at the Monastery of Palma di Montechiaro in the early hours of August 11, 1676. The following morning, she awoke covered in ink and claimed she had been possessed by Satan, who forced her to write the message. At the time, claims like these were taken very seriously."

What the Mail says:
"A 17th century 'letter from the devil' written by a Sicilian nun who claimed to be possessed by Lucifer, has finally been translated thanks to the dark web.The coded letter was written by Maria Crocifissa della Concezione at the Palma di Montechiaro convent in 1676, and she claimed it had been scribed by Satan using her hands."
I realise that this is somewhat subjective, but the IFLS article's tone seems to much more closely resemble the tone of the tabloid reporting of the subject. At only the conclusion of the article does the author acknowledge the possibility of psychological disorders and he never mentions the known psychological effects and afflictions that have symptoms that were previously associated with spiritual possession, leading to often fatal misidentification. I expect that from the Mail, but this is shockingly poor form for a science website.

As for the actual translation of this diabolical letter, Tom tells us:
"They (Ludum Science Center in Catania) have already translated 15 lines of the letter. So far, their work has revealed that the letter speaks of the relationship between God, Satan, and humans. It reads: "God thinks he can free mortals. This system works for no one... Perhaps now, Styx is certain."..
What Tom fails to mention is that we need to consider that the link between religious fixation and various mental illnesses such as schizophrenia is extremely well established (7). It's especially prevalent with individuals with strong religious upbringings and surrounded by religious iconography. Like a nun maybe?

I have some reason to suspect that the actual translation of the letter may not be particularly robust, particularly from this section of the article:
"It (the letter) goes on to try and convince the nun to abandon her faith, arguing that God is merely the invention of man and that Jesus and the Holy Ghost are “dead weights”...."
The letter was alleged to have been written in 1671, the origins of the term "dead weight" dates back to 1651, its first recorded mention, but its definition of a person of limited usefulness or burden was not widely used at this time. The main usage was nautical.  Also, its first uses were in English literature (8). Are we to believe its common usage had reached Italian nunneries within twelve years of it being coined?

It's possible but not likely.






I have to wonder if the editors at IFLS realise this article may have pushed the term "science" just a little too far, at the time of writing the site has turned off commenting on the post. I suspect it may disappear altogether shortly. By that point the damage may well have already been done, the post has been shared 28 thousand times. I came across it on not on a science group or page but in a small paranormal group posted by an admin who frequently posts articles about "demonic possession" and warning signs that your house is haunted.

Telling indeed.

Sources

(1) http://skepticsboot.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/where-is-love-how-ifls-is-failing.html

(2) http://www.iflscience.com/technology/letter-written-by-a-nun-possessed-by-satan-decoded-using-deep-web-software/

(3) http://nypost.com/2017/09/11/dark-web-helps-decipher-361-year-old-letter-from-lucifer/

(4) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4864708/Devil-letter-written-posessed-nun-finally-translated.html

(5) http://www.dailystar.co.uk/news/weird-news/643967/Devil-Christian-Bible-Proof-Letter-Possessed-Maria-Crocifissa-Italy-Decrypted-Decoded-God

(6) https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/nun-sister-maria-crocifissa-della-concezione-letters-from-lucifer-decoded-via-the-dar-web-d5jwx5mwk

(7)  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4031576/

(8) http://www.finedictionary.com/Dead-weight.html#etymology

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Skeptic, Cynic Or Debunker?

This is a response to a comment left on my last post regarding the evidence presented in the Dear David saga by a Google Plus user going under the name "Eric Doe". I love getting comments and feedback on the blog, even critical feedback like Eric's. I don't even mind if commenters want to hang on to their anonymity. What I dislike is when commenters prevent me from replying to their comment as Eric has done, but I am going to reply to Eric's comment in a full post as it raises a few interesting questions about the role of skeptics in addressing paranormal topics and the question of whether I am a skeptic or indeed a "debunker" as he accuses me of.

*Unfortunately immediately after this response was posted "Eric" deleted his comment. As I only shared the post on my personal wall and my page, I suspect it is someone who I could interact with quite freely on Facebook. Why they chose to comment anonymously escapes me, as does their reason for removing the post.














Here's the comment in its entirety and I'll address it one part at a time. Eric's original comment in bold.
I have certainly not been convinced by his claims, but there is a question that I need to ask you relating to the topic in general. You have 'debunked' every case and instance of supernatural events that you've addressed with a long line of reasoning, some of which contains lines of reasoning that are considered debatable.
Firstly, I've never set out to "debunk" anything. I've set to seek a rational explanation for the "evidence" I'm offered, I attempt to use critical thinking, scientific principles and the preexisting framework of scientific understanding to explain a claim more parsimoniously and often this process results in finding explanations that aren't supernatural in nature. I've never debunked anything that wasn't bunk-filled, to begin with.

If any of my reasoning seems "debatable" to anyone I'd suggest they debate it. If they want to do so with me, even better. Often what I offer in the blog is an alternative hypothesis. Am I always right? Nope. And I correct myself in those instances when I discover I'm wrong. We have, with the stories and data I address, the supernatural hypothesis already. It would be superfluous for me to offer a supernatural hypothesis myself as presumably we're already given at least the beginnings of this.What I seek to offer is a stripped down, naturalistic hypothesis. Of course, I try to use well-reasoned arguments to back up my hypothesis. Is this balanced? Only if I allow the reasoning of the person or group making the supernatural claim to be heard as well, which I believe I do. I make sure there are competing hypothesis on the table, my readers can then decide which seems more credible. Often there are other competing rational explanations out there, that's great and often I address and assess these too.
But that criticism isn't really what I'm concerned with. What I am concerned with is that debunkers tend to not be very objective.
It often takes a great deal of effort to "debunk" a claim. I'd hazard a guess that in "debunking" the various stories, articles, beliefs photos and videos I've addressed on this blog, I've scrutinised them a heck of a lot more thoroughly than the people who've just outright accepted them as supernatural in nature. I often spend hours with a piece of footage, assessing it. If this doesn't imply the fact that I treat the "evidence" fairly and even-handedly I don't know what does. Being objective doesn't mean turning a blind eye to something, accepting it immediately or viewing it through slightly splayed fingers. You think many believers are being objective when they assess things like the "Dear David" evidence before they assume it's supernatural?

Also, this gives me my first indication that when Eric says "debunker" he actually means "cynic" which I'll address when it comes up again shortly.
My question is this: What would it require for you to believe that a claimed supernatural event or occurrence is legitimate?
Something testable, repeatable and independently verifiable. A hypothesis that is falsifiable, an element that I believe current supernatural hypothesis sorely lack, and this represents a major stumbling block between the supernatural and the scientific. I'll tell you what I don't accept: anecdote. Personal experience.

To accept ghosts exist it requires almost all of physics to go back to the drawing board. If there is some energy of spirit, let's call it vitality, then there must also be some vital force. In turn, a new force requires new fields and new force carrying particles. This means that the standard model of physics is wrong. In order to accept this, physicists are going to require evidence that is at least as voluminous and well supported as the evidence for the current paradigm. They're going to require data that cannot be explained in any other way under our current understanding. If you think that orb photos, or EVPs or moving chairs captured on grainy video are going to suffice, you are deluding yourself.

Sorry if that makes you angry or upset. It's the truth.
It's been my experience that there is a vast difference between a skeptic and a debunker.
There really isn't. If you're a skeptic who is actively using critical thinking and the scientific method to assess claims, there will be occasions when you inadvertently "debunk" these claims.  What Eric is doing here is conflating a process and the end result of that process. A skeptic unavoidably becomes a "debunker" if he/she applies their method well to a claim that is demonstrably false.


 A true skeptic has a completely open mind, is humble, willing to admit that we have not reached the pinnacle of all knowledge, and is willing to fairly and objectively consider evidence with that openness of mind, being willing to accept that not everything has a physical explanation. 

Eric here handily provides us with his own definition of what a skeptic should be, some of it's right. Some wrong. Who says a skeptic has to be humble? And who says we have to accept not everything has a physical explanation. I'm not going to accept something lacks a physical explanation until I encounter something that can't be explained physically. I'm willing to accept the possibility. But again, I'm going to need a high standard of evidence.

As an interesting side note here: what exactly does Eric define as "non-physical"? By constantly describing spirits and ghosts as "energy" believers are specifically acknowledging that they are physical in nature. Energy is a physical property of matter. If ghosts exist, and they are definable as energy, then they are physical. This is also true if they can have a measurable effect on the natural world, there must be some method of interaction.

Guess what? That means they should also be measurable. Wonder why we haven't yet?

A debunker is one that has already made up their mind even before considering the evidence (i.e. dismisses the topic out of hand and approaches all new instances of said event to be false and delves into the instance seeking to find how to tear it apart.) It seems to me that you are not a trueskeptic but a debunker.
Eric also provides his own definition of what a debunker is. Now let me ask you: if I've dismissed paranormal instances and data I write about "out of hand" why the fuck do I often spend hours examining it? Surely if I fit Eric's definition of a "debunker" then I'd consider this a wasted effort? Eric instantly contradicts himself, one can't "dismiss the topic out of hand" whilst simultaneously "delving into instances" even if the aim is to "tear it apart".

This is what makes me think Eric conflates the concepts of a debunker and of a cynic.

 As for me not being a "true skeptic" (Eric's definition) and being a "debunker".

I'm both.

I hope that my comment and query is not taken as rudeness or unfair criticism as that is not my intention. I truly want to understand your perspective and to learn what you require in order to believe that there is something more than merely the physical? Thanks for your time.
As always I appreciate the feed back and I hope my position is clear. The ultimate answer to your question is "empirical evidence" even though I think the more interesting question raised here is what does it mean for something to be non-physical? If something can be described as energy, can interact with the physical world and apply force to physical objects then it is by necessity: physical.

Before I end the post:

I recently appeared on the Paranormal Concept show with hosts Kerry and Paul and fellow guest Kev Kerr of Pararationalise. The show was great fun and Kev is really informative. You can listen to the show here:

https://www.spreaker.com/user/parasearchuk/paranormal-concept-kev-kerr-rob-lee-skep

Whilst you're at it, check out Kev's site Pararationalise, which is a great resource:

https://www.pararationalise.org/

Please show them your support.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Addressing the Latest "Evidence" in the "Dear David" Saga.

"Is this where we are now?"

That's the question that popped into my head when I first read about the "Dear David" saga unfolding on social media. I saw the events simply as the fabrication of an artist, New Yorker Adam Ellis, seeking to garner himself some attention. The story developed in a series of tweets, beginning on Monday 7th August, using tropes familiar to any horror fan including the encounter with the mysterious figure who fills in the back story of the "haunting" a feature of almost every modern paint by numbers horror film.


I'm not going to delve too deeply into the details of the story if you want more information you can visit Adam's Storify page (1). Whilst many people expressed opinions that Adam may truly believe his story and that he actually believes he is being haunted, even offering him advice on sleep paralysis (2), I believed from the start that Adam was a purposeful hoaxer who was revelling in the media attention. I don't place much stock in the credibility of a man who refers to himself as "moby_dickhead" on social media.  The problem was I couldn't really prove that and any attempt I make to address the situation would only serve to garner Ellis more attention. Adam is also clearly stating this "100% real" (4):



That changed with a story in today's tabloid press (3) as I believe with his latest video "evidence" Adam has over stepped the line of plausible believability and strayed into the realm of outright fakery and as such has exposed himself. The version of the story in the Sun focuses on three video sequences offered by Ellis, all of which were tweeted on August 29th. Ellis alleges that the clips were taken during the night and were caught by a camera and he was alerted to them by activation of a motion detector app. If Adam has installed a motion detector app I have to wonder how he's programmed it not to react the movement of his cats?



Now let's examine the video clips.


So what sets the chair rocking?

Well, it could be our old friend fishing wire, but I'd say that it's much more likely that the rocking motion has been caused by pressure applied elsewhere on Adam's wooden floor or even the floor outside Adam's front door (left of the screen). Images from Adam's twitter feed show his well polished hard wooden floor. It would only take a slight pressure to cause enough buckling in the floor to cause a gentle rocking.


We also see from other images on Adam's twitter feed that his front door is right by a stairwell. Close enough that I suspect even someone climbing the stairs and passing the front door could set the rocking chair in gentle motion.


Other photos show that Adam has only just moved the rocking chair to the front door, which strikes me as not a normal location for the chair. It appears to me that the positioning of the chair will barely allow Adam to get his front door open so why place it there?


And the above photo brings us to the next video which shows a turtle shell falling from the wall above the bookcase in the image. Problem is the shell isn't in the above image either.



What causes the shell to fall? Could be practically anything based upon how Adam attached it to the wall. Frankly, it's likely not nailed to the wall as this would destroy the shell.

So that's two objects that have been at the centre of this "activity" that have been placed in the positions we see them in very recently. What about video three? Well, as you'll see it's this piece of footage that's the most damning. In fact, the Sun article omits this piece of footage despite the fact that it features an image of Adam tweeting about it.


So this alleges to show a chair disappearing, it's very clear what it actually shows though.



This footage doesn't show a chair disappearing, it shows a blatant edit. It isn't just the blue chair that moves, various items are disturbed in the second room and most damningly the lighting conditions completely change! This clearly shows not just an edit, but the fact that this light migrates from one side of the room to another means it is not artificial light, it's natural light meaning that this footage was shot during the two different times of day.




I'll give Adam this, he's got some balls to present this blatant error as another paranormal event when in fact what he's done is moved the chair, likely to reach the turtle shell to arrange it to fall! I think it shows us the timeline of events pretty clearly.

1. Adam films the chair rocking. The near side of the second room is lit, the far side in shadow. The chair is in place.

2. Adam ends this recording. After he shuts off the camera at some later point he moves that blue chair to stand on it to gimmick the turtle shell.

3. Adam starts recording again without putting the chair back in its original position. The turtle shell falls. Light is at the back wall of the second room. The chair has not been put back in its original position.

4. He puts the whole video edited together on twitter failing to notice his blatant mistakes. Here's the video as Adam originally put it up on his Twitter feed:

https://twitter.com/moby_dickhead/status/902342479965552640

5. When it's pointed out to him he bluffs the mysterious chair disappearance as further "evidence".


I think whoever wrote the Sun article noticed this too and purposefully edited that part out as it's a smoking gun that allows anyone to piece this mess together. Thus they presented the video as two separate pieces of footage.


Dear Adam,

I think I've got you....



Sources and Further Reading

(1) https://storify.com/moby_dickhead/dear-david

(2) https://theghostinmymachine.wordpress.com/2017/08/21/is-dear-david-real-an-examination-of-twitters-new-favorite-haunting/


(3)  https://www.thesun.co.uk/living/4352201/adam-ellis-ghost-updates-twitter-videos/

(4) https://www.buzzfeed.com/adamellis/my-apartment-is-being-haunted-by-the-ghost-of-a-dead-child?utm_term=.bkV8OnMeA#.tddXl6QpZ

Thursday, 24 August 2017

A Window On Fakery. More Fishy "Ghost" Footage.

Last month a video set in a hotel room purporting to show various objects moved by an alleged spirit went uber-viral (1). The cause of the haunting was, in my opinion, another case of deliberate fakery using fishing wire to manipulate objects remotely, something we've covered here frequently (2). The ever awesome Kenny Biddle even recreated the video to show just how these things can be faked (3). Whether inspired by that video or not this week brought yet more "fun with fishing wire."

Reported by various news outlets, I've looked at the Daily Mail's version of the story entitled "Is there anybody there? Ghost hunter films what he says is a spirit 'visitor' lifting the latch and opening a window" (4) which tells us:
"A spirit hunter claims to have proved his cottage is haunted by releasing inexplicable footage of the moment a 'ghost' opened his bedroom window. Andrew Ward was so convinced that his 400-year-old cottage in Cambridgeshire was haunted that he set up his camera to capture any paranormal activity.... Eerie footage shows the latch on the window lifting up sharply on its own, swinging around and dropping back down. Moments later the heavy-framed window opens on its own - despite no-one going anywhere near it."
So let's look at that footage and see what actually happens:



The first thing I noticed is that when the latch swings over it catches the blind cord and sets it swinging. The thing is the cord is already swinging when the footage begins. This implies that, perhaps, this isn't Ward's first run. He's attempted to catch the footage moments before this successful run. Now you may well argue that the cord could have been set in motion by a breeze coming in through the window. Could well be. but look at this footage Ward offers us from earlier in the day, notice the blind cord remains static even when Ward comes extremely close to it. The only time we see it set in motion is when the window latch catches it.


I suspect Ward manipulates the latch with fishing wire, the big question is do we see the wire at any point? Due to the poor lighting, I wasn't able to directly see the wire. I think it's just visible here but it's not a great image.


Note in all the other cases when we've spotted fishing wire it's been in well-lit conditions or when a camera light or torch has highlighted it. There are no such light sources here. What you should note is that I said I didn't DIRECTLY see the wire. If we can't see the wire itself perhaps we can catch glimpses of its presence indirectly.

I believe the image below shows the point on the latch where Ward attached the wire, there's distinctly something attached on the underside of the latch. Looks like sellotape to me. This lines up with the impression I got of the wire above. I think Ward has threaded the wire through one of the notches in the latch.


In fact, it looks distinctly like the tape Ward used to tape his camera to the wooden chair to film the activity!


There's another indication too. Watch the shadow on the wall as the latch lowers. Notice when the latch is at maximum elevation the shadow on the wall to its right is very straight.


Now watch what happens as the latch lowers.


A small bulge develops in the straight shadow and moves down the wall at the same rate the latch descends becoming more pronounced.



In my opinion, this is the shadow of the wire hence why it's so light an effect.

As for the window swinging open, it would be pretty straight forward to arrange someone to pull the window open from the ground outside again with wire. Notice that as the window swings open it reaches a point and then stops. I believe this is because the person pulling the window from outside had reached the maximum point they could exert force on the window frame, there's no more torque meaning they're likely they're directly below the frame. They have to move further back to put the frame in motion again.


The frame in question is described as "heavy" in various news reports surrounding the footage, but a significant chip in it implies it's a fairly light wooden frame and not particularly difficult to pull open.

Perhaps the most damning evidence of the hoax nature of this footage comes from Mr Ward himself. He tells us that various windows in the cottage are opened by his spirit, yet he decides to film just this one.
"'It could be a ghost 'stepping in' to my house. Every night it seems to be the windows. I always close them but some nights I wake up and they're wide open."
And it's on the first night he chooses to film that he captures his evidence. It's specifically the window he indicates in the beginning of the video that opens not one of the other windows he says open on a regular basis.



He tells the Mail that he just "got lucky" but this strikes me as more design than luck.

Of course, frustratingly, I can't conclusively say that this video is another wire hoax, but in examining the two hypothesis on offer with recourse to Occam's Razor we must conclude that the most parsimonous explanation, the one that requires the least unknown steps, is the most likely explanation.



Further Reading and Sources

(1)  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4748176/Man-records-alleged-ghost-encounter-Texas-hotel.html


(2)  http://skepticsboot.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/shut-that-door-brazilian-poltergeist.html


http://skepticsboot.blogspot.co.uk/2017/03/the-daily-star-and-chilean-poltergeist.html

(3) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJx4S8ciDto

(4) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4812024/Spirit-hunter-films-supernatural-visitor-opening-window.html