The debunking that isn’t.

This one is a little off the usual track. Normally, one of my alter egos would have dealt with it but that one has been dormant for so long he might not have any readers left. If only there were more hours in a day, or if I could just shake off this ‘sleep’ addiction I have acquired. A sleep every single day is far too much. If only someone would make up some guidelines. Well, they probably have, and I’ve already ignored them.

It’s relevant though, in that it shows the junkiness of modern science in all its glory.

‘Science’ sometimes sets out to debunk all things paranormal. It does this by starting with a definite conclusion (to prove it is not real, not to investigate it and draw conclusions from the results like real science should). However, it is impossible to prove that anything paranormal isn’t real if you start from the premise that it does not exist. If it does not exist, then there is nothing to measure – and if there is nothing to measure there can be no results to analyse. Therefore there is no study to perform.

Most mainstream scientists stay well away from this stuff for exactly that reason. It’s the same reason they stay clear of trying to prove or disprove the existence of God. With no solid quantifiable evidence to start with, there is not even the beginning of a theory that could produce a device capable of making any meaningful measurements. With no way of making any measurements, again, you end up with nothing to analyse. Those who try, fail, and often spectacularly. Not because God poked his fingers in their eyes so they couldn’t see (well, pure science cannot totally discount that possibility) but because there isn’t even a starting point for such a study.

The sale of ghosthunting equipment often induces a shake of the head in me. The EMF meter measures electromagnetic field changes but in order to correctly measure EMF, you need to take readings in three dimensions – on x, y and z axes with a precise measurement of each point in space where you took the readings – or you’re wasting your time. You might be wasting your time anyway because the idea that ghosts affect EMF is supposition. There’s no proof that a flicker of the needle indicates anything more than a mains spike when the fridge turned on. As for the expensive tri-field meter, that is a very sensitive piece of kit that belongs in a physics lab. It can register the effect on local fields caused by your pocket-change moving around. It is no use for anything at all in untrained hands. Most of the gadgetry is there not to help you find a ghost, but to help you lighten your wallet.

There are those scientists who try to study paranormal events properly and seriously and many publish in the Journal of Scientific Exploration – which is no place for tinfoil hatters. They will publish ‘oh no it isn’t’ papers as well as ‘oh yes it is’ ones, and both have to pass critical review. None of these ever appear in the newspapers. They don’t do press releases and don’t shout about their existence because the funding for the work is narrow to nonexistent. Most do it in their own time.

And then there are those scientists who have a stab at proving it’s all hokum. That cannot be done. James Randi is convinced he has done it, but he hasn’t. He can reproduce many of the effects shown by those claiming psychic abilities using sleight of hand. That proves…that he can reproduce the effects using sleight of hand. It does not prove that the original effect was done that way, merely suggests that it could have been. The distinction will be clear to anyone with an analytical and non-prejudgemental mind. It is, at the same time, not evidence that the original observation was real but the distinction is nonetheless a very important one. The original observation is not disproved by reproduction of the effect using another method. It merely raises the possibility that the other method could have been used.

There are the illusionists who reproduce the stage-psychic tricks using cold reading – taking cues from the sap you’re talking to and relying on the almost-universal human failing whereby the sap will remember the ten percent you got right, while forgetting the ninety percent that was wildly wrong guesswork. Cold reading works. I’ve played around with it myself. It’s fun to scare a drone once in a while.

For the record, I don’t believe that anyone can bend spoons by rubbing them. If I was to be gifted with a superpower and found that my new power was ‘cutlery vandal’, I would be sorely disappointed and would not be bragging about it to anyone.

Also, I am certain that every single TV psychic is a fake. Aside from cold reading, they use stooges mingling with the audience before the show to chat to punters and get all the info they need, they will Google people coming for one-on-one sittings, and a dozen more tricks. The corner-shop psychics have even more tricks. They’re fake too. Why am I, who claims an open mind, so certain?

It cannot be possible to make a living as a psychic. Look at the TV shows. They get exactly the right number of ghosts for the show every time and every single one is there to get a message to someone in the audience. There is never a show where no ghosts show up, never a show where too many show up, never a show where every ghost that shows is trying to contact someone in the audience next door, never a ghost for the cameraman or the producer or anyone on the crew. If any of them are real, they are not psychics, they are necromancers.

Those corner-shop psychics never say ‘Sorry, nobody has tried to contact you today, here’s your money back’. They could get a hell of a boost to their credibility if they did that say, ten percent of the time. Hmmm. There is a corner shop available for rent in town… no, no, even I couldn’t be that cruel. It would be almost as bad as selling extended warranties.

Then there are those who claim to be psychic by phone or internet. Get stuffed. If Old Uncle Thomas-Henry tried to contact me he’d be shouting at my shoulder right now. Not shouting at someone in an Indian call centre. If he did, they’d phone me. They would, really. He was a very big man of very little patience. If those phone psychics were real, they would phone you and tell you they had a message from someone you knew.

If you’re thinking if phoning and pretending to have a message from Uncle Thomas-Henry, forget it. He spoke Welsh all the time, not because he couldn’t speak English but because it used to piss off the nurses in the home they put him into. Well, when he was brought home by the police for fighting while drunk (again), the family finally said ‘Look, you’re eighty-four, that’s enough now’. In those days, they still let him smoke indoors, unlike the modern vicious regime I see often on the way home from work. Aged pensioners in care homes huddled outside in the cold, indulging in one of the very few pleasures left to them in their end times and which, thanks to hate and spite, the only drivers of the antismoking movement, they can barely afford. If I ever get forced into one of those places I will learn to speak Cherokee and will utter no other language from that day forward. And I will run banjo and bodhran classes between the hours of 2 am and 4 am. Even though I can’t play either very well. Perhaps, especially because… Well hey, it’s hereditary. I can’t help it and there is no Awkward Old Sods charity to give me money and a free car with spikes on the front so what can I do?

Whoops, it seems this bottle of Lochlan causes digression. There is no suitable warning on the label. Start a campaign!

Back to roughly the point. Today, the Mail crows that the entirety of the paranormal has been debunked by a bunch of white-coated dicks pretending to be scientists. Here is the basis of their test:

In the study, participants were given pairs of colour photographs, both of the same woman.
In some cases her appearance, for example her hairstyle, would be different in the two photographs.
Each photo was shown for 1.5 seconds with a one second break between each.
 After the second picture, the observer was asked whether a change had occurred and was asked to choose it from a list of nine possible changes ranging from earrings, necklace, glasses, hat, lipstick, eye shadow, eyeliner, clothing, and hair worn.

This is a test of observation and memory. That is all. Nothing more. It does not test any claimed psychic ability of any kind and therefore cannot disprove that which it does not test.

Some people noticed there was a change but could not pin down what it was. We have all experienced that. When one of the pretty girls at work has her hair done, I notice she is prettier but it can take a long time to work out why. When one of them had a dramatic hairdo, I noticed at once. It was, indeed, most impressive. We notice subtle changes subconsciously but cannot always articulate the details of the change. That is not paranormal. That is normal.

Nothing in this report debunks anything at all and yet it is now a newspaper article claiming ‘proof’. This is junk science of the tobacco template kind and whether you have any interest in the worlds beyond or not, you cannot, in all conscience, accept this report as anything more than an utter waste of money, time, print and pixels.

This next statement is going to annoy the pseudoscientists and the fanatically religious all at once. Real scientists, real open minds on both sides, will laugh.

Science? God help you.


18 thoughts on “The debunking that isn’t.

  1. I have a button with a graphic and the inscription “Lord, save me from your followers.”

    Re the psychic: I argued in both Brains and TobakkoNacht that we ourselves (in the Free Choice movement) are like James Randi, showing all the hidden levers and fog machines and tricks of the “one-ahead” readers etc. Unfortunately, just like Randi, the true believers can always find a trickster out there who we *can’t* prove wrong: the one who says the equivalent of “I hear dead people.” but who doesn’t give us any messages that can be tested. For the true believer it’s enough that they psychic simply CLAIMS to hear those dead people, and then our failure to disprove that such is the case is taken as evidence that it must be true.

    Fortunately, most people aren’t “natural” true believers and really want the sideshow psychic to say something they can test — and that’s where we have almost always been able to beat the Antis down quite handily.

    – MJM


    • The other side of the coin is that a real psychic could never prove themselves. If they say something that cannot be verified, well then they just made it up. If they say something that can be verified, well if you can look it up, they could have too.

      So they can’t be disproved (well, actually, most can, only a few can’t) but at the same time, they can’t prove themselves real.

      The only sensible option for a real psychic is to keep quiet about it, and listen out for lottery numbers 😉


  2. The purpose of news (whatever format it is delivered in) is to close open minds and prevent closed minds from opening. State schools perform a similar function on t’kiddies and likely private schools and colleges do it as well but possibly with a lighter hand.

    Science seems to have been populated with closed mind people who will follow the funding brick road all the way to retirement rather than people who will ask ‘well what the fuck happens when I do this?’

    Is this deliberate or ‘accidental incompetence’. Conspiracy theories do provide a rather attractive answer but if my 53 years have taught me anything it is to never underestimate the power of stupid people.

    As for ghosts and ghouls I lump them in with the rest of the stuff that I am ignorant of (do look up the definition of ignorant). I read a paper the other day which said our five known senses deliver 40,000 different types of information to the brain which uses a fraction (I want to say 40 but am not sure and I am spectacularly bad at ‘bookmarking’, sorry) to create the world we experience.


    • In the late seventies, university departments dealt with idiots by putting them into admin positions. They were very hard to fire but they were a liability in the lab, so shunt them into management. At the time it was thought they could do no harm there because academics paid no attention to management anyway.

      Howeever, the idiots soon had the power to decide who to employ next and they weren’t going to employ anyone who would make them look stupid. So they employed more idiots, who employed more idiots…

      Now it’s fast getting to ther stage where universities will be 100% composed of idiots and they will push harder for ‘disadvantaged’ kids as students so that not too many smart ones get through.

      All we’ll have to do then is rename ‘university’ as ‘home for the mindless’ and close the doors.


      • That mirrors my time in a ‘nooklear shipyard’. Idiots promoted into management as the unions made them unsackable. And Clarkson wonders why ‘we don’t make anything any more’.


  3. I don’t buy your circular argument that you can’t disprove the existence of something that doesn’t exist, because it doesn’t exist.

    I’m of the opinion that the paranormal and religion do not need disproving, they need proving. If people want to claim that God and ghosts exist then it’s up to them to back that up with something solid.

    You can disprove the existence of something that doesn’t exist. You just point to the lack of evidence that it does.


    • “You can disprove the existence….lack of evidence that it does.” That doesn’t disprove existence just that existence isn’t proven. There is no valid proof that God exists but there is no proof that he doesn’t so it’s always seemed to me that the rational position to take is agnosticism (because there’s no reason for a positive belief either way).

      Re fakes: your post reminded me of a gullible (or desperate) acquaintance who sent dosh that he could ill afford to Madame Zorovsky somewhere in France in return for a ‘magic stone’….Truly, there’s one born every minute.

      Re today’s vicious, unnecessary authoritarianism: recently came across people who’d moved into a retirement apartment which has a rule that radios/TVs were banned between 10pm and 7am. Pity the greedy builders hadn’t just spent a few more pennies on bettersoundproofing.


      • Don’t knock magic stones, I managed to keep my friends chronic heartburn at bay for years with a bit of rock crystal and the keyword “ice cube”.

        I may not believe in crystal healing but I do believe in the power of placebo.


        • I should just have given my acquaintance a pebble that I’d picked up off the beach and told him that I’d bought it from Madame Z and it had brought me so much luck I didn’t need it any more :>


    • It’s not a circular argument. Here’s a real life example.

      When we test food for contaminants, say Salmonella, we never report ‘zero’. We report ‘Not found in 25g’ because we tested 25g and we didn’t find any. Another test might report ‘less than 10 per gram’ because that is the limit of the test – it won’t find less than 10. That’s okay, as long as the beastie in question isn’t dangerous unless there are more than 10 per gram present.

      It is impossible to prove that a chicken has no Salmonella on it. Even if you pulverise and test the entire chicken (pointless because then there’s nothing left to eat anyway) you can never be absolutely certain that your test was 100% perfect. You would still report ‘not detected’ and never ‘zero’.

      And even then, if you tested a whole chicken, what about the ones that go to the shops? You cannot test them all. A shelf full of chickens with a 25g hole in each one is not going to sell well. So it’s a compromise. We’re pretty sure it’s not there in any dangerous amount but we are not going to say it’s not there at all.

      It’s not possible to prove a negative using any scientific test – the best you can do is come back with ‘Well I didn’t find anything so if it is there, there’s not much of it’.

      Yoiu are perfectly correct though in that the onus of proof is on the one making the claim. Science will – or should – simply ignore claims that come without any proof. You could claim there is a teacup in orbit around Betelgeuse. I will not look for it. It’s your claim, you prove it. Until you do I will ignore it.

      That’s how science should work. You can’t prove a negative and science should not try – because it’s silly. The best science can come up with is ‘Our tests go down to x level of sensitivity and we didn’t find anything. If it is there, it is below the level of sensitivity of the tests.’ No scientific result can really be zero unless the test used is infinitely sensitive.

      Of course, most scientific disciplines use zero anyway, but not food testing microbiologists. That’s more to do with the lawyers than the science – ‘My client caught Salmonella and you said there were zero on the chicken!’ So we microbioiogists never use the Z-word.

      Many people say they see, or have seen, ghosts. Scientists come up with alternative explanations for what they might have experienced but real science cannot rule out the possibility that they actually saw a ghost, unless they saw it in the Daily Mail in which case it’s just a prankster with an iPhone app.

      At the same time, nobody can prove the existence of ghosts unless they conjure one up in front of an audience, which could be necromancy. Even if they did and took a photo, all they would hear is ‘Photoshop!’ and if they did it on TV, well TV can produce convincing ghost images anyway. Even on a stage – ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ is a fine illusion.

      There are many ways to produce a fake ghost. I did it whan I was under ten years old using a crappy plastic kids’ camera with an eight-shot roll of film. Double exposure, the camera held on a window sill, my friend was in the first shot but not the second. If there had been an Internet back then I’d be as famous as the fake-fairy-girls by now.

      Yet none of these fakes prove that ghosts don’t exist, only that they can be faked.

      Rolex watches can be faked. Are there no real ones? Actually, I’ve never seen a real one so…

      I once watched Teller (of Penn and Teller) make a lit cigarette disappear and reappear. In the middle, he ‘smoked’ a pencil that he appeared to ‘light’ but he was only using a tiny torch as a fake lighter. Nothing paranormal but same pricniple – a magician can show a convincing fake of something real (a cigarette). Does that mean all cigarettes are fake?

      If the creation of a convincing fake proves that the original does not exist, then nothing exists because anything can be faked.

      That’s the thing about real science. It’s brutal in its application of rules. Pity there are few real scientists left.


  4. I’ve always described myself as “the world’s least psychic person.” Apparently, some years ago I slept, alone, in a “haunted” room in a local pub. The other friends I was staying with crowded – all six of them – into the other bedroom, sleeping on chairs, on a sofa or on the floor, and I couldn’t understand why one of them didn’t hop into the other bed in the room I was in. I just thought perhaps they had more staying power than me and wanted to go on partying. When, the next morning, I emerged I was met with a barrage of questions: “Did you hear anything?” “Did you see anything strange?” “Were you cold all night?” “Did you wake up?” “Weren’t you scared?” The answer to all of which was a rather puzzled: “No – why would I?” They then enlightened me that I’d slept in the so-called “haunted” room. Haunted? Really? Well, the ghosts had a pretty frustrating night, then. There could have been furniture flying in circles round the ceiling and ghosts leaping up and down fruitlessly on my bed all night. I’d heard nothing and slept like a baby, the only noise in the room being my own fulsome snoring!

    But, that said, I don’t take my own lack of ability to “see” other-worldly things as proof that they don’t exist. Just because I’ve not witnessed ghostly happenings or been communicated with by those from “the other side” doesn’t, to me, automatically mean that no-one else ever has. I’ve never seen Mount Kilimanjaro, but I don’t therefore assume that anyone who claims they have seen it is lying and that in reality it’s just a figment of their imagination! Nor would I assume that if I discovered someone who claimed to have seen it but in reality hadn’t would automatically mean that no-one else had seen it either.

    As a (clearly extreme!) non-psychic I’ve got no axe to grind either way, but I do feel that some people (like the faux scientists you cite in this article), have an overly-strong need to disprove something which for some inexplicable reason they feel threatened by, even though they claim it’s all made up. Now, working out how those people can hold two such opposing viewpoints at one and the same time would probably be a much more interesting piece of research!


    • There was an experiment a long time ago ( I can’t find a reference now) called ‘the correspondences’. A bunch of psychic researchers decided that when each of them died, they would try to get a message to the surviving ones through psychics. To make it interesting, they would do this through widely geographically separated psychics.

      Something came through. Coded messages that meant nothing to anyone but the remaining group of researchers. These came from psychics on different continents.

      Science dismissed this, and guess what they used as the reasoning behind intercontinental psychics getting the same message?

      Telepathy. Yes, they used something they don’t believe in to dismiss something else they don’t believe in.

      The correspondences were a first hint of real evidence of something new and unkown. Not great evidence, but enough to get a real scientist to perk up and pay attention.

      Scientists often fall into the trap of ‘We are Science, we know it all’ when real science is saying ‘I am Science, I am looking for it all’.

      The one that interests me most of all is the ‘recording’ type of haunting. No ghosts, no spirits, just a replay of an historical event. My interest is mercenary, I’m afraid.

      If it is possible to record and replay an event on an enviromnent, and to find the right trigger to set it off, the financial implications are beyond anything the boss of RBS has dreamed of.

      My big advantage is that no other scientist is even looking 😉


  5. If psycics were any good, I am sure they would be able to tell people more than “Aunty Milfdreds dog needs his claws clipping.” Or “Fuck me Doris! you really SHOULD clean the hamster cage once in a while!”

    What’s with “Don’t go and live in Iran!” or “HEY Check your house wiring!”?


  6. something is coming through, its an ‘A’, no, its a ‘B’, wait a minute, hold on just one second, it is in fact a ‘C’. Is there anyone here whose initials has a ‘C’ ? Yes ! Big Chief Running Guts tells me to tell you that you left the bathroom tap on and your house is now flooded. That would be a really useful psyhyhcyclic pheremone, I mean phenomenom, enom, om. I did have dream that I saw a ghost, I think it was dream.


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