Wednesday, August 4, 2010

2002 - 1st August 2010

"The dead don't speak"

(Although no new posts will be published, comments on old ones will be.)

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

A match made in heaven! Or rather in woo-woo-land...

A new TV series is to be launched in Sweden this fall - Bevis från andra sidan (Proof From the Other Side). Greenworks Television in cooperation with Egmont and the Nära magazine is producing the show that is aimed at finding solid proof from "the other side", proof that shows on film, sound or photography. It will feature the psychics Benny Rosenqvist, Erika Andersson and also a representative of "open minded skepticism" - parapsychologist Adrian Parker. If you have followed my blog, you may get a notion of what is coming. Rosenqvist and Andersson are the standard kind of psychic frauds and Adrian Parker is so open minded that anything that flies into his mind turns into proof, or at least evidence of paranormal phenomena.

This is of course just yet another in a string of woo-woo-oriented productions flooding mainly commercial channels in Sweden. One positive effect might be that Swedish skeptics may take the time to look into the works of crackpot Parker, who for too long has been allowed to pose as a representative of science, a field of human endeavour he is extremely unfamiliar with. The time is ripe for a reality check, and perhaps some notes of concern addressed to the psychology department of Gothenburg University who gave Parker a professor's chair not long ago. A disgrace to higher education in Sweden.

The process of normalizing superstition in Sweden is ongoing. It should be a matter of concern for those who champion ideas of reason and rationality. And it should be noted that a TV series is shouting it out loud, so those who profess to be in opposition of it better not whisper...

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Mysterious Creature of Skeptic Woo-Wooism

Although Bigfoot has been exposed as a hoax, traces of Nessie have yet to be found, and the remains of Chupacabras always seem to turn out to be ordinary dogs, there are still some very peculiar supernatural beings out there. One of them is championed, not by woo-woos, but by skeptics. It is known as "the fence sitter" and it lurks in the shadows of intellectual impotence.

Contrary to other mystical beings, more is known about the fence sitter's behavior than its appearance. There are no rough sketches of it, no imaginative renderings. Instead, many skeptics seem to know the emotional state and thinking of this creature. It only comes out, for instance, if skeptics adopt a "nice" approach towards woo-woos. Confrontational approaches scare the fence sitter away. It is very sensitive in that respect. Incidentally, it also seems as if it is skeptics who favor the "nice" approach who have the best knowledge of the fence sitter.

There are several definitions of the fence sitter circulating. The first one describes a being who has not yet formed an opinion of either superstition or a science based world view - it is indifferent to the options available. The second has formed opinions but not chosen one or the other. A third has formed an opinion and chosen but is so open to delicate and nice arguments that the creature might swing the nice skeptic's way as long as no arrogant skeptic scares it away. There might even be more types of fence sitters; since many skeptics are keen on focusing their entire strategy on these very sensitive beings, they must be a numerous crowd indeed. They certainly outnumber the few that might be upset about the onslaught of New Age and superstition and would be attracted to someone opposing it in a confrontational and straightforward manner.

However, as in the case of other mystical creatures, a bit of skepticism is to be adviced. Why would the first type of fence sitter, if it exists, be interested at all in what and how skeptics are doing? And why would such interest be stired up by some factual arguments in the context of friendly conversation? What would catch the fence sitter's attention in such a converstation? The skeptic answer is: "Nice people are more likable." I wonder it that is valid? If I came across two people opposing racists or neo-Nazis, would I be more attracted to the one treating the racists or neo-Nazis in a respectful and friendly manner, or would I be more attracted to the one making a firm and confrontational stance against them? Oh, it isn't fair to compare woo-wooism and racism? Okay, I guess there is a difference between trying to send people back intellectually fifty years and 500 years, but not necessarily to the advantage of superstition.

So, what about the second type. It sits on the fence and swings back and forth, leaning towards one side for a moment and then the other. It knows the alternatives but can't make its mind up. Really? Are the alternatives a popsicle with strawberry flavor or one with pineapple flavor? Mustard or not on your hot dog? Boot cut jeans or loose fit? No, the alternatives are two fundamentally different ways of viewing existence. Two uncompatible philosophies, if you wish. A creature that so easily swings between those two different worlds, and is so sensitive that only influence under disguise prevents it from running away, is such a creature really worth the effort? Honestly, suppose you get the creature to chose side - it becomes the third type. Why wouldn't it just as easily swing back? If the fence sitter shares psychological traits with humans, social psychology states that attitudes easily changed are changed back with equal ease. Are such fence sitters, if they exist, really worth focusing on?

Let's go to the numbers. Skeptics don't know their actual count, but have a good enough idea to consider these cretures worthwile focusing on. So, on one side we have the woo-woo:s, then comes the fence sitter, and then - blank. There is nothing more. There are no people who shares the skeptic cause but are not yet active or organized. Or if there are, they are so scarce compared to the mystical fence sitter that paying them attention is a waste of time. In addition, such sympathizers would probably favor a more confrontational style, at least not be as sensitive to it as fence sitters. So they are of no interest to the fence sitter-believeing skeptics.

Why not? Because fence sitters are not really the goal, they are the means. Fence sitters are created and defined to legitimize a comfortable tone, an approach many skeptics find comfortable and are used to from campus debates and the lecture hall. But when they find that the public debate is very far from the academic discussion, and that the moderate "nice guy" approach is very far from rational in that context, they need something to make it appear so. And the fence sitter is born. Irrational? Of course. Devastating for the promotion of skepticism? Of course. But the important thing for many skeptics is not the advancement of skepticism, it is to feel good, and to be liked bÿ as many as possible. After all, who in their right mind would enjoy coming forth as a brute!?

So, in the case of the fence sitter, there are no skeptics asking for "extraordinary proof" of this extraordinary creature. There are no skeptics asking for verification of its existence, in fact, most take it for granted. Why? Because the creature makes them feel good. They need the fence sitter to be true. Thus, skeptics may in some cases provide a valuable insight into the core motivational factors of woo-woo.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Droppings of a Crank; The Sheldrake Research Pt. 3

[ Read the second part ]

The Critique

A predominant problem of the reviewed experiments is the sampling. Sheldrake & Smart use rather vague terms in their report; it is explained that the phenomena studied is the most common example of telepathy in the modern world and you get the impression that the ability to sense who is calling before you answer is general. But does the study sample really represent the general public? The receivers who responded to the advertisment reasonably considers themselves to have telepathic ability, a notion stronger than a general supposition. Futhermore, it is reasonable that the callers nominated by the receivers to some extent shares this notion and also thinks the receiver has the supposed ability. The sample must therefore be considered representative of a population of what is usually called "high scoring subjects" rather than the general public. This narrowing down is, however, not done by Sheldrake & Smart, an error also noted by Schmidt, Müller, & Walach (2004).

The snowball sampling of callers is motivated by the theory that telepathy occurs between people belonging to the same social group. But in a group of relatives and friends, there is so much more than an alleged telepathic connection. There is affinity, loyalty, shared values, group pressure, and social obligations. A systematic error to be considered in all psychological research is the "good-subject tendency," i.e. the tendency of experimental participants to act according to what they think the experimenter wants. In the classic Milgram experiments, two thirds of the participants were willing to administer dangerous electroshocks when told to do so by a "professor" in charge, even when the victims begged to be released or in the end responded to the shocks only with tormented screams (Milgram, 2004). Dissimulation as well as lies can be part of participant strategy to achieve what is believed to be the experimenter's goal. In an experiment with members of social groups participating together, with an established affinity, it is imperative to be aware that this type of participant tendency can manifest itself in both implicit and explicit cooperation within the participant groups. In an experiment on telepathy it is of the utmost importance that both verbal and non-verbal communication can be ruled out as cause of a measured effect, especially when participants are allowed to act within the frames of existing social bonds and forms of communication perhaps unknown to the experimenter. Are Sheldrake's & Smart's experiments controlled in these respects? Does the experimental design allow other forms of communication than telepathy? Here are some suggestions of confounding variables:

Positive interpretation

All reported methods allow what can be called "positive interpretation." The experimenter is actually totally unaware of what is being said during the calls between receiver and caller. The receiver reports his or her guess to the experimenter first after the call and any caller confirmation is also done after the call. The experiments thus lack any control for interpretations in line with the following:

- Uhm, I'm guessing Frank. Is it Frank?
- No, it's Mary. Sorry.
- Oh, I thought of you first but then I changed my mind.
- You did? Well, you were right then, from the beginning.
- Yeah, typical...
- But let's report you were right. The idea is to follow your intuition, isn't it?
- I suppose... But can I do that?
- Of course you can. It's not cheating since you thought of me first.
- I guess... Okay, I'll report I was right.

Both receiver and caller then reports that the guess was right, even though it de facto was wrong - the receiver might even have thought of all callers. None of Sheldrake's & Smart's methods is protected against this threat to internal validity. This type of interpretation is also more likely to emerge within a social group than between strangers who doesn't know each other. Thus, the results of the study don't exclude this kind of error; the fact that no telepathic connection beyond chance has been measured between receiver and unknown caller can be explained by the lack of social bond that permits this type of "agreement", rather than lack of a shared "morphic field." And it doesn't take many such instances of positive interpretation to significantly affect the data.

Caller number identification

The report carefully describes what kind of die was used in the random selection of caller and calling time but there is no description of what kind of telephones were used by the receiver. It would have been appropriate that the equipment used had been accounted for. Was it an older type of phone or a more modern with a display? Does the receiver have caller number identification service and if not, can this be verified by the receiver's service provider? None of this is accounted for in the report.

Cell phone/SMS

Since both receiver and caller are sitting all by themselves in their homes, there is no possibility to control possible verbal or text communication by cell phone. To exclude such communication, careful monitoring of both receiver and caller is required - a receiver may even have a cell phone set to "silent" kept close to the body, and be directed by agreed upon vibration signals.

Sensory leakage

Even if the calls had been controlled, Schmidt, Müller, & Walach (2004) notes the possibility of sensory leakage as the receiver might apprehend cues from different sounds from the caller and his or her environment. This threat is eliminated if the receiver has to make a guess before answering. But as already noted, the Sheldrake & Smart experiments lack control of the calls altogether.

In Sheldrake's & Smart's own discussion on errors, mortality and how it might have affected the statistical analysis is considered. But the mortality itself is not. In both experimental series, the mortality is 57%, i.e. more than half of the receivers dropped out before completing the ten trials. For an experimental study in which the participants have been informed in detail about procedure and in addition gets compensated, 57% is a whopping number. Sheldrake & Smart provides the following explanation:
They withdrew for a variety of reasons, most commonly because they could not persuade all 4 callers to agree to be available at the same times. (Sheldrake & Smart, 2003a).

In the discussion on errors, this is somewhat elaborated on:
In fact most participants who stopped did so because their callers were unable or unwilling to continue. (Sheldrake & Smart, 2003a).

The receivers, who at one point decided to participate, were thus unable or unwilling to complete the experiment. Why? Sheldrake & Smart claims that it usually was due to the four caller not being able to participate at the same time. What were the reasons that cannot be sorted under "usually"? Is it possible that some of the receivers saw no point in continuing because of weaknesses in the experimental design? Sheldrake & Smart doesn't say.

It should be noted that the vague formulations regarding mortality allows for it all to be explained by unwillingness to complete a scientific experiment because it was experienced to be unscientific or otherwise not worth completing, despite compensation. Even if the participants knew each other well in the groups, they were not familiar with participants in the other groups. If you dropped out from the experiment because you considered it meaningless you might still get the impression from Sheldrake's & Smart's report that most of the others left the experiment due to time factors.

Sheldrake & Smart use initials for the receivers in their report. An account of the mortality, listing the reasons for dropping out, would have been possible considering both space and practicality. In light of the methodological weaknesses of the experiment, such an account should have been in the report.

In the discussion on errors, Sheldrake & Smart dismisses cheating for three reasons: (1) It is unlikely that a majority of the participants would have cheated and had that been the case, the results would have been different, (2) Sheldrake & Smart themselves did not cheat in the preliminary experiment, nor did the unknown callers in the second experimental series, and (3) the tests in a completely different experiment was videotaped (Sheldrake & Smart, 2003b).

It is certainly unlikely that a majority of participants would cheat, had the sample been random and representative of the general public, but that is not the case in the Sheldrake & Smart experiments. Instead, the researchers have a non-random sample of people who think they have a telepathic ability or that the receiver does. It is not unlikely that a majority of such a sample considers it reasonable to somewhat adjust guesses in line with the "positive interpretation" principle described above - even if it means cheating in a strict experimental sense, it doesn't have to have that meaning to the participants. Sheldrake & Smart also presumes that cheating would have rendered even better results than was the case, thus ignoring the possibilty of participants assessing that major "adjustments" would be suspicious. Since the experimenters beforehand informed the participants of the procedure, they certainly disclosed information about what outcome would be expected by chance and thus hinted what results would be enough to be significant. It would be foolish - and revealing - to achieve more than necessary.

That Sheldrake & Smart themselves didn't cheat doesn't say much, unfortunately. The fact that Sheldrake is looking for support for his very controversial theory on morphogenetic fields makes him more than inclined to "interpret positively". Smart was alredy convinced she had telepathic connection to her dog (Sheldrake & Smart, 2000) and must be considered just as inclined as Sheldrake to adjust results. Furthermore, it is rather remarkable that experimenters double as participants in experiments.

The argument that unknown callers did not cheat (their results are at chance level) is only valid if the only possibility of cheating is the one suggested by Sheldrake & Smart. As is evident from the above, that is not the case.

The experiment videotaped in another study (Sheldrake & Smart, 2003b) cannot guarantee that cheating was not used in the reviewed study. It is of course ridiculous to suggest such a thing. If you look at both studies you find that one woman, Sue Hawksley, scored 63% when her mother was calling in the reviewed study, but only 27% when her mother was calling in the videotaped experiments. The same woman scores at chance level when close friends are calling in the reviewed study, but 63% and 45% in the videotaped experiments. It seems highly unlikely that an alleged telepathic connection with the mother disappears entirely when someone turns on a videocamera, and that telepathic connection with close friends then suddenly emerges. A reasonable explanation would instead be that the mother is comfortable with "positive interpretation", which is possible in the reviewed study, while cell phone or caller number presentation, which are possible in the videotaped experiments, are more fitting cue tools for the close friends.

A fundamental experimental flaw is the fact that the research method is changed three times during the experiments. It indicates that the design was weak and not thoroughly thought out from the beginning. The fact that Sheldrake & Smart so freely reports this suggests a lack of fundamental insights into research methods.

Sheldrake (2006) claims that the experiments have been replicated but the study he refers to, Lobach & Bierman (2004), suffers from similar flaws as the one reviewed here. Another study, in which errors were eliminated and stricter controls adopted, reported results that would have been expected by chance (Schmidt, Müller, & Walach, 2004).

To sum up, no inference regarding the existence of telepathy can be made on basis of this study. As it has been reported by Sheldrake & Smart, it suffers from methodological flaws so severe that it must be considered worthless. The researchers present a seeming representability that doesn't exist och appear totally unaware of fundamental psychological dispositions, in themselves and in the participants, that might be of importance to the experiment. The design is very weak and sensitive to several confounds that may affect the results.

Next, a concluding post. Stay tuned.


Lobach, E., & Bierman, D. J., (2004). Who’s Calling at This Hour? Local Sidereal Time and Telephone Telepathy. Report presented at The Parapsychological Association Convention, Wienna, Austria.

Milgram, S. (2004). Obedience to authority: The unique experiment that challenged human nature. New York: Perennial.

Schmidt, S., Müller, S., & Walach, H., (2004). Do You Know Who is on the Phone? Replication of an Experiment on Telephone Telepathy. Report presented at The Parapsychological Association Convention, Wien, Österrike.

Sheldrake, R., (2006). In Conversation on Abc Radio National – Rupert Sheldrake [www dokument]. URL ... 754367.htm.

Sheldrake, R., & Smart, P., (2000). A Dog That Seems To Know When His Owner is Coming Home: Videotaped Experiments and Observations. Journal of Scientific Exploration, 14, 233-255. URL ... video.html

Sheldrake, R., & Smart, P., (2003a). Experimental Tests For Telephone Telepathy. Journal of the Society for Psychological Research, 67, 184–199. URL ... _tests.pdf

Sheldrake, R., & Smart, P., (2003b). Videotaped Experiments on Telephone Telepathy. Journal of Parapsychology, 67, 187–206. URL ... video.html

Droppings of a Crank; The Sheldrake Research Pt. 2

[ Read the first part ]

The Design and Reported Results

In September 2006, Swedish tabloid Expressen published an article titled "Scientist proves tricky telephone classic" (2006). Reuters news agency reported that Rupert Sheldrake claimed he had evidence of telepathic ability in conjunction with e-mails and phone calls. In tests with both e-mail and telephone, test participants had scored 40%, which is far better than the 25% which is to be expected by chance. The odds that the results were caused by chance was 1 in 1 000 billion, reported Reuters. That the research had been received with some suspicion was due to the fact that only 63 people had participated in the telephone study and 50 in the e-mail study.

The background of these news is several studies on telepathy that Sheldrake conducted between 1999 and 2004. His interest in telepathy derives from the belief that this phenomena confirms the theory of morphic resonance and its application in morphogenetic fields to which members of a social group are connected. These fields cannot be measured as such, but only by the effects they have and one effect is telepathy, suggests Sheldrake (2006). Another effect is the sense of being stared at, which Sheldrake claims is due to vision not being a one-way process. The image that is created by consciousness during visual perception also radiates from the eyes and can be sensed by the person being stared at (Blackmore, 2005).

The following review, however, deals with one of the studies on telepathy which, according to Sheldrake, constitutes evidence of the existence of telepathy: Experimental Tests For Telephone Telepathy (Sheldrake & Smart, 2003a). The review only covers experimental design and tests - Sheldrake's statistical analysis is not commented on.

Sheldrake's basic experimental design consisted of one person (the receiver) being called by one person (caller) randomly chosen from a group of four persons. In some of the trials, all the callers in a group were known and nominated by the receiver, in others at least two were known and the rest unknown and chosen by the experimenter. If Sheldrake's hypothesis was correct, people from the same social group would have telepathic contact, but people who were not members of the same social group would not. If the receiver was able to name the right caller to a greater extent than what was expected by chance, 25%, telepathy was considered to be the cause. In these tests, Sheldrake reported results that were slightly above 40% concerning callers known by the receiver and 25% concerning callers not known by the receiver, i.e. an obvious support for Sheldrake's hypothesis.

Sheldrake used a convenience sample for the study. Participants were recruited through newspaper advertisments which read: “Do you know who is ringing before you pick up the phone? Good pay for fun and simple experiments as part of psychic research project.” Additional recruiting was done through a recruitment website. Those who responded (receivers) was sent a more detailed description of how the experiment was to be conducted, and was also asked to nominate four people in their circle of acquaintances who also were willing to participate (callers). Thus, callers were recruited through snowball sampling.

Faithful to Sheldrake's approach, the experiments were done in the homes of the participants. The receiver sat in his or her home, the callers in their respective homes, and experimenters Sheldrake and Smart at yet another location. The experiments consisted of a preliminary experiment and two real experimental series, in which the following methods were used:

Method 1
Two callers from the group of four known callers were chosen randomly by throw of a die where the numbers five and six were thrown again. If the same number came up twice, that caller got to call twice. The time for the call was also selected randomly but kept within the stipulated 60 minute test period, which in turn was divided in six segments. An experimenter called the caller one or two hours before the chosen calling time and notified the caller when to make his or her call. The caller was also asked to think about the receiver a minute before making the call. The callers who weren't chosen were also notified that they were not selected for the current trial. A couple of minutes after the test call, the experimenter called the receiver and asked what he or she had guessed. Sometimes, the caller was asked as well. The experimenter then made notes of the result, date, time, receiver, caller, and guess. This method was used in a preliminary experiment and with the first 17 receivers in the first real experimental series, in total 198 trials.

Method 2
The random choice of time for the call was changed to a fixed schedule, for instance 10.15 and 10.45. Otherwise, it was exactly like method 1 and used for the remaining five receivers in the first experimental series and the first three in the second experimental series, in total 87 trials.

Method 3a
Only one call was made during the test. The experimenter chose a caller less than 15 minutes before the chosen time and the caller was notified, at latest, 10 minutes before the call. This method was used for 37 of the receivers in the second experimental series.

Method 3b
This method was similar to 3a but the callers who were not chosen were not automatically notified. Instead, they were told that if they hadn't been notified at least five minutes before the calling time, they had not been chosen. This enabled more tests during a shorter time period, in general with a 15 minute interval. This method was used for the remaining 34 receivers in the second experimental series, in total 268 trials.

Sheldrake's & Smart's null hypothesis was that the receivers would make a right guess in 25% of the calls, which is to be expected by chance. The alternative hypothesis was that the receivers would guess right in more than 25% of the cases, which would then be explained by telepathic ability. For hypothesis testing, an exact binomial test was employed. To combine the results of different test trials, Stouffer was used. For comparison between results from known and unknown callers and first and second trials, Fisher's Exact Test, an alternative to Chi2, was used. A 95% confidence limit was calculated when analyzing the probability of right guesses.

In a preliminary experiment reported by Sheldrake & Smart, Smart was the receiver and two sisters, her mom, and Sheldrake were callers. Sheldrake also acted as experimenter. Smart's result was 43%, i.e. significantly above 25%. Smart's best result (67%) was achieved when Sheldrake was calling.

In the first real experiment series, 9 receivers carried the stipulated number of trials (10) through and all but one guessed right in 40% of the calls. This series had a mortality - people who dropped out during the test - of 12 receivers. The most common mortality cause was said to be an inability to get all four callers to participate at the same time.

During the second and last experiment series, yet another hypothesis was introduced: phone calls from callers known by the receiver could be sensed but in calls from unknown callers, the result was what would be expected by chance. 16 receivers carried the stipulated number of trials (10) through. They guessed right in 54% of the calls from known callers and in 24% of the calls from unknown callers, results that lends support for the new hypothesis. This series had a mortality of 21 receivers.

All in all, Sheldrake's & Smart's experiments supported both the original alternative hypothesis and the one introduced in the second series; it seems confirmed that you can sense, telepathically, who is calling and that this ability is dependent on the caller being someone you know.

Are Sheldrake's & Smart's results to be trusted? Are the experiments well designed and conducted, or do they have weaknesses that threats the conclusion? This will be discussed in my next post. Stay tuned.

[ Read the third part ]


Blackmore, S., (2005). Confusion Worse Confounded. Commentary on Sheldrake. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12, (6), 64–66. URL

Forskare bevisar lurig telefonklassiker. (2006, 7 September). Expressen, URL

Sheldrake, R., (2006). In Conversation on Abc Radio National – Rupert Sheldrake [www document]. URL ... 754367.htm.

Sheldrake, R., & Smart, P., (2003a). Experimental Tests For Telephone Telepathy. Journal of the Society for Psychological Research, 67, 184–199. URL ... _tests.pdf

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Droppings of a Crank; The Sheldrake Research Pt. 1


A researcher who turns his back on traditional science is British biologist and parapsychologist Rupert Sheldrake. As a young and esteemed scientist at Cambridge, he caused some commotion in 1981 when he published A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Causative Formation. The book, and a New Science article published before it, got a strong but mixed reception (Freeman, 2005).

Sheldrake champions the morphic resonance thesis, which suggests that the phenomena of existence becomes more probable the more times they occur and that biologic evolution and behavior therefore are adapted to patterns defined by previous organisms. He is of the opinion that the laws of nature, for instance, should be regarded as changeable habits evolved since the birth of the planet (Wikipedia, 2006) – subsequently, existence and nature has no conformity to law.

The discussion was settled when Nature published an editorial in September 1981, attacking Sheldrake's theories and condemning them for being unscientific. It was suggested that Sheldrake was trying to bring magic into science and his book was nominated as suitable for book burning. The Nature article wrecked Sheldrake's academic career and since then, he is more or less excommunicated from the world of science (Freeman, 2005).

Sheldrake's response has been to go his own way, in several respects. He publishes his theories and research in popular science books aimed at layman audiences (Wikipedia), he runs his research from home (Sheldrake, 2006), he does field studies on phenomena others would try to isolate in the laboratory and urges the public to conduct private research (Sheldrake, 1994) with the help of ready-to-use experiment designs which can be downloaded from his website (

To fit Sheldrake into any traditional science can therefore not be done. He is trained in natural science but is strongly influenced by everything from Goethe to Eastern mysticism. Sheldrake's activities can be viewed as an attempt to change paradigm, from a science springing from a physical reality to research more open to a non-physical dimension (Freeman). He himself describes his world view as "holistic" and is of the opinion that the current direction of science lends support to the view that everything is connected. In addition, he defines his field of research as "everyday mysteries," which are best studied in their own contexts, i.e. in everyday life and not isolated in a laboratory (Sheldrake, 2006).

At the same time, Sheldrake shows many signs usually associated with pseudoscience and "cranks," signs described by Goode (2000) among others. He condemns his critics as being dogmaticly prejudiced, as opposed to "sound" skeptics who are willing to accept his theories at large but express views about details. In his opinion, most scientists suffer from "tunnel vision" but he himself has a broader outlook on things and the phenomena he studies are real for other scientists too but the dominating scientific culture forces them to deny them (Sheldrake, 2006). So Sheldrake displays an ill-concealed conviction of his own excellence and the notion of a widespread scientific "conspiracy" preventing the real truth from being disclosed.

So is it reasonable to examine the work of Sheldrake according to traditional scientific criteria? Yes, for several reasons. First, Sheldrake is making traditional scientific claims of truth; even if his research methods may be considered as unorthodox, Sheldrake claims his hypothesises kan be tested and confirmed by the real world. He further claims that his experiments can be replicated by anyone anywhere, with similar results. It is therefore justified to put Sheldrake's methods and the results he has achieved under scrutiny. This can be done according to prevalent criteria since Sheldrake claims his research satisfies these (Sheldrake, 2006).

Secondly, a considerable part of Sheldrake's undeniable popularity is the fact that he has a researcher's authority, i.e. he is presumed to have reached his conclusion by scientific method. He is also expected, as a researcher, to be motivated by a strong desire to find out what reality is, rather than prefering it to be a certain way. Thus, Sheldrake is presumed to differ from other researchers philosophically, but not methodologically.

Finally, Sheldrake has gained some popularity among other parapsychologists. In the news bulletin of the Swedish Society for Parapsychological Research, it is stated that Sheldrake is "viewed by many, inlcuding many here in Sweden, as one of the more exciting and promising researchers in parapsychology" (SPF, 2005), that he is "very good at conducting experiments on quite ordinary phenomena" (SPF, 2003), and the American parapsychologist Daryl Bem (2006) claims that, since 1986, Sheldrake has "constantly improved his experiments to eliminate sensory leakage." Thus, there is a general as well as methodological appreciation of Sheldrake as scientist. Scrutinizing Sheldrake's research may therefore also indicate a level of methodological awareness in other parapsychologists.

In the following blog posts, I will look into Sheldrake's experiments on telepathy - the 2003 study Experimental Tests For Telephone Telepathy in particular. Stay tuned.

[ Read the second part ]

Note: This text was first published in Swedish in 2007 on the Swedish Skeptics forum. It is still available here.


Bem, D., (2006). Sheldrake och hans kritiker: Känslan av att vara iakttagen. Notiser och Nyheter, 33. Sällskapet för Parapsykologisk Forskning.

Freeman, A., (2005). The Sense of Being Glared At. What is It Like to be a Heretic? Journal of Consciousness Studies, 12, (6), 4–9.

Goode, E., (2000). Paranormal Beliefs. A Sociological Introduction. Prospect Heights: Waveland.

Sheldrake, R., (1994). Seven Experiments That Could Change the World. London: Fourth Estate.

Sheldrake, R., (2006). In Conversation on Abc Radio National – Rupert Sheldrake [www document]. URL ... 754367.htm.

SPF, Sällskapet för Parapsykologisk Forskning, (2003). Notiser och Nyheter, 19. URL

SPF, Sällskapet för Parapsykologisk Forskning, (2005). Notiser och Nyheter, 29. URL

Wikipedia, (2006). Rupert Sheldrake [www document]. URL

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Anti-psychic poster

I've put together a mini-poster you can download and distribute as you see fit. I'm estimating that it can be upscaled two times without loss of quality. There is space at the bottom if you want to add a logo of your own. The original PDF is 210 x 297 mm, a standard A4. Do you have any modification requests, I'll be happy to oblige.

Now, run off and litter your neighbourhood! If you do, I'll be happy to post a photo of the poster in place here at the blog. Just mail it to

Download English version

Download Swedish version

Another great posting at Halmstad University, Sweden.

Ängelholm has been blessed with one more mini-poster!

Another image from a local supermarket, this time from Ängelholm in Sweden.

This image was sent from Tranås in Sweden. Yet another lovely posting next to some church propaganda!

Great photo from a reader in Kalmar, Sweden, who posted the poster in a local mall, under two flyers from psychic Lasse Rydström. Bullseye!

This photo comes from a supermarket in Färjestad, Sweden. Apparently, a psychic is promoting himself on one of the adjacent notes. Great!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Gardner on Pseudo-scientists

Martin Gardner 1914-2010

Martin Gardner's Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science was first published in 1952 under the title In the Name of Science. It soon became a classic of skeptic literature and it is easy to understand why. Reading it now, more than fifty years later, it feels just as necessary as it must have been then. Gardner's prediction has come true. We do have a multitude of pseudo-scientists promoting different weird ideas as though they are unquestionable truths. The cranks of the mid 20th century discussed by Gardner has been replaced by new ones, sometimes even weirder. From the traits and characteristics described by Gardner, it is easy to recognize a Rupert Sheldrake or Gary Schwartz, or - if you're involved in debates on paranormal phenomena - the followers of such cranks. Like Torbjörn Sassersson, who are able to forward the arguments of his Masters but lack the intellectual capacity to develop ideas of his own. Interestingly enough, the more devoted the follower, the more personality traits he or she seem to share with the Master. In some cases, the paranoia described by Gardner doesn't seem to be connected to a specific theory or set of theories. As in the case of Rickard Berghorn, former sci-fi publicist turned self-proclaimed genius, the paranoia itself is the main drive - he is just waiting for some lunacy to come along. Anyway, I am sure you won't lack contemporary references to the excerpt from Gardner's introductory chapter quoted below. I hope it will serve as a teaser for the book. It is, as far as I know, still in print and a must in any skeptic's library. Buy it and read it. Gardner comes in handy when taking part in the struggle for skepticism.

"The modern pseudo-scientist - to return to the point from which we have digressed - stands entirely outside the closely integrated channels through which new ideas are introduced and evaluated. He works in isolation. He does not send his findings to the recognized journals, or if he does, they are rejected for reasons which in the vast majority of cases are excellent. In most cases the crank is not well enough informed to write a paper with even a surface resemblance to a significant study. As a consequence, he finds himself excluded from the journals and societies, and almost universally ignored by the competent workers in his field. In fact, the reputable scientist does not even know of the crank's existence unless his work is given wide-spread publicity through non-academic channels, or unless the scientist makes a hobby of collecting crank literature. The eccentric is forced, therefore, to tread a lonely way. He speaks before organizations he himself has founded, contributes to journals he himself may edit, and - until recently - publishes books only when his followers can raise sufficient funds to have them printed privately.

A second characteristic of the pseudo-scientist, which greatly strengthens his isolation, is a tendency toward paranoia. This is a mental condition (to quote a recent textbook) "marked by chronic, systematized, gradually developing delusions, without hallucinations, and with little tendency toward deterioration, remission, or recovery." There is a wide disagreement among psychiatrists about the causes of paranoia. Even if this were not so, it obviously is not within the scope of this book to discuss the possible origins of paranoid traits in individual cases. It is easy to understand, however, that a strong sense of personal greatness must be involved whenever a crank stands in solitary, bitter opposition to every recognized authority in his field.

If the self-styled scientist is rationalizing strong religious convictions, as often is the case, his paranoid drives may be reduced to a minimum. The desire to bolster religious beliefs with science can be a powerful motive. For example, in our examination of George McCready Price, the greatest of modern opponents of evolution, we shall see that his devout faith in Seventh Day Adventism is a sufficient explanation for his curious geological views. But even in such cases, an element of paranoia is nearly always present. Otherwise the pseudo-scientist would lack the stamina to fight a vigorous, single-handed battle against such overwhelming odds. If the crank is insincere - interested only in making money, playing a hoax, or both - then obviously paranoia need not enter his make-up. However, very few cases of this sort will be considered.

There are five ways in which the sincere pseudo-scientist's paranoid tendencies are likely to be exhibited

(1) He considers himself a genius.

(2) He regards his colleagues, without exception, as ignorant blockheads. Everyone is out of step except himself. Frequently he insults his opponents by accusing them of stupidity, dishonesty, or other base motives. If they ignore him, he takes this to mean his arguments are unanswerable. If they retaliate in kind, this strengthens his delusion that he is battling scoundrels.

Consider the following quotation: "To me truth is precious. ... I should rather be right and stand alone than to run with the multitude and be wrong. ... The holding of the views herein set forth has already won for me the scorn and contempt and ridicule of some of my fellowmen. I am looked upon as being odd, strange, peculiar. ... But truth is truth and though all the world reject it and turn against me, I will cling to truth still."

These sentences are from the preface of a booklet, published in 1931, by Charles Silvester de Ford, of Fairfield, Washington, in which he proves the earth is flat. Sooner or later, almost every pseudo-scientist expresses similar sentiments.

(3) He believes himself unjustly persecuted and discriminated against. The recognized societies refuse to let him lecture. The journals reject his papers and either ignore his books or assign them to "enemies" for review. It is all part of a dastardly plot. It never occurs to the crank that this opposition may be due to error in his work. It springs solely, he is convinced, from blind prejudice on the part of the established hierarchy - the high priests of science who fear to have their orthodoxy overthrown.

Vicious slanders and unprovoked attacks, he usually insists, are constantly being made against him. He likens himself to Bruno, Galileo, Copernicus, Pasteur, and other great men who were unjustly persecuted for their heresies. If he has had no formal training in the field in which he works, he will attribute this persecution to a scientific masonry, unwilling to admit into its inner sanctums anyone who has not gone through the proper initiation rituals. He repeatedly calls your attention to important scientific discoveries made by laymen.

(4) He has strong compulsions to focus his attacks on the greatest scientists and the best-established theories. When Newton was the outstanding name in physics, eccentric works in that science were violently anti-Newton. Today, with Einstein the father-symbol of authority, a crank theory of physics is likely to attack Einstein in the name of Newton. This same defiance can be seen in a tendency to assert the diametrical opposite of well-established beliefs. Mathematicians prove the angle cannot be trisected. So the crank trisects it. A perpetual motion machine cannot be built. He builds one. There are many eccentric theories in which the "pull" of gravity is replaced by a "push." Germs do not cause disease, some modern cranks insist. Disease produces the germs. Glasses do not help the eyes, said Dr. Bates. They make them worse. In our next chapter we shall learn how Cyrus Teed literally turned the entire cosmos inside-out, compressing it within the confines of a hollow earth, inhabited only on the inside.

(5) He often has a tendency to write in a complex jargon, in many cases making use of terms and phrases he himself has coined. Schizophrenics sometimes talk in what psychiatrists call "neologisms" - words which have meaning to the patient, but sound like Jabberwocky to everyone else. Many of the classics of crackpot science exhibit a neologistic tendency.

When the crank's IQ is low, as in the case of the late Wilbur Glenn Voliva who thought the earth shaped like a pancake, he rarely achieves much of a following. But if he is a brilliant thinker, he is capable of developing incredibly complex theories. He will be able to defend them in books of vast erudition, with profound observations, and often liberal portions of sound science. His rhetoric may be enormously persuasive. All the parts of his world usually fit together beautifully, like a jig-saw puzzle. It is impossible to get the best of him in any type of argument. He has anticipated all your objections. He counters them with unexpected answers of great ingenuity. Even on the subject of the shape of the earth, a layman may find himself powerless in a debate with a flat-earther. George Bernard Shaw, in Everybody's Political What's What?, gives an hilarious description of a meeting at which a flat-earth speaker completely silenced all opponents who raised objections from the floor. "Opposition such as no atheist could have provoked assailed him"; writes Shaw, "and he, having heard their arguments hundreds of times, played skittles with them, lashing the meeting into a spluttering fury as he answered easily what it considered unanswerable."

In the chapters to follow, we shall take a close look at the leading pseudo-scientists of recent years, with special attention to native specimens. Some British books will be discussed, and a few Continental eccentric ones, but the bulk of crank literature in foreign tongues will not be touched upon. Very little of it has been translated into English, and it is extremely difficult to get access to the original works. In addition, it is usually so unrelated to the American scene that it loses interest in comparison with the work of cranks closer home.

With few exceptions, little time will be spent on theories which come under the broad heading of "occult." Astrology, for example, still has millions of contemporary followers, but is so far removed from anything resembling science that it does not seem worth while to discuss it. The theory that sunspots cause depressions (popular among conservative businessmen who like to think of booms and busts as natural phenomena to be blamed on something remote) is the last respectable survival of the ancient view that human affairs are linked with astronomical phenomena. This literature, however, belongs more properly to economics than to astronomy. The social sciences have, of course, their share of eccentric works, but for many reasons they form a separate subject for study.

Our survey will begin with curious theories of astronomy, the science most removed from the human landscape. It will proceed through physics and geology to the biological sciences, then into human affairs by way of anthropology and archeology. Four chapters will be devoted to medical quasi-science, followed by discussions of sexual theories, psychiatric cults, and methods of reading character. Finally, we shall make a serious appraisal of the reputable work of Dr. Rhine, with quick and not so serious glances at a few other venturers into the psychic fields.

The amount of intellectual energy that has been wasted on these lost causes is almost unbelievable. It will be amusing - at times frightening - to witness the grotesque extremes to which deluded scientists can be misled, and the extremes to which they in turn can mislead others. As we shall see, their disciples are often intelligent and sometimes eminent men - men not well enough informed on the subject in question to penetrate the Master's counterfeit trappings, and who frequently find in their devotion an outlet for their own neurotic rebellions. More important, we shall have impressed upon us the traits which these "scientists" hold in common. The atmosphere in which they move will become familiar to us as we begin to breathe the air of their fantastic worlds.

Just as an experienced doctor is able to diagnose certain ailments the instant a new patient walks into his office, or a police officer learns to recognize criminal types from subtle behavior clues which escape the untrained eye, so we, perhaps, may learn to recognize the future scientific crank when we first encounter him.

And encounter him we shall. If the present trend continues, we can expect a wide variety of these men, with theories yet unimaginable, to put in their appearance in the years immediately ahead. They will write impressive books, give inspiring lectures, organize exciting cults. The may achieve a following of one - or one million. In any case, it will be well for ourselves and for society if we are on our guard against them."

Friday, May 21, 2010

Cash is king!

Scandinavian mediagroup Egmont state that they "bring stories to life." Well, last year their Swedish subsidiary also decided to bring fortune to a couple of charlatans, Swedish psychics Erika Andersson and Benny Rosenqvist, when it launched the magazine "Nära" ("Close"). This effort to cash in on the current interest in New Age and spiritualism is presented as dealing with spirituality, "providing well-being for both body and spirit" and features the standard mixture of psychics, "experiences", NDE's and additional, contemporary woo-woo.

Andersson and Rosenqvist are the magazine's in-house psychics. They have been on the cover of the three issues published so far and much of the content is focused on them. Egmont also arranges seances and online chats with the two and is therefore an active partner in the psychic scams they perpetrate. Providing swindlers with a marketing platform in form of a magazine distributed nationwide is of course an all-time low for the publishing industry in itself, but engaging in the actual fraud is repulsive.

For the psychics, the magazine is without doubt an opportunity denied most of their peers. Although broadcasting companies Channel 5 and TV4 have boosted the careers of several psychics, commitment has been restricted to the TV series. That a major publishing company condescends to active participation in the actual swindle must be a marvellous stroke of luck for the psychics Andersson and Rosenqvist. A recent incident on the magazine's online forum also suggests that the publisher is keen on covering up any blemishes appearing on the light-hearted surface.

Just before noon April 5th, a posting questioning the quality of the messages conveyed by Andersson and Rosenqvist appeared on the forum. The poster, "Lina76", had attended - or arranged - a séance with Andersson and reported that the messages were very vague and general. Several in the audience of 20 people had expressed similar complaints. In addition, Andersson had charged nearly a thousand dollars for a two hour session and gave no receipt, i.e. the transaction was made behind the taxman's back.

"Lina76" had also been on a private sitting with Rosenqvist who told her that she would have another child in the future. It was going to be a boy, but could also be a girl, according to the medium. Profound messages indeed.

Several posters came to the psychic's rescue, testifying how wonderful experiences they had provided. But the discussion soon turned to the question of the receipt. Poster "Slingshot" suggested "Lina76" and the other dissatisfied sitters should file a joint complaint to the police. "Liviaxx" then asked if anyone seriously thought that the magazine Nära would encourage its partners to become black marketeers. Skeptic "Trilobite" responded that the transaction was private, without the magazine's knowledge.

Then enters the magazine's editor in chief, Madeleine Walles. She states that Erika Andersson is employed by the magazine and is running her psychic business on the side. As an employee of Nära, Erika Andersson is required to run her side business in accordance with the law, i.e. provide written receipts. Andersson had informed Walles that such a receipt was in fact brought to the séance in question. In conclusion, Walles states that if Andersson wasn't serious and reliable, the magazine wouldn't employ her. So, there it is. Every testimony of Andersson's wrongdoings is flawed, because she is an employee of the magazine Nära. And since Nära doesn't employ dubious persons, Andersson can't be one. Circular reasoning in absurdum.

Although "evigaeva" expresses her gratitude to the editors for assuming their responsibility (!), "Lina76" won't give in. She now claims that Andersson also failed to provide a receipt at another séance in the town of Limhamn. In addition, she quotes several complaints she received after the séances. At this point, the forum administration kills the discussion and erases it from the forum.

Thanks to skeptic "Trilobite", who fortunately copied the entire thread before it was deleted and posted it here on the skeptic's forum, we have an illustrative testimony of how a reputable publishing company engages in the sordid business of mediumship and, steeped in the obvious tax evasion of its protegés, doesn't hesitate to use a line of argument straight from the crackpot textbook on rhetoric.

I guess no one informed Walles about the motto historically linked to psychic business: cash is king!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Printable versions available

As you may have noticed, I tend to post rather long texts - contrary to all recommendations. For your convenience, I have started making printer friendly versions in PDF format, with centred layout to enable double-sided printing. I will add a link to such a version on all my postings, starting with these seven:

Exposing the cold reading and trickery of psychic fraud Terry Evans, one of Sweden's renowned TV mediums.
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Investigating how well British psychic Colin Fry is doing in live séances.
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A close look at an article on evidence for PSI, written by Swedish parapsychologist Adrian Parker. In the paper reviewed, Parker systematically belittles critique raised against claims of paranormal phenomena made in several studies and distorts comments made by fellow parapsychologist Richard Wiseman. Document contains all posts in this matter, including Adrian Parker's reply.
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Proposing that the notion that psychics are unaware of what they are doing is an understandable fallacy among believers but an ignorant misconception among skeptics. The psychic session offers intellectual tasks that cannot be accomplished unconsciously. The notion persists among skeptics because they tend to read Hyman or McLaren instead of visiting a séance and see what is actually taking place during a psychic session.
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An exposé of the life and feats of Sweden's greatest psychic ever: Olof Jonsson. A pathological liar and fraud, Jonsson swindled his way through the Rhine Institute and the Apollo 14 project.
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On Jörgen Sundvall, "not active" hare krishna and bogus therapist.
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Is Swedish skepticism being taken over by the secular humanist society and if so, is that necessarily a bad thing?
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Saturday, May 8, 2010

Lyzell goes Duncan

I recently wrote about British psychic Helen Duncan and the fact that there is nothing unexplained about her - she was an obnoxious, obese fraud who dabbled in materializations such as "ectoplasm". She was arrested for having tried to hoodwink a naval officer on leave, then charged with psychic fraud and sentenced to nine months imprisonment (see Nothing unexplained about Helen Duncan. Justice was served.

Materialization mediums have been a diminishing crowd. Harry Houdini and his debunking followers exposed this fraudulent practice to such an extent in the beginning of the 20th century that since, there is no doubt in reasonably sane people that materialization is one of the most pathetic attempts to exploit superstition and gullibility. This kind of kindergarten mysticism has survived through closed sessions for invited sitters only - mainly those deluded enough to consider the hilariously funny archive footage of psychics with cheese cloth hanging out of their ears and nostrils as evidence of spirit communication.

In one such session as late as 1992, British psychic Colin Fry was caught redhanded. When, by accident, someone turned on the light at that seance, he was found standing with an illuminated trumpet in his hand (see Colin Fry revisited. Notably, Fry was also into cheese cloth for a while, as you can tell from the picture below. Psychics are of course ready to explore every deception - and exploit every believer - available to them.

In Sweden, Fry's protégée Jane Lyzell has taken over his spiritualist center Ramsbergsgården. Lyzell has started to experiment with "ectoplasm", i.e. tissue tricks like those performed by Helen Duncan. As I have noted before (see Jane Lyzell knows), Lyzell considers Helen Duncan a genuine medium. So she readily clings to the folklore made up after Duncan's death in preparation for her own scams.

Lyzell has also issued some "evidence" of her accomplishments in manifestation. It's a picture with her sitting in darkness, apparently during some kind of spirit visit. Although there are no visible signs of such a presence, Lyzell says it is "ectoplasm." I cannot post the image here, but I will gladly link to it:

Lyzell waiting for "ectoplasm" to appear, probably from a body cavity

Obviously, we will have to wait for the cheese cloth, torn sheets, or towels to appear on Lyzell photographic "evidence" but if she has any intelligence at all, she will go through the literature on Helen Duncan. It is more than explicit regarding how Duncan executed her tricks. And since Lyzell shares so many of Duncan's other characteristics, why not share her modus operandi? For Lyzell, as for Duncan, it's all about the money in the end and if some dupes are stupid enough to accept it, why not provide it?

The ethics of psychics will never cease to amaze me.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Nothing unexplained about Helen Duncan

I have always enjoyed the performances of British actor Tony Robinson. First and foremost, he is the charmingly nutty sidekick of Blackadder in the classic BBC comedy series. But he is also great as presenter in the archaeology programme "Time Team", where he runs around among archaeologists and researchers on intensive three-day excavations all over Britain and sometimes abroad. But there is a dark cloud...

In 1982, Tony Robinson received a call from TV producer John Lloyd, who wanted him to audition for the role of servant to the Duke of Edinburgh in a sitcom set in 15th century England. Robinson got the job and when BBC 2 aired the pilot in June 1983, his portrayal of several generations of Baldricks in the service of several generations of Blackadders granted him a place in the Great Hall of Comedy Fame. Four series were produced, along with several one-off installments and if you haven't seen any of it, I strongly urge you to do so - preferably something from the second or third season of the original TV series.

After Blackadder, Robinson turned to digging. In 1994, UK Channel 4 launched the archeology show "Time Team", with Robinson as presenter. The format is simple. During three days, a team of archaeologists and experts conduct an excavation somewhere in Britain or, on occasion, abroad. Robinson acts as a kind of middleman between the scientific crew and the viewer, asking questions and explaining in laymen terms. After more than 200 episodes, the show is considered to have improved public understanding of archeology in Britain and Robinson, along with others in the crew, has been awarded several honorary degrees for popularizing science.

In 2005, Robinson hosted Wildfire Television's two hour documentary "The Real Da Vinci Code." The show is an almost ruthless demolition of the myths and hoaxes presented as facts by Dan Brown in his bestselling novel, and by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln in their Dänikenian "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" from 1982.

So when Robinson turned up as host and associate producer of the three episode paranormal documentary series "Tony Robinson & ..." in 2008, my hopes were high that he would bring his fact oriented and inquiring mind from "Time Team" and "The Real Da Vinci Code." The production company, Flashback Television, did indeed announce that the series, also known as "The Unexplained", would "bring a rational approach to the world of psychic mysteries and the myths and legends of the past." Having seen the first episode dealing with psychic medium Helen Duncan, aired on British Channel 4 on 29th of December 2008, I must conclude that Robinson's dig into the sewers of spiritism is yet another example of how journalistic inquiry turns into naïve ignorance when facing supernatural claims.

Although Robinson is accompanied by freelance scientific journalist Becky McCall, the episode on Helen Duncan adds to the myth surrounding her rather than present facts. Even if Richard Wiseman in one sequence stresses that one needs to "look very closely in the records", no such scrutiny is employed. Instead, the viewer gets the standard "eyewitness" accounts, albeit over 60 years old, and an emotional testimony of Duncan's granddaughter Mary Martin.

I understand the need for television shows to be entertaining, but I don't understand how someone honored for popularizing science so easily converts to popularizing myth and fraud. And I particularly don't see why the facts about Duncan are less entertaining than the fiction.

Let's look at some of the claims made in the show. First of all, there is the suggestion that Duncan was hunted by MI5, that she in some way was a threat to national security during WWII. Did she pose such a threat? And her granddaughter claims Duncan was arrested as a spy. Was she really?

The suggestion that Duncan had revealed war secrets during her séances was put forward by Percy Wilson at a conference organised by the College of Psychic Science in 1958, i.e. two years after the death of Duncan. Prior to that, nothing. There is no such claim or suggestion in the 1944 court proceedings - and nothing in the Old Bail Trial report that covers over three hundred pages. No public mention of it at all by anyone prior to 1958. It is in essence a later fabrication aimed at rendering Duncan martyrdom. Several circumstances supports this conclusion. First, Duncan had allegedly conveyed the message that HMS Barham had went down in the Mediterranean before that information had been made official by the naval authorities. The Barham was sunk on 25th of November, 1941 and the news was released 28th of January, 1942. Helen Duncan was arrested two years later. It is an absurd thought that a suspicion of being a security threat would take two years to result in an arrest, in wartime.

Second, according to myth, Duncan received the Barham message in the form of a sailor with the name "HMS Barham" on his capband. But during WWII, capbands had only "HMS" on them, ship names were omitted for security reasons. This is illustrated by a sculpture at the memorial Robinson and McCall visits in the episode, see picture below.

Similar claims regarding another ship, HMS Hood, are made by one of the "eyewitnesses" in the episode. Duncan is supposed to have received a message during a séance on the same day it went down. This is, in lack of any supporting evidence whatsoever, of course another fabrication.

Was MI5 involved in the arrest? Well, let's recall what really took place. In January 1944, Helen Duncan gave a series of séances at The Master Temple Psychic Centre in Portsmouth. The establishment, along with the drugstore above which it was situated, was run by spiritualist couple Homer. Duncan was paid £112 for six days of performance. During one of these séances, two naval officers attended. One of them, Lieutenant Worth, received a vivid message from his aunt, which left the officer unimpressed since he didn't have any deceased aunt. Later during the sitting, he became even more suspicious when a spirit materialised claiming to be his sister. When Worth confronted Duncan about the fact that he had no sister, the psychic explained that his sister had been premature.

When Worth's mother assured him she had never had a premature child, he was disgusted by the psychic's show and reported the matter to the local police. Following instructions, Worth booked two seats for another seance and attended in the company of a policeman in plain clothing. During a materialisation, Worth switched on a light and the policeman sprang forward grabbing the psychic in order to remove the white drape. Sitters rushed to the psychics defense and as one turned the light off, another snatched the cloth from the policeman's grasp. When the light came on again, the cloth had disappeared.

This incident, and nothing else, is what brought Helen Duncan to the Old Bailey, along with her assistant Mrs Brown and the Homer couple. Duncan was sentenced to nine months imprisonment, Brown to four, and the Homers were bound over for two years. An appeal was made but the verdicts and sentences were upheld. The group was sentenced for falsely conspiring to pretend that Duncan was able to communicate with the dead, under section four of the Witchcraft Act. Nothing else. Not for spying or revealing war secrets. Duncan was accused and committed for being exactly what she was - a psychic fraud. MI5 had nothing to do with it.

Twelve years later, in 1956, the Nottingham police raided another of Duncan's séances. She became ill and died after a month, 59 years old. And no, there was nothing odd about her death. It was not caused by her "trance" being disturbed by the police or other ridiculous claims in that line of thinking. Duncan's medical records showed that she had a long history of ill-health and as early as 1944 she was described as a large, obese woman who could only move slowly as if she suffered from heart trouble.

So, contrary to the suggestions of Robinson, there is nothing unexplained about Helen Duncan. Had Robinson followed Wiseman's advice and looked into the records, he would have found that Duncan was exposed as fraudulent by the research department of the London Spiritualist Alliance and by Harry Price in 1931, that following Price's report, Duncan's former maid came forward and confessed in detail to having aided Duncan in her psychic feats, that her husband admitted that he believed the materialisations to be the result of regurgitation, and that a suspicious sitter in a 1933 séance grabbed the psychic and when the lights were turned on, Duncan was found sitting in stockinged feet, hastily stuffing a torn white west up under her clothes. Perhaps Robinson would have had something to respond to the "eyewitness" account of how a one-piece garment was sufficient safe-guard against any fraud - Duncan's trick with that garment was exposed as early as 1931.

In closing, I would like to quote Price's report from the Duncan tests, as quoted by Paul Tabori in The Art of Folly:

At the conclusion of the fourth seance we led the medium to a settee and called for the apparatus. At the sight of it, the lady promptly went into a trance. She recovered, but refused to be X- rayed. Her husband went up to her and told her it was painless. She jumped up and gave him a smashing blow on the face which sent him reeling. Then she went for Dr. William Brown who was present. He dodged the blow. Mrs. Duncan, without the slightest warning, dashed out into the street, had an attack of hysteria and began to tear her seance garment to pieces. She clutched the railings and screamed and screamed. Her husband tried to pacify her. It was useless. I leave the reader to visualize the scene. A seventeen-stone woman, clad in black sateen tights, locked to the railings, screaming at the top of her voice. A crowd collected and the police arrived. The medical men with us explained the position and prevented them from fetching the ambulance. We got her back into the Laboratory and at once she demanded to be X-rayed. In reply, Dr. William Brown turned to Mr. Duncan and asked him to turn out his pockets. He refused and would not allow us to search him. There is no question that his wife had passed him the cheese-cloth in the street. However, they gave us another seance and the "control' said we could cut off a piece of "teleplasm" when it appeared. The sight of half-a-dozen men, each with a pair of scissors waiting for the word, was amusing. It came and we all jumped. One of the doctors got hold of the stuff and secured a piece. The medium screamed and the rest of the "teleplasm" went down her throat. This time it wasn't cheese-cloth. It proved to be paper, soaked in white of egg, and folded into a flattened tube... Could anything be more infantile than a group of grown-up men wasting time, money, and energy on the antics of a fat female crook?

Needless to say, Helen Duncan was one of the more revolting and offensive con-artists on the psychic scene, so perhaps Robinson should let her remains stay in the sewers of spiritism, where they belong. Or at least look for facts instead of boosting myth.

See the episode on

Part 1,
Part 2,
Part 3,
Part 4,
Part 5

Friday, March 5, 2010

On Swedish skepticism

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What would motivate Jane or John Doe to join the skeptic movement? That is a question the Swedish Skeptic society may need to address very soon. Because in the public eye, it seems like the Swedish Humanist Association has already found an answer. Under chairman Christer Sturmark, the secular humanists have had an exceptional growth in the last five years. Sturmark has achieved lots of media exposure and he is often the preferred choice when TV producers cast debates on issues concerning religion, creationism, and, yes, New Age, occultism and paranormal phenomena - issues that one would think are more appropriate to be dealt with by the skeptic society. There is a reasonable possibility that the Humanist Association soon will start to attract support and members with a main interest in skepticism rather than secular humanism, if it doesn't already.

Is such a development necessarily a bad thing? Of course not. The skeptic cause needs active promotion and the keyword in the term "skeptic movement" is movement, i.e. the opposite of standing still. I would also like to add being open to change, and ability to adapt according to the conditions provided by the environment in which the movement aspires to have an influence. An organization not willing to actively promote the skeptic cause, not willing to move in a direction beneficial to the growth of skeptical influence, and not able or interested in adapting to its environment should not carry the skeptic torch. An organization willing, able and interested should, even if it means that the torch in Sweden is carried by the Humanist Association or a completely new skeptic society. As New Age is spreading and getting increasing support, acceptance, and media exposure, the skeptic cause has to be furthered through active effort. A skeptic movement has to oppose and even confront this development. Just being available to provide rational and natural explanations to supernatural claims, if somebody wants them, is not enough - such an approach is in reality a non-approach, it is lack of movement and activity.

In a recent article in the public online article portal, skeptic chairman Hanno Essén and former chairman Jesper Jerkert stated that they mainly see the Swedish Skeptics as a sort of consumer agency that students, authorities, journalists and people in general can turn to with questions about paranormal claims. They also noted that public official statements from the organization will continue to be scarce in the future. They do, however, encourage members and supporters to actively defend a scientific perspective. So the message is clear and explicit: availability, not activity, is to be expected from the board of the Swedish Skeptics, i.e. the core of the organized Swedish skeptic movement does not include movement. That this is the strategy dominating the actual work of the board is admitted by a board member on the skeptic forum; the board isn't that active in public discussion and when it is, it's only after long and slow discussion aimed at not offending anyone. Is that a rational adaptation to a modern society characterized by the information highway and communicative speed? Is that a rational strategy in a media climate where individual cranks make the effort to seek attention and very often gets it? In a culture where new media collides with old, where the distance between media consumption and production is shrinking at rapid speed and audience mobility is a striking feature - is a public relations policy of the 1960's sound? When technology, economy and accessibility is more favorable than ever for small and relatively poor actors on the opinion market - is this the time to chose silence, or answering only when questioned, as a principal approach?

The Humanist Association has chosen a very different strategy. Whenever a media discussion that concerns the organization's interests emerges, chairman Sturmark or someone else on the board makes a contribution in the form of an article or a public statement. Always. Regarding ongoing issues such as creationism, religious influence on education, or confessional schools, the board initiates public debate in every way and media they can. Representatives from the board regularly participates in arranged panel discussions on topics like humanism, religion, and even New Age. They also arrange such events and seminars themselves. Last year, the Association ran a nationwide ad campaign themed "God probably doesn't exist." They engage in networking and even have a group in the Swedish parliament. And, as indicated earlier, media increasingly tend to pick them as representatives for a skeptic view as well as for secular humanism - even when the Swedish Skeptics would be a more appropriate choice.

Devoted skeptics are complaining, of course. However, they don't arrive at the conclusion that skeptics can learn from the humanists. Instead, they've started to engage in bashing them. Chairman Sturmark has a history in computer and internet market speculation which means that he is immoral and a bad representative for the humanist movement. Whenever he appears on TV, he fails to explain all relevant facts and arguments and relies heavily on repeating catchword phrases. During the expansion, the humanists have also attracted some celebrities and that's always a big help. Oh, and they receive donations. And the humanist boom is not an effect of the efforts of the Swedish humanists, but of a global secular humanist boom. Etcetera, etcetera. What the complaining skeptics fail to realize is that the undeniable success of the humanists is the result of strategy and organizational change. Their member stock has increased with 500% since 2005, which means that they once were a rather small organization with very limited resources, much like the Swedish Skeptics is now and has been since it was founded in 1982. But the humanists are going somewhere, they have made a change. They are able to convey their message in a more effective and attractive way now as a result of intentional effort. The key elements in this effort are not celebrities or donations - those are bonuses, but motive and intent. They have also realized that promoting secular humanism will upset a lot of people but chosen their cause over the convenience of their opponents, i.e. they have remained loyal to their reason to exist, even if it means that some, or even many, will consider them evil or immoral.

Sadly, it appears as if the skeptics are inclined to chose the convenience of their opponents over the cause. At the moment, the main topic of interest at the skeptic forum is the current "tone" of argument. Apparently, some members are afraid that heated discussion and frank dismissal of certain woo-woo claims might scare people off. Don't take this the wrong way; the skeptic forum has an excellent staff of moderators who are doing a great job, it offers the standard possibilities to report abuse and of course the obvious choice not to take part in heated discussions or the forum in general, but some say that isn't enough to prevent people from "feeling bad". There is a lack of empathy among some of the forum members. Not among the hordes of attending woo-woos - their everlasting claims of being subject to "intellectual oppression" has rooted successfully, but among skeptics. There has even been a motion submitted for the upcoming annual meeting suggesting that the board appoints a committee to define ethical guidelines for member behavior. So, instead of worrying about how to promote the skeptic cause effectively, the concern is how to cripple it.

But let's go back to the initial question: What would motivate Jane or John Doe to join the skeptic movement? Well, if Jane or John are predisposed for New Age or some related lunacy, the chance they would join the skeptic movement is nil. What if they are "sitting on the fence"? Well, the probability that they are interested at all in these issues is rather low and to make them interested under the conditions stipulated by the media culture we live in would demand resources that even the humanists lack. But what if Jane and John have started to react negatively on the current swarm of psychics, healers and miracle mongers and would be inclined to contribute to an organization that is against woo-woo? Would they be attracted to an organization that is available for questions and mainly concerned with not upsetting anyone, or would they be more attracted to an organization that often, actively and publicly denounces woo-woo claims in a clear-cut and uncompromising manner? I know the bulk of devoted skeptics will yell that there is a middle course, but in the end I think the Swedish Skeptics will have to come up with rational answer to this question. I know the Swedish Humanist Association has done so.