Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Tony Robinson and the Ghosts of Glastonbury: Channel 4, 30th Dec 2008

I was foolishly encouraged to watch a programme on Channel 4 last night about the “investigation” into a Victorian Archaeologist who claimed to have received his guidance from a long dead monk via the medium of automatic writing.

The reason I was initially keen to watch, was that Tony Robinson was accompanied by his own Dana Scully, a Skeptic called Becky McCall. Not sure if anyone else in the Skeptical community has heard of Becky but she was new to me. I’m not sure if the programme’s producer’s simply edited the footage in favour of the woo argument or if Becky didn’t really ask the sceptical questions I wanted her to. The programme therefore seemed biased in propping up the paranormal argument in the face of contrary evidence.

Three key sequences could have presented a more realistic explanation of the phenomenon:

The First was where Tony visited a purveyor of finest quality woo in an attempt to produce some automatic writing, guided by the long dead monk. 95% of the scribbles produced by Tony were completely unintelligible. Even with the guiding hand of the woo artist helping Tony out. But a small subset of the doodles could be vaguely construed as having some relationship to familiar letters, and some of these together hinted at possible words. One of the words determined from the writing session was “Wallace”, although to be fair, I could make out a W shape and a vowel shape followed by a bit of a squiggle. A later telephone conversation between Tony and the programmes researchers unearthed the name “Wallace” in some of the research documents.

This seemingly unlikely coincidence was trumpeted as a strange phenomenon for which no natural explanation was given. Disappointingly the Skeptic could not come up with a valid reason for the coincidence, which made this scant evidence seem even more plausible.

I would have liked the Skeptic to have explained a little about coincidence, probability and how the logic and statistics behind what seem unlikely events are often due to the laws of probability not aligning terribly well with human intuition and expectations. (Dawkins has written at length on this subject). I would have liked the Skeptic to conduct a similar experiment under conditions that are purely random with no suggestion of the paranormal. For Example, an alternative sample of automatic writing or other randomly produced text could be compared against another preselected document of similar size to the research material. If a word from this text could be deciphered and matched with a similar word or name in the preselected document, it would demonstrate how good the human brain is at recognising such patterns and being amazed by the coincidence once seen.

Secondly, Tony Robinson gave a little time to our old friend, Chris French, to provide a rational, logical and natural explanation for the phenomenon of automatic writing. Chris duly provided a valid natural alternative to supernatural guidance. However, even if Chris was given an equal amount of time to present his argument, I believe the programme would still have biased in favour of the supernatural explanation. As I have written before in previous blogs, presenting two sides to an argument, gives the false impression that each alternative has a 50% chance of being true. All of the empirical evidence that I am aware of for this phenomenon supports the argument put forward by Chris French. This was not made clear, and the viewer is left to pick what are presented as two equally valid alternatives.

Thirdly, the automatic writing allegedly assisted by the monk led the Victorian archaeologist to locate further archaeological features close to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Again I was disappointed to see that no attempt was made to see how many predictions he had made in total and how many were hits and how many were misses. It seems to me as if he was just playing a huge game of battleships, with the ruined abbey playing the part of the aircraft carrier. Surely all the archaeologist had to do was fire off a few salvos in the squares adjacent to the hit and he’s bound to find something else. To her credit the Skeptic did unearth another prediction from the archaeologist’s automatic writing that suggested another site of archaeological interest. The suggested area was surveyed by the geophysics team, and no archaeology was detected, supporting the hypothesis that he just made a lucky hit with the other location. I would still have liked to know how many predictions he made and how many hits he got, and then compared that to pure chance.

The programme also examined what were believed to be the bones of the monk, although a modern investigation showed no evidence of the wounds inflicted at his death and no way of substantiating the claim that the bones belonged to the monk. One of the bones claimed to be part of the monk was however identified as a medium sized mammal (non human) bone. As one of the words that could be vaguely deciphered from the automatic writing session was “pig”. The programme was allowed to close by reminding us that a pig is in fact a medium sized mammal (Cue the Twighlight Zone Music).

I believe the producers of this programme were desperate to try and present an equally weighted programme between paranormal and scientific explanation. In order to achieve this they had to underplay scientific evidence and big up circumstantial evidence and coincidences to bolster the paranormal argument. In the end all this did was keep the plates of woo spinning for this particular phenomenon, when scientific investigation of the claims could have led to case closed.

Boo Channel 4.

By the way, happy new year to everyone. This time of the year is good for top 10 reviews of the year and in case you haven’t read Rebecca Watson Top 10 Heroes and Villains of 2008, link below:
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