Friday, 20 November 2009

What do Forteans think of Skeptics?

Well, according to a recent article in the Fortean Times, Skeptics are also known as "Debunkers" or "Deniers". So with that complete misapprehension on what a skeptic is, here is a transcript from that Fortean Times article entitled: FBI Fortean Bureau of Investigation: 101 UK Spectics' 2009 Conference, Muncaster by Peter Brookesmith

The haunted castle of Muncaster in Cumbria has been in the Pennington family for some eight centuries. The castle and its estate are wonderfully maintained and have the most spectacular prospect of the mountains that hem in the English lakes. The place also has enough spooks to keep you awake for far longer than a weekend flying visit.

Muncaster has long been known as the haunt of King Henry VI (who during the Wars of the Roses hid out here after the major defeat of the Lancastrian forces at Hexham in 1464), and the ghost of an apprentice carpenter who had his head hacked off while asleep - and so naturally carries it about with him on his jaunts. The 16th century castle jester Tom Skelton, is believed to haunt the place too, and has a reputation for playing poltish pranks on those he takes against or whom he considers a threat to the Pennington family's interests. It was he who, on orders from Sir Ferdinand Pennington, loyally decapitated the luckless 'prentice, who had got above his station with the laird's daughter Helwise; so it goes. Then there is the white garbed ghost of the reputedly foul·mouthed Mary Bragg - a local girl who in the 19th century was hanged from the castle's main gate by drunken yobs. There is even a spook cat: a lion, no less, shot in Kenya by the last Lord Muncaster, has reportedly been heard growling while sauntering about the place at dusk.

Perhaps the most interesting of Muncaster's creepy stories centre on the Tapestry Room. There are huge, complex, magnetic anomalies within the room itself, and the mattress on the bed lies on a sheet of chain mail, which itself has become magnetised. The focus of the anomalies in the room happens to coincide with the position of a guest's head upon the pillow. Those sleeping in the room have reported hearing the persistent weeping of a child, a woman's voice singing, and mysterious footsteps; seeing the door open of its own accord; and feeling themselves pat led by invisible hands. Some even say they have been hurled from the bed.

Dr Jason Braithwaite, of Birmingham University, who describes himself as a brain scientist, has been investigating the room since the 1995. He says, as a good scientist would, that the reports of hauntings and the physical anomalies might be unconnected. There are a number of ideas, some of them double blind experiments, in the pipeline to test this. One of Dr Braithwaite's fellow researchers told us a nice tale of following someone up the stairs (all he could see was her legs; he assumed it was a member of the team on the premises at the time) to the Tapestry Room. Another researcher was already in the room. He saw a dark blue form enter and then seem to envelop him, before vanishing. Then the first researcher came in, and was suitably surprised not to see the person he thought he was following upstairs. If that isn't enough, there was a third person in the Tapestry Room at the time, who saw nothing at all. Pick the bones out of that if you can. Stout-hearted Hazel Muir (who was there to report on the conference for New Scientist) and her partner Tim Brown spent Saturday night in the room, jus' fer the crack, as it were. Sadly, nothing more unusual happened than Tim being kept awake because his back was giving him gyp.

Perhaps because he's known the Pennington family for years or, pel' haps, with a more ironic or provocative intent, Dr Braithwaite (who with Dr Wendy Cousins and John Jackson organised the event) thought this an excellent location for the UK Skeptics' 2009 conference, It was indeed, for one of their intentions was explicitly not to lay on a self-gratifying schmooze at which 'skeptics' (a.k.a. debunkers or deniers) [My Emphasis] could reinforce their sense of being supremely rational, superior to benighted proles. and generally the last hope of a ruinous age.

Rather, the organisers meant this to be an opportunity for those genuine sceptics, who want no more than to know what really lies behind reports of unexplained events, to exchange views and information with those with more faith in the anomalousness of anomalies but who are trying to find some hard evidence that weird things really do happen. The speakers represented a pretty fair cross-section of this population, and more work was probably done amiably exchanging views in after-hours gassing and drinking than in presentations and panel sessions. Which is how it should be. And the audience included a number of people generally committed to 'the paranormal' but ready to consider materialist or scientific interpretations. This contingent may of may not have had something of the night about them, but they had phenomenal stamina when it came to the small hours of the morning ...

When it came to official business, there wasn't a dull presentation among them. Some speakers dealt with problems in so detailed and subtle a manner that it's impossible to do them justice here. David Wilde and Dr Christine Mohr, for instance, gave intriguing talks on out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences. Mr Wilde seems to have encountered people who regarded their OBEs as revelatory (territory usually reserved for NDEers), but not to have noticed how unusual this is. Dr Mohr offered much evidence to suggest that OBEs are related to confusions at the temporo-parietal junction in the brain as it tries to process information about a person's physicai co-ordinates in space.

In contrast, Dr Wendy Cousins skimmed over the peculiar and fascinating relationship between 19th-century scientists and the bizarre goings-on in spiritualist seance halls. As I learned out-of-hours, Dr Cousins is steeped in this stuff and could probably have had the gathering's eyes even further out on stalks than they already went, for hours. So, for me, her talk ended about a day too soon.

One of the most intriguing papers was given by Karen Douglas, on conspiracy theorists, wondering like many among us what kind of person seriously entertains hard-core conspiracy beliefs. She had tested a number of people for their Machiavellian outlook (there is a well-established protocol for this) and cross-related the results to their sympathy for conspiracies. And lo, most people with devious political tendencies also go for conspiracy theories.

She then examined this sub-group, in effect asking them if, given the need and the opportunity, they would fake Moon landings, assassinate heads of state, do deals with aliens, and so on. And yes, most of them would. Dr Douglas didn't say so outright, but one might conclude from this finding that conspiracies don't so much appeal to particular individuals, as reflect, and perhaps objectify, their own outlook. It's as if, subconsciously, they are saying to themselves "I'd do that - therefore that's what they're doing."

While forteans should be glad that gatherings of this nature can occur, they should be gladder yet to hear the words of Jason Braithwaite as he kicked off the conference, and of Prof. Chris French, who's often misperceived as a dyed-in-the wool debunker, in his keynote speech. Broth had fascinating tales to tell of how the brain (or the mind) can fool itself and us. Probably as a consequence of knowing these things, both took the view that the null hypothesis in investigating apparently paranormal and anomalous phenomena should be that a scientifically explicable (or at least recognisable), 'normal' rather than paranormal set of circumstances is at work. There are literally billions of connections in the neural networks of the brain: any of them can disconnect or misconnect at any time, so no wonder we all occasionally have bizarre experiences, and some have them more than others. This approach doesn't exclude paranormal explanations: it simply asks that scientists exhaust their options before adding further hypotheses to their adumbrations.

Thus Jason Braithwaite's remark that one should beware of paranormal 'explanations' because they involve a vast number of unexamined assumptions, fell happily into the porches of mine ears. But he made the more penetrating point that simply because science can't (or doesn't bother to, I thought) explain some anomalous experiences, it's illogical to 'explain' them by calling them paranormal. Most refreshing though was his comment that the ultra-skeptical dismissal of weird experiences as merely 'all in the mind' was often intended as the end of the story, whereas it should be the start of a conversation. Likewise, Chris French commented that anomalous psychology shouldn't be seen as agaillst parapsychology, but as another way of trying to "see if there's anything there. Whatever we find out still tells us a lot about our own psychology." All this echoes what a group of British forteans have been saying among themselves for years.

Drs Braithwaite and French also stressed the power of context and prior beiief in interpreting odd experiences. Given a widespread perception of 'creepiness' in Muncaster's Tapestry Room, people are primed to translate the mundane into the spooky. Given that rock music is intrinsically wicked, some people will be able to discern Satanic messages therein, as long as the music is played backwards. It would have been good to have a social scientist or an anthropologist or al least a psycho-socialist anomalist on stage to broaden the discussion of this aspect of things, for 'context' is a word with a wide reach. Such a contributor could also have shaded in Chris French's rather simplistic ascription of alien-abduction experiences to sleep paralysis. The conundrum has many more triggers than that.

The next UK Skeptics' conference is loosely scheduled for 2011. Seats are extremely limited, but forteans should be there if they can.


NB For my definition of skeptic see this old post here
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