Thursday, 10 August 2017

The Lowe Files In Focus: A New Lowe For The Paranormal.

One of the most undeniable effects of the boom in paranormal investigation television shows is the propagation of the idea that anyone can investigate the paranormal. Special skills in the field have diminished, as has the commitment to learning what the scientific method is about, and how an investigation should actually be conducted. Teams are formed on whims and the rush to find a cool name to print on a black polo neck/hoodie combo comes before dedication to learning and refining one's methods. The latest show passed through the A&E paranormal TV mill is highly likely to reinforce this homogenization of skill in the paranormal field.

Introducing A&E's "The Lowe Files." 

I'm sure very few of you need an introduction to Rob Lowe... I'll rephrase that.... I'm sure very few of you over 35 need an introduction to Rob Lowe. He's essentially a better looking, cleaner cut Robert Downey Jnr who never landed Iron Man. To say he wasn't on my radar would be an understatement. That was until this "news story" appeared in my social media feed.

It's apparent reading the various versions of the article that have appeared on a multitude of internet sites, that the story springing from an interview (1), was initially intended as a puff piece for Lowe's new paranormal investigation show/vanity project "The Lowe Files" that took on a life of its own. It did the trick very nicely. I had initially hoped the show was a clever parody. Perhaps even a Borat-style fly on the wall documentary, with the primary cast and crew aware of the joke and the members of the public Lowe encounters genuinely unaware of the nature of the show. I think it's got potential. Sadly, it wasn't to be it appears this show is playing it straight.... straightish

All of the following clips are featured for the purposes of review, comment and critique and as such improving public knowledge, uses which are covered by fair use.

The first episode takes the form of an investigation into a "haunted boys reformatory" in California, I suspect the show isn't going to stick to this format though preferring a "jack of all trades" approach that insults seasoned investigators who concentrate on one area of study for years. Not only will this show not dwell long enough in one location to conduct a proper investigation, it seems it won't linger on an area of research either. It's the paranormal TV equivalent of a child with ADHD. Lowe investigates with his two sons, Matthew and John Owen.

NB- I know many of you can't watch the videos embedded on the blog so I've consolidated them into one Youtube linked video in the sources section at the foot of the post.

The show begins in suitably frustrating style (above clip). We see one of the Lowe kids lying on a bed "calling out" to spirits. Overlaid is footage of a beach ball that begins to drift towards a piece of kit, looks like an EMF detector. Dramatic movement tells us something eerie has happened. The truth is what we are likely seeing here is an example of Brownian motion (2). The extremely light ball is disturbed by an air current, or equally likely the static around the plastic ball is interacting with the electromagnetic field around the device next to it. This is how you've chosen to introduce yourself and your show to the public, with a completely unremarkable event. I find it hard to believe even the most fervent believer will accept this as paranormal.

The opening credits roll, Lowe explains his interest in the paranormal over various faked images. It was telling to see one that I've debunked here on this site before, namely the "rake" photo allegedly taken from a trail cam (3). With this image, I feel the show just cited its one of its major sources, viral stories on the internet and social media. Be interesting to see how this element plays out during the series.

The show does get extra points for choice of theme song, the awesome majesty of "Don't Fear The Reaper" by Blue Oyster Cult ensures I enjoy at least a minute of this dross. 

videoJohn Owen then raises a question that I've asked myself, what makes them any more qualified to investigate the paranormal than "any other idiot" his words not mine. What's funny is the line is quite clearly ADRed. It's been added to the audio track after the recording. This could be because it wasn't properly picked up in the car, or because the show's producers are acutely aware the show balances on an extremely flimsy premise. Lowe points out it's because they'll have a shaman called Jon with them. Erm... great, but that doesn't really answer the question, as presumably any of these other "idiots" could also take a shaman with them. Lowe gives us a load of new age pseudo-babble about "drawing out energy" and "crossing the void" to explain the Shaman's presence. "No one has ever brought a shaman before!" Lowe tells us hoping that we don't just link shamanism to any one of the other religious systems and beliefs that have been dragged along on the paranormal circus train over the past decades. Lowe explains he's doing the show because he loves paranormal television. Presumably, he loves money too.

They then stop for doughnuts. Then they stop for lunch.

After these extended breaks and what I assume is meant to be witty dialogue, we finally get to meet shaman Jon, otherwise known as Jon Rasmussen. Jon can be found spouting utter rubbish such as "This is a great tool to use on-the-go to align your body, mind, and soul with the most powerful vibrational frequency of Love." as he tries to sell you "the Lovetuner" a $58 flute that can be worn around the neck (4).

Unfortunately, as much as Jon seems to know about $58 bronze whistles, he knows nothing about conducting an investigation or the equipment used. "EMF meters" we are told "are the best way to detect ghosts" and if you get "any reading at all that's something." Seriously, this makes Nick Groff look like a seasoned professional. It would be laughable if it weren't so insulting. Of course, when Jon is handed the EMF detector later there is no indication the team has taken a baseline reading. Also, when he gets a reading of "17" later in the show, we have no idea what the significance o this unitless number is. There's no idea of what is normal for this area.

Lowe follows this with an explanation of the Ovilus ghost box, which he maintains allows ghosts, who speak in different frequencies to talk through it. Whether he knows that the Ovilus uses environmental readings to pull random words from its database, I don't know, but the cast does seem to allude to this later in the show. That doesn't stop them from using it as the body of the investigation part of the show. Every time it spits out a random word, Lowe assigns this word a great deal of significance and fills in the details ad hoc about what the word may mean.


In this clip, the Ovilus spits out the word "pie" clearly a completely random and meaningless word. Lowe asks his son where the kitchen is, he responds "down there" and points in a general direction. Lowe asserts the box said "pie" because they've reached the kitchen. Except they haven't reached the kitchen yet! It may well be somewhere in the general area, but they aren't there yet. That's the problem with the Ovilus, when the words have no apparent meaning, the user quickly supplies it meaning it can't ever be wrong.

The team take a tour of the location they are meant to be investigating, sharing lots of local stories and grim tales of drowned girls and shot children. This indulgence in local "colour" is clearly to provide an eerie atmosphere for the audience, but it's not helpful in conducting an actual investigation as it adds a layer of suggestibility to what is experienced at the location.

During an uneventful tour, the Lowes are shown an area on a wall adorned with a yellow/brown stain, which their guide assures them is a scorch mark that returns every time it is removed.

Whilst this looks like a burn, I'd suggest it caused by damp building up behind the wall. Possibly a rainwater leak pouring down and resting on brickwork or a lintel behind the wood panelling. If you look closely you can see areas where it seems like the moisture has seeped down past whatever this blockage is. Failing that, it may even be a burn, albeit caused by a hot water pipe behind the panelling. Either of these things would explain why the stain returns after it is cleared.

The Lowes then rendezvous with Shaman Jon outside the location, who spouts some metaphysical babble about thinning veils and then resorts to the ultimate cheap paranormal trope: the institute is haunted because it's built on a native American burial ground. I don't know nearly enough about Native American burial customs to suggest Jon is wrong when he states Native Americans typically used hills as burial sites, but I'd suggest that a list of categorised burial sites doesn't bear out the assertion. I'd also suggest that native Americans had a wide range of burial customs. Although hills, in general, could be considered sacred, that doesn't mean EVERY hill was sacred. Nor does it mean every sacred area was a burial ground. The "Indian burial ground" trope (5) is a deeply insulting one based upon the assumption that certain ethnic groups are somehow imbued with mystical powers.

When the main "investigation" is conducted, it's done so in the dark with night vision cameras, as one would expect from any ghost hunting television show at the moment. I think It would almost be heresy for a show to investigate in proper lighting conditions now.  As is also common at this point, everything that happens, from a flickering lift light upwards is described as significant in some way. The team are suitably jumpy as required by ghost television standards.


Rob and John Owen set a Triboelectric field detector down on the floor, to detect static fields, which Rob assures us is a sign of "paranormal activity" neglecting to mention that they are also a sign of operating electrical goods, even rubbing a piece of plastic on a shirt can produce a triboelectric field. The triboelectric effect is the general description of the static field that occurs when a positively charged surface rubs against a negatively charged surface. Most static electricity is triboelectric in nature He tells his son to turn the torch off to prevent interference, despite the fact there are multiple cameras running and the detectors have been placed in front of black electrical cables! We can also see a torch or camera light shining on the detector when it triggers.

The triboelectric field detector is a really cheap piece of kit which comes in all sorts of weird and not so wonderful shapes or sizes. Of course, we've no more reason to suspect this item would be any more useful for detecting a ghost than an EMF, and like an EMF detector, there's a multitude of possible sources for the detected field including the operators themselves!


Rob tells us that it will trigger is the "presence" of paranormal entities, but depending on the sensitivity, it will trigger when it's anywhere up to 15 feet from a static field. In the video clip above, a group selling one of these devices inadvertently demonstrates he can set it off with his hand, or the clothing on his arm, that's how sensitive can be.

My favourite part of all this is when the show's "skeptic" Lowe, John Owen pulls his turned on iPhone from his pocket and is stunned when the detector responds to his movement. "It doesn't like that...." he exclaims. No, they didn't, perhaps even the spirits are surprised you're so dense you're trying to take measurements of EMF and static fields with a switched on cell-phone in your pocket!


Our next occurrence of paranormal activity is an alleged temperature drop of 3 degrees on a thermometer placed directly under a window. Again we've no idea if this is abnormal or not as we have no idea what the base line is for this area. Of course, Rob tells us this has always been associated with ghostly activity. It's also always been associated with drafts as well!


We then see Rob and Jon's devices "going crazy" coinciding with them being brought in proximity to each other. Quite possibly as both detect EMF fields they are detecting each other and the intersection of their own fields. Of course, by this point, it's all a bit moot anyway as we know that at least Jon Owen (and potentially any of the others too) has a switched on cell-phone in his pocket!

After this, there's some more fun with the static detectors, and we're done.


I've never been so grateful to see the credits roll on a TV show.


The Lowe Files isn't the worst paranormal TV show I've ever watched, but it may well be the least interesting and it's certainly the least professional. We must surely now be near the point of over-saturation of paranormal television. It's becoming abundantly clear that each new show is attempting to find a gimmick to stand out from a burgeoning crowd, and this show's gimmick: "here's a film star you know hunting ghosts/ Sasquatch /UFOs" may well be the weakest yet.

I couldn't get the image of Troy McClure out of my head whilst I was watching. I really expected Rob Lowe to utter " may remember me from...." at some point during the episode.

The message from the show is clear"Anyone can do this. No experience? No special skills? No background in science or investigation? That's fine. Just be passionate." This is a frustrating message to be receiving at a time when ghost hunting groups are rapidly increasing in number. It's clear that Lowe hasn't bothered to do the slightest bit of research into how his equipment works, and I don't even think the show's producers have the slightest clue either. Why else include footage of John Owen pulling a cell-phone from his pocket.

Lowe admitted as much about his amateur status in another puff piece for the show just before it aired. At a panel at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, Lowe stated: "We're paranormal idiots (6)" When asked to clarify how a certain piece of equipment worked he added, "'Don’t ask me how, don’t ask me the science, I don’t know."

In a genre filled with rank amateurs, the Lowe Files and A&E as a whole manages to invent a new level to sink to. There was a stage when at least paranormal TV stars attempted to cover their lack of credentials. Watching this David Roundtree must wonder why he bothered to lie through his teeth about his qualifications. A shrug and a smile are enough. The ethos on display seems to be almost a pride in lack of expertise. When that is something freely admitted in any area of research, whether it's a hobby or not, or conducted in the media, you know that this flooded genre of television must be quickly headed for collapse.

In my opinion, this collapse can't come a moment too soon.








Collated Video.

Monday, 7 August 2017

The Politicization Of Science: A Response To "US trade deal after Brexit could see milk and baby formula with cancer-causing toxins flood UK market"

A short time ago I wrote an article regarding the way a piece of legitimate scientific research had been distorted in order to present a right-wing propaganda piece. As I stated in that piece, my personal politics don't influence my position on how science is presented. I knew it wouldn't be long until I was presented an opportunity to demonstrate this. Today we turn to the left and a recent article published in the Independent entitled "US trade deal after Brexit could see milk and baby formula with cancer-causing toxins flood UK market" by Tom Peck. Remember, with most news outlets if it sounds hyperbolic it probably is.

And boy is this hyperbolic.

The article begins:
"A post-Brexit trade deal with the US could see a massive increase in the amount of cancer-causing toxins in British milk and baby food, The Independent can reveal. American regulations allow more than 20 times the quantity of harmful aflatoxins in food products, compared to the stricter regime imposed by the European Union." The Independant (07/08/2017)
To unpack this first it's necessary to understand there are different types of aflatoxins. The National Cancer Institute tells us:
Aflatoxins are a family of toxins produced by certain fungi that are found on agricultural crops such as maize (corn), peanuts, cottonseed, and tree nuts. The main fungi that produce aflatoxins are Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus, which are abundant in warm and humid regions of the world. Aflatoxin-producing fungi can contaminate crops in the field, at harvest, and during storage.
Aflatoxins are divided roughly into two groups, the difuranocoumarins, most notably B1, B2, G1 and G2, of which B1 is both the most common and the most toxic. And the metabolites, aflatoxin M1 and M2, which are created when cattle are exposed to the difuranocoumarin compounds and are found in milk and dairy products. So with this in mind, we can check if US standards really do allow up to 20 times the amount of aflatoxin as EU standards do.

The EU regulations currently allow total limits of 15 μg/kg for total aflatoxins in most foods, whilst the US allows a slightly higher level of total aflatoxins of 20 μg/kg. No one in their right mind could mistake this for an increase of a factor of twenty surely?

But the Independent directly states:
"US standards also allow products made with nuts and cereals to have higher levels of the carcinogens, which cause damage to DNA and make cells more prone to becoming cancerous."
These figures directly refer to nuts and cereals, so where has the Independent's  figure of twenty times come from. The Independent also states:
"US regulations permit 0.5 micrograms per kg of aflatoxins in milk, cereals, nuts and dried fruits, but the EU restricts levels to 0.025 micrograms – twenty times lower."
This is blatantly false, as I've shown above the nuts and cereal regulations for both regions are much higher than the two figures offered above and it's unlikely that there would be the same regulations for milk and nuts/cereals as these products contain radically different strains of aflatoxins (B1 in nuts and cereals and M1 in milk and dairy). In fact, the figure of 0.5 μg/kg that is given for the US is for M1 in milk or dairy, but the EU figure of 0.025 μg/kg is NOT for dairy but is for infant products! The article also neglects to mention that EU and US restrictions on aflatoxins in animal feed are equal at 20 μg/kg in both regions.

In an example of burying the lead, the article includes a lengthy quote from Simon Dawson, a lecturer in Food Science and Technology at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Mr Dawson informs us of the risks of Aflatoxins, but when it comes to his opinion on whether adopting the US's looser regulations all we get is this throw away line: "He said that there were no studies he is aware of that show a level of 0.5 micrograms per kg resulting in adverse effects..." Dawson does add that we should aim for lower concentrations of aflatoxins, which is sensible. 

There's another element to consider here, the UK is unlikely to import major amounts of dairy products from the US as a result of its relatively short shelf life. What we are in a position to import more of is its cereals. And the regulations for cereals are hardly different, plus the EU has voted several times to loosen restrictions on cereals, so there are no guarantees EU limits wouldn't reach 20 μg/kg at some point in the near future anyway. The article references the EU's frequent adjustments to aflatoxin levels without pointing out that when these adjustments and made, it's generally to INCREASE what constitutes a safe level!

What the Independent says:
"Brussels set its limits in 2006 taking into account extensive research and best available practice to detect the chemicals, which is continuously reviewed and updated – but the US standard has not been updated since 1977."
What they fail to say: the levels set in 2006 were higher than previous levels!

With regards to infant formula, whilst aflatoxins are extremely hardy, studies have shown they do not generally survive UHT processes.

The major danger of excessive consumption of aflatoxin is Mycotoxicosis major outbreaks of which are rare in the west, mostly occurring in India and Kenya, areas where the storage of cereals is not as controlled. In fact, the article references a recent outbreak in Kenya:
"...there have been incidents in Africa and Asia involving intense contaminations of aflatoxins, including one in Kenya in 2004 which claimed 124 lives."
This tells us nothing about US safety standards! In fact, a 2004 study conducted by the CDC carried out in Kenya showed much higher levels of aflatoxins than US standards allow. The only recent outbreak of Mycotoxicosis in the US concerned pet food and claimed the lives of 75 dogs, in an industry that has since introduced considerably more stringent regulations.

The other major danger of aflatoxins is liver cancer, of which incidents are lower in the US than in mainland Europe! Liver cancers account for approximately 1.3% of new cancer cases and 2.6% of cancer deaths (Jemal et al 2003). Liver cancers account for approximately 1.3% of new cancer cases and 2.6% of cancer deaths (Jemal et al 2003).Liver cancers account for approximately 1.3% of new cancer cases and 2.6% of cancer deaths (Jemal et al 2003).InAs Independent reader Glipof points out in the comments section:

The links for said studies are in the sources section below for you to check out.

One last thing to point out, just because the UK will no longer be required to operate under EU regulations after Brexit negotiations end, that doesn't mean we won't choose to maintain these standards.

Look, I'm as against Brexit as the next man, but stories like this which misrepresent data in such an egregious way do no favours to almost half of the electorate who opposed Brexit and still do. Make no mistake, stories like this will be exposed and will be held up as evidence that "remainers" are a deceitful, scaremongering bunch, and when the real damage and danger of Brexit is highlighted it will just be conflated with stories like this. I see no real difference between this story and the claims of avid Brexiters like Nigel Farage who claimed that the entire populations of Eastern European countries would flock through the UK's open borders, or that ridiculous amounts of money were regularly mailed to Brussels with no benefit or return. Propaganda is propaganda no matter which side of the aisle in originates from.


Original story

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Who Invited You? How Does A Skeptic Justify Their Continued Interest In the Paranormal?

Picture the scenario, you're a skeptic with a healthy interest in the paranormal, you like to read the latest news stories, see the latest footage and photos and even keep track of the latest paranormal television shows without actually having to watch them. You may even have an interest in helping others understand that some of the things they believe are "paranormal" are actually quite... well... normal. You've not been there long before someone posts an image that fits this description quite well. Being the well-adjusted individual you politely interject and offer them a rational explanation for their photographic anomaly. Now, you'll normally get one of a few stock responses to this.

Rarely, the poster will thank you for your input, maybe even agree. More commonly you'll be told that you can't possibly be right, and then be offered anecdotal evidence that the photo is genuine. Super rarely you'll be told that pointing out a camera strap in an image is equivalent to comparing the photographer to the Trump administration!

But occasionally you'll get a response that is (saner) and worth some consideration. "If you don't believe in the paranormal what are you doing on a paranormal page?" A more thought provoking, less confrontational and more general version of this question was recently posed by a Facebook friend and I think it is genuinely worth answering.

Here's my paraphrasing of that question:
If you don't believe and don't like the ideas, technology or hypotheses in the paranormal field/community, then why are you still involved with the Paranormal? What is your goal within the community if you are not open to the possibilities of certain ideas and approaches?
I suppose I broadly fit the criteria of being part of the paranormal community, given that it's generally the area I discuss the most here, on social media and in the blogosphere. I also broadly fit the idea of someone who generally rejects almost all of the technology and the hypothesises, so I suppose my answer is as good as anybody else's.

Firstly, it's not really a question of whether I "like" these elements in the paranormal, it's a case of whether I can find validity in them or not. If the paranormal exists then it does so as a facet of the physical world, that means it should be testable in the same way that any other quality can. By science. There are a few really good, really sound paranormal investigators in the field and there's some good and important research. The problem is they are drowned out by the noise. If I can help cut through the noise and help these people and this research gain a better foothold in public, I'm going to do this. One of the ways I can do that is by highlighting the poor standard work, calling out its flaws, and in some unfortunate cases expose it as fake. Is it always nice?

Nope, but it's necessary.

Generally, this is an area that paranormal enthusiasts don't realise is directly lifted from the scientific method. If you're collecting and publishing any kind of work that pertains to be in any way scientific then you are subject to peer review.

I am open to the possibilities of the paranormal, but I think I owe it to credible and serious researchers in the field if I approach the ideas as robustly as researchers in any scientific field approach a piece of new research. I think I'm a lot gentler than they can be. Look at the way Hawking as approached the "firewall" theory of black holes. Now that's a flame war!

Tthe ultimate answer is do we care about the null hypothesis? To answer that I'd point to the most important null hypothesis conclusion in science history. When Michelson and Morley successfully concluded that the luminiferous aether did not exist, they broke the barriers that allowed physics to charge into the 20th Century. No one asked them if they "liked" aether or if they considered it to exist. No one asked Michelson and Morley what their motivation was. No one in the scientific community cared if they believed aether existed or not prior to their experiment.
The results of their devilishly ingenious experiment, their evidence, was all that was required.

Now, it's rare that an experiment can be so clearly devised as to support a null hypothesis. Normally all we can hope to ascertain is a positive result or a result that fails to show support for the tested hypothesis. I suspect, frustratingly, this will be the closest that any form of paranormal research comes to a definitive answer. But there's another reason to continue paranormal research, and hence peer-review of said research.

Consider, that the progression of science is rarely linear. Whilst I don't hold much hope of scientific acceptance of ghosts or Psi phenomena (cue flurry of peer reviewed Psi papers), I do think that such research may well lead to advancements elsewhere. I think of the scientific importance of "white dialectic material" in the discovery of the cosmic background radiation. If Penzias and Wilson had ignored the background hum in their equipment at Bell labs, if they hadn't crawled in to scrape out the pigeon sh*t in the Horn antenna, they wouldn't have made perhaps the most significant and groundbreaking cosmological discoveries of all time.

Their dedication to clearing crap gave us a clue to the origins of the universe itself.  We should all dedicate ourselves to clearing some brown dielectric material from the paranormal community.

That's why I'm here.

On an only superficially connected note I'll be appearing on the Paranormal Talk Radio Show with Matt Haas and Tim Vickers discussing the perceived intersection between quantum mechanics and the paranormal on Thursday 3rd August at 8pm Eastern in the US and roughly midnight in the UK. I really hope you can tune in and listen.Tim and Matt have a great show and I'm massively excited to take part! Link below!

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Four Armed Is Fore-warned: More Panoramic Spooks Debunked.

The following story first appeared in the Belfast Online news on July 27th, before dispersing to various tabloids as these things tend to do. The Daily Mail version of the story (29/07/17) tells us: 
"A mother-of-four was startled to see a picture of her son sporting an extra leg - and herself with three arms - in what she believes could be a message from beyond the grave from her late father. Laura, from Belfast, Northern Ireland, shared the image of her holding three-year-old Theo and smiling for the camera during the family's 'day of the dead' party to honour their loved ones who had passed. During the memorial party, Laura's sister took the picture but her husband only discovered the strange appearance of the 'extra' limbs the next day.Now, following a series of unexplained events in the household, Laura believes it could be the work of her late father, Terry, who passed away shortly after her youngest son was born."

 So let's take a look at the image that has warranted the tabloid news space. 

As you can see it appears that little Theo appears to have three legs and there also appears to be a ghostly severed arm in the frame. The Mail goes to some trouble to assure us that no one else was present in the room at the time, something which feels like a purposeful distraction from the most obvious explanation, a photographic glitch.

The first thing I noticed about the image is that all the "anomalies" seem to occur down the central axis of the image.

If you took the separate halves in isolation, there wouldn't be anything unusual about them. The anomaly is only present if you put both halves together. That makes me believe that the anomalies are a result of the image being taken in panoramic or stitch mode on a digital camera or phone. In the panoramic mode, the camera builds a picture of everything caught in the view finder, as the device is moved side to side. The propose of this is to move the camera and build a larger picture than could usually be captured, it builds the image section by section. In this example, Laura's sister hasn't moved the camera as the image is being built.

So here's what I think happened. The "recording" of the image begins right to left. Mum has her right arm under Theo whose leg is drawn in. The right half of the image is captured:

Mum moves her arm to secure her slipping head gear. Theo instinctively puts his leg out to steady himself. The left half is captured.

So that's a pretty sound hypothesis, but Fortean Times Appreciation admin and photo whizz Willie Kay wasn't sure. He suggested that someone with a panoramic camera try to replicate the image and anomalies that result. So I picked up the gauntlet and using an iPhone SE in panoramic mode in tandem with my intrepid MinI-Boot lab assistant we did just that!

Reach for the skies Mini-Boot!

As you can see, in my example the left-hand side preceded the right. Breaking it down. Mini-Boot has his left-hand across his midsection. The left-hand side is captured.

I tell MB to raise his left arm and as he does the right-hand side is captured.

You can even see in my example, the jagged edges that occur in panoramic stitching. 

Jagged edges in my example.

From Laura's example.

I think this one is well and truly debunked. Take five Mini-Boot.

There's just one thing left for me to say. I think 
It's appropriate to extend my sympathies to Laura. Sometimes in the rush to explain these things we forget the people behind them. I know the pain of losing a parent and how that is amplified in the knowledge that they will not be there to see your own children grow. I am in no way surprised that she seeks comfort in the idea her father is present. Unfortunately, this isn't an example of that presence. Sometimes I think the best way to remind ourselves that our mothers and fathers are never far from our children is to instil in them the values and qualities our parents instilled in us. We should also consider warning our children of the cynicism of outlets like the Daily Mail that take the grief of people like Laura and turn it into advertising revenue via click bait.

Looks like the panoramic glitch is the new "orb" or double exposure image, as it's providing us with an increasing amount of tabliod dross and ghost images.


Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Electromagnetism As The Cause Of Supernatural Experience: A Very Skeptical Dogma.

A few days ago I shared an article from the Sun regarding ghosts in a completely non-critical way. Digest that for a minute. The reason I did this was despite being extremely lightweight, it was refreshing to see one of the UK's leading propagators of nonsense and paranormal bullshit take a semi-skeptical approach to ghosts. Of course, the article wasn't perfect. One section, in particular, reminded me of numerous heated discussions with various skeptics and skeptical paranormal investigators on the internet.

The subject: Can electromagnetic fields be the cause of supernatural experiences?

From the Sun article:
"Apparitions, cold spots and ghostly touches can be caused by man-made magnetic fields, experts have suggested...
APRA investigator Alvis said: "High electromagnetic fields and bad wiring can cause temporal lobe activity, making people believe that they are in the presence of ghosts. It is often associated with strange sensations, time distortions and hallucinations."

It's is a query that's long been pondered by skeptics and by scientific paranormal investigation teams. I think part of the reason skeptics are so enamoured with the idea is that it's tempting to attempt to find a catch-all explanation for phenomena. Flawed as we all are, these explanations are appealing, but they're often too simplistic and a poor fit for the phenomena in question. Quite often when this subject is broached I am met with claims that this is just "common knowledge" and that we "just know" this is accurate. That's a worrying position for investigators and skeptics to adopt. How have we come to this conclusion and is there any validity to it?

There has been some research aimed at providing an answer to the question of electromagnetism and supernatural experience. The most prominent example of this being Michael Persinger's work with Stanley Koren's "God Helmet", a crash helmet (left) equipped to create low-level magnetic fields in contact with a subject's frontal lobe. The hypothesis is that this causes the subject to experience what alternately described as "spiritual", "paranormal", "religious" or just plain "weird" experiences. This highlights the first problem with Persinger's work. It's all very vague. What exactly is a spiritual experience? What metric can we use to establish one has taken place. It's extremely subjective to say the least, for example as the father of a five-year-old and a six-year old I can tell you that lying on a bed in complete silence for a few hours sounds pretty spiritual to me, gaudy yellow helmet or not.

But Persinger's work has indeed provided positive results and seems to imply that low-frequency electromagnetic fields could be connected to paranormal and supernatural experiences. The problem is, no one has actually been able to successfully replicate the experiment. In fact, a team of Swedish researchers who attempted to replicate Persinger's work did so, but in a double-blind study, meaning neither the subjects nor the experimenters knew who was experiencing the directed field. Positive results vanished leaving them the team to conclude that the results shown in Persinger's testing were due more to suggestion than to electromagnetic field effects. Persinger's positive results they concluded, were as a result of failure to properly "blind" subjects.

This is seemingly borne out when we consider the experiences of subjects tested by Persinger. Jack Hitt, for example in a 1999 article for Wired magazine tells of Persinger's ominous warnings of "freaking out" in the helmet.
"Has anyone ever freaked out in the chair? Persinger smiles slightly and describes when a subject suffered an "adverse experience" and succumbed to an "interpretation that the room was hexed." When I ask if, say, the subject ripped all this equipment from his flesh and ran screaming from the dungeon, Persinger curtly replies: "Yes, his heart rate did go up and he did want to leave and of course he could because that is part of the protocol." One more time: Has anyone freaked out in the chair? "His EKG was showing that he moved very, very quickly and dramatically," Persinger offers, "and that he was struggling to take off the electrodes."..." (Wired, 1999)
Such comments are likely to colour a subject's experience and could even induce a panic which could be mistaken for a negative spiritual experience. If this is typical of the treatment a subject receives before the experiment it's easy to see this as them being "primed" to experience something odd. Let's face it, it's already a stretch to expect people to feel normal whilst they know they are taking part in an experiment. If they are then primed to expect odd sensations, this discomfort may well manifest as a feeling of being watched. Are you seriously not going to feel unusual rigged up like this?

Further to this, patients are placed in conditions approaching sensory deprivation, a state which has also been connected to inducing hallucination as demonstrated by Brady, Mason, et al in a 2009 study. All of which seems to leave Persinger's findings in some doubt. Despite this many skeptics have wholeheartedly embraced Persinger's work and similar tests such as "the haunted bed" performed by ASSAP. Likely because it provides a seemingly plausible, scientific sounding explanation of paranormal experiences. What I often hear is:
"Surely EMFs are a much more suitable explanation for ghost experiences than ghosts themselves? I mean EMF exists, right?"

Sure EMFs exist, but that doesn't immediately make them a plausible explanation for ghostly phenomena. Nor does the fact that ghost experiences often occur near sources of EMFs, electromagnetic fields are too ubiquitous for this to be anything more than a trivial statement. You're never far from electromagnetic fields. As an example take a passenger on a high-speed cross country train passing under electric pylons generating EMFs. Their frontal lobe would be exposed to rapidly alternating EMFs, shouldn't we expect some effect with respect to the passenger's perception? Is this where the expression "ghost train" comes from?

Don't worry about the Vampires and Zombies,
 it's the EMFs you have to watch for!

What is always missing from discussions about electromagnetic fields and ghost experience is a proposed mechanism by which EMFs can affect the body or the brain. There are two ways in which electromagnetic radiation can demonstrate physical effects, thermally and via ionisation. We can pretty much discount heating as a proposed mechanism for generating ghost experience for a number of reasons. Firstly all electromagnetic radiation has heating properties. We don't see these sensory effects from exposure to sunlight, if all EMF caused these effects, then surely our sensory perception would be permanently skewed? Thus there would be nothing unique about a supernatural experience. Secondly, if the proposed effect is thermal, we should expect any source of heating to be a source of sensory alteration and we should expect ghost sightings to be correlated with hotter regions of the planet and in hotter periods of the year. Also, consider that sources like power lines, the most frequent source in these claims, despite carrying strong electric currents are non-thermal.

No such correlation exists.

Let's consider the second effect electromagnetic fields interact with matter. Via ionisation. Again what we have to state clearly is there are two particular forms of electromagnetic radiation we have to consider. Ionising and non-ionising.

You can see from the above diagram that X-rays and Gamma rays (right-hand side) can damage DNA, this is done via ionisation. Ionisation occurs when electromagnetic radiation has enough energy to liberate electrons from atoms. As valence (outer shell) electrons moderate the kinds of chemical reaction a molecule partakes in, this can be disastrous when it occurs in DNA and can lead to all sorts of nasty diseases and disorders. Could short term exposure also have sensory effects? Possibly. We know there's a physical effect to consider here, a physical effect on the brain is possible.

The problem is that none of the items commonly accused of causing sensory alteration and supernatural effects, mobile phone towers, power lines and household items emit ionising radiation. The electromagnetic radiation they emit is too low-frequency and thus low-energy to cause ionisation. The energy of electromagnetic radiation is related to wavelength and frequency by the following relationships.

c=the speed of light, h= Planck's constant, f= frequency, λ= wavelength,
E= energy.

So you should see clearly that the longer the wavelength the shorter the frequency and the lower the energy. So you should also see that the radiation emitted by power lines and household items carry considerably less energy than X-rays or gamma rays as their wavelength is much lower. In fact, they even have less energy than even visible light. As we are specifically concerned with radiation's effect on the brain, let's look at the ionisation energies of the most common elements in the human brain namely carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen which are roughly 11.3 eV, 14.5eV, 13.6 eV and 13.6 eV respectively and calcium which has an ionisation energy of 6.11eV and calculate whether a photon of microwave radiation has the requisite energy to ionise any of these elements. Before we do that there is something that is important to recall here. If an element has an ionisation energy of 10.0 eV then only a photon of 10.0 eV and above will ionise it. Two 5.0 eV photons incident upon the atom will not work, nor will five 2.0 eV photons. What this essentially means is the intensity of a field doesn't make a difference to its ionisation effects.

Let's focus on power lines which generally emit a field with a frequency between 50-60Hz and are skeptics are paranormal investigators go-to culprit in manufacturing supernatural phenomena. Using that second formula up there, that gives us an energy of:

Converting that to electron volts (eV) you can see it's an insignificant amount of energy and nowhere near ionisation energies.

There is research into the possibility of low-frequency EMF causing physiological damage, but it is particularly poor and mostly published in open access pay-to-play journals. One striking example is "Fielding a current idea: exploring the public health impact of electromagnetic radiation" (Genius, et al, 06) which offers evidence in the form of four case studies. An example of which is below:
"Case history #3

A 17-year-old boy experiencing a 3-year history of intrusive thoughts relating to religious themes believed he had committed unpardonable sins and was convinced the devil was imminently taking him to hell. As well as increasing depressive symptoms, the adolescent displayed escalating aggression towards his parents. The nominally religious parents took their son for religious counsel to no avail. Psychiatric diagnosis included a thought disorder. Psychotropic medication failed to control the symptoms but caused numerous side effects. Human exposure assessment uncovered extremely high gauss measurements (4200 mGauss) at the head of the teen’s bed, as electrical entry to the house was immediately adjacent to the bedroom, right beside his bed. As well as changing rooms, all other sources of EMF exposure were minimized. Within 12 weeks, the intrusive thoughts abated considerably, the mood symptomatology declined, the medication was stopped, and the parents indicated that their son was now a friendly, motivated boy. One episode of symptom aggravation subsequently occurred immediately following 4 h of online work in a high school computer laboratory; symptoms subsided within 72 h of deliberate EMF avoidance. All adverse symptoms completely cleared within 6 months and wellness was maintained over the next 2 years and at the time of writing." (Genius, et al, 2006)
So Genius concludes that medication was not successful, but was continued until symptoms abated. How he can conclude that the cessation of symptoms was as a result of non-exposure to EMF is unclear, especially as psychotropic medication has a tendency to take some time before an effect is displayed. As for a mechanism of effect, Genius suggests "dirty electricity" electromagnetic radiation that enters the home at a "pure" frequency and is altered, although quite what makes one frequency bad, and another good, escapes me.

There are other factors that have to be considered when focusing on outside sources of EMF such as power lines. Building materials provide excellent screening for electric fields but screen little against magnetic fields. What we also have to consider is that electromagnetism is one of the many physical forces that obeys an inverse square law. This means the strength of an electromagnetic field falls off rapidly at increasing distances.

Now let's say that Persinger's experiment was robust. All those issues with this work, forget them for now. Replications were successful in our hypothetical world. It's accepted science. Now can you see why his experiment may still not account for ghost experiences?

I'll give you a clue. In this shitty diagram, the distance between the lines indicates the strength of the field. Closer lines, stronger field.

Persinger's helmet gives a highly directed, local exposure. Not something you're going to get from a power line!

Of course, some are still going to argue that despite what I've said here, electromagnetism is still a valid explanation for the cause of ghost sightings. As a skeptical paranormal investigator recently pointed out to me from her experience, proximity to power lines was most definitely responsible for the experiences of her clients.

Her evidence was purely ancdotal in nature.
"Most definitely they can, we had a client with a huge fear cage around her home from defective outside power lines, we measured levels all around and it was extremely high up until about 20 yards then it slowly went down the further you got. They all suffered insomnia, delusions, hearing voices and seeing apparitions. Their dog almost died from seizures and would periodically go insane fighting something that wasn't there, the vets were baffled."...and I know that once I got the state power authority involved and the problem was rectified their symptoms dissipated entirely. They had been told they had demons they were not confident that I had solved the problem until that point."
There's also a hefty dose of correlation without causation mixed in there for good measure. Perhaps the client's apparitions went away because they believed our skeptic when she said they would? Much in the same way as the ritual of exorcism may help alleviate symptoms of spiritual possession because the subject believes that it will. It's simply the power of suggestion, and until more evidence is provided it's as pseudoscientific to claim hauntings are a result of electromagnetic exposure as it is to say they are a result of the spirits of the dead. Crucially evidence suggests it's just as incorrect an explanation too. It's a clear example that skeptics too must be careful not to fall into accepting ideas simply because they are suitable or even comforting.

References and further reading.