Merseyside Skeptics Society Lecture on Paranormal Experiences – 17/09/2009


manicstreetpreacher learns about how the truth is not out there…  it’s up here.

On 17 September 2009 I attended a one of the best talks I’ve ever been to.  Professor Chris French of the Anomalistic Psychological Research Unit at Goldsmiths College, University of London gave a talk at the Crown Hotel pub, Lime Street, Liverpool entitled, “Weird Science: An Introduction to Anomalistic Psychology”.

The event was hosted by the recently formed Merseyside Skeptics Society and drew an impressive crowd which squeezed into the upstairs room of the Crown.  French is the editor of The Skeptic magazine and I hope won’t be offended if I called him Britain’s answer to Michael Shermer.

Most importantly, he was funny.  Very, very funny.

If you believe in psycho-kinesis please raise my hand.

The other day Uri Geller scratched his neck and his head fell off.  That’s the polite version of the joke, anyway.

The core of the lecture contained some fascinating revelations debunking psychic powers, extra sensory perception (ESP), psycho-kinesis (PK), life after death and alien abductions.


Population stereotypes

French began by putting paid to the claims of all psychic when opening a show that “we all have psychic powers within us”.  We were asked to think of a number between 1 and 10.  “Not three because that’s too obvious!”  I thought of seven.  It turned out that the majority of the audience did likewise!

Then we chose a number between 1 and 50 with two different odd numbers.  Thirty seven, thinks I.  And so did most of the rest of the room!

French explained that population stereotypes have shown that about one third of people will choose seven in the first example, thirty seven in the second and about a quarter will choose thirty five.

In a similar vein, arch-television “psychic”, Uri Geller, “transmits” a picture to his viewers, many of them guess correctly simply because they are apt to do so.  Similarly, out of a random selection of playing cards, most people tend to choose the seven of diamonds.  No supernatural powers needed there.

Anomalistic psychology

Opinion poll data shows that Americans have very high levels of supernatural belief:

25% believe in ghosts;

25% claim to have had a supernatural experience;

50% believe in the devil;

25% believe in astrology.

We might be tempted to seek solace in the idea of “those crazy Yanks”.  Alas, this is not the case.  A 1998 MORI poll showed similar levels of supernatural belief among Britons:

45% believe in life after death;

38% believe in astrology;

40% believe in ghosts;

28% believe in psychics and mediums;

64% believe in premonitions and ESP.

Heaven help us!  Nevertheless, there is some use in the universality of paranormal beliefs are useful in two respects.  Firstly, we should determine whether paranormal forces do actually exists and secondly, we can learn a great deal about human psychology by studying humans’ belief in such forces.  French and his colleagues start on the assumption that supernatural forces do not exist and they work on providing evidence for natural explanations.

Cognitive bias

French then went on to explain how humans process information about the world which cannot be replicated by computer software.  Our analysis of statistical probabilities and anecdotal evidence can lead us to draw faulty conclusions.

A paper published by Ellen Langer (“The Illusion of Control”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 32 (1975) 311 – 328) argued that people perceive random processes as being under their control.  How many of us have lent over the casino screaming in our heads “Double six!”?  If you ever have to sell raffle tickets, apparently you will sell a lot more if you let people choose their own tickets as opposed to just tearing them off the book yourself; the punters believe that they have a better chance of winning if they have control over which ticket they get!

A good demonstration of this cognitive bias is to ask yourself which method of throwing dice will be more successful:

  1. Throwing 1 dice 10 times and getting 10 sixes one after the other; or
  2. Throw 10 dice all at once and having them all land on six.

Most people will choose option 1, because they have feel that they have more control over the dice.

Humans also have a very poor estimate of probabilities.  How many of us have been amazed when a very vivid dream we have had comes true a few days later?  Or we think of an old friend for the first time in a long time and they call in the next five minutes?

The truth is that we are swimming in probabilities.  How many dreams have we all had that haven’t come true?  Or how many times we have thought of an old friend and they haven’t called?  It would take some explaining if these funny coincidences didn’t happen!

Probabilities are often much lower than we anticipate.  Consider how many people you would need in a room for a 50/50 chance that one of them would have the same day and month (but not year) for their birthday.  When French posed this question, I had “three zillion” running through my head.  In fact, it is only 23!  And if you have 35 people, the odds go up to an 85% chance.

Transliminality is the hypersensitivity to psychological material (imagery, ideation, affect, and perception) originating in (a) the unconscious, and/or (b) the external environment.  French and his colleagues published a paper (Crawley, S E, French, C C, and Yesson, S A, “Evidence for transliminality from a subliminal card guessing task”, Perception, 31 (2002), 887-892 – Download PDF) which had the experimental subjects taking part in a computer simulation what they believed to involve ESP.

The computer flashed up the answer in screen to the subjects, but so briefly that they couldn’t actually see it.  High transliminals scored well, but they couldn’t explain why.  There was no ESP involved of course.

Cold reading and the Barnum Effect

Ill-informed and gullible members of the public often return from an encounter with a psychic saying that they psychic must be genuine because he or she “knew things about me that they could not possibly have known!”

However, they are merely living examples of the Barnum Effect: the tenancy that people have to accept vague and ambiguous statements as being unique to their personalities.  For example:

You have a need for other people to like and admire you, and yet you tend to be critical of yourself.

While you have some personality weaknesses you are generally able to compensate for them.

You have considerable unused capacity that you have not turned to your advantage.

At times you have serious doubts whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing.

If these statements sound like they came from a news stand astrology book, that may be because they did.  Such statements are sometimes called “Barnum statements” and they are an effective element in the repertoire of anyone doing readings: astrologers, palm readers, psychics, rumpologists and so on.  Just considering their opposite of the above statements for a moment shows them to be ridiculously demagogic.  I mean, who doesn’t have serious doubts sometimes over whether they have done the right thing?!

The Barnum Effect is an expression that seems to have originated with psychologist Paul Meehl, in deference to circus man P T Barnum’s reputation as a master psychological manipulator who is said to have claimed “we have something for everybody”.

I remember a few years ago while I was doing my post-graduate study and before I became a firm sceptic, one of my fellow-students directed me to an astrology website with personality descriptions for each sign of the Zodiac.  “I don’t believe in astrology at all, but the description for my star sign was scarily close to my personality,” she exclaimed.

Since my birthday is 18 April, I checked out what the website  said about Aries.  And was student colleague was right!  I remember it was scarily close to how I like to think of myself, particularly in how it said that I loved “spontaneity”.  It was extraordinary.  I mean this was spontaneity were taking about.  How many people get a warm fuzzy feeling when good things just happen?  Can’t be all that many, surely?

A couple of years later having read Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and watching his TV series The Enemies of Reason, I returned to the same website with my sceptic cap firmly placed on my head and read the descriptions for all the signs of the Zodiac.  And guess what?  They pretty much all accurately described how I like to view my own personality.

Cold reading simply involves asking questions and confirming the answers back to the subject.  “Have recently suffered a setback in your life that has thrown you off balance…?   Of course not, you are actually riding high at the moment…”  If the subject is credulous, they will go along with it.

French recounted a very amusing experience he had when he appeared on The Richard and Judy Show posing as a medium.  He had never done this before and had no idea how to put cold reading into practice.  However, after a skim through a “How 2” book on cold reading, it all boiled down to was asking a lot of questions to his subject and then simply regurgitating the answers back to her and the result was that she was blown away by it.

For further exposition of psychics and cold reading, I recommend Richard Dawkins’ full uncut interview with Derren Brown filmed for The Enemies of Reason.

The unreliability of eye witness testimony

French demonstrated this with recourse to the clock on the wall of the pub.  It had Roman numerals on its face and he had covered it with kitchen towel before he began his talk.  We were asked to write down what the number four looked like: whether it was the more conventional “IV” or less conventionally, “IIII”.

I only guessed this correctly because a grandfather clock in my parents’ house has “IIII” on its face.  However, this is unique among clocks and virtually everywhere else four is represented as “IV”, which is what most of the audience decided.  The preconception is so ingrained in us, that most people only get it if they copy or trace the outline of the clock, and if they are asked later, they usually forget!

Our memories are often based on preconceptions and biases.  I once heard a barrister in court tell the judge that “memory is a creative process”.  Accordingly, reports of spiritualist séances vary drastically among participants.  Believers in the supernatural are far more open to suggestion and their memories are distorted far more readily.

In his latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, Richard Dawkins recounts an experiment about how bad eyewitness evidence truly is:

Psychological experiments have given us some stunning demonstrations, which should worry any jurist inclined to give superior weight to “eye-witness” evidence.  A famous example was prepared by Professor Daniel J Simons at the University of Illinois.  Half a dozen young people standing in a circle were filmed for 25 seconds tossing a pair of basketballs to each other, and we, the experiment subjects, watch the film.  The players weave in and out of the circle and change places as they pass and bounce the balls, so the scene is actively quite complicated.  Before being shown the film, we are told that we have a task to perform, to test our powers of observation.  We have to count the number of times balls are passed from person to person.  At the end of the test, the counts are duly written down, but – little does the audience know – this is not the real test!

After showing the film and collecting the counts, the experimenter drops his bombshell.  “And how many of you saw the gorilla?”  The majority of the audience looks baffled: blank.  The experimenter then replays the film, but this time tells the audience to watch in a relaxed fashion without trying to count anything.  Amazingly, nine seconds into the film, a man in a gorilla suit strolls nonchalantly to the centre of the circle of players, thumps his chest as if in belligerent contempt for eye-witness evidence, and then strolls off with the same insouciance as before.  He is there in full view for nine whole seconds – more than one third of the film – and yet the majority of the witnesses never see him.  They would swear an oath in a court of law that no man in a gorilla suit was present, and they would swear that they had been watching with more than usually acute concentration for the whole 25 seconds precisely because they were counting ball-passes.  Many experiments along these lines have been performed, with similar results, and with similar reactions of stupefied disbelief when the audience is finally shown the truth.  Eye-witnesses testimony, “actual observation”, “a datum of experience” – all are, or at least can be, hopelessly unreliable.  It is, of course, exactly this unreliability among observers that stage conjurers exploit with their techniques of deliberate distraction.  (London: Bantam Press, 2009, pp. 14 – 15)


It would be difficult to imagine more conclusive evidence that eyewitness evidence of ordinary human beings is notoriously fallible.

False memories

Nevertheless, this has a tragic element to it.  It is disturbingly easy to inject “false memories” into subjects to the extent that they honestly believe that they have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their parents.  Earlier this year, French reported on families being torn apart in the past twenty years.   Parents have ended up in prison because their children have gone into therapy and have emerged convinced that they have been the victims of massive sexual abuse:

I sat in a lecture theatre mostly filled with middle-aged or elderly parents living through this exact nightmare. Typically, their adult children had started therapy with no pre-existing memories of being sexually abused, but had become convinced during the therapeutic process that they had indeed been victimised in this way. So convinced were they that the “recovered” memories were true, they more often than not accused their parents directly of this vile act and then cut off any further contact, leaving their parents devastated and confused, their lives shattered…

One intriguing aspect of this awful situation is why the media generally appeared to lose interest. The press and broadcasters are often guilty of focusing on the human interest angle of stories at the expense of good solid scientific evidence, the MMR controversy being a case in point. As most scientists know, there never really was a “controversy” over MMR, with the consensus among medical experts being that there is no link between MMR vaccination and autism. But the human interest value of tearful interviews with sobbing mothers supported by the views of a few maverick scientists was always going to be enough to bias the media coverage of this issue, with tragic consequences.

There is even a British False Memory Society and False Memory Syndrome Foundation in the US dedicated to this phenomenon.

Needless to say, French has found that believers in the supernatural are more prone to experience false memories than others.  His experiments involved 100 participants being asked about a “flash bulb memory” in relation to a well-known news item; for example what they were doing when the aeroplanes hit the Twin Towers on 11 September 2001.  However, one item they were presented with, the bombing of a tourist destination in Bali hadn’t actually happened (before Bali was bombed for real in 2002 that is!).  Subjects even mentally constructed news footage, including minute details such as whether the footage was in colour or in black and white and what language the commenter was speaking.

It is also well-established that the account of one person can affect the memories of others in the group.  This is known as “memory conformity”.  A very entertaining paper Richard Wiseman and Emma Greening (“‘It’s still bending’: Verbal suggestion and alleged psychokinetic ability”, British Journal of Psychology, 96, (2005), 115 – 127 – Download PDF) showed that subjects witnessing a conjurer’s “spoon-bending” could be convinced by suggestive comments from a “stooge” in the group that the piece of metal was still bending after it had been put down on the table!  (Checkout Wiseman’s blog as well, which has some fascinating optical illusions.)

Another way of implanting false memories is through “hypnotic regression”.  Unlike how it is often portrayed in films, hypnotic regression is very far from a psychological method of releasing repressed memories, but a bogus method of planting false ones.

Abducted by aliens

Die hard-believer in the paranormal, turned die hard-sceptic, Susan Blackmore published a paper in New Scientist magazine in 1994 on Alien Abduction Experiences (AAEs).  A typical report may go something like this.

I woke up in the middle of the night and everything looked odd, and strangely lit.  At the end of my bed was a four-foot high grey alien. Its spindly, thin body supported a huge head with two enormous, slanted, liquid black eyes.  It compelled me, telepathically, to follow and led me into a spaceship, along curved corridors to an examination room full of tables, on which other people lay.  I was forced to lie down while they painfully examined me, extracted ova (or sperm) and implanted something in my nose.  I could see jars containing half-human, half-alien foetuses and a nursery full of silent, sickly children.  When I eventually found myself back in bed, several hours had gone by.

French is convinced that AAEs are extreme cases of sleep paralysis.  About 40% of us have experienced this at some in our lives and I am certainly in that category.  It is the sensation of feeling trapped, suffocated and immobile (paralysed, you might say!) when halfway between sleep and consciousness.   For most people it passes after a few seconds, but for an unlucky 5%, it is far more traumatic.  These people often hallucinate, have difficulty breathing and feel another presence in the room.  This “presence” varies between societies.  People in Newfoundland see the Old Hag, whereas people in Japan see a samurai spirit.

Top Down Processing

When an interpretation emerges from the data, this is called data-driven or bottom-up processing.  Perception must be largely data-driven because it must accurately reflect events in the outside world.  You want the interpretation of a scene to be determined mostly by information from the senses, not by your expectations.

In many situations, however, your knowledge or expectations will influence perception. This is called schema-driven or top-down processing.  A schema is a pattern formed earlier in your experience.  This very often takes the form of pareidol: a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct, such as seeing the face of Jesus Christ in a burnt piece of toast:


Something like this went for $20K on eBay.  Sad.

Satanic rock lyrics!  Erm, sort of.  If you play the original track backwards and use your (vivid) imagination…

The lecture finished with what has to be the nadir of Top Down Processing: spending hours on end playing rock ‘n’ roll tracks backwards to distil dark and satanic messages to pollute the minds of the young and innocent.  Apparently Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin played in reverse contains such messages.  Listen to this backwards track first with your eyes closed and then play it again and read the lyrics on screen and below and make up your own minds:

So here’s to my Sweet Satan.
The other’s little path,
Would make me sad,
Whose power is Satan?
He’ll give those with him 666.
And all the evil fools,
There was a little tool shed,
Were he made us suffer Sad Satan.

Spooky or what?  Not the song played backwards.  The fact that some people obviously don’t have enough to do with their lives to indulge in such childishness.  However, certain fundamentalist Christians must have been very, very bored as this is precisely what they did.  The result was that several groups faced having their music banned as well as court action.  This happened to Judas Priest in 1990 after Raymond Belknap (18) and James Vance (20) went on a long alcohol and drug binge and made a suicide pact to kill themselves with a shot gun.  Where Belknap succeeded, Vance failed to take his own life and blew away the bottom part of his face leaving him grossly disfigured.

When it later transpired that the pair had been listening to Judas Priest that afternoon, the parents saw someone they could blame for the tragedy.  Judas Priest were taken to court in 1990 and the parents claimed that there were “subliminal messages” in the music that encouraged the boys to commit suicide; such as “Try suicide”, “Let’s be dead”, “do it, do it, do it.”  The band made a point of testifying in person at the proceedings, where they merely pointed that if they wanted to use subliminal messages in their music it would be tell the kids to buy more records.  The whole nonsensical episode can be seen in the 1992 documentary film, Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs Judas Priest:


French finished the audience question and answer session saying that that one of his opposition numbers in the debate is Rupert Sheldrake, who is satisfied that there is a case for paranormal forces.  Sheldrake debated the sceptical scientist, Lewis Wolpert at the Royal College of Arts in January 2004 on whether there were reasonable grounds to believe in telepathy.  However, French has never been able to reproduce Sheldrakes’ positive results for himself.   That will do for me.  If this stuff was genuine science, it would be possible for a sceptic to replicate the results under controlled laboratory conditions.

And as Wolpert said in his debate with Sheldrake, it would be lovely to believe in things like telepathy and fairies at the bottom of the garden, but there just isn’t any evidence for them.  If there were, mainstream scientists would surely have pounced on it by now and have won the Nobel Prize for Physics!

After a brilliant 90 minutes or so I my scepticism was thoroughly reinforced.  Such paranormal phenomena are best explained, not by recourse to the supernatural, but by the distorted perception of fallible human beings who desperately want to believe that there is something more out there.

But as Professor Chris French ended the lecture, perhaps the truth is not out there, it’s up here.

This was a brilliant event.  Three cheers to Mike, Andy, Marsh and all the others running the MMS.  I am very jealous that such a young society could put together such a fantastic event!


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7 Responses to “Merseyside Skeptics Society Lecture on Paranormal Experiences – 17/09/2009”

  1. Bill Harper Says:

    This dilemma has fascinated me for many years of which I have spent around 50% on each side. I think I can be objective but I realise that objectivity is not the preserve of skeptics who are by definition and tradition erring on the side which prefers to write off such precursors to modern science as astrology. This is a barrier to objectivity. My jury is still out but Newton said in response to mockery of his belief ” Sir I have studied the matter and yoiu have not”.
    There is much in this universe we still know little about and smugness is dangerous in the light of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle

  2. Steven Carr Says:

    How do you actually play a CD backwards?

    Say what you like about Satanists, at least they know the Bible backwards and forwards.

  3. Skeptics in the Pub - The Merseyside Skeptics Society - October and November Events 2009 Says:

    […] Review Merseyside Skeptics – meeting 17th September 2009 – Ed the Manic Street Preacher […]

  4. EnolaAlone Says:

    The so-called False-Memory-Syndrome is actually a scam cooked up by two wealthy parents who tried to silence their abused daughter.Nobody would remember a traumatic experience if they had never suffered one.They might remember a distorted,disguised,metaphorical variation of a trauma they have suffered,but nobody makes up trauma wholesale.So,a victim of father-daughter incest might falsely remember her uncle as the offender (less painful emotionally,as the uncle isn’t as close to her) or a totally fantastic scenario such as an alien abduction
    The rest is spot-on,though.Stay beautiful!

    • manicstreetpreacher Says:

      EnolaAlone – Thanks for the comment. Always welcome another pov. I’ll forward it to Chris French for his comments.

      The only certain thing that is left about me/ There’s no part of my body that has not been used.


  5. Chris French Says:

    EnolaAlone – Although intuitively you might think that no one would ever make up traumatic memories wholesale, the empirical evidence for the fact that they do is overwhelming as accepted by almost all experimental psychologists with expertise in this area and even the majority of clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and counselors. Read Richard McNally’s “Remembering Trauma” for an authoritative account.

    Best wishes,

  6. manicstreetpreacher Says:

    Chris French has since appeared on Radio 4’s Beyond Belief programme discussing guardian angels, which I have reported on here.

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