Excellent Wiseman Interview, and TAM London

I haven’t posted in a few weeks because, amongst other things, I’m busy organising TAM London on behalf of JREF. The official website is now live at, although registration is not yet open (join the mailing list for notification of when it is). Confirmed speakers include Richard Dawkins, Adam Savage, Jon Ronson, and many others, including of course Randi and Phil Plait. Perhaps most exciting of all is that Richard Wiseman has agreed to MC the event, which means we get him for the entire thing. Anyone who has attended one of his talks will know that he’s the top-rated TAM speaker year after year for a reason – the perfect mix of accessible science and entertainment.

That said, I don’t always agree with him, and I admit that his recent media activity to promote the forthcoming Edinburgh Science Festival event Science of Ghosts pushed my ‘annoyed’ button. In case you missed it, a call for examples of ‘ghost’ photographs, and a subsequent ‘top ten’ as voted by the public resulted in a storm of media coverage, most of which proclaimed that ‘experts’ (i.e. Prof Wiseman) were ‘baffled’. At a loss for an explanation. Etc.

Of course, this was not the case, and Wiseman refuted the claim on his blog. Although the blog is well-read, it’s not as well-read as, say, The Sun newspaper, which reaches some 8 million (not including online), which proclaimed an “eerie image has got ghost experts spooked”. My immediate reaction to the media coverage and the “OMG it’s a ghost!” comments which accompanied it was “how does this help educate anyone? Isn’t it just encouraging people to think there’s evidence of ghosts when there’s no such evidence?”. I don’t think I was the only one to have this reaction, judging from comments in the skeptisphere (did I just invent that term?). 

But is that right? The requirement to promote the Science of Ghost event aside, is this sort of PR coverage counter-productive? If so, counter-productive to what? And as if by magic, today I got to hear a very good, brand new interview with Wiseman that had changed my perspective on this story. The interview is from Little Atoms, one of the premier science and skeptical podcasts out there, it’s free and can be downloaded here. Of course, as it’s Wiseman, it fairly rapidly descends into very funny banter, but there’s also some nice chat at the end about TAM London which I am very happy about. 

I still dislike the silly spin the media put on the ghost photo story, but I have come to understand, and to a large extent agree with, the theory of the ‘bigger picture’ (excuse the pun), that the dialogue ensuing from such stories is empowering to the public, and that is more productive than outright dismissal by ‘stuffy’ skeptics. Yes, some people are going to read it and take it as evidence for ghosts. Those people want to believe anyway. What is negativity going to do to educate them? Nothing. But an awful lot of everyday people are going to look at the story and say “HAH! That’s doctored or fake. Ghosts my arse”. 

Encouraging people to debate, examine and discuss the paranormal in this way will arguably do more than many “scientists dismiss photo as bunkum” stories. Everyone loves to have an opinion, and when it comes to getting people to think for themselves, isn’t being provocative one of the best methods? I think it may be. Have a listen to the interview and let me know if you agree.

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  1. Regarding Wiseman’s approach to the woo: It’s fine to do whatever it takes to get the skeptical view of such things into mainstream media, but important to explain why skeptics are skeptical (that is, the evidence, or lack of it, as appropriate). Saying “we think this is fake/mistaken/whatever, and here’s why,” might provoke the less skeptical to examine why they think it’s real – to examine their evidence (or lack of it).

  2. I am willing to accept the word of experts that the photo has not been Photoshopped. My money is on pareidolia.

    Let me tell you a story from my childhood: One day, a rumour went around that there was a red fox hanging out in the woods. So we kids clustered at the edge of the woods until suddenly someone spotted it. We closed in, marvelling. The fox did not move. (First clue — foxes normally vanish at the first scent or sound of humans.) We got within twenty yards when wee realised that we were stalking a tree sapling — a couple of leaves bound together by tent caterpillars resembled a fox muzzle shot through with white and two other leaves had masqueraded as ears.

    The face is so distorted and irregular in features, and the “clothing” so murky, that I expect the “face” is a piece of windblown debris. Also, the image is too definitively ghostlike, precisely conformable to stereotypical expectations of what a ghost should look like — distorted, distant, brooding. This is how pareidolia works — some random arrangement of objects happens to bear a resemblance to preconceived expectations.

  3. Incidentally, I meant to mention this but had a brain fart: took at the “face”. It is unquestionably on THIS side of the bars, as anyone can see: the bars do not show up against the face at all. The “body”, by contrast, is unquestionably on the FAR side of the bars; the bars can be seen against it as background.

  4. I would say I agree. Prompting a discussion on the subject is better than outright rejection, though as to why exactly that is… I can’t find a good way to articulate that right now. Damn. Where is some caffeine?

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