Archive for January, 2009

Your mother tucks cots in hell.

January 31, 2009

exorcist

Geddit? Cots? Beds? Hospital corners? Okay, it’s another lame and contrived pun title. But I’m standing on the shoulders of giants here;

Surgical Spirit! Spooked managers call in exorcist to Derby’s new Royal Hospital!“, enthuses The Sun.

“National Haunted Service”, tabloids The Times.

Chaplain to ward off hospital ghost“, chortles the Guardian.

As well as the less amusing;

Hospital calls in exorcist after ghost spotted“, from the Telegraph and..

“Such an intriguing story”, from the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, laughing up its collective sleeve.

If the email reproduced in the press is accurate, I share their contempt and amusement. The NHS manager states that they are going to bring in outside “help”, and have the ghost “exorcised”. But I think we have treat such reports with as much scepticism as their contents. The source of the story is the Sun, for goodness sake – why are other, supposedly respectible papers, simply repeating the story? In fact, why are they even giving this the time of day? This is cat-stuck-up-tree stuff, isn’t it? I assume it’s because of the obvious implications – that the much-maligned NHS is yet again incompetent, and/or wasting taxpayer’s money. Quality of course aside, we have the actual statements from the hospital, most importantly a published denial;

“”There is absolutely no truth in what has been reported in the media that an exorcism has been arranged.

“We will be talking to staff in the department to listen to their concerns. We respect our staff and always listen to their views to help put minds at ease.”

The BBC reported similarly;

“If we receive information from staff we always take it seriously and are working with the hospital chaplaincy to put people’s minds at rest.”

Sounds pragmatic to me – acknowledging staff worries whilst not endorsing claims of ghosts. Much as I might wish they’d just tell these people to get a grip, it doesn’t exactly contribute to a good working environment, does it? I can’t know, obviously, but I suspect the manager in question has been asked to have a word with herself about her use of email and her management decisions. Would this have happened without the press focus? I don’t know. I would certainly hope so.

Although the story has been exaggerated and/or the hospital has backed down from actively endorsing the existence of ghosts, I can’t help but agree that this incident shows the level of superstition and lack of critical thinking in public life, and I personally don’t think that irrational beliefs should be pandered to just to make a tricky human resources issue go away. Yet the facts of the case beyond the hysterical email (which surely must have made matters worse for those affected) calling in the God Squad is arguably a reasonable response to a real problem (if not a real ghost). If there’s superstition in your neighbourhood, who you gonna call? It looks like they’ve decided to go with their own chaplaincy service, which appears to be Church of England and therefore less likely to focus on the driving out of spirits. In fact, a “modern” chaplain is more likely to patiently explain various religious viewpoints on “spirits” and reassure people that regardless of these, they won’t be harmed and can go back to work. At “worst”, he’d probably offer a prayer to help lay to rest any “spirits” that were there or people thought were there. Even the loony Catholic dude in the interview below says that an exorcism wouldn’t even be deemed appropriate in this case and that prayer would be used instead. Sure, I would have preferred that they roust out a parapsychologist to explain why they might think they’ve experienced ghosts – isn’t that a better form of reassurance? But how likely is the average NHS manager to know about such things?

this sort of thing is tough to debunk, but not because there’s any evidence that ghosts exist. In fact, it’s difficult for that very reason – the andecdotal evidence we get makes for few specifics from the witnesses themselves. But cases like this do attract specific claims from third parties, often about the likely nature of the ghost in question. This time The Sun (and those lazy sources quoting it) say;

“Experts said the spirit could be the ghost of a Roman soldier killed on the spot where the original hospital was built in the 1920s. Developers ignored protests and covered over part of one of Ancient Britain’s main Roman roads.”

Experts? O RLY? Which experts might those be?

“Ian Wilce, of the Ghost-finder Paranormal Society, said: “There are lots of sightings on such sites.”

Ah, right. THOSE experts. The orb-hunting, tape-recorder toting dust-botherers with too much time on their hands and over-active imaginations. See Counterknowledge’s piece on this story for more on “haunted” Derby.

Well, your friendly neighbourhood BS Historian decided to see what Roman remains are in the area. There are none recorded under that hospital (see here also). The main areas of activity – settlement, industry, and military sites, are further north and west – our Roman ghost is somewhat off the beaten track. The proximity of the Roman road is debatable, since only short sections are ever excavated. Plotted on a map, they DO roughly align with the (very large!) hospital site. You could plot an imaginary course that would wibble the road through the ghost’s lair. However, this blog is about evidence, and the evidence we have does not confirm the hypothesis. No report or news article appears to exist  (online, at any rate) showing another section of Roman road found at the site. Or ANY archaeological find, for that matter (if you have more info – add a comment below). Again, the road MIGHT run under the hospital building in question, but it’s as (more?) likely that it lies some distance away and bypasses the site entirely. All this is rather academic in any case. Yes, IF ghosts existed, it COULD be a Roman soldier wandering about for some reason. Or given the many other periods of occupation in the city, it could be the spirit of ANY human being from any time in the last 12000 years or so! Or someone from the future, from another planet, or any other made-up BS you care to concoct.  And as for the supposed local protests about “covering over” or otherwise disturbing an ancient site (clearly meant to imply local fears of revenge from the other side!), I can find no reference to any such complaints – which would have been ill-founded in any case, since no section of road was found. Without a co-incidental archaeological site under the hospital, this is basically the old indian burial ground urban myth theme, recycled for a British audience.

father-jack1What? Ghosts? Feck off!

But I return once more to the reaction of the media to this story, which is more worthy of despair than the spooktacle itself. Radio 4 actually went as far as to draft in the obligatory nutso clergyman that the media turn to in these situations (Bishop Bonkers, where are you when we need you?). Speak up for our corporeally-challenged friends this time was Dom Antony Sutch, a monk-turned parish priest who is apparently rather easily convinced of paranormal phenomena. I was going to quote from it, but I think the whole thing should be preserved for the embrassment of all concerned. I’ve inserted my own commentary;

____________________________

Interviewer (Edward Stourton) “…do you find this credible, this story?

Sutch – “I do indeed, I do indeed, I have no doubt about it at all. Firstly I trust people, they don’t make these things up, or if they do it’s usually just one or two..

Me – this is the most important statement this guy makes, and it’s the key to this whole story, and indeed a big part of the experience of the paranormal full stop.  Undue acceptance of *anecdotal evidence* with the automatic assumption that if it’s not a real ghost, the witness must be lying. I thought religion tended to teach quite emphatically that people are fallible, but hey, I’m an atheist and a sceptic, what do I know?

…I believe in life after death, therefore I believe there is the possibility of such things, I believe in the power of evil, I think it exists,  and I have the source of that, the original, is Jesus casting out demons.”

Me – He’s very sure, isn’t he? No actual evidence though – he’s Captain Didactic. We’re to take all this on faith. Note that he knows no more about this particular case than we do. Less, arguably. Yet he’s still wheeled out as some sort of expert. To paraphrase Futurama – he is an expert. He’s an expert in baloney.

Int – “You have to be trained in a particular way to be an exorcist do you not?

Sutch – “You do indeed, because evil can be remarkably powerful, extremely devious almost by definition, therefore you have to be somebody of some spiritual strength, ability to understand what’s going on and how to counrteract it. And I’ve had the…privilege I suppose of knowing a couple of exorcists, and one of them told me the most terrifying story of how long it took to expel a demon, but the thing that slightly worries me is normally demons possess people, so this may not necessarily be evil, it could be a disturbed Roman soldier, certainly a disturbed soul, but I don’t think you need an exorcist, you probably just need somebody to pray, to put the spirit to rest.”

Me – Right. And it COULD be the Ghost of Christmas Effing Past – why speculate on what sort of ghost it is, when there’s no evidence that there even is a ghost. Note that he takes the Roman soldier “theory” on board without a second thought. Anecdotal evidence is king, apparently.

Int – “So it’s a job that could be done by someone like yourself in fact?”

Sutch – “well, er.. em em em ha ha, I don’t think I’m worthy of such things, I’m too frightened of evil and suchlike, somebody who is certainly is aware of what is going on, obviously has a fairly strong psyche so that they can counteract any attempt by the spirit to enter them”.

Me – Some sort of ghost chastity belt would seem to be in order…

Int – “But it’s very interesting the distinction you make…do, are you saying that the sort of ghosts that we talk about in ghost stories, spirits…walking in buildings, are slightly different from demons that possess people?

Me – Why on EARTH are you taking this man at face value? This is nonsense!

Sutch – “I would certainly think so yes, I would say that erm demons trying to possess somebody is a very different world, as it were, a very different reaction is needed, to a to a spirit that is…ill at ease, that has been disturbed at rest, and is trying I..as I see it to return to the other world.”

Int – “So this could just be a spirit that ‘s unhappy rather than one that’s actually evil?”

Sutch – “I, I would imagine so yes, I think that if it was a..a..a demon trying to, as it were, wreak havoc, I think we would be far more frightened and people would be more aware of it.

Me – Based on WHAT, exactly? How many people have proven injuries resulting from ghosts? Any recorded evidence of objects being moved or damaged by ghosts? What? What is the evidence for either demons, or ghosts?

Int – “Well it’s intriguing stuff. Dom Antony Sutch thank you very much indeed for talking to us, and I should add that while we were conducting that interview, we’ve had another word from the hospital, we the programme have spoken to the chaplain in Derby, but she refuses to confirm or deny any of the details…the mystery continues…”

_________________________

As a regular listener to this programme, and bearing in mind his co-presenter’s laughter, I’m pretty sure neither presenter believes this guff. So why do they interview him under the pretense that they do? Why do we patronise people like this? For entertainment? So as not to hurt people’s feelings? What’s the harm in questioning his claims and yes, even his beliefs? In what other sphere would BBC journalists give the interviewee this easy a ride?

There you have it. No evidence for a ghost, no reason to think it might be a Roman soldier, and no evidence that an exorcism went ahead. But the media have shown themselves to be willing to exploit believers for cheap laughs and/or cheap thrills, whilst maintaining  faux neutrality. At least I’m honest in my pisstaking! And once again they fail to actually aid understanding of the most likely reasons for experiences of this sort.

More here, from PlanetHumanism – including another bandwagon-jumper babbling about a “psychic sensitivity gene”.


Iceberg 1 – Upper Lips 0

January 23, 2009

melchyMore Britons than Americans died on Titanic
‘because they queued’ – The Daily Telegraph

According to new research by a “behavioural economist”, more British people died on the Titanic because…they were too British.

‘Americans were 8.5 per cent more likely to survive than other nationalities, while British passengers were 7 per cent less likely to survive.

“The only things I can put that down to are: there would have been very few Americans in steerage or third class; and the British tend to be very polite and queue.” (The ship’s first-class staterooms were closest to the lifeboat deck.)’

as well as…

“a significantly higher number survived, and there’s got to be a reason.”

Orly? The ONLY things? GOT to be a reason? If this is an accurate quote, this guy is not thinking too hard. I’d like to put this down to media misinterpretation – that this was just one of many suggestions the author made, and they’ve zeroed in on and overemphasised the one most likely to interest their readership. Or, he did provide the quote as quoted, but after loaded questioning from the journalist. Always difficult to know.

Whatever the reasons, the end result is this bizarre and rather tasteless “Stiff Upper Lip” hypothesis – just speculation. Note, in fairness, that the  author does point out the low numbers of Americans in steerage before going on to blame Given the well-established difficulty of escaping this part of the ship, this is surely rather more likely to account for the difference than is a majority of Brits going “oh no, old bean, I must insist – you go first!”. And let’s not forget “random” factor. There doesn’t HAVE to be a reason. Not every apparent anomaly has to have a significance. This is one event. There’s nothing wrong with suggesting reasons for something like this, but if you’re going to do it in an internationally available article and bring aspects of nationality into it, you’d better have some evidence to support them. All we get here is;


“…plenty of examples of gentlemanly conduct by British passengers and crew…”

Plenty – yet we’re only given one;

…the captain, Edward John Smith, shouted out: “Be British, boys, be British!” as the cruise liner went down, according to witnesses. One wealthy passenger, recognising he was doomed, donned a tuxedo and declared: “I’m going to go down well dressed.”

What on earth does this have to do with the claim at hand? “Be British” is nothing more than a morale-boosting rallying cry, whilst the “wealthy passenger”‘s behaviour is by no measure particularly “British”. People behave oddly when faced with death, and we don’t know his personal circumstances. Did he give up his place in a lifeboat to don his tux? Even if so, did he do it for an American or other non-Briti? This is cherry-picking of anecdotal evidence, sans context.The article goes on to talk about the old “women and children first” canard, as though this was somehow a preserve of the British. Needless to say, it was a long-observed tradition amongst all “civilised” nations, and one that makes perfect altruistic evolutionary sense. Sod all to do with one’s nationality.

As ever the premature release of findings via the media does no-one any good. Too little info, too heavily edited and reinterpreted, and given the obligatory sensational spin. This “daft posh/brave and stoic Brits (delete as applicable) let themselves die in shipwreck” meme is rather like the “lazy Spanish sailors sink the king’s flaghip” one we got a few months back. Hopefully this is just the usual media crapfest, and there’s an article or a book to actually present a proper case, rather than stoking the fires of national rivalry and lazy thinking.