Archive for February, 2009

That’s right Iceman, I am dangerous.

February 23, 2009

pinhead2Acupuncture isn’t dangerous, but assumptions can be.

I begin this post with a Top Gun quote, well, because I can. But also because I’m going to talk about the frozen prehistoric “iceman” nicknamed Oetzi (or Otzi, more properly Ötzi) – his body offers unique archaeological evidence for the period and has captured the public imagination. Apparently, he’s also captured that of the alternative medicine crowd. It’s claimed that Oetzi’s many tattoos are evidence of a therapeutic medicine using the same points as Chinese acupuncture and acupressure. The evidence for this is a supposedly close correlation (around 80%) between his tattoos and acupuncture points. From this we now have the claim becoming established outside academic circles (and probably within them too) that Oetzi “received acupuncture treatments“.

The source is not some crackpot internet website, but a legitimate Lancet article. You’ll need to register for free to see it, so I include a mostly complete copy of it mirrored here (note that it’s missing the main correlation table).

The original article even gets referenced in academic studies such as this one by Edzard Ernst. Do have a look at that study, because although it doesn’t challenge the Oetzi article directly (in fact it takes it entirely on face value), it does highlight the key problem with this hypothesis, which is that there is no evidence that acupuncture points, meridians, “Chi”, or any other traditional mechanism for acupuncture, actually do anything at all. In all probability acupuncture works via distraction and the much-misunderstood placebo effect. It doesn’t matter where you put the needles, or even whether you use needles at all!

“So what?” you might be thinking. “Surely it doesn’t matter as long as these prehistoric people believed in it”. Well in fact it does matter – Any correlation between acupuncture points and the tattoos is meaningless unless there is a reproduceable mechanism that might allow independent discovery of the system (convergence), OR there is evidence of cultural exchange between China and the Alpine region in which Otzi was found (communication). In other words either the same thing worked in both places, using those same points, or the system was passed from one region to the other. Given the 3000 years and 5000 miles between the two, there is a huge gap in the evidence to be filled before we can claim anything more than co-incidence for this apparent correlation. In Light of this, making use of “expert opinions” from acupuncturists seems dangerously close to begging the question – you’ve already assumed that these are acu-points, and you’ve set out to prove this using a method dependent upon that assumption, ignoring other interpretations.

Cutting to the chase – the actual evidence;

“Expert opinions from three acupuncture societies indicate that nine of the tattoos could be identified as being located directly on or within 6 mm of traditional acupuncture points. Two more tattoos are located on an acupuncture meridian but not close to a point. One tattoo is a local point. Three tattoos are situated between 6 mm and 13 mm from the closest acupuncture points.

So there are 15 “tattoo groups” that can be fitted to some aspect of the acupuncture system, and three of those are relatively distant. In fairness, they don’t claim perfect correlation – hence the 80% commonality referred to in the press. But this is within the team’s own system of measurement – the tattoos themselves are NOT “points” – they are series of lines, which of course each have length. From what point along the lines and within the groups, were the measurements made? There are 57 individual tattoos – though they are clearly grouped, what individual significance might each mark have? Why not just use crosses or dots? Suddenly the “80%” correlation doesn’t seem so sound.

The secondary correlation of “acu” tattoos with actual physical ailments is of limited interest, as it is in large part dependent upon the previous assumption. Only 8 of the 15 tattoos studied correlate with an afflicted body part – rather close to a chance correlation (is there a statistician in the house?). There is also the question of how common these ailments were at that time, in that location, in a man of Oetzi’s age. Given how common back problems are today, any back tattoo is likely to create “false positive” in this kind of exercise.

The whole thrust of the article appears to be proving a pet theory, and so rationalisations are made. The claim that the tattoos would have been hidden by “hairs” and “clothing” is beside the point. Millions of people choose to have tattoos that are covered most of the time. Some get them just for themselves, other so they’ll be seen, but only when barely clothed or entirely naked! The point is that we can’t second guess people’s body modification choices today, let alone those of 9,000 years ago. Despite this, interpretation of tattoos as “medical” in intent is a valid inference – it’s as likely as any other reason. But the direct comparison with modern alternative therapies remains a stretch beyond the evidence.

Finally, we need to consider that the history of acupuncture is not as it has been painted, nor as it has been presumed for the purposes of the Lancet article. This summary shows that the system used for comparison by the team (i.e. using defined points and meridians) is at best 300 years old, and at worst, only 60! This renders any suggestion of communication from or to the Alps by trade route, virtually impossible. As we’ve already discounted convergence – different cultures arriving at the same conclusions regards where to put their pressure/needles/herbal tattoos/raspberry jam, we’re left with the most parsimonious explanation – that the placement of the tattoos being somewhat close to modern acupuncture points is simply co-incidence and wishful thinking. At best, we have to call this speculation.

Haunted Hangars

February 11, 2009

aces-highOk, so Eddie’s not a ghost, but you get the picture…

I don’t know if it’s their proximity to the proverbial heavens, a high stress working environment and the prospect of imminent flaming death, but the flying services have always been even more superstitious than the British Army and Royal Navy. UFOs, time travel, and of course, ghosts. Not just Spiritualists and other fans of the paranormal, but aviation enthusiasts, journalists (mainstream as well as aviation specialist), and otherwise down-to-earth types thrill to tales of haunted airbases and service spirits – caring little for the “normal” bounds of good taste and respect for the dead. For the latter reasons, as well as academic reputation and PR worries, many museums are wary of such things – others see no harm in it and even staff take part in “investigations”. I’ve chosen to dissect two little jaunts taken by the “Ghost Club” to the former RAF East Fortune in Scotland, now their National Museum of Flight. These are – the first investigation in 2005 and the second, the following year. Note that the website design makes referencing very difficult (hell, it makes even READING difficult too!). So you can either read just my assessment, or the original reports in their entirety (bloody good luck to you).

These reports follow a pretty typical “paranormal investigation” template. A spooky setting, a smattering of research, lots of imagination and whatever technological gizmos you can muster all combine to give the illusion of meaningful research and essentially, a form of entertainment. Think “Most Haunted” meets “Ghostbusters”. As evidence-gathering exercises, these as essentially worthless, but are arguably harmless and I suppose help keep these people off the streets. But often they stray into the misrepresentation of history, and that’s where my interest is piqued. I’ll start with what they do get right – skipping right to the end of the second report they are quite correct to say that Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding was a member of the very same Ghost Club. Surprising and disappointing perhaps, but to a sceptic, this only serves to prove that rank, status and/or education level are no barrier to flights of fancy.  Credulity is an equal opportunity employer. In fact to cite a notable individual in an area outisde their professional expertise is a False Appeal to Authority – Dowding, nor any other  officer, was/is qualified to pronounce upon matters paranormal. Their testimony is no more or less vulnerable than anyone elses – which is to say since the evidence for the paranormal is wholly anecdotal, it is more telling about the way the human mind works than how “spirits” manifest (or otherwise). Any weight it carries in this regard (as in the relevance of his profession) is diminished when you consider that he became convinced of such things only when he had retired from the RAF (rather as with Victor Goddard, who I covered in this writeup).

The “evidence” gleaned by the elite ghost hunting team itself is far from impressive. Most of the content amounts to anecdotal evidence of “strange feelings” and sightings. Old places are creepy – why does this equate to “haunted”? Evolutionary psychology is just one alternate hypothesis that doesn’t violate the laws of physics – parapsychology has unearthed plenty of others. The “obvious cold spots and breezes” (felt and measured) and the spirit “orbs” (aka dust) reported in report 2 should need no explanation, taking place as they do in a drafty 60-year old building not intended to have lasted this long. One member is reported as being cold relative to the hot hangar – if you’ve ever touched another person (must avoid obvious jibe) you’ll know that they can feel very cold to the touch if your own body temperature is quite high – it’s all relative. Various ailments are mentioned, including a headache, aches and pains and so on. The rational explanation for these is good old fashioned imagination, as well as the much greater attention being paid to one’s own senses, plus the extra significance attributed to this. If you have a headache anywhere else, you don’t assume it’s a ghost causing it. Do you?

As for gizmos, the prized PKE meter, er, I mean “Tri-Field Meter” – detects electromagnetic fields, which are all over the place, mainly where man-made electrical equipment is to be found (obvious or hidden) – even this team admits that their readings at East Fortune were unremarkable. Even if they had decided that they were – since there is no reason to believe that a putative ghost gives off EM radiation, I’m not sure of the point to even looking for it – other than to feel like Egon Spengler that is.  As sceptic RemieV points out, if the meter fails to register your own “soul”, why on earth would it detect a disembodied one?! Similar applies to the reports of a failing camera and torch. This sort of report is typical of these investigations, but for it to even begin to tell us anything, you’d need to know whether the same result is repeatable in different (“non-haunted”) locations. This is rather like the feeling that you might be psychic just because you think of a friend at the time the phone rings. How many times does that torch not work properly when there no suggestion of a “spirit” in the vicinity? Are you sure the batteries are fresh? The contacts clean and not bent? Are you using rechargeable batteries that have drained since being charged or are nearing the end of their lives/got only a partial charge? Etc etc. Whilst on the subject of electronics, it seems that EVP was a total bust – there’s usually some muffled sound that you can pretend is a word or phrase, but apparently not in this case.

The scratch on the neck “manifestation” towards the end of report 2, well, you can conduct your own experiment here. Gently scratch your skin with your nail – the sort of scratch you might absent-mindedly make whilst hanging around a spooky old building in the dark. Notice a lack of any red mark. Watch your skin. Concentrate… See the red mark “manifesting”? See how it fades as well? Amazing! Spirit wounds!

On to the historical “content”. The intuition of “RAF Officers marching past the Education Building and heading up towards buildings at the top of the base” is not an auspicious start. It’svague enough to mean just about anything, and is not really falsifiable/verifiable. However, it’s worth noting that you’d be more likely to see maintenance personnel in these areas than officers – the entire modern day museum site consists of the technical part only. That the psychic “felt the atmosphere and (sic) that end of the hangar heavier” might mean something, if only they had bothered to a) quantify what “heavier” means and b) attempt to measure this heaviness in some way.

There are some specifics to work with. Visitors, staff and the “psychic” claim to have seen ghostly figures in the Bristol Bolingbroke and Twin Pioneer aeroplanes. Clearly I can’t prove that they were mistaken, but I can point out that the Bolingbroke (Canadian-built Blenheim bomber) had no combat history – it was a trainer and target tug. The “Twin Pin” served in Borneo – no information is available online as to any casualties, but equally there’s no reason to expect that this mostly civilian-operated aircraft should attract dead people. Then there’s the German aircraft engine, which the writer admits to knowing, in advance, to be attributed to Rudolf Hess’s Messerschmitt fighter. Despite this, the answers they get are so wrong it’s not even funny. They get a yes to an impossibility – that the spirit could be associated with both the engine and a nearby airframe, and the pendulum gives the wrong year. Same story with “did you give a false name?” (it’s well known that Hess did) – a “no” to “is the false name starting with “A” results in some truly acrobatic post-hoc rationalisation that the spirit must have given a false, false name! Guess either the idiomotor effect – http://skepticwiki.org/index.php/Ideomotor_effect – wasn’t kicking in that night, or the person with the pendulum wasn’t the one with the knowledge.

Now, there might conceivably have been deaths (and by extension, ghosts) associated with the service histories of these exhibits, but these people have not even shown this to be a possibility by researching the airframes. Heck, these figures might be the ghosts of plane-spotters! Or, you know, figments of imagination.

It probably won’t be a surprise at this point that none of the names brought forth by either investigation checks out . Many are just first names (Archie?!) or even nicknames, and where a full name is provided, they go to no effort at all to verifiy it. At least “Most Haunted” admits when it’s been unable to verify names. If you aren’t going to research your findings, why even bother? East Fortune’s casualties are well documented and accounted for, and it would be a simple matter to check anything less vague than a forename – which may be part of the reason why we get so few full names – Martyn Reynolds and Walter Jackson. The former does not appear in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database, whilst the more common Walter Jackson name appears three times. None of these tally with wartime casualties at East Fortune – and there isn’t even a “Peter T” among the WW2 casualties at the base (and no matter how “low” his rank, he wouldn’t have been wearing a “beret” either). This is easily checked with publically accessible sources (not least the museum itself). The question and answer session with pendulum would also seem to contain verifiable info – a well-known woman local to the area that lived in a big house and flew on Concorde with the title of “Lady” and who died in her 60s? Come on people, at least pretend to take this stuff seriously – do some damned research! The figure with “fair hair” and “a cap” seen by the psychic near the Concorde is just hilariously vague and unhelpful, whether you’re believer or sceptic. As for a mechanic called “Ruggers” – what a great move. Nicknames! Why didn’t she think of this wheeze sooner? And then the devastatingly evidential “Derek discovered…hangar 1 had been used for maintenance during WW2 – Derek did not have previous information of this.” – the majority of the whole frickin’ SITE was used for maintenance – the barracks and admin buildings were some distance away and aren’t part of the museum.

602sqn1

The group’s “psychic” converses at one point with a spirit of a member of 602 (City of Glasgow) Squadron. There’s a suggestion that he was a mechanic, though he is said to be keen to “get away from the mechanics”, which is contradictory. In any case, this squadron was not based at East Fortune in the year given, nor indeed any other. The final question “is there still flying here” with the response “don’t be daft” is rather interesting, as the site (though not that location) is still used to operate microlights and visiting aircraft for the annual airshow. Later on in the first report and again in the second, we see “misses” like these rationalised as “hits” with the claim (by a member of staff no less) that East Fortune was a “sister base” to Drem. This is not true in any meaningful sense. In WW2, RAF East Fortune was a bomber aircrew *training* station, Drem an operational fighter base. Exchange of staff between the two would have been limited to recreation – Drem held dances and other entertainments. The reason that the team keeps moving the goalposts and applying their “findings” to nearby Drem is that is was a classic fighter station, precisely the sort of place most people think of when someone says “WW2 airfield”. Thus all the vague military aviation-related pronouncements apply better there. This is a classic tactic of Cold Reading (though this is not that as such) – to shift the meaning and/or emphasis of a statement to help the sitter find some significance where none exists. The “Group 2” exchange in the first report seems to show that this group were aware, or were made aware during their visit, that this was no fighter station and they (the psychic) was barking up the wrong tree. I suspect that this group’s attached member of staff had told or reminded them of this (unintentional cold reading again), but of course I can’t know that. The pseudo-cold reading happens elsewhere – rather transparently, in report 2 – when a mention by the psychic of a visit by a Rear Admiral is forced to fit the facts that Royal Navy involvement at the site was during WW1 and in the flight of the R34 airship immediately afterward; a truly monumental level of wishful thinking. Certainly there was no “Captain Lucas” associated with the R34 as is suggested. This sort of detail is not difficult to verify/discount . Note that their pet psychic still doesn’t get with the programme even after a previous visit – she “sees” a member of aircrew with a non-existent RAF rank (Captain) who gives a date of 1939, which the group admits is two years before the base actually (re)opened. I suppose this at least suggests she’s not a conscious fraud, or she’d have done a little Googling or at least remembered the previous visit! Yet another example is the name Billy Green (still no match with available records) in report 1, which is made into a “hit” by assuming that the spirit must be a dead relative of one of the club members (also called “Billy”). With this approach, you can make anything meaningful, and if you don’t check it out, you can live in blissful and wilful ignorance of reality.

The dedication to memory of the servicemen and women of the world wars shows respect I suppose, but if we’re going to Appeal to Emotion, I don’t think this activity is respectful at all. I think this misdirected hero worship – bearing in mind the paucity of evidence for life after death, let alone ghosts themselves, is little more than pissing on their graves. Goodness knows how their living relatives and descendents feel about it. And I really don’t know what to make of the playing along with this charade by museum staff. Allowing access is one thing – to actively encourage and join in with vague feelings of ghostiness, quite another. Whilst there remains a possibility that strange feelings are caused by environmental factors like infrasound, it’s made clear that at least one staffer actually claims to have seen actual apparitions. If they are sincere about this, they’re as credulous as the “Clubbers”. If they were simply playing along, then they’re exploiting these people a la Yvette Fielding in Most Haunted. Regardless, personally, I don’t find the later assurances that this person “verified” this “very correct” information, particularly authoritative. Simply working at (especially managing!) a museum doesn’t qualify one to pronounce on historical matters (not today, at any rate), even if you do think that your dog can see dead people. And if it were possible, as claimed, to confirm facts, why isn’t this verification given in the report?

Well, that about wraps it up. Deeply unimpressive stuff, even by the standards of believers. I mean, ghostly stomach rumbles? Really guys, why even publish this stuff online? It’s enough to keep the true believers interested I guess. I’ll leave you, dear reader, with a final quote – “By now, most of the circle members were experiencing facial discomfort.” I imagine you know how they feel by this point…