Archive for August, 2009

Archaeological Dowsing (Part Three) or ‘Dead and Buried?’

August 30, 2009

gravestoneIt might be ‘fringe’, but I doubt it will ever truly die…

Forgive me if I appear to beating a dead horse, but I feel vindicated in posting this last instalment by this recent article. It contains the usual anecdotes,  and absolutely nothing to suggest that the same old mix of ideomotor effect and educated guesswork isn’t also at work here. See the JREF forum for some discussion. Suffice to say that there is just no evidence to support the dowser’s claims to be able to precisely locate grave cuts.

Anyway, I promised in Part II (Part I is here) to dissect the one readily-accessible ‘study’ of archaeological dowsing cited in the recent pro-dowsing article in ‘Time and Mind’ journal. So here we go…

I tend to draw a parallel with another deluded group of people that think they can divine special information – ‘psychics’. In this case it seems to me that, like a psychic with semi-conscious prior knowledge of a client, the dowsers here knew roughly what types (and sizes) of structure they were looking for, and approximately where they ought to be. They also started from visible features above ground. Despite these advantages, the results remain far from impressive. The final dowsing survey, by the author’s own admission, varies considerably from the true layout of the structures. How is it possible to divine roughly the right shape, yet have it be metres out of place? Do the rods need calibrating?

If you’re trying to make sense of the plot yourself, you should note all the many instances in which red lines seem to overlie existing features on the map – this is because surface features not discovered via dowsing are for some reason still included in the ‘dowsing’ overlay, along with other features known archaeologically – like the cellar and tower base – also not surveyed by dowsing. For comparison of dowsing results with reality, this basically leaves the chapel – which is nevertheless known to exist on the site. Further, it is a type of structure well known (archaeologically and colloquially) to appear as a simple rectangular structure aligned east-west, often with an apse at the east end. Nor can we by any means discount prior knowledge of this particular structre. The approximate size of the building appears in the historical record, and the excavations that uncovered the chapel were done many years beforehand, qualifying the claim that the dowser’s “..work all came before the excavations..”, which must refer to the most recent round of digging. The site of the building is even marked on Ordnance Survey maps, including a Victorian map that the author shows in his own report. Even without this information to hand to refer to, the surface features surrounding the area really don’t give much room for maneouvre, making the chances of placing this east-west oriented rectangle of known size somewhat accurately into this constrained area actually fairly high. Despite all of these advantages, by the author’s own admission the accuracy of the divined features ‘is poor’. Rather than the technique perhaps being at fault, this is blamed upon the subsequent mapping process. As for the ‘correct disposition’ claimed – we’ve already seen how the chapel plot might resemble sub-surface remains – but as no dimensions are given for the dowsed plot, we can’t even be sure that compare the level of precision in the plotting of the walls. Finally, the chapel itself contains a number of gravecuts, as one would expect – but are they really that close a match for the excavated graves? There are so many that hits are almost inevitable – and why the discrepancies (e.g. no tightly-spaced second row of graves, some out of place, others not even plotted)? And what of the distinctive apse plotted by the dowser? Bzzzt, wrong. There’s a pile of debris that could once have been an apse, but why would the dowser show up an intact apse rather than a pile of rubble?

I should stress that there is no question here of an intent to deceive – most of this information is presented by the author of the report himself. In fact, some of the worst failures in accuracy, or even missing some pretty substantial features entirely, are included in the report (and further undermine it). The author is simply placing too much weight on the results that can be rationalised as hits – presumably because of wishful thinking. But these hits are highly subjective in the interpretation. For example – how close a match do you think this culvert plot actually is? What of the features revealed by geophysics that don’t line up? Once again – pointing out ‘hits’ whilst ignoring the misses, also known as ‘observational selection‘ just like a psychic reading or an observation that the full moon affects violent behaviour.

The same report also includes a ‘test survey‘ that one might hope would be a controlled, blinded scientific study, but actually amounts to a subjective survey of the experience of dowsing, with no quantification or qualification of any successes had. The ‘positive results’ amount to an aggregated and near-random scatter of points – and again a good deal of faith is required to match any clusters of points with real features. If you were to draw a new plot of imaginary features and overlay that on top of the same scatter, you would still find ‘correlations’. It is nothing more than a ‘join the dots‘ game. And at the risk of poisoning the well somewhat, despite the citing of this study by the Time and Mind article, note the inclusion of Test 5, intended to “locate their own body field which is normally at about 450mm”. There is no evidence whatever for (and a few laws of physics against) the existence of such an ‘aura‘. Hard science, this ain’t.

As an aside however, I would like to give full credit to the author of that report for debunking what is a myth even within dowsing circles – that dowsing is depicted in the cave paintings at Tassili nAjjer in the Sahara. It isn’t – the figures are patently archers.

Archaeological Dowsing (Part Two) – ‘Non-Sense of Place’

August 23, 2009

sentaidowseThe future of archaeology?

As promised – the second part of my article about dowsing in archaeology (first part here). This week, we’re bang up to date with the latest ‘research’…

A recent article in the fringe journal ‘Time and Mind’ (behind a paywall and with a stupidly long title) included a section in support of dowsing as part of a supposedly emergent approach called ‘Spirit of Place‘, borrowed from ‘psychogeography‘. Right away, a flaw becomes apparent. Psychogeography is only valid (insofar as it is!) because it deals with what people we can actually talk to – who are alive today – are thinking about the place they’re in. Archaeology is about dead people. The difficulties here should be apparent!

The authors wish to graft this onto a little-known but pre-existing discipline called ‘archaeography’ – originally defined as a scientific, documentary-based parallel to field archaeology of the historical period (though colloquially, it has a portmanteau meaning of archaeological photography!). In contrast, ‘Spirit of Place’ is an attempt to reconstruct the psychological ‘feel’ of a site (including prehistory) along the lines of the post-modernist field of phenomenology, using such approaches as archaeoacoustics, lighting effects, temperature, weather and even feelings of foreboding. Not quite paranormal stuff (more psychology and art-based), but pretty speculative and subjective. The whole idea seems to be a perverse reaction to the realisation that archaeology has relatively little to tell us for sure – this kind of thing seems to me to be throwing baby out with bathwater though. A licence to make things up doesn’t ‘fix’ the problems with traditional archaeology – it compounds them, adds to confusion, and validates those in the new age fringe that have quietly championed such approaches for years, albeit for religious/spiritual rather than epistemological reasons.

Back to dowsing though, which is the initial focus of the piece. The piece acknowledges the existence of criticism by professional archaeologists (the authors being in fact a business analyst and a complementary therapist respectively), but instantly dismisses it;

“..others have been scathingly dismissive (Williamson and Bellamy 1983), though sometimes perhaps more from prejudice than practical experience.”

‘Practical experience’ has its many uses, but falsifying a scientific method is not one of them. Again – if the aim is to establish whether dowsing works AT ALL, properly controlled tests would make that experience utterly irrelevant. In fact, when we look up the bibliographic reference given, we find that the book (a debunking of another ‘woo’ idea in archaeology – ‘ley lines’) for some reason conceded that;

“No doubt it is possible to dowse for buried water,..”

Assuming (correctly) that ley lines do not exist, and that archaeological dowsing is contingent upon that, it then proceeded to dispose of this in a two-for-one deal;

“.. but when the search is for ‘earth currents’ the process becomes far more subjective.”

This was therefore a pretty questionable example of criticism to choose, as it takes for granted that dowsing in general terms is valid, and only quibbles with its application in archaeology. It is therefore easily dismissed as ‘prejudice’. Having seen off their carefully-chosen opponents, The Time and Mind article authors, in common with many proponents, therefore proceed under precisely the same lazy assumption – that water-dowsing is in any way proven. Also typical of pro pieces is that the bulk of the evidence offered is anecdotal (more on this later) or at best, what (arch-enemy of Dowsing) Vogt calls ‘field tests‘ (as opposed to scientific tests) prone to all sorts of misleading results. Where this article differs slightly is in this string of apparently academic bibliographic references;

“…a Roman fort and Tudor culvert beneath the site of Kensington Barracks (Bell 1947); Iron Age defensive ditches at Mellor hill-fort (Andrews 2007); Roman roads in Lancashire (Plummer 1976) and Essex (Ingram 2007); and medieval farm buildings at Cressing Temple (Hillman-Crouch 1999).”

Impressive, no? ‘No’ is right. ALL but one of these are from the same source – the Journal of the British Society of Dowsers – hardly scientific, not even peer-reviewed – fringe publications. They are also not accessible online (though neither are most proper journals), and tough to find even in the real world. I did however come across this amusingly scathing review of an anthology of BSD articles (edited by one of the Time and Mind co-authors!) that does appear to include Kensington Barracks article (or at least another about the same site). My favourite quote has to be;

“This kind of nonsense would normally hardly merit a review in any respectable journal.”

This is very true, and rightly so. At the same time, this kind of passive disdain by academics can make it all the easier for the unwary archaeologist to fall for the charms of the technique. Fortunate then that this reviewer decided after all that some attention should be devoted to it. Needless to say, I wholly agree with him on both counts.

The final quoted source is an online-only self-publication of sorts – an earnestly written report into dowsing at Cressing Temple Barns in Essex. It’s the only one that we can access with any degree of ease, and it’s an excellent case study in the sort of well-intentioned but wrong-headed approach that leads to people being convinced that dowsing (of any flavour) actually works. I’ll take a look at this in detail as a final part to this series next week.

Back to the Time and Mind piece, as in bass-ackwards fashion it attempts to explain how such ‘results’ are obtained;

“As for how it works, the various scientific studies over the past century all seem to indicate that no single mechanism is involved (Barrett and Besterman 1926; Maby and Franklin 1939; Tromp 1949; Maby 1966).”

None of these are ‘scientific studies’ by any reasonable definition, and what they indicate (by their disagreement) is not that more than one mechanism is required to explain the phenomenon, but that the phenomenon does not actually exist! .

“Instead, it seems more likely that a “weighted sum” is derived from multiple perceptual mechanisms, akin to pattern-recognition in neural networks (Bishop 1995). What is also clear from the studies is that, despite appearances and the users’ impressions, the instrument moves only because the hand moves in response to a nervous impulse arising from that “weighted sum;” and the response conforms to that of a mediated or semi-voluntary learned reflex.”

Aside from the pseudoscientific techno-babble, this is very telling, as it eschews the usual external explanation – that the sticks move by some ‘energy’ unknown to science – in favour of something completely indistinguishable from the usual sceptical explanation for dowsing – ideomotor effect. And bearing that explanation in mind, I think it’s telling that the article claims that;

“A solid grounding in archaeology is definitely advantageous; to paraphrase Louis Pasteur; dowsing may at first appear to be chance, but such “chance” favors the prepared mind.” In this it resembles the practical skills required in fieldwalking surveys; an experienced fieldwalker would have little difficulty in distinguishing between fragments of chert and flint, for example, while the “untutored eye” will struggle to identify anything. In short, the quality of results will depend on the skill, experience, and background of the dowser; and discipline is essential.”

Except that fieldwalking is a visual survey method to which an experienced ‘eye’ can be applied – and the eye as a sensing organ is pretty well documented! Whereas dowsing is supposedly about sensing hidden features using some unknown organ or aspect of the mind. This analogy pre-supposes that it’s even possible to detect anything. Nor does the article give any evidence for the untrained dowser actually being any less adept at achieving good results than the so-called ‘expert’. The only difference is likely to be that the ‘pro’ will make many more dowsing pronouncements, and so end up with more ‘hits’ – like a psychic making regular predictions in order to secure that one impressive result for her website.

We’ve already seen that few professional archaeologists actually believe in dowsing, and even fewer actually seek it out as a technique. The only people pushing it are the new agers, certain of the subject-enthusiasts, and now these ‘archaeographers’. But strip away the post-modernist trappings, and what’s left? Imagination, questionable use of psychology, ‘conversation with place’ and;

a ‘belief in a ‘Spirit of Place’ that [is] held as if true, which is not the same thing as saying that it is true’.

So in fact the information being gathered isn’t actually real? Is that really any more use to anybody than new age feel-good religion and its own associated tracts of word-salad? I wonder whether ‘Spirit of Place’ – especially archaeological dowsing – isn’t just an attempt to legitimise fringe practices by creating a new discipline not bound by the same rules and conventions as field archaeology or archaeological science. Dowsing even crops up again at the end of the article, in the form of a bizarre psychic fieldwalking exercise guided by dowsing rods and attempts to ‘talk’ to the monument. Quite what this is hoped to achieve is even less clear than the ‘conventional’ usage already described. Given the spiritual overtones, emphasis on ‘feelings’ rather than facts, and employment of otherwise-questionable techniques like dowsing, isn’t this simply the New Age in a tuxedo (or perhaps a tweed jacket with elbow patches)?

So much for the latest reinvention of this old chestnut. Essentially, the reason archaeological dowsing is bunk is the same as applies to all other dowsing – there are no scientific tests to support it, no scientific method by which it could work, and the ‘results’ it obtains are better explained by the ideomotor effect and perhaps a measure of educated guesswork. Where excavation seems to confirm a dowsing survey, to eliminate other more parsimonious explanations we would need to keep track of the ‘hit’ rate. In other words, what proportion of dowsing pronouncements actually result in a find? For every Roman fort, how many follow-up excavations or remote sensing surveys fail to locate what was suggested – and how many fail to find anything at all? Otherwise, we are counting the hits and ignoring the misses, just like a ‘psychic’ reading. No matter how often the authors insist that dowsing and ‘Sense of Place’ should never replace scientific methods but instead complement them, there’s no evidence that they’re of any objective use whatever.

I’ll end with a quote from my new hero, the author of that ‘Antiquity’ piece…
“I do feel very strongly that archaeology is already lumbered with far too much lunatic fringe – mostly born out of ignorance of the natural sciences; and that this sort of pernicious nonsense can serve no purpose other than to increase confusion.

…and a reminder that any archaeological/graphical (or for that matter, any other dowser) still stands to win one million dollars if they can show results better than chance under agreed controlled conditions. What’s your excuse?

Archaeological Dowsing (Part One) – Divining Bad Archaeology

August 16, 2009

indyIndy was never without his dowsing rods.

Archaeology has a tremendous amount to offer us all – at least as much as history as a discipline – and is in many ways more accessible and more exciting. However, it’s my impression that as a younger discipline with radical roots and romantic baggage, it remains rather vulnerable to speculation, assumption of facts not in evidence, and the embracing of what is known in sceptical circles as “woo“. The New Age has a lot to answer for, and some of the same hippy types and left-of-field thinkers that make archaeology so vibrant as a field can also inadvertantly do it down. Notable amongst the techniques and approaches adopted by some archaeologists of that era is archaeological dowsing.

The first part of this article explains why it is actually entirely bogus, and attempts to explain its popularity regardless of this. Part two covers the most recent attempt by proponents to rehabilitate dowsing in archaeology by defining a role for it on the periphery of the field – potentially adding to public and media confusion and perhaps even leading a new generation of archaeologists to believe that it is a legitimate technique.

Allow me to put it bluntly. Dowsing – the detection of water or buried objects and features (in this case archaeological ones) by the human body via a stick, pair of rods or a pendulum – is bollocks. Not one properly controlled, blinded (i.e. scope for bias of both experimenter and dowser eliminated) trial has ever shown it to perform better than chance – and crucially – any positive results have not been repeatable. This means that the successes, the ‘hits’ if you will, are a mixture of pure luck and some other factors that I will come to later. And yet, unware or unfazed by this fact, people still buy into it – including those involved in archaeology.

A survey reported in American Antiquity in 1984 showed that teachers of the subject were much more likely to both cover archaeological dowsing in class, and to put it in a positive light, than they were other “fringe” ideas including Bigfoot, Noah’s Ark, ancient astronauts, and psychic archaeology. Yet none of these are accepted by science as legitimate subjects of study, and all have the same low quantity/quality of evidence to support them. In my younger days, I too was taught that it was a valid, if less effective, technique when compared with geophysical survey methods. I swallowed this uncritically for many years until set straight by a sceptic. And it wasn’t just one kooky tutor.

One of my old course books for archaeology students in the UK, Greene’s ‘Archaeology: An Introduction’, lists dowsing along with legitimate scientific techniques like ground-penetrating radar and geophysical survey. The author cites his own personal experience of seeing it ‘work’ at a South Devon site – even though he makes clear that the dowsing farmer in question had already observed the feature as a crop-mark. How hard can it have been to then ‘locate it’ using a forked stick? Interestingly the updated edition seems to have excised the section on dowsing. The archaeology student’s bible, ‘Archaeology: Theories Methods and Practice’ has a commendably open-minded mention of the practice, noting anecdotal success but stressing that most do not believe in it and that the evidence thus far is wanting. This is more open-minded than I personally think it deserves – like the search for ESP, the evidence has not improved since the first half of the 20th century. And in fact the up-to-date edition again seems to have backed away even from this already sceptical position – as it includes a reference to a thorough demolition of the ‘technique’ written after my own copy was published.

This cautious acceptance of dowsing in the literature has come from individuals within the field who championed its use, especially in the first half of the 20th century. Wind the clock back fifty years, and you will find archaeologists like T.C. Lethbridge, who was admittedly more an antiquarian museum keeper than a field archaeologist in the modern mould (and not, as the National Trust recently claimed, a PhD). Dowsers today would like to abstract dowsing from its occult context – Lethbridge clearly saw it as part of the magical realm.  Probably the earliest legitimising source is R.J.C. Atkinson’s ‘Field Archaeology’, published in 1953.

As science turned its attention to dowsing, the climate became less conducive to such endorsements, but as post-processualism and post-modernism set emerged in the 1960s, dowsing was able to keep its head above water, for example this 1967 quote from Ivor Noel Hume;

“… archaeological dowsing has been tested under all sorts of conditions and there remains no doubt that two pieces of wire, each bent at a right angle and held lightly in each hand, will cross when they pass over metal.”

The early 1980s witnessed a second boost for archaeo-dowsing in Britain with the publication of a new field manual by the father of wetland archaeology, Dr John Coles. At this time individual archaeological units even made use of it, for example York Archaeological Trust who in 1983 reported their employment of a dowser in a published monograph (p.47). Today archaeological dowsing has mostly returned to the periphery, largely ignored by the mainstream of the profession, but it could once again be on the up. Not just enthusiasts but also a number of professional archaeologists continue to set store by it, to varying degrees. Most notably, Prof. Timothy Darvill of Stonehenge fame recently reaffirmed his belief in it to the author of a new article on the subject – though Darvill also embraces some other ‘interesting’ neo-antiquarian approaches, as the Counterknowledge link (and a post of mine) demonstrates. Dowsers are still permitted to involve themselves with archaeological sites (though they may no longer appear in excavation reports). The rationale is no doubt that their services are free and harmless – but if their results inform later excavation, money has been wasted. In terms of the heritage/visitor attraction side of archaeology, even the English National Trust recently published an article (see page 60 here) affirming that it;

“…has many practical, if seldom publicly credited, uses” and that “the National Trust … has, unofficially, been putting it to use for some years”

The author has simply bought the dowsers’ propaganda rod, wrist, and forearm. Incidentally, I challenge anyone to come up with evidence of dowsers being employed by utility companies, and especially by the police.

Local archaeological societies, in the best traditions of their amateur antiquarian forebears, are also liable to dabble in dowsing, just as dowsers are wont to dabble in archaeology. Today, you can even go on a course to learn to dowse for archaeological features, and the various National Trust properties mentioned in the above-linked article also offer ‘workshops’ in it. I’m personally aware of one national museum that employed a dowser, and less well-funded sites take advantage of the low cost and high level of mystique associated with putting on dowsing events at their museums. Finally, like other questionable aspects of archaeology, it maintains a public profile via the media, including several appearances on Channel 4’s Time Team, though to their credit they outline its failure to date and remain sceptical.

There remains a lack of engagement by archaeologists with the subject of dowsing, whether pro or con, few seem interested in actually testing it or analysing its claims. Those criticisms that exist are sometimes cautious – a lack of reliable results making archaeologists suspicious or even cynical about dowsing, but not necessarily truly sceptical. Clark’s benchmark book on remote sensing in archaeology bemoans a lack of data, but also ends up adopting a circumspect “it’s probably bollocks but let’s not offend our more eccentric colleagues” attitude. Colleagues in the more scientific disciplines of the field appear bemused and dismissive – understandable when you consider that it’s those without a grounding in the sciences who are most prone to drink the dowsing Kool-Aid – but though well-placed to look into the technique, they instead steer clear. Even the Institute of Field Archaeologists, who go so far as to recommend against using it, don’t go into any detail. This seems strange given the wealth of sceptical literature on the subject in general – even in the popular press.

Luckily, there are a handful of truly sceptical articles to be read. For British archaeology, Hancock’s ‘Dowsing the Rollrights‘ is interesting because it tackles dowsing from its most convincing aspect – personal experience, and still comes away unconvinced. The most comprehensive debunking out there is Van Leusen’s ‘Dowsing and Archaeology‘ from the journal of Archaeological Prospection, later reprinted in Skeptical Inquirer magazine. It summarises the literature, and focuses upon the book ‘Dowsing and Church Archaeology’ – held up as the best evidence available, but as this article makes clear, actually incredibly flimsy and open to interpretation. The abstract says it all;

Both among the general public and among archaeologists there is a widespread belief in the presumed abilities of dowsers to locate underground archaeological features. This article reviews the nature of such beliefs as evidenced in published materials from professional archaeologists in the UK. It is found that there is a contradiction between largely privately held convictions that dowsing works and public rejection, caution or silence. An examination of the best available published evidence for the validity of dowsing shows that field tests were badly designed and executed, ignoring important statistical biases and modifying test parameters in order to obtain positive results. These methodological shortcomings are traced to archaeologists’ lack of training in controlled test design, and prior belief in the validity of dowsing. Where field tests were properly designed and executed, no evidence for the validity of dowsing was obtained. The article concludes that properly designed tests are entirely feasible, and that it is up to the proponents of dowsing to conduct such tests.


It’s the same story in the US, where the State Archeologist for Iowa has online another very sound and even-handed review of the literature that nevertheless doesn’t end well for the dowsers. So if you feel my own tone is too dismissive and sarcastic, please do have a look at these sober pieces, which despite the damning evidence, still retain the proverbial ‘open mind’ to any future, properly designed testing.

So if most archaeologists agree with their professional body in not setting store by dowsing, why this reluctance by others to consign dowsing to the loony bin of archaeology? Well, dowsing is superficially plausible, especially if you’ve seen it done or, given how little it costs to try and the reliably impressive physiological mechanism by which it ‘works’ (more on this later) – if you’ve experienced it yourself. Even without this ‘easy sell’ if, like me a few years ago, you haven’t actually given it much thought and don’t have a grounding in the sciences, it still seems like something that could work. See this clip from a Scottish archaeological programme in which the presenter is amazed by the apparent response of the rods, yet when a trench is cut, nothing but clay is found.

Crucially, dowsing also doesn’t require an overtly paranormal mechanism – no ghosts, aliens, or even ley lines required (though the latter are often invoked, along with even weirder notions). It also carries with it a great deal of anecdotal evidence – given a great deal of credence by people informally weighing up everyday claims, but actually worthless when it comes to such scientifically falsifiable (and laws-of-physics-defying) claims as this. Another factor is that most people – no matter how intelligent and highly educated – are not scientists, and field, academic, museum, and theoretical archaeologists aren’t either. They are what Dr Ben Goldacre of BadScience.net calls “humanities graduates”. Clever, knowledgeable, but not familiar with even the most basic scientific method. So if those sticks move without your conscious effort, it must be some magnetism or something, right? Makes sense. More importantly though, most people (and archaeologists) have little clue about critical thinking – a process to help us weed out the BS from the kosher. Most of us use our gut feelings, and such feelings have served archaeologists well. They carry about their experience and knowledge, and apply it both consciously and subconsciously in their work – they don’t plug variables into equations or run proper experiments – they interpret what their techniques (some of them hard science) reveal, and peer review takes care of the rest. The problem with dowsing is that it purports to provide the same hard facts of the scientific side of the field, when in fact it is based wholly in the other and produces even less useful results. It is, in fact, a massive red herring.

In the next part of this article, I’ll analyse a recent attempt to rehabilitate archaeological dowsing as part of a questionable new approach dubbed ‘Spirit of Place’.

Update 18.8.09 – thanks to Keith Harmon in the comments below for (if inadvertently) leading me to another example of a museum pushing archaeological dowsing to a credulous audience – Gunnersbury Park, operated by the respected Museum of London.

Update 3.9.09 – some vintage dowsing going on at no less a site than the Tower of London by a Major C.A. Pogson –  dowsing luminary and official water diviner for the Bombay government. The treasure they had supposedly found – Barkstead’s Treasure – remains undiscovered to this day – the ‘treasure’ that they were plonking into finds trays (without the assistance of the dowsing chappie) appears to consist of bits of pot and animal bone (rather more usual archaeological finds).

Shot Down In Flames

August 3, 2009

shot down

Well, by skeptics actually, but the effect is much the same*…

Having the misfortune to watch GMTV this morning, I spotted what turned out to be this load of old bollocks, recycled for a UK audience – no doubt because the UK edition of the book they’re hawking was published today (August 3). It relates the story of a young boy who is claimed to have had a past life as a Second World War fighter pilot. This sort of thing (i.e. ‘evidence’ of reincarnated minors) is usually the result of a form of facilitated communication – concerned parents and/or psychologists or social workers who over-interpret a child’s statements and together create an entirely false reality – sometimes to explain some behavioural problem, sometimes just because they want their child to be somehow special.

It’s rather like Cold Reading as used (sometimes cynically, sometimes unknowingly) by ‘psychics’ – you start with something vague and general and whittle it down into a specific, plausible story that could just about fit the facts. This case is no different – as a poster on the JREF forum pointed out several years ago now – the kid had a) very basic awareness of WW2 planes (which many toddlers and journalists have) and b) frightening nightmares about dying in an aeroplane. Everything else, culminating in his ID as a specific individual – Lieutenant (JG) James M. Huston, US Navy – came from his facilitators. And even that information is all public domain stuff – no new historical revelation was made that could have helped validate the claim.

As for the much-vaunted drawings – do we see anything beyond typical toddler-level drawing skills, or a hint of the fighter-pilot knowledge that Gross and the others insist is there? No. We see scrawls – attempts at aeroplanes advanced for his age perhaps, but showing no real detail that might show familiarity with flying the things. And we see tanks – there weren’t many of those involved in Pacific dogfights. All of this ignored to focus on one vague but simple concept – the original dream involving death, fire, and a plane – which can then have the facts forced to fit it later on. The get-out that ‘he was only young’ doesn’t wash – either he’s privy to special knowledge over and above that available to a toddler, or he isn’t.

It’s interesting to note that in the GMTV interview, the boy is emphatic about no longer having the nightmares, and in fact, being unable to remember them. Either reincarnation curses the very young with traumatic memories of their own deaths, only to then take them away, or the nightmares were simply an anxious phase in the boy’s early development, since got over (perhaps even via this ‘unconventional’ therapy, but I doubt it).

Thanks to the international lag in the publishing and publicity of the book over here, some fellow sceptics have already blown the story out of the water. Amazingly, despite claims that the kid had no exposure to aviation or military history before his dreams, it seems that the kid was actually taken to an air museum well beforehand – as mentioned above the excellent Skeptico has a whole blog post about this which, actually, makes my own rather redundant – as it covers pretty much every angle. Even those historical details that have made it through the facilitation process and should therefore be watertight – dependent upon good research – don’t all hold up.

Take the type of fighter flown by Huston – JREFer ‘Gumboot’ has (amongst other things) pointed out that the original claim was for the distinctive gull-winged Corsair fighter – only when the father read that Huston was not flying that type at the time when he died did it change to the radically different Wildcat. The book’s authors address this, pointing out that James Huston’s sister sent them a photograph of him in front of a Corsair – he did fly them at one point. But note that they are modifying the claim – which was specifically that James had died in a Corsair. Whether he flew one at some point (actually pretty likely) is neither here nor there. He wasn’t flying them from the carrier identified by the facilitators, and he didn’t die in one.

Skeptico also details what I’m calling the ‘facilitators’ involved – from the doting father who reinforces what would otherwise be healthy roleplay by buying toys and books, to the published reincarnation proponent who brings the sort of leading questions that can be fitted after the fact to tidbits of historical research. It was only when the child was taken to a therapist that ‘evidence’ of his dreams being related to a past life first emerged, and then snowballed. The same thing has happened many times before, including in the much more serious creation of false memories of sexual abuse. The very young child aspect we have seen recently in the Cold Reading of babies by arch-scumbag and million-dollar challenge loser Derek Ogilvie – his victims were too young to talk at all, yet by focussing on the parents he could convince them that he was reading their child. The same might apply here – the hopes, fears and thoughts of James parents driving the narrative just as much as his own half-formed expressions. For example – the claim that James said his fighter was brought down by a ‘direct hit to the engine’. A toddler would not – could not – have articulated that phrase as written. An alternative explanation is that he was asked by a facilitator how or where the plane was hit, and he gestured vaguely at the front part of his drawing, or of a toy. One follow-up question of ‘was it the engine?’, and a child’s imagination or conception of air-combat (head-on attacks being relatively rare in reality) suddenly becomes an uncanny past-life memory of his own death.

One thing I thought it worth expanding upon is what amounts to the usual schtick in selling paranormal cases to the world-weary punter – the idea that hardcore sceptics have been swayed by James’ story – in this case they’ve not looked further than one of their fellow co-authors, who despite claiming to be a ‘rationalist secular skeptic‘, is iobviously not familiar with the relevant literature and has developed a ‘blindspot’ for this case. This can happen to any of us, particularly if we become emotionally invested in a story – but his disbelief about other fanciful ideas does not validate this one. For example;

“I’ve heard people say, oh, he must have been coached, or influenced by watching TV. But this was a child in his diapers, still sucking on a bottle. How could he be coached to know the flight characteristics of World War II era fighter planes? How could he know the names of the ships and the sailors who had taken part in a certain battle at a certain time?”

Gross (a fiction author and automotive writer) clearly doesn’t understand how this works – it’s not that the child himself is expounding upon such complex topics – the original statement could be as simple as ‘Airplane crash on fire, little man can’t get out’ (one of James’ actual comments). The facilitator then shows the child a picture of a certain aeroplane (as we know the father actually did), and the child nods or otherwise indicates agreement or disagreement. Then (say) a picture of a particular pilot. Again, agreement. The facilitator, without lying (or necessarily even intending to deceive) can then legitimately claim that a toddler knows about a specific incident in history. The exact method of arriving at a given final claim won’t be accessible to the rest of us unless the facilitator makes logs of each session or the father writes meticulous diary notes. Even then, what James actually said on a given occassion, and how that might otherwise have been interpreted by someone not invested in a pre-determined outcome (in this case making a child appear to be a reincarnated fighter jock). Then there’s this ‘evidence’;

“There were other odd things — when she sent James Leininger a drawing that her mother made of James Huston — the child asked where was the other picture? The other picture — buried up in the attic for sixty years — was a drawing of Ann. Her mother had made two drawings when they were children. How could James Leininger have known that? Ann was stunned. No one knew about that other picture. Except her dead brother.”

So like Cold Reading, it’s not even funny. The kid says something like ‘where’s the other picture?’ – he could have been referring to almost anything. The sister, filling the role of the sitter in my psychic analogy, seeks the meaning of this, discounts all other interpretations, and goes straight for the least likely – that the child somehow knows about a hidden second drawing of the sister. She supplies the meaning. If she had asked ‘what picture?’ and the child had said ‘you’, that would be more like it. Or if she had taken him to the house and he had made a beeline for the attic. Or any number of confirmatory things beyond blind faith that when he says ‘other picture’, he means what she imagines he means.

Reading Gross’s heartfelt testimony, it’s also apparent in his use of the words ‘cynical’ and ‘nay-sayer’ that he takes the word ‘skeptic’ to mean closed-minded, just as the believers do. This one exception has slipped through his scoff-net, therefore he stands by it. That’s not what scepticism is (read ‘should be’ – I’m as guilty of it as any!). The idea is to form a provisional conclusion based upon the available evidence and the nature of the claim – to keep that open mind – but not so open that your brain falls out. Gross continues to disbelieve reincarnation despite having “no reasonable explanation for James Leininger/Huston”. If this is true, how is he a sceptic? If I had come to the same conclusion, I would no longer be sceptical about reincarnation – I would (provisionally) be convinced of its veracity. Or at least have a burning desire to try to confirm or debunk that conviction – what issue could be more important than life after death, if we had anything like evidence that it might be true?

The saddest part of all this for me is that relatives and colleagues of the dead pilot have been taken in along with everyone else. It’s easy to see why people in their 80s would on some level want to believe that their long-dead loved-one had a fresh start in a new body – and that they might live to experience the same thing. So they buy into the same fantasy as thousands of others, because it brings quick-fix comfort and hope. Isn’t it enough to simply pay our respects to the dead? To grow up and live our lives with some of them as role models? To keep fiction in the ‘fiction’ isle?

*With apologies to Blackadder II.

Wee Gordie McNazi

August 1, 2009

No, not that one – step away from that Daily Mail. If you’re into aviation history, you may well have come across this guy – Austrian Luftwaffe officer Gordon Gollob – high-scoring ace and all-around Nazi tool. Comment has been made online and in books about his supposed Scots ancestry – perhaps just for the novelty value, or because we enjoy the thrill/scare of fascism brought close to home. If a Scotsman or other Briton could fight for the Nazis, so could we have. Anyway, before veering off into pop psychology, what interests me about Gollob is that to reinforce this pedigree, he’s claimed to have a Scottish name, as I read whilst lurking on the militaryphotos.net forum recently. The name, if not the genetics, struck me immediately as unlikely.

nazi ronald mcdonaldRonald wasn’t the only one…

Starting with the ‘Gordon’ – this is emphatically a Scots name, and if his father really were a Scot as has been claimed, he could have chosen it for him. In this source, I take “nice Scottish name” to refer to this rather than the improbable surname that set me investigoogling. ‘Mc’ or ‘Mac’ Gollob sounds like no Scots name I’ve ever heard or seen. For this to hold true, ‘Gollob’ would also have to have been a Scots or Scots Gaelic name (Mc or Mac meaning of course ‘son of’). No matter how you check using Google (or Google books), Gollob or McGollob or MacGollob doesn’t come up in association with Scots or Scotland. It does however feature in pages about Germans, Austrians, Poles, and other continental/central Europeans. This should not surprise us, since Gollob and both of his parents (including his ‘Scottish’ father) were actually born and bred in Austria.

I was becoming convinced that the ‘Mc’ was just a nickname, perhaps bestowed by his fighter pilot pals, intended to riff on his Scots Christian name in a more obvious and stereotypical way. An exaggeration for comedic effect, maybe even to take the piss out of his mixed ancestry. But it seems that there may well be more to it. Supported by the bio in my previous link, this book claims that;

“The ‘Mc’ in McGollob was not part of a Caledonian family name, but a highly unusual Christian name bestowed upon the young Gollob by his parents. They were both Austrian artists who named their son after an American friend, Gordon Mallet Mc Couch [sic – should be ‘McCouch‘]”

So not only is the ‘Mc’ spurious, the whole name was made up – and not by a Scottish father, nor even (as far as I can tell) in honour of any Scots ancestor!

It’s not that there weren’t any Nazis with verifiable Scottish heritage – there were. Well, at least one. Douglas Pitcairn was another Nazi officer with an undeniable (if relatively distant) Scottish heritage. He just doesn’t attract the same level of interest as ‘Mc’ – perhaps because he wasn’t even an ‘ace’, having just 4 victories to Gollob’s 150. In any case, what does ancestry actually tell us about these people? In what meaningful sense would they be ‘Scottish nazis’?Does it reflect upon Scotland, or the UK in any way? Does it (or, say, the Indian Waffen-SS) make the Nazis fans of cultural diversity, or otherwise less nasty? No. All it really tells us is that hate, prejudice, snappy dressing and mad air-gunnery skillz are no respecters of heredity.