Archive for the ‘Pseudoscience’ Category

Shocking

November 26, 2013

I’ve been enjoying the authentic feel of the BBC’s ‘Ripper Street’, now well into its second season. It riffs on quite a few genuine bits of history, and the writing uses believably archaic turn of phrase. Having seen the latest episode involving early electrical pioneers, I was surprised to see this blogger pour scorn on the scene involving the electrocution of a goat for corporate propaganda purposes. I was pretty sure something similar really happened, and sure enough, it did;

“The dogs and cats, he said, were purchased “from eager schoolboys at twenty- five cents each and were executed in such numbers that the local animal population stood in danger of being decimated.” 

-Craig Brandon’s 1999 book, The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History, p.74

Many more animals were killed in this way by Edison’s staff. In fact goats were about the only species spared. As for being “a bit much”, the makers already censored the real history by using farm animals rather than the domestic pets and zoo animals that the real-life Edison really did use to further his business ends. 

A show like Ripper Street isn’t going to get everything right, but this was actually a damn good go, undeserving of this sort of emotionally motivated criticism.

Aaaaagh! Vampire log!

July 31, 2012

Or is a saintly log? Surprisingly good preservation is often cited in folklore and history as evidence for a) vampires and revenants or conversely b) the very pious, depending largely upon one’s social status. If you’re a peasant with retarded decomp, you’re a tool of the devil, whilst if you’re a dead abbot or similar, you might even get canonised.

The deceased tree member in question seems to have attracted the interest of the superstitious because the locals expect wood to rot underground or in water. Well, sometimes it does. Other times, not so much. It depends entirely on the conditions involved, included the levels of oxygen in the water. The fact that they equate the decay rate of wood with that of metal shows a misunderstanding of how things decompose. I’m no expert myself, but I would certainly consult one before leaping to the conclusion that I had a magical garden fence.

Early in the hi…

March 10, 2012

Image

Early in the history of this blog (and for some years afterward), I covered a lot of speculative nonsense regarding the famous Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland. The claims made back then have never gone away, but they haven’t received a whole lot more attention either, aside from a lengthy Slate article a few months back. This did at least give some time to the sceptics, though it was clear that the author had taken a liking to the purveyors of the theory, found it appealing, and ‘wanted to believe’, as Fox Mulder might put it.

This kind of story tends to get picked up in cycles, every few years, whenever lazy journalists need a quirky ‘discovery’ type story. Well, I have a feeling the ‘musical cubes’ will soon be back, thanks to this presentation by the author of the Slate article at none other an august institution than Princeton University. Thanks to foremost cube-critic Jeff Nisbet for the heads-up.

This post is quite long, but not nearly so long as either the linked video or the original article. Consider that I’ve sat through both so you don’t have to. I should also point out that one of my comments – I can’t remember what – has been deleted from that third section of the article, along with the preceding comment by fellow critic Jeff Nisbet that. It’s possible that there was a good reason for this, but it’s pretty poor form. Nonetheless, plenty of negative comments from both Jeff and I remain, along with lots of other sceptical people, including musicians.

Now, many people will assume that because Princeton have given the ‘theory’ stage-time, they are in agreement with the presenter and the originator of the claims. This is not the case. He has been permitted (or invited) to speak on the basis of the very real physics behind the very bogus historical claims. Physicists are not historians, nor even necessarily critical thinkers.

Also, the presenter himself expressed similar doubts in his original article, citing my ‘prolific’ responses to the original claims, and in the comments pages, actually admitting that;

‘I think the early BSHistorian articles–which I get to later–are probably the best summation of all the very reasonable doubts about this project.’

Wilson restates these doubts in the video with tentative phrases like ‘could have been’, ‘no record of’, and ‘possibly a coincidence’ (more of these below). For all that he is pushing this idea, at least unlike the guys that originated the claims he is, to an extent, allowing the reader/viewer to make up his or her own mind up. He also points out that a section at the end doesn’t make musical sense, and puts this down to the changes in the stonework that are documented as having taken place. But he’s happy to accept that the rest is OK, despite the Victorian restoration of the chapel being extensive. How do we know which bits are original and therefore part of the supposed piece of music?

At one point he compares the composer’s efforts to ‘recreate’ the ‘music’ to the frog DNA used to plug the gaps in the dinosaur DNA in ‘Jurassic Park’. He also points out the various ‘arbitrary decisions’ made by the composer in that process and admits that even if the music can be considered genuine, its modern-day creator must be regarded as the ‘arranger stroke co-composer’.

Strangely, Wilson claims it can’t be a moneymaking scheme/scam because the two men involved don’t make much money from it. The fact that they only managed to strike a deal giving them £1200 a year for it does not inform us as to their motives in doing so.

The only new piece of information in the whole presentation is a piece of music found in the notes of Gilbert Hay (an associate of the chapel builder), about which Wilson states:

‘…not precisely a melody that you would find in Stuart’s – erm – transcription, but it’s the same key, its the same tonic, and its the same notes.’

He then goes on to admit, rather contradictorily, that one could ‘absolutely see this as reaching for evidence, but it is there’. He also waves away some pretty important scepticism from Professor Warwick Edwards at Glasgow University on the basis that his specialist period is the 16th century rather than the 15th and quotes him as stating ‘I don’t really know’. It’s difficult to tell, but to me it sounds like Edwards would rather not get too deeply involved either as a supporter or a critic, which is pretty standard amongst academics. Indeed, Wilson bemoans the fact that these two ‘eccentric eccentric people’ are ‘not being taken seriously by the academy’. Academics will tend to ignore speculative claims rather than get tarred by the woo brush, even if they are debunking rather than endorsing.

A couple of points he gets plain wrong. He makes the old mistake of believing that the ‘green man’ is a pagan symbol. More importantly though, he claims that the cube carvings were ‘carved in place’, when in fact all of the internal decoration of the chapel is applied, as is evident from the missing chunks today and as depicted in art (see Robert Cooper’s ‘Rosslyn Hoax’ book, Jeff Nisbet’s research, and some of my earlier posts e.g. this). Many of these chunks of masonry were restored or replaced in the 19th century. I don’t know where to start with his claim that the cubes are ‘so geometrical in a way that was not a common theme at the time’, since medieval architecture is based upon geometry. Unless he’s referring to the shape of the cubes themselves I suppose.

We also get a claim I’ve seen before (not least in the book that originally laid out the musical cube idea) that this was a ‘…time when you’d want to keep quiet about being interested in maths or music.’ Yes, music was the preserve of the rich and the church, and rules were laid down about it, but I’ve yet to see any real evidence of suppression beyond this. Medieval historians – comment below!

I would have said that Wilson simply does not understand critical thinking when he says;

‘If aliens found it, they could draw the same conclusion that the Mitchell’s did’.

He bases this on the fact that the Chladni patterns are a natural phenomenon. The clear problem with this is that they are only the hypothetical basis for the claims made. That seeing a pattern where none exists is a mistake that anyone could make is obviously not evidence that it does!

Yet Wilson apparently does understand both critical thought, and the dangers of becoming too personally invested in an idea. He points out that the originators of the cube hypothesis are ‘two men who believe’ (emphasis on believe) and most importantly that ‘their opinion is unfalsifiable’. Despite this admission that it could well all be bollocks, Wilson nonetheless believes it to be ‘very compelling’, and places his emphasis on how plausible the hypothesis is:

‘Because if it’s plausible, it’s ‘the most fascinating thing I’ve ever seen.’

Unfortunately, ‘is it plausible?’ is entirely the wrong question to ask. Plausible does not equal historical, and speculative history relies upon the superficial plausibility of the claims made to bamboozle the laymans and (some of) the enthusiasts. If there’s a whizz-bang gimmick to awe the rubes, so much the better; in this case it’s the impressive (and very real) phenomenon of ‘Chladni’ patterns. ‘Plausible’ essentially suggests that if it sounds or even ‘feels’ right, so perhaps it is.

No. No, no, no. There are times when speculation is justified or even necessary in the study of the past, but it must be carried out within a framework of evidence. It’s exactly the same principle as the old ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’ for claims of the pseudoscientific or paranormal. You can infer foundations from a ditch on an archaeological site, but you can’t speculate that it was an elephant hopscotch arena.

The claim that the cubes represent musical notes has serious implications for the established history of music, and the medieval understanding of science, so we need a damn good reason to believe it. Moreover, there is a far more parsimonious explanation for the ‘motet’ – that it is an elaborate example of bad pattern recognition. The fact that the claim is unfalsifiable is not just a caveat, it undermines the whole thing.

I can’t help feeling that if anyone in the audience was fooled by all this, had Wilson pointed out that one of the originators of the cube theory has since turned his hand to producing ‘music’ from DNA, they might not have been. No-one is seriously suggesting that music is somehow encoded in Beethoven’s DNA – nor should they be suggesting that someone did so with the Rosslyn ‘cubes’. You can generate ‘notes’ from any sequence – it’s what you do with them that makes them a piece of music.

‘Arrant humbug’

January 4, 2012

Your argument is invalid, sir!

As Keith from Bad Archaeology has very kindly linked to this blog in his latest post on dowsing (well worth a look by the way), I thought I’d post some period material gleaned in my recent trawling of the Scientific American archive that shows that whilst dowsing may be ancient, scepticism of it as a technique is by no means recent. The first is from 1856, and somewhat circumspect (though you can read between the lines):

‘Foreign Scientific Notes.

THE DIVINING ROD-The London Mining Journal states that the Rev. A Suckling, recently delivered a lecture at the St. Helliers, Jersey, on the history, antiquity, and correct principles of the ‘dowsing’ rod, for the discovery of minerals, metals, and springs of water below the surface of the earth. Mr. Suckling stated that he was convinced there existed a certain, though inexplicable, affinity between the effects of operations with the divining rod and what, in our present modern designation, is termed “mesmerism;” that he refers them to one and the same source. It was then attempted to be shown that mesmerism was known to the ancient Egyptians, and that many anecdotes and passages of Scripture show that it was well understood among the entire population of Asia. To this principle is ascribed the application of Naaman, captain of the host of Syria, to obtain a cure f or his leprosy, and the interview of Saul with the Witch of Endor. In the course of the lecture it was stated that many of the wells in the island had been discovered by himself and others, endowed with the peculiar power which was said to appertain only to certain persons.'[1]

Just a year on however, and thinly-veiled eyebrow-raising is replaced by outright scepticism in this scathing comment;

‘The􀁫Divining Rod a Deception.

The editor of the Saint Croix Union, published at Stillwater, Minn., says :- “The divining rod is an arrant humbug, and those using it, pretending that there is in the rod a mysterious and unaccountable virtue, are also humbugs. We know what we say, and intend it, too. Not only will a twig of a sweet apple tree point downwards in our hands, but a bifurcated twig of almost any tree will. We can take a twig of a willow, or an oak, or hickory, or anything, and hold it in our hands aud make it turn forty ways for Sunday. It isn’t a stream of water beneath us that does it, either, for we can make it point to a heap of ashes, or rock as hard as a nether millstone. It makes no difference. We don’t deny that water has been frequently found exactly beneath the spot indicated by the divining rod ; this has happened in our case more than once, but it is just as true also that, in numberless other cases that have come under our observation, men have dug long-dug deep-and spent stacks of money by digging where these aforesaid mysterious rods have pointed, and found no water.'[2]

Although they haven’t quite put their fingers on the mechanism behind dowsing, others soon would, and by 1890s SciAm was recognising it in the oujia board;

G. A. S. says: I will be very glad to have you 􀁪enlighten me as to the cause which makes the little table move and answer questions when using the game called “Ouija, or talking board.”[3]

A. The hands. Hands off, no go.

You can almost hear the author saying ‘Next!’…

 

References

[1] Foreign Scientific Notes, Scientific American 11, 202-202 (8 March 1856) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican03081856-202

[2] The Divining Rod a Deception, Scientific American 12, 344-344 (4 July 1857) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican07041857-344a

[3] Notes and Queries, Scientific American 66, 74-75 (30 January 1892) doi:10.1038/scientificamerican01301892-74a

 

Archaeological Dowsing IV – Revenge of the Rods

January 10, 2011

 

Emmeline thought the “Ideomotor” must be some newfangled form of transport…

 

I’ve written before about the limited (but still too widespread!) acceptance of dowsing in archaeology on several occasions. Needless to say it hasn’t gone away since then. As dowsers are all too fond of telling us, it’s an “ancient” technique. I recently became aware of an attempt by  a group of amateur archaeologists convinced of its efficacy to win over their professional colleagues and raise public awareness. You can read it here.

The most superficially impressive claim therein is this;

“[Paul Daw’s] discovery, by dowsing, of anomalies between the stones in the Stanton Drew circle, Somerset, prior to their detection by fluxgate gradiometry, merited a brief note in the magazine British Archaeology, No. 111 (March-April 2010)”

This wouldn’t be the first time that non-academic archaeological publications have uncritically reported dowsing, but I wanted to investigate this further. The note in question is entitled “Geophysics finds encourage new look at Stanton Drew” and the relevant paragraph reads;

“[The archaeologists] found anomalies between the stones of the circle, which John Oswin and John Richards (BACAS) and Sermon suggest may be contemporary features. Though not revealed before by geophysics, similar features had been claimed earlier in the year by dowser Paul Daw.”

There is a subtle but important difference here. The claim implies a match between anomalies “discovered” by the dowser and those actually found by geophysical survey. In fact nothing is said about just how “similar” they were, nor how precise a match they were to the dowser’s features. Just that “similar features” had been claimed.

Now, a stone circle, oddly enough, consists of one or more circles of, er, stones. Stones require holes in the ground in order to set them. Several thousand years often leads to stones being removed, relocated, or destroyed. Thus there is a pretty good chance of finding some sort of buried hole in the ground in between those holes in the ground that are still obviously filled with stone. One can also take a pretty good guess at the likely size of any as-yet undiscovered holes in the ground based upon said above-ground stones. Finally, stones in stone circles are usually spaced in an even manner, further increasing the chances of correctly guessing the location new features. The upshot of all this is that unless we can know how closely Daw’s plotted holes matched those found by science, the claim is worthless. This is the closest thing to independent assessment of this society’s efforts that’s offered. Everything else is self-claimed and self-affirmed (as with the “test” linked in the closing paragraph of the newsletter).

The rest of the newsletter consists mainly of claims to have discovered or confirmed the suspected routes of stretches of Roman road (and features connected to them) in the area. Most are unfalsifiable, and to be fair, without professional backing dowsers often lack the means to “verify” their own work. One claims to have been cited by (presumably) an archaeologist;

“Interestingly, just a few months ago, Judy and I attended a lecture on ‘Roman Roads in Cumbria’ by a man we’d never met, and were amused to learn that ‘Andrews and Andrews’ are now officially credited with the discovery of the Kendal to Ambleside Roman route – even if we did use dowsing to find it!”

The big problem here applies to the other supposed success stories in this newsletter. These people may well have discovered a stretch of Roman road, but the extent to which they used dowsing to do so is far from clear. In fact like the other contributors, it is clear that their achievement relates to their fieldwork methodology as a whole including visual survey (simple observation of the lie of the land), field survey (measuring it with trundle wheels, ranging rods, perhaps even theodolites in order to detect changes in topography) placename research (settlement and feature names known or suspected to denote a former Roman road in the landscape), map work (using maps to determine likely routes based on contour lines, watercourses etc) and a bit of local knowledge to speed things up. Together with confirmatory excavation, this is how such features are found. We need to know precisely how the dowsing was done, and what aspects of the find it supposedly contributed to. Naturally I suspect that it played no part.

To be fair, being a local archaeological society, funding and opportunity for excavation is going to be limited, hence these guys aren’t often going to be able to confirm their fieldwork (dowsing or otherwise). Hence on page 7;

“Our results were vindicated when a gas pipeline subsequently cut across the line of this road and revealed a cobbled surface complete with two Roman hobnails on exactly the same alignment as that determined by dowsing (Wilson, 2009: 288)”.

Again, we are expected to take their word for this – the word “exactly” is not quantified. I realise that this is only a newsletter and not a journal article, but if the goal is to lure more “conventional” archaeologists into the fold, surely something other than bald assertion will be needed. A nice diagram of coinciding datapoints, perchance?

I realise you’re trying to attract paying members in order to keep your heads above water guys, but how about at least a sneak preview of any data that might actually lie hidden in a copy of your journal, archived in the basement of the local library and labelled “beware of the leopard”? Of course even some impressive-looking results would still need to be subject to peer review and then reliably replicated before we could all burn our magnetometers. It doesn’t matter how cheap and easy dowsing is if it does no better than chance.

So, though working somewhat in the dark, it seems to me that these chaps are checking existing lines along which roads are suspected to run. Roman roads are (famously) linear, but tend to respect the existing topography (at the time). So it should be no surprise that dowsers are able to plot a fairly straight route vaguely in the same alignment using nothing more than pre-existing knowledge and educated guesswork, mediated by the ideomotor effect. Without knowing how close a match they got, or how many “misses” they made, we can’t begin to assess whether dowsing has played a meaningful part. Quite apart from it having no currently conceivable mechanism behind it.

Now, if excavation confirmed a stretch of road “found” wholesale by dowsers without any prior evidence that there was one there – that would be more impressive. But you would need to undertake some sort of initial survey to find a place in which to begin looking. As a result there would still be a percentage chance of finding something, and so we would still need to know how many attempts were needed before gold was struck, as it were. It also wouldn’t be fair to expect a dowser to just go and find a road, because even a geophysicist would struggle without some kind of lead. The only fair way to test is a with a tailor-made and agreed blinded protocol, where there is definitely something there to be found, and the only means of doing so is by dowsing. Like this, for example.

In summary then, this newsletter presents strictly anecdotal evidence of a technique that is very difficult to separate from others that by necessity must be used when in the field. It’s never going to be able to persuade any critically thinking archaeologist that dowsing is worth looking at.

Guys, if you’re sincere and interested in evidence, even when it doesn’t work out in your favour, why not construct a proper test and publish the results in a future issue? Or at least give us enough information about your fieldwork “successes” to let us think for ourselves about them.

 

Blondes Have More Pun

December 8, 2010

Sorry, terrible title. I also don’t usually only post links to other pages, but the below links to such a comprehensive take-down of the “White Europeans Found to Have Started Every Civilisation Ever” meme, I felt I had to. Essentially, if you see a story claiming that dead white/ginger/blonde people have been found in China/Africa/native American archaeological contexts or anywhere else you wouldn’t normally expect us pasty-faced types to crop up, make sure it’s based on something other than confirmation bias…

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp/2010/11/no-romans-needed-to-explain-chinese-blondes/

Nazi Flying Saucers – “New” Evidence?

November 20, 2010

“ZOMFG!!!!11” – Oberleutnant Hans Gullibal, July 1944

Just a quick reality check on the recent stories claiming new evidence for the tired old Nazi flying saucer schtick. All of the articles reference a piece in the Nov 2010 issue of German popular science magazine ‘P.M.’.  Unfortunately no-one seems to have read the actual article properly. It’s also behind a paywall. Luckily the text is out there online. The article is headed by a piece of concept art for the new alternate history/sci-fi movie “Iron Sky”, which seems to be the impetus behind this press interest in the whole idea. I’ve reproduced a Google Translate version of the actual text below. It is nothing more than a summary of what’s claimed and known about WW2 and later attempts to build saucer-shaped aircraft. Contrary to the claims that P.M. have reported Nazi breakthroughs in anti-gravity technology, of new eyewitness testimony, and of the Canadians recreating a flying example of such a saucer*, none of this is in the actual article. It’s just a rehash timed to coincide with a movie, nothing more.

*actually the conventionally-powered, well-documented, and none-too-successful VTOL Avrocar for which there is no evidence of Nazi inspiration (only claims online, as the P.M. piece says).

The lesson here is to ALWAYS go back to the source. DO NOT trust the mainstream media to accurately report anything, but particularly anything esoteric. They rarely get it right. I expect this kind of thing from the tabloids, but the Daily Telegraph ought to know better – particularly as they quote the phrase “strong evidence” from the P.M. piece, which as far as I can tell, is a total misrepresentation. See what you think (in the original German here):

 

PM world of knowledge
The mystery of the ‘kingdom’ flying disc
It was called V7, and spread terror across the world: this wonder weapon the Nazis wanted the threat of defeat in World War II averted. It did not work – but the myth still lives V7
New York, December 1944: In the canyons of Manhattan flower speculation as to whether a German attack is imminent in the metropolis – was flown by nuclear slices. The New York Times has a “mysterious floating ball” reported and taken photos of blurred objects, which seem to race away at high speed. London panicked want those discs have observed in the low-level flight under the Thames bridges. 

The Allies were half a year before landing in Normandy, the German world front was on the verge of collapse – and yet even had the Americans fear that it could succeed with the German secret wonder weapons, prevent their imminent defeat yet. Goebbels propaganda machine of its own people conjured up in the end the tale of the “final victory” was also the enemy action. Hitler had not developed by Werner von Braun legendary V-2 rocket fire since September 1944 on the British capital? A deadly missile, which achieved bypassing enemy radar screens in just 320 seconds you target – without any warning.
The V in V 2 was in the Nazi propaganda for “retaliation”. Even if the so-called V-weapons in the war ends were not yet mature technology: some of them had great potential, so that the United States and the Soviet Union were able to further develop intercontinental ballistic missiles or cruise missiles. Others were from the outset only the satisfaction of wishful thinking in his headquarters. A special role here was the “V7” too, also known as the “kingdom of flying disc.”

Since the lost Battle of Britain was the German air force struck and Air Minister Goring under pressure. Therefore, he called out to 1941, all experts and invited them on to new, bold developments in order to secure the German air superiority. But the Nazis turned on all the money taps. An important role played in planning the model of a vertically strartenden circular disc, the young designer Andreas Epp and his supporters, the legendary World War I fighter pilot Ernst Udet had Goering presented shortly before. With a dual strategy, the idea can be realized: In the Breslau and Dresden, the German aircraft factories were aircraft engineer Richard Miethe and Italian turbine expert Giuseppe Belluzzo prepare the testing, at the Skoda works in Prague and their colleagues Otto Habermohl Rudolf Schriever.

In February 1944, led the Prague developers through the first successful test of the disk. On the maiden flight of different reports are circulating. Some projects the disc can be shot with more than 2000 km / h through the air, for others they just made a few lame jumping movement. But certainly played up the propaganda ministry, the event and claimed a breakthrough in the development of new wonder weapons. Most documents have been destroyed over the window in the turmoil of the last year of the war or were lost, but the fifteen months from the test flight until the armistice was sufficient to put the immortal myth of the super fast flying disks in the world.
For the aviation historian Peter Pletschacher, the evolution of the flying disc has studied, it is a matter of “psychological warfare at its best”. The speeds indicated were “impossible and then complete rubbish” was. The disc research could not have as often claimed, had priority because it is mentioned in the reference works of this period only in passing. The sensational effect on the enemy Pletschacher leads to the fact that the Allies would have had the greatest respect from the Germans and especially in the technical field they were confident everything. For example, the French seized 1945 jet engines from BMW, which were cited as the world’s most powerful, and built it into their own military machine.

After the war, the legend began operating independently of the legendary kingdom of flying disc and became increasingly bizarre forms. Probably because so many Nazi bigwigs were in hiding in South America, could be heard soon, Hitler and his followers had settled with their discs in the Antarctic and in tunnels under the ice waiting for her return to Germany. You have to understand that 1938das German research vessel “Swabia” was leaked on the then abandoned Antarctic in order to claim territories for Germany. The supporters of the theory of Hitler’s escape call our territory therefore “Neuschwabenland.
to test U.S. maneuvers with the aim of the cold war, new fitness equipment in the ice, gave the legend of 1946, more food. Did the Americans track down their old nemesis in his icy bunker? The high point of the absurd Mythenstrickerei, when it was finally, Hitler had withdrawn his wheels on the moon and waiting there on the day of his revenge. The trip into space would have allowed a new sensational drive technology, the “Vril” was called and was supposed to accelerate to 40,000 mph.

Fantasy and hysteria were no limits. Seasoned U.S. pilots gave sworn statements from 1947 through encounters in the air with unknown flying objects, UFOs shortly. The Air Force would even have been involved in a fight with a disk. Now also had a comic artist and Hollywood film makers their material. Martians in flying races visited the planet Earth, of course, just as philanthropists. Fearing that was when the media reported the same year by a UFO crash in Roswell, New Mexico.
Like nearly all other incidents of this kind, it turned out well as the optical illusion in Roswell.There only a weather balloon had fallen. The UFO-believers did not care and declared the city a place of pilgrimage. He has remained until today. This year were 150 000 visitors came to Roswell. Recently, word of the foundation stone for a “global Ufology Congress Centre” set.
The UFO paranoia of the 1940s had a twin, namely the fear of UFOs (Unidentified Submarine Objects): amphibious flying discs, which start in water, the water surface in the sky to shoot and then return back into the sea. The mystery investigator Lars A. Fischinger has investigated the phenomenon. Dozens of such phenomena from the past 50 years he has taken under the microscope. In Antarctica, for example, wanted an icebreaker crew have watched as UFOs broke through seven meter thick ice layers. Other windows have disappeared without trace in 8000 meters. Many of these incidents occurred during the Cold War in the waters between the Soviet Union and the Scandinavian countries. The suspect was brought low, Fischinger, that was like at the end of World War II from the tense international situation resulting psychological stress, people made vulnerable to hallucinations and hysterical reactions.
The UFO craze after the Second World War, not least been fueled by the developers of the flying disc itself. “The engineers wanted to make important,” says expert Pletschacher. Said Rudolf Schriever was allowed in the 1950s, the “mirror” contradicted his attempts to explain in Prague, where he claimed boastfully: “Flying saucers are not a gimmick. They are of greatest importance, the development of aviation technology. “By contrast the much more qualified professionally Giuseppe Belluzzo from Breslauer test group in 1944 warned that disk-shaped missiles were unstable due to their high center of gravity, particularly with increasing size.
From the shady promises Schriever and other engineers who were in the construction of the flying disc, and personal blogs pretended at least to let Canadian military researchers impress so they decided to be a replica, which they called “Avro Canada VZ-9AV”, short “Avrocar”, missed. In the years 1960 and 1961, the Canadian disc was tested 75 hours. The propeller pushes the air down and away backwards, allowing the construction and excavation were taken. Instead of the expected 480 km / h reached the plane to just pace 50, where he stumbled drunk out how and forth – probably just like his predecessor, Prague in 1944.

This result expected cost Canadian taxpayers five million dollars. The Smithsonian Museum today in the U.S. capital of Washington issued Avrocar model was not built for nothing: it is the evidence for all the doubters and deniers, that the kingdom flying disc was a technological dud. As a propaganda tool they struck the other hand like a nuclear bomb. Their impact, we must even 65 years after the war, marvel at, while the disc is more powerful myth. Not even the Reich Propaganda Minister would be the dream.

The Truth Behind Zombies

November 10, 2010

“What do you mean ‘what’s historical about zombies’?”

My title is that of a recent halloween special from the Discovery Channel. It’s the sort of semi-serious documentary that we’ve seen done countless times for the ever-popular vampire, but relatively rarely for my personal favourite, the zombie. “Fear File: Zombies” from the History Channel (2006) is the only other I’ve come across. Perhaps zombies are catching up with mainstream popularity – aside from Halloween theming, Discovery probably had an eye on the superb TV adaptation of “The Walking Dead” graphic novel series. Anyway, the show was pretty good overall. They got Max Brooks (who I was lucky enough to get to sign my copy of ‘The Zombie Survival Guide’) to contribute, and involved the ‘Zombie Research Society’, who seem to be ‘legitimate’ in the sense that they “study” zombie lore as an intellectual exercise – not because they think it will actually happen. I’m tempted to join.

As ever though, it fell short in a couple of areas. Brooks did factor in a virus-based origin for version of the zombie, but his inspiration is well known to be the slow, lumbering re-animated cannibalistic corpse created by director George Romero for his 1968 ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Brooks’ reply whenever asked about the eternal fast/slow zombies issue makes this very clear .

So its odd that the programme focused almost exclusively upon the ‘zombie as virus’ where fear of scientific research is the key idea, and “zombies” are created from living humans, turned in a matter of seconds and retaining their speed, co-ordination and strength (in some cases, more so – please don’t ever bother watching the “remake” of “Day of the Dead”). Not at all like the “living dead” first seen in the Romero films.  They used lots of clips from “28 Days Later” but none whatsoever from Romero films (despite the infamous lack of copyright that he has over ‘Night’). They didn’t even MENTION Romero.

They also conflated Romero “ghouls” (to use his original choice of name) with the Haitian zombie. I don’t have a problem with that (particularly as its likely origin as a slavery metaphor is briefly explored) – though many claim that Romero’s “Living Dead” have nothing to do with the Haitian zombie, the parallels and cinematic precedents are obvious. The zombies in 1932 movie ‘White Zombie‘ are even referred to as the “living dead” at one point in that movie. By 1975, TV Guide was referring to NotLD’s monsters as “zombies”.

There are important differences between the two, notably the notion of a puppetmaster magician behind it all, that make the Romero zombie and indeed the virus/plague zombie, much closer to the vampires of Matheson’s novel ‘I Am Legend’ (1954) – Romero’s acknowledged main inspiration. Another way to look at it is that Romero and post-Romero zombies are both part of the ‘survival horror’ sub-genre – movies featuring Haitian style zombies are more mainstream straight horror movies.

In any case, to completely ignore Romero’s role in reinventing the zombie as we know it, and skip from the Haitian zombie straight to the post-28 Days Later viral version, makes this a far from complete survey of the fictional roots of the modern zombie.

My other problem with the show is the uncritical acceptance of the “zombi powder”/Tetrodotoxin/puffer fish poison paralysis hypothesis pushed in the 1980s by Wade Davis, who makes facetime in this programme. Just as vampire fans had to put up for years with out-of-date ideas being presented as current by documentaries like this, so are we faced with Davis’ problematic findings given as fact.

Though a trained scientist, Davis seems to have fallen far short of the scientific method in the testing and peer review of his work. No data from his first supposedly positive test for the toxin in question, nor from a subsequent negative test were ever published. Instead he published anecdotal findings in an anthropological memoir entitled  “The Serpent and the Rainbow” (a movie was later made based upon it). Many refutations have been published, from an exchange of letters in New Scientist to a series of articles.

The definitive academic work on the Zombie in folklore and fiction (‘American Zombie Gothic’) also covers the controversy. Here’s the abtract from ‘The Ways and Nature of the Zombi’ byAckermann and Gauthier, published in The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 104, No. 414 (Autumn, 1991), pp. 466-494:

“This article presents a review of zombiism and our personal investigations on the hitherto little-known spirit zombi. The Haitian zombi is of African origin. Numerous references zombis or zombi-like entities are found in Equatorial and to Central Africa and in the Caribbean. There are two types of zombis, the zombi of the body, or living dead, and the zombi of the soul. Both are closely related to the Haitian concept of a dual soul, which is also of African origin. Properties of the spirit zombi are described. Zombi stories or sightings may be explained by the observation of vagrants or exploited mentally ill. The various “zombi powders” so far studied seem to belong to the domain of sympathetic magic, and their pharmacological effectiveness remains to beproved.”
Full article here (paywalled).

And some of the main issues:

“Davis’s thesis is problematic in several respects: (1) many characteristics of the flesh-and-blood zombi can be explained by mental disorders, notably amnesia and catatonic schizophrenia (Bourguignon 1959; Dewisme 1957:138; Mars 1945, 1947; Metraux 1968:249; Simpson 1954); (2) one of his eight zombi powders did not contain any puffer fish; (3) only two zombi powders contained small, apparently innocuous, amounts of tetrodotoxin (Booth 1988; Davis 1988a:194, 1988b); (4) it is not clear which samples were studied in which laboratories and what the exact results were; (5) most samples contained human remains and a confusing variety of ingredients of weak or uncertain effect (Davis 1984, 1988a:107); and (6) the poison was administered in a seemingly ineffective way: in at least three instances, the powder was to be strewn on the ground in the path of the intended victim or on its doorstep, over a buried magic candle.”

Essentially, whilst the Haitians involved believe in the power of the powder, the actual toxin content is low to non-existent in all samples tested. Thus the “hypnotic” hypothesis also offered in this documentary is closer to the mark, though the actual active hypnosis aspect is overplayed. See Derren Brown’s “Tricks of the Mind” for a good explanation of the more mundane reality of hypnosis, of which a substantial component is make-believe and playing along.

As the article puts it;

“Zombification thus appears as a case of sympathetic magic, a kind of perverse homeopathy.”

Some go even further;

“The controversy involves the role of a powerful poison called tetrodotoxin in the creation of zombies. Davis’ critics say there is either no tetrododoxin or little in the samples of zombie powder brought back by Davis to support his hypothesis. But there is more to it than that. The pharmacologists are accusing Davis of not playing by the rules by suppressing information that fails to bolster his case, while playing up a number of unconfirmed experiments that are repeatedly cited in his work as “personal communications.” Some of the critics seem especially irked because Davis sought out their assistance but allegedly refuses to listen when told his conclusions are not supported by the evidence. “I feel like I’ve been taken for a ride,” says [C.Y.] Kao [of State University of New York Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, who is also quoted in the article as saying ‘”I actually feel this is an issue of fraud in science.”
‘Voodoo Science’, Science, New Series, Vol. 240, No. 4850 (Apr. 15, 1988), pp. 274-277

There’s more where that came from (thanks to JREF forum posters for some of these);

  1. ‘Zombie fish eaters?’, Garlaschelli, Chemistry in Britain, Nov. 2002 – also available online (though with an horrific background).
  2. ‘Clinical findings in three cases of zombification’, Littlewood and Douyon, The Lancet, Volume 350, Issue 9084 , 11 October 1997, Pages 1094-1096 (online here).
  3. ‘Tetrodotoxin and the Haitian zombie’, Yasumoto and Kao, Toxicon Volume 24, Issue 8 , 1986, Pages 747-749
  4. ‘Tetrodotoxin in “zombie powder”‘, Yasumoto and Kao, Toxicon Volume 28, Issue 2 , 1990, Pages 129-132 (NB that Kao and Yasumoto concluded that “’the widely circulated claim in the lay press to the effect that tetrodotoxin is the causal agent in the initial zombification process is without factual foundation’.)
  5. ‘Evidence for the presence of tetrodotoxin in a powder used in Haiti for zombification’, Benedek and Rivier, Toxicon Volume 27, Issue 4 , 1989, Pages 473-480
  6. ‘Tetrodotoxin and the zombi phenomenon’, Anderson, Journal of Ethnopharmacology, Volume 23, Issue 1 , May-June 1988, Pages 121-126
  7. ‘Zombies and Tetrodotoxin’, Hines, Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.3, May / June 2008

All are critical in tone. Even those who laud Davis’ contribution to the anthropology of zombification acknowledge that he fell short with the actual science behind the process.

I can’t be too hard on Discovery however, since even the sceptical organisation CSI (formerly CSICOP) has endorsed Davis’ hypothesis without reservation. Unfortunately the rebuttal to this piece from that organisation’s own journal, is not accessible online (see Hines above).

It’s also the standard journalistic method as applied to many documentary programmes, as I’ve commented before. A sort faux neutrality based on the idea that all viewpoints may be valid. Hence rival beliefs and opinions are presented with equal weight without any real analysis of either. Fictional aspects of the zombie may be a matter of opinion (personally I favour slow ones), but the reality need not be.

Paranormal Investigations Live

November 2, 2010


Perhaps “Least Haunted” would have been more appropriate

 

I never thought I would miss ‘Most Haunted’, but Living TV’s ‘Paranormal Investigations Live’ (henceforth PiL) plays like one long deleted scene from that venerable series. No entertaining histrionics by OTT mediums, just lots of mooching about in the dark. Amusingly for me, it also “stars” the “Ghostfinder Paranormal Society” (GPS), whose co-founder Ian Wilce got a bit annoyed with some of my comments a while back (as related recently on BadGhosts.co.uk).

Ian’s foam-flecked, swivel-eyed face hasn’t made the big-time sadly – that honour falls to his mate Barri Ghai, who seems a bit nicer. BadGhosts.co.uk have the team and PiL pretty well owned, but I’ve had my eye on this new show for a different reason.

Though Most Haunted and its ilk have made historical claims in the past, this new show is (I believe) the first to recruit an “historian” as an in-studio expert alongside a psychologist or parapsychologist. The quest for historical accuracy seems a bit redundant when the very premise of your show defies rationality, but hey, parapsychologist and sceptic Ciaran O’Keefe did a decent job being the voice of reason – why not have a proper fact-checker? However, given the live format, I’m not sure how any historian hope to verify or falsify the inevitably vague statements produced by any kind of ghost-hunt? There’s a big risk that you’ll end up just providing “hits” by fitting facts and stories to what’s being said – just like a sitter at a psychic reading.

Now, the guy they’ve chosen, Ashley Cowie, seems like a nice chap, and I’d rather not character-assassinate the guy. But if he’s going to be pimped as an “historian”, we should look at his credentials and his approach. to avoid accusations of “ad hominem”, I’ll then focus on what he actually says on the show.

Cowie is billed as a specialist in “symbols, lost artefacts, and architecture”, though his bios (e.g. this one) don’t hint at any qualifications or experience relevant to the role of historian. In fact he’s a former businessman with no academic publications to his name. He has had two books published on (where else but) Rosslyn Chapel. The ‘Rosslyn Matrix’ is a speculative interpretation of one of the drawings carved into the wall of the crypt/sacristy. You know you’ve made it into the speculative history pantheon when pseudohistorians extraordinaire Knight and Lomas are referencing you.

His other book ‘The Rosslyn Templar’ deals with (sigh again) the Knights Templar and their links with the chapel. If it deals strictly with the 19th century invention of those links, it’s a worthwhile effort, but Rosslyn specialist Jeff Nisbet is not impressed. The promotional angle for the book also sees Cowie apparently renouncing his scepticism over the KT and Rosslyn (see the Scottish Sun), so I have to wonder whether this book isn’t as speculative as his first. Cowie seems to have landed the PiL gig based on this Da Vinci Code bandwagon-jump, and his status as resident historian for STV’s “The Hour”.

He does hold an elected fellowship of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, which requires that you have two existing members as sponsors, carry a vote from the current membership, and pay a £40 membership fee, you’re in too. We can’t know on what basis Cowie was accepted, but the two books and telly appearances would probably do it, considering that even tour guides have managed to land an “FSA Scot” after their name.

However, I don’t think academic chops were top of the list when hiring a PiL historian. As the Scottish Sun put it;

“HUNKY historian Ashley Cowie is Scotland’s real-life Dr Robert Langdon.”

and

“..female fans flock to his book signings”.

Yup, sex appeal and the Da Vinci Code. Incidentally the vaults he’s talking about in that article were thoroughly investigated in the 18th and 19th centuries and were found to be empty, so I have to wonder what findings he’s waiting for.

Now, there’s no reason why an amateur historian, good-looking or otherwise, can’t do good work. We can’t reasonably expect a serious historian to touch a show like this with a 40-foot pole. So how does Cowie acquit himself on the show itself? What claims are made, and how does he deal with them?

The subject of the “hunt” was Castle Menzies in Scotland. It doesn’t start well for Cowie’s approach when he states:

“I don’t personally believe in the supernatural, however I think it’s really important that in subjects like this we remain open-minded. For as little evidence as there is to say that there is a supernatural element or dimension out there, there’s no evidence to say that there isn’t. so as long as there’s speculative evidence out there I think it’s so important that we remain open-minded, either way”.

Oh dear. Your standard appeal to ignorance in the form of “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, with the old “open mind” canard thrown in. This ignores the total lack of any real evidence of the paranormal in over 100 years of investigation. To quote mentalist Ian Rowland:

“In cases where prior knowledge is available, the alternative to ‘an open mind’ is not ‘a closed mind’, it is ‘an informed mind’. In such contexts, any appeal to ‘keep an open mind’ is an appeal to prefer ignorance over knowledge.”

We even get the oft-heard line “I’m a sceptic but…” in this PiL video.

Several fairly outrageous claims are made during the programme. Namely;

 

1. A secret mentally disabled son of a Menzies chief died falling down some stairs.

The only vaguely new aspect to this show are the spurious pieces of ghost-hunting technology used by the GPS team. One of these is the “Ovilus” which is basically a Magic 8-Ball seemingly guest-voiced by Stephen Hawking. It does nothing more than chuck out random words from a limited dictionary, which in this case yields at one point the words “fell” and “sorry”. Now, the usual routine with a random word, letter, idea or emotion hit upon by (say) a psychic would be to have it “validated” by someone. Usually this is someone associated with the site who’s desperate for visitor figures or PR exposure, or a cast member who’s been fed this information. In other words there’s a list of supposed ghost stories and an attempt is made to fit each piece of “evidence” to one of them. This would be an opportunity for a resident historian to critically assess the claim against what’s known of the history. Instead, the words are fitted to a story “of a boy who fell down the stairs” (quote from the Twitter feed) BY THE HISTORIAN HIMSELF. He repeats a supposed ghost sighting of a young boy in ‘period clothing’ who was;

“…the son of a clan chief who was a bit demented and was kept in the top story. And that’s a FACT”.

Cowie does at least point out that the story relates to a different part of the house, but again stresses the importance of an “open mind” – the implication being that the words could have come from the dead son.

The big question is – where is our historian getting his information? More on this later.

 

2. A daughter of a Menzies chief who is having a lesbian affair with her own step-sister is kidnapped by the devil.

Classic stuff. To quote Cowie;

“Apparently one of the daughters of one of the Menzies chiefs was having an affair with a step-daughter. so the two lesbians were going to make their way into the woods to go and have an appointment with the devil which was orchestrated by the chief’s wife. Now the chief made…the step-daughter…carry a cross, and made her daughter carry a book, the bible. Somewhere on the way to the cave, they swapped items, so the wrong person, the daughter was actually kidnapped by the devil, as the story goes, entered the cave and was never seen again.”

I had to “LOL” at the pseudo-incestuous lesbianism, which is anachronistic even if you postulate some smutty folklore propagated by locals about the lord and lady at the big house. However, the swapping of the holy items smacked of authenticity, so I checked up on it and found that IS closely based on “real” history – or rather, folklore:

“Local tradition, accentuates the feminity of the locality of Weem. Below the cave with a spring in it, is a rocky fissure which is- said to communicate with Loch Glassie, two miles away in the moor above. The story is that the lady of the district sent her daughter and stepdaughter, or by another version, her two daughters and her step-daughter to seek a calf that had strayed into the rock. She protected her own child with a cross as a talisman (or a bible, other version), but during their wanderings the child handed the talisman to the step-daughter. They followed the lowing of the calf until it led them to the cave into which the younger sister entered, but only re-appeared as a mangled body floating at the head of Loch Glassie. In the ballad describing the incident, the one who enters complains of being retained by “iron gates,” and says that “the man of the red hood ” is between her and returning.”

This in turn bears some resemblance to an old Gaelic ballad. Rather crucially, the innocent pursuit of a stray animal is omitted and replaced with the lesbo-fest. I note with interest the emphasis on the feminine in the link above, which originates in a 1901 summary of highland legends in the ‘Celtic Magazine’. Sometimes a “red hood” is just a red hood – however this hint of Freudianism may be the origin of this very 21st century modification to the story.

 

3. A room in the castle was used for burning babies.

Over to Ashley;

“Somewhere between the 13th and the 17th century, one of the clan chiefs, erm, was attempting to birth a son, and apparently he had three females, or indeed three female offsprings [sic] who weren’t any good, y’know? Because of course if a female was to be born, went away and married a neighbouring clan and…the lands and titles could be lost. So the clan chief put the mother down to the room, his wife down to the room and the first three babies, all born as girls were literally thrown onto the fire. Now, this sounds like a made up story, but there are actual printed reports from maids to the wife, who had their fingers chopped off for revealing their story to locals around Aberfeldy and Weem. So you know, there’s some substance in that, and it was a common practice.”

This is bullshit. Cowie should have gone with his instinct on this one. By this logic every female child of every highland clan would have to be killed or kept secret for life if there was no male heir. Renaissance attitudes to abortion were somewhat flexible, but the nobility are no more likely to resort to multiple infanticide – a crime punished as murder – in the pursuit of an heir, than we are today. In fact dormancy or passing on of titles and lands, whilst avoided if possible, nonetheless happened all the time.

For their part, the investigating team are told nothing about any of these “facts”. Oh, except that it’s called the “Baby Burning Room”. As a result they seem to place some significance upon the fireplace in the room, and seem mystified by its great height. I can only assume that they haven’t visited many historic properties, since grand fireplaces were pretty much de rigeur in big stone-built rooms that require a lot of heating.

I could find very little online regarding even the claim, let alone any supporting evidence for it. However, the same story does appear on the website of another paranormal group to visit the castle;

“Room 15 is another little room that has never been liked. Tori calls it the ‘childbirth’ room and has seen a woman covered in blood here. John informed us that other sensitives also associate this room with childbirth and it was, in fact, a servant’s bedroom. He went on to tell us the gruesome tale as to why the first born and heir to all the Menzies and other important families’ wealth and lands were boys. Simple – if the first born was a girl she was killed at birth. A wealthy family stood to lose everything if the first born was a girl and she then married. A servant would be instructed to throw the infant onto a fire and would then be exiled and told not to mention the deed on pain of death! This would have been commonplace even in the 1800s.The fact that this little room was a servant’s room did not tie in with the spirit impressions gained by more that one of the team. A ‘lady’ or noble woman in an expensive/embroidered dress had been mentioned before by Katrina and Tori. She was pregnant and in labour, kneeling in the doorway facing the stair, begging for help as others were rushing up the stairs. This was thought a little odd if the room was for servants.

However, in discussion one evening  John mentioned that room 15 was indeed linked with childbirth. There is an account of a servant being implicated in the disposal of an infant.  He has read various written accounts from the castle and he has deduced from the various stories that room 15 is the room meant. He also went on to say that the lady of the house would have been kept imprisoned during her first preganncy. The pregnancy would have been kept secret until the birth just in case a deformed child or worse, a girl, was born.”

So this story must come from “John”, who is the “curator” of the Castle. More on him (and the reason for my scare quotes) later.
4. In the 1745 Jacobite rising, English soldiers beat and abused a daughter of the clan chief in one of the rooms of the castle, for which they were summarily killed and dismembered.

As the clan chief remained neutral during the ‘45 having been pardoned for his part in the previous rising, the likelihood of his murdering three Government soldiers without censure is therefore slim. It also seems unlikely that such a story wouldn’t appear in one of the many history books available via Google Books, as once again this story’s online footprint is tiny.

I could find only two instances online. The first is PiL’s own website, which admits – in direct contradiction to Cowie’s claims on camera on the night, that the claim is implausible and should be regarded as “hearsay”. Not only that, but the show’s own website dates the same story to the Wars of the Kingdoms in the mid-17th century (and yes, I’ve searched for the story in both eras).

The second reference is telling – it’s from the same paranormal investigation site as the last one. We see the claim that “spirit” informed this other team of the story;

“During our first ever investigation at the castle we were informed by ‘spirit’ that a group of men had raped and murdered a girl (possibly the Laird’s daughter) in the stables (the stables no longer exist). The culprits (soldiers) were stabbed fatally in the back (dirked) by the Laird or on his command and were taken into what is now the shop area to die. Each of the men was taken in one by one and the one following didn’t know the fate of the man who had gone in before. They were then cut up and fed to the dogs. We were told that the shop didn’t look like it does now as it didn’t have the door to the outside and once had a window on the far wall. 6 soldiers had been involved and executed.”

Once again the “curator” at the site supposedly confirmed a version of this story subsequently;

“We had initially thought the story to be too far fetched and even omitted the bits about dismemberment form the website.

However, we were told soon after that there is a hand-written document somewhere in the castle detailing a similar crime although the curator can’t remember if it was the Laird’s daughter or not who had been the victim. This information is not in the public domain. John also informed us that execution was done by means of being dirked (stabbed in the back) and this is again something we didn’t know but to be honest  is probably easy to find out about.”

Given the similarity of the story as reported by the ghosthunters to the one reported on PiL by Cowie, either the “curator” is borrowing his stories from the “findings” of the ghosthunters, or the latter are retrofitting their ideas to stories told to them afterward.

 

5. A clan chief fell from his horse and injured his leg and head, going mad and dying thereafter.

As with the other stories there is little to nothing to be found about them online, including clan and castle history on Google Books and archive.org. There is another “psychic” claim regarding a middle-aged “imposing” gentleman who supposedly died in a similar way. It’s not as good a match though. In any case it’s another example of Cowie obligingly fitting a story to ghost-hunting “results” in order to create a “hit”. This time it’s a word (“leg”) and a funny feeling (in a team member’s leg) coming out of a seance.

So, we have one genuine story given a lurid modern makeover, and four others that seem to originate with the “curator” of the castle – perhaps even with ghost-hunting groups that have come before PiL. Of course it is claimed that there are actual documents to support these stories, but if so they are not in the public domain and have not been drawn upon by historians.

Cowie is likely doing nothing more than repeating what he’s been told by the same “curator”. This would certainly parallel the way that “research” is typically done for shows like this – the incumbents are uncritically used as expert sources, and whatever traditional folklore or modern myths they provide are used as material for the show. It makes sense from a TV production point of view. Time and money are short – why do your own research when people associated with the site have existing knowledge? It’s also suspicious that the house’s alarm system goes off at one point, yet the “curator” claims that he turned it off and is the only one with the code.

So who is this “curator”? That would be a John Jack, who is not a curator or historian by background, training, or qualification, but actually holds the job title of “Castle Administrator”.
Any genuine sources from the castle are therefore being interpreted by someone without the skills to do so. I’ve have seen how stories surrounding historic properties are modified or even created out of thin air by front-of-house staff and tour guides to please the visitors. It’s often about sensational stories, not historical accuracy. Increasingly, they also welcome paranormal groups either for publicity or income, just as Castle Menzies has. The Castle Administrator is not only facilitating requests by paranormalists – he’s actively courting them.

I would suggest that the upshot of all this is Mr Cowie’s being reduced to the role of patsy for the publicity-hungry Castle caretakers and the PiL production team. He’s there to legitimise the stories told by the former and link them to the ‘results’ generated by the latter’s ghosthunting teams, distracting the viewer from the total lack of any meaningful “hits”. Potentially useful for boosting viewer and visitor figures (though that remains to be seen) – not so good for objective investigation or for that matter the public’s understanding of what is an important historic building. We’ll see whether PiL survives its ratings, and if so, whether they persist with their historian idea.

Herbal Highs?

September 12, 2010

“Owner of the largest leech farm in Europe.”

Just spotted this very interesting piece from New Scientist about ancient Greek pills confirmed by scientific analysis to be herbal remedies of one kind or another. Very cool. But predictably, the stand-alone coolness of such a find, and of being able to determine its ingredients, isn’t enough for the media. There has to be some sniff of lost wisdom of the ancients. Hence we see the sub-heading;

“Quacks no more”

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this means that the scientists found viable medical ingredients in the pills. Oh, the hubris! For all our medical and scientific knowledge, we really have lost touch with nature, haven’t we? Well, maybe. But as yet, precisely bugger-all evidence has been found, as you’d discover if you read on from the sub-heading with a critical eye. Note the phrases “hopes to resolve” and “hopes to discover”. Unfortunately, this is the internet, and many of us simply skim-read to pick up the main points (tl:dr, and all that). This was no doubt the work of an editor – titles are often beyond the control of individual journalists. I’ll be as interested as the next person to see if some wonder-drug is isolated from these pills, but in all likelihood this will not happen. Before scientific testing, makers of remedies had to rely upon subjective observation to assess the effect of different pills and potions. The occasional active ingredient might have helped one patient – many of our modern treatments do derive from things found in nature. But another ‘remedy’ might have made just as many worse, and the majority of treatments will have had no physical effect at all. Most patients prior to the 19th century (and many afterward) would simply have been taking part in a form of ritual that made them feel better, without actually treating their physical problem. It doesn’t make the ancients stupid – they were doing their best with the resources available to them. It’s the ones that are still at it today that deserve that label.

PS Two posts in one day? Whatever next. I’m also changing font, as I can’t be arsed to work out how to reliably stop WordPress insisting on Times New Roman.