Paranormal Investigations Live


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.

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Herbal Highs?

“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.

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

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’

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

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).

Deadliest Warrior – Fact vs Fiction

Zombie vs SharkIdea for the xmas special – Zombie vs Shark!

I’ll make no bones about it – Spike TV’s ‘Deadliest Warrior‘ is absolute arse gravy. In fact, it’s so ridiculous, it’s almost beyond criticism. What they’ve done is take a pub argument and make a ‘documentary’ series about it. The very premise of pitting two warriors who never met and could never have met is of course completely meaningless.  Then there’s the total lack of objective criteria for establishing a victor. I know what you’re thinking – I’ve seen it said online already – “you’re taking it too seriously”. I would counter that it’s the show itself that’s taking itself too seriously for sheer entertainment, and not nearly seriously enough as an educational effort. Besides, a quick google demonstrates not only that there are a lot of credulous goons actually buying the ‘scientific’ and ‘historical’ content of the show, but that the makers and promoters of the series are selling and defending it as popular science and history – not as pop-culture-based fun and frolics. It’s not even internally consistent, and appears to resort to outright fakery on a fairly regular basis. In other words, it’s ‘professional’ wrestling in a lab coat.

The episode that really takes the cake is ‘IRA vs Taliban’. No, I’m not joking. If, like me, you’ve ever wondered where the line should be drawn with the popular interpretation of bloody conflict, a new benchmark has been set. Whereas re-enactment groups (for example) tend to have a healthy respect for and knowledge of the history and even politics of the period they ape, these people come out with lines like;

“[The IRA] fought the british military for over 30 years and were successful.”

“…repressed like the irish people have been for hundreds of years…”

“You cannot defeat the ira. it’s literally impossible, or it would have been done already”.

“The IRA’s never been beaten by anybody, and they never will be”. (Apart from the British army, who exactly would they be beaten by?!)

They also refer to the Irish Civil War as the “War of Independence, and claim that it was ‘lost’.

All of this depends upon your point of view of course, but that’s precisely my point. Not a hint of impartiality, all statements go unchallenged and unqualified. The same goes for the Taliban, though they were noticeably more careful with their words given the (to them) more obvious risk of offending their demographic. I’ve no problem with entertainment, nor of challenging received ideas about our collective enemies – but this is how a lot of especially young people, will form their opinions and prejudices about history and politics. There were a few seconds devoted to the history of the Troubles, and that was it. Nothing about the peace process, the different factions etc. American viewers would come away thinking that full-scale battle rages on a daily basis even today to ‘liberate’ Ireland – the independent nation of the Republic wasn’t even mentioned! The whole presentation pandered to those fantasists across the pond that view the IRA as some sort of wholesome group of patriots, yet would have soiled themselves with indignation had the taliban “won” this insane contest. Simplistic views of history need to be challenged, not reinforced.

Breathtakingly enough, despite this Geiger says

“…we decided that one of the things we could do with the episode is use it to raise awareness about the effects of these weapons on civilian population in a lot of places around the world”.

Yet nothing in the show reflects this awareness of the sensitive issues at hand (not his fault I suppose). He goes on;

“So the cast and crew got together and we all made a donation to landmines.org, which is the United Nation’s humanitarian fund, which goes and directly clears mine fields. They’re the adopt a minefield program.”

Oh, well that’s alright then. Guilty consciences about controversial weapons (but not the murderous terrorists deploying them) salved, we can all move on. What’s next, The Spanish Inquisition vs Guantanamo Bay? Max, you seem like an intelligent and thinking chap. Get the feck away from this trainwreck as soon as you can.

On to the completely unscientific testing, which includes such choice quotes as;

“…the centre of mass of the face!”

And, regarding the slingshot (you really need the narrator’s OTT husky voice);

“a child’s toy turned deadly sniper weapon!”

This is just one of many problems with the whole set-up – they need to give each side/warrior a balance of weaponry and equipment to allow anything like the “Top Trumps” comparison they’re striving for. So you get comedy weapons like this added – something that is, as they admit, not fatal, and in a historic sense, hardly an “IRA” weapon. Had they gone with a real IRA slingshot – ones used as petrol bomb projectors, it would have thrown out their back-of-a-fag-packet calculations.

It got worse. The Rocket Propelled Grenade test was faked. The backblast was (rubbish) CGI, and there was a careful and drastic cut to the projectile itself in flight, which flew in a most untypical manner with a suspicious-looking smoke trail, and might actually have placed the cameraman forward of the launcher. No, it was fake alright. This is likely because actual RPGs are impossible to get outside of hot sandy places, and quite a lot more dangerous than small arms. Here’s a real RPG launch as a comparison.

It was the same story with the AR-15 vs the AKM/AK-47 torture test, done with mud carefully applied to the exterior of the bolt of both weapons and water into the muzzle. Yet the guns in that state are not shown to be fired, instead there’s a crafty cut  to scenes of shots being fired from the other (non-muddy) side of the weapon. These will have been different or cleaned weapons. This is likely a ‘health and safety’/insurance issue – if you’ve seen Mythbusters (and this applies to the explosive RPG warhead too) you’ll know that the really dangerous tests get vetoed. The final giveaway is that after supposed firing, the muddy weapons remain just as muddy – none has been removed by the cycling of the action. nor by the firer as in a real torture test.

The results we saw/heard – that the RPG was ‘devastating’ and the AR-15 unreliable compared to the AK, were therefore wholly preconceived and contrived – how many other ‘tests’ are likewise but less transparent? Even if they accurately reflect reality, why go through the charade of a scientific  ‘test’? I think you can guess the answer, and it rhymes with ‘gratings’. Perhaps this practice should be coined as “pulling a Brainiac”, after that programme was caught similarly faking its ‘experiment’ with reactive metals by using explosives. At least they tried to get real results and resorted to fakery, rather than planning it before filming even began.

The other episode I subjected myself to pitted William Wallace against Shaka Zulu. Honestly, it might as well have been against Chaka Khan. At least as far as the Scottish kit went, weapons, uniform, equipment and historical details were all wildly inaccurate. Wallace the “savage Scottish outlaw” himself was even more anachronistic than the also inexplicably-blue-faced Mel Gibson portrayal. Kilt, spiked targe, dirk and claymore all date from a minimum of 200 years later. Even the historical mythmakers never associated Wallace with a highland claymore – the sword purported to be his is of ‘Lowland’ type, and in any case there’s no evidence to suggest it’s anything but the later weapon it appears to be. The ‘ball and chain’ is straight out of the movie – no evidence at all for this. The programme makers might claim that “unrivetted mail armour” is “very typical for the william wallace era”, but I can assure you that it isn’t. The result of the zulu spear going through it is therefore utterly bogus, as the mild-steel links would simply open up and allow the point through, where the real rivetted iron or steel links would easily resist it. Unrivetted mail is not represented in the European historical record for a reason – it would have been a lot of work and weight to wear for little actual protection.

The final battles are (admittedly well-) choreographed, budget-CGI-ridden nonsense with no apparent input whatsoever coming from the “simulation software”. The IRA/Taliban one was grimly hilarious, with the Team America style comedy swarthy gentlemen in fake beards duking it out (literally at one point) in a US junkyard (for some reason). The only nod to consistency appears to be making the stuntmen use all of the arbitrarily chosen weapons “tested” in the main programme. When the last IRA terrorist…sorry… “freedom fighter” pulled out his slingshot, I involuntarily shook my head in wonderment. Absolutely bizarre. Worth watching only for connoisseurs of car crash TV (like myself!).

Another major problem I have with the show are the so-called ‘experts’ that they employ. The main host Geoffrey Thor (don’t laugh) Desmoulin is a published medical scientist, and injects the only actual science into the show (although his touted experience in the Canadian armed forces doesn’t appear even on his own CV). His helper appears to be a (student) game designer, so I suppose can legitimately be described as a ‘programmer’ and ‘computer whiz’. However, the computer programme that he wrangles is highly suspect, involving punching numbers into a spreadsheet which is then interpreted over a series of encounters using a modified piece of computer game code. These guys have taken a closer look at it, and to me its clear that even ignoring the dubious data that’s being fed into it, there’s little chance that it’s producing meaningful results from it.

The other ‘experts’ change each week, two per ‘side’, and they give more cause for concern, being drawn not from academia, but from the entertainment world:

IRA
Skoti Collins – great-nephew of Michael Collins (even if true, so what?) and an ‘IRA historian’ – actually a jobbing Scottish bit-part actor.
Peter Crowe – ‘IRA weapons specialist’ with zero web presence including publications. At least he sounds Irish.

Taliban
Fahim Fazli – (boy) mujahideen he may have been (he does seem favourable toward the Taliban), but he is now a film actor.
Alex Sami – an ‘FBI anti-terrorism agent’? Well, if he ever was, he ain’t now. He’s a bodyguard.

William Wallace
Kieron Elliott – ‘highlander weapons expert‘ (whatever that means) and ‘william wallace expert’ – actually a radio DJ with a layman’s knowledge of Wallace.
Anthony Delongis – ‘blademaster’ – another actor cum theatrical fight director.

Shaka Zulu
Jason bartley – ‘zulu combat expert’ – a stuntman.
Earl White – martial artist, and possibly the only ‘qualified’ ‘expert’ in both episodes due to his stick-fighting skills.

The ‘experts’ and ‘historians’ presented to us demonstrate just how debased the terms have become within the media. Not one academic historian amongst them. Seemingly it’s just another part to be played out in front of the camera, with no regard for credentials, experience, or expert knowledge itself. Bigging oneself up over and above your experience and qualifications is common in entertainment, where you are after all only playing a role. But if a programme desires subject specialists, it should hire them. The ubiquitous Mike Loades styles himself a “military historian”, but has yet to publish on the subject (or any other). But at least his role as host in such shows makes a certain amount of sense given his background as a stage and screen fight director, and he clearly does have a certain amount of specialist knowledge about arms and armour. Not so these people, none of whom could legitimately be described as historians, even if they do play one on TV. Finally, there are many out there who study historical swordfighting techniques based upon primary source – why were none of them employed?

I’ve only stomached these two episodes all the way through, but seeing clips of the ‘ninja’ and ‘pirate’ warriors made me wonder whether I was just the victim of a clever prank – that no-one really believed after all that this show was in any way serious. It would surely be the only defence this programme could mount – that it’s just for fun. But actually, that’s bollocks. Everything about the show’s promotion makes out that it IS scientific – one host even associating it with Mythbusters (which is hardly hard science but does balance it well with entertainment).

Even as entertainment – recommended only for the terminally hard of thinking or those (like me) morbidly fascinated by bad TV.

Update – after introducing UK viewers in the episode of ‘You Have Been Watching’ linked in the comments below, Charlier Brooker has now written a piece on this also.

The Great Homoeopathic War

blackadder_iv_-_general_hospital

Or; “Homoeopathy! Huh! What is it good for?”

If you do some Googling around the subject of First World War medicine, it won’t take long before you come across the subject of homoeopathy. One account is to be found on the venerable “Vlib” – here – but gets reproduced wherever there are homoeopaths hawking their wares (there’s an illustrated version here). It describes the work of the Anglo-French American Hospital in France during WW1. This actually happened, and the text is reproduced from a primary source.  Further, two out of five articles in the WW1 medicine section of Vlib deal directly with period homoeopathy, this being one. So did homoeopathy play a big part in WW1?

Context is vitally important here, and the author of the “editor’s note” at the start of the article has attempted to provide it. Unfortunately it is entirely credulous and lacking in supporting references. It’s written by a Dr M. Geoffrey Miller – a proper doctor, who seems to have a soft spot for the brave homoeopaths prepared to take on actual diseases armed only with a small phial of water (if you’re thinking “huh?”, read on).Miller seems to take the view (here also) that in a context where conventional medicine couldn’t help and might even hinder, some kind words and a placebo were exactly what was called for. He doesn’t appear to be a proponent of modern day homoeopathy, but like some of his colleagues and many members of the public, he misunderstands what it actually is. He says;

Homeopathy (or Homoeopathy) is the treatment of disease by diluted drugs that in a healthy person would produce symptoms of that disease.”

This is, frankly, bollocks. Treatment of a healthy person with a homoeopathic preparation would NOT produce symptoms of anything. This is because by definition, any truly homoeopathic treatment is so diluted as to contain not even one molecule of the “drug” it is meant to contain!  Let me put this as simply as possible:

Homoeopathy is NOT herbal medicine – it contains no herbs.

Homoeopathy is NOT medicine – it contains no active ingredient.

Homoeopathy is water. Magic water.

Or sometimes a magic sugar pill.

You know what other “treatment” is provided in the form of a sugar pill with zero medicinal content? That’s right, a PLACEBO. And that’s exactly how homoeopathy “works”. Now, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with  exploiting placebo effects to ease suffering. But all it’s doing is playing with the patient’s perception of how unwell they are. So any claims of patients recovering because of homoeopathy should be treated with great scepticism.

What of the results given in the essay? Aren’t they suggestive of some working treatment? Well, no. 10 patients had typhoid – all survived. Must be down to the homoeopathy, right? Nope. Typhoid, untreated, has a 10 – 30% fatality rate. For none out of ten patients to die is fortunate, but hardly evidence of effective treatment.

This is irrelevant, since for a treatment to be worth anything, it must produce reliable results, and must be distinguishable from natural recovery (aka regression to the mean). No scientific studies have shown homoeopathy to be better than placebo. This is, in fact, because it IS placebo. The Neiully homoeopathic “hospital” was in fact a convalescent ward for non-critical patients.

Predictably, bound up with the talking-up of homoeopathy, is the  doing-down of conventional medicine (or “allopathy” in the homoeopaths’ cultish newspeak):

…because orthodox management of disease frequently cause iatrogenic illness from the toxic effects of drugs that were commonly prescribed and which were not particularly effective in any case.

Bzzt! Let’s play homoeopathy bullshit bingo! Homoeopaths and their fans are always on about “iatrogenic illness” – this is the harm done by drugs with side-effects, misdiagnosis, and medical incompetence. All of which are possible because conventional medicine ACTUALLY DOES SOMETHING. Homoeopathy, which DOES NOTHING, is free from such complications. In a WW1 context, critics have much more of a point than they do now – with penetrating traumatic injury and far from ideal conditions in many hospitals, infection and disease were much harder to control by any means. Thus harmless quacks could be let loose on people that might recover given time and relatively sanitary conditions, or might not. But the failings of early 1900s medicine are not positives for homoeopathy – it must stand on its own as an effective method of treatment. And even 80 years later, it simply does not. Further complicating any meaningful assessment of this hospital is that it appears to have employed conventional medicine also. How are we to disentangle the effects of a) homoeopathy, b) “allopathy” and c) people getting better on their own? Needless to say, this situation allows the homoeopath with rose-tinted glasses to credit homoeopathy with all the successes and to slate conventional medicine’s “toxic effects“.

This is a common tactic of today’s homoeopaths – how else would you persuade people to lay aside proven treatment and drink magic water?

The author also states that;

It would be true to say that very few medications of the WW1 period were truly effective, certainly not in the way that modern medications are today.”

In this context, he’s almost right. We’re pre-antibiotics here. But it would be even truer to say that NO homoeopathy is “truly effective”. The reality here is not that homoeopathy was able to step in where conventional medicine failed, but that precisely because there was (and is) no active ingredient in homoeopathic medicine, a facility based around its use would at worst do no harm. Read between the lines of this statement;

nearly all the medical complaints were incurable by the orthodox treatments of the time and all would fare as well as they would if they were admitted to the orthodox General Hospitals.

Then there’s this bit;

Many would do better because of care that they were given by the dedicated nurses and doctors.

In other words, given a less crowded and lower pressure environment, the staff would be able to offer personal attention to patients and a better bedside manner, thereby enhancing the placebo effect. Making people feel as though they were getting better, as if the medicine were working.

Every single non-surgical case referred to constitutes a self-limiting illness that would have got better on its own. If it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been selected for inclusion in this article! The second half of this screed deals with surgical patients (a majority) who were simply in recovery for, or being cared for prior to, surgery at an ACTUAL hospital – in this case the American Ambulance Hospital, also at Neuilly:

In the later months of the work at Neuilly the cases were increasingly surgical. Altogether they totaled one hundred and twenty-two. Many of these had been operated on at the base hospitals, cases of fracture having received the requisite surgical first-aid, and bullets and shrapnel fragments having mostly been extracted. Here the process of healing merely required watchful safeguarding, and the concussion injuries and contusions without open wound also required no active surgical interference.”

We are not told of most patients’ fates. Though conventional medicine could do little for infection, there is no evidence here, nor anywhere else, to suggest that homoeopathy could either. In fact bearing in mind its proposed mechanism – magic water – there is no possible way it could have.

Essentially it appears that this “hospital” was used as convalescent bed-space, and not for terribly long either. As the homoeopaths could do no active harm, and had at least one surgically trained doctor on staff as well as professionally trained nurses, they were permitted to go ahead and try their luck (and my patience). This is further evidenced by the comment;

“The War Office and Admiralty respectively had ultimately accepted the offer of beds made by British Homoeopathic institutions early in the war, and an increasing number of patients from the Army and the Fleet were being sent to the Homoeopathic hospitals in England.”

They accepted because bed space is the #1 commodity in healthcare, especially in time of war. The vast majority of patients were (and to an extent still are) recovering on their own under observation by others. And those observers, the nurses, would have been just as professional and experienced as at any similar institution not employing dubious treatments.

As for why this hospital lasted less than 18 months, the author cites pressure on homoeopaths at home (to administer the aforementioned beds, as well as thinking they were also treating patients), many homoeopaths called to service in the RAMC, and (more importantly!) the fact that the landlord wanted them out. The place had been a sanitorium before, and as it was again by 1934, we might speculate at the reasons for eviction.

The article gives us a total of 122 patients in the 15 months that the hospital was in operation, with 11 nurses on staff according to an article on the Royal College of Nursing site. The number of doctors isn’t clear, but it appears to have been a handful. This is typical of an Auxiliary Hospital of the time, and in fact, that’s what this place was.

Auxiliary Hospitals were vital but non-critical establishments intended to allow long-term sick and post-operation patients to convalesce.This is not to do-down their role, just to belie the implication of the article that this was some frontline hospital (note that this stresses a location as close to the front as possible).

What of the wider context claimed here? That homoeopathy was;

…widely practiced during WWI…

First – blood-letting was widely practiced in medieval times – this is not an endorsement of its efficacy. Second, what does “widely” mean? Where are the numbers? What other hospitals were there? What studies and results are cited? Bugger all, that’s what. And there’s nothing on the WWW, nothing on Pubmed,  and nothing in the JSTOR journal archive to even suggest this. The only possible source of enlightment in this regard is an article locked behind a pay wall at Sciencedirect. So, a homoeopathic gold bar to anyone that can show me evidence that justifies this claim (use the comments section below).

Til then, it’s just self-aggrandising hot air.

Last word goes to the “Quackometer”, which awards the article 4 “canards” out of 10

For more on homoeopathy, see the excellent Bad Science blog, run by the Guardian’s Dr Ben Goldacre.