Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Have the CIA Stopped Staring At Goats?

January 29, 2017
If you stare too long into the goat, the goat stares back... From

If you stare too long into the goat, the goat stares back… From


I recently read this article (or at least the opening paragraph, as it’s behind a paywall), entitled ‘Declassified CIA report claims psychics are real’. This didn’t surprise me; Whilst US government research in this area from the 1970s to the 1990s (best known in the form of ‘Project Stargate’) had concluded that there was no reliable intelligence value in psychic phenomena, they stopped short of actually debunking any of it. Their interest was whether psychics and remote viewers could obtain useful intelligence, not how this might be possible (that is, a small ‘psi’ effect was as much use to them as none at all). No doubt many involved believed (emphasis on believed) that there was some real effect going on here. This has led a lot of believers to wield this as proof that such things have been proven to exist. This could not be further from the truth, as there is still no evidence for ‘psi’. The article title is also (unintentionally) misleading, because although the document in question was part of a recent release of declassified CIA files, it was already widely available. The article, ‘An Assessment of the Evidence for Psychic Functioning’ by Jessica Utts was classified at all (only the copy held by the CIA was). It was actually published in 1995, and was quite the media sensation. It was also roundly debunked in a CSICOP article the following year, and I suggest that anyone interested in this subject reads the whole thing. Utts was hired by the group contracted to research psychic phenomena for the US government, but Ray Hyman, who authored the debunk, was the other evaluator. He does not agree with his former colleague, to put it mildly. None of the evidence that they reviewed proved significant. Utts claims are based in statistics, sure, but it’s a meta-analysis. This might seem more valuable than a lone study, but in fact there are a number of reasons why one meta-analysis should not be trusted. As Hyman puts it;


‘…drawing conclusions from meta-analytic studies is like having your cake and eating it too. The same data are being used to generate and test a hypothesis. The proper use of meta-analysis is to generate hypotheses, which then must be independently tested on new data. As far as I know, this has yet to be done. The correlation between quality and outcome also must be suspect because the ratings are not done blindly.’


All we know is that the analysis produced results slightly better than chance. We don’t know why, and in the absence of any supporting evidence, we should not assume it’s anything paranormal. There’s another good assessment on The Straight Dope, where they point out that even if Utts was right that there was a statistically measurable psychic effect, it was woefully unsuccessful;


‘Utts said the “psychics” were accurate about 15% of the time when they were helping the CIA. Fifteen percent? Is this supposed to convince us to pay them to help the United States government? Utts says she thinks “they would be effective if used in conjunction with other intelligence.” My intelligence tells me that 15% accuracy isn’t much help no matter what it’s used in conjunction with–that’s an 85% failure rate! So 85% of the time, spies would be wasting their time and resources on incorrect information. We’re supposed to be happy with that? And that’s presuming she’s right about the 15%.’


Far from seeing this new release of detailed material as somehow proof that ‘psi’ is real, I take it as a tacit acknowledgement that the US government no longer has any interest in this area. If they did, I’m sure they could find a way to keep it classified for longer.

Angles on Mons

February 23, 2014

(c) National Army Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

‘The Angel of Mons’ by R. Crowhurst (UK National Army Museum)

I’ve been catching up on the BBC’s latest First World War documentary series, as the centenary approaches (that fact is not coincidental to my sporadic posting – day job and all). It’s actually pretty good, though I did catch a dodgy claim in the first episode. The redoubtable Mr Paxman, explaining the ‘defeat’ of the Battle of Mons and the famous story of angelic salvation, told us that;

“There was one simple explanation for the Angels of Mons: exhaustion”.

This is indeed a simple and plausible explanation for a bizarre story of angelic apparitions rushing to the aid of British Tommies. But it’s wholly unnecessary. The origins of the story as a piece of fiction turned folklore are well documented. Arthur Machen’s ‘The Bowmen’, written in faux documentary style, was modified to be more Protestant Christian (angels not unquiet dead), and embraced as genuine by Spiritualists, who then went hunting for/fabricated ‘evidence’. The rest is history.

If you’d like the real story, I recommend this article by the excellent David Clarke in the equally great Fortean Times, and, if you can access it, another of his from the journal Folklore. He went on to write a book on the subject. You can also check out this Skeptoid podcast. Another article by Steve MacGregor supports Clarke’s thesis, and focuses on the propaganda and recruitment value to the British government of this kind of story.

It does surprise me in the Age of Google, that no-one researching this series bothered to even read the Wikipedia page on the subject. I suspect, given the description of Mons as a ‘defeat’, that they chose to twist the tale to suit the narrative of exhausted, beaten troops. I don’t think they’ve entirely shed the ‘lions led by donkeys’ theme. In fact, as dire as casualties appeared at the time to a naive public, Mons was actually a very successful fighting retreat.

It’s a shame in another way too, because Clarke’s interpretations of the story are far more interesting. He casts the construction of the story as myth-making for the industrial era, and as a psychological coping mechanism for people on the home front to deal with the horror of modern war and mass casualties amongst their loved ones. To this I can perhaps add something to bring things full circle to the many soldiers who survived Mons. There actually is a direct relevance here that doesn’t rely on hallucination. Whether or not there were/are ‘no atheists in foxholes’, as the war progressed and the remaining soldiers of the professional army were joined by civilians, it appears that the number of believers in the supernatural also increased. Every soldier was issued a set of identity disks (later nicknamed ‘dog tags’), to be recovered in the event of their death. On these tags, alongside abbreviations like ‘CE’ for Church of England’ and ‘JEW’ for Jewish, was also stamped ‘SPIRI’, for ‘Spiritualist’. This reflects a booming recruitment period for that faith as people struggled to deal with the loss of sons, fathers, and partners. These soldiers and perhaps non-Spiritualists also, must have brought this civilian tale of an incident that never happened with them to the front, and carried that belief with them into battle. I may not believe it myself, sitting in the comfort of home, surrounded by my loved ones; but I cannot help hoping that it provided them some comfort.

Truce Truth?

December 25, 2013


A brief seasonal post to comment on Snopes’ enthusiastic take on the infamous ‘Christmas Truce’ of 1914. Such a truce did actually happen, but I feel the Snopes article might give the reader the impression, by omission and by implication, that it was a)universal across the trenches, and b) an effort by working class soldiers to actually stop the war from progressing, only to be bullied into continuing the war by the officer class and harshly punished afterward.

The Long, Long Trail has an excellent balanced summary of what actually happened at Christmas 1914. The background is important here. By Christmas 1914, offensive action by both sides was stagnant, and fighting men were coming to terms with the idea that they would be there for the long haul, and that the war certainly wouldn’t be “over by Christmas”. They longed for a break from the boredom, the adverse living conditions, the threat of death and disease, and the tension and stress of the sporadic fighting. At this stage in the war, the memory of home and Christmas would have been quite fresh, and the arrival of parcels from home, including the official “Princess Mary boxes” of chocolate, nuts and cigarettes, fostered a festive mood. Though the so-called ‘Rape of Belgium’ had taken place, the levels of resentment and hatred for ‘the Hun’ amongst the British troops had yet to peak. The Germans were in much the same boat, and as the lines of the front were so close together, it was not difficult to communicate a desire for cease-fire. This is exactly what happened at many points along the front. Curiosity too played a part, cease-fires being an opportunity to learn something of the enemy, his equipment, tactics, and psychology. In any case, the following year, similar behaviour (at least one incident did occur) was actively discouraged by British and no doubt German command.

Many of the actual meetings began as practical opportunities to bury the accumulated dead, with the spiritual/psychological bonus/trigger of it being a time of a shared religious occasion. Both sides saw the lull as a chance to get into no-man’s land and seek out the bodies of their compatriots and give them a decent burial.  Once this was done the opponents would inevitably begin talking to one another. The 6th Gordon Highlanders, for example, organised a burial truce with the enemy.  After the gruesome task of laying friends and comrades to rest was complete, the fraternisation began.

Though these truces were indeed spontaneous and strictly unofficial, this was no overt protest against authority or the validity of the war. A number of officers did take part or at least observe, even if they were obliged to report what was happening to commanders. Whilst threats of courts martial were made to prevent a recurrence, no significant punishments were actually meted out. Comments about the theoretical moral significance of the cease-fires came from officers as well as men;

“These incidents seem to suggest that, except in the temper of battle or some great grievance, educated men have no desire to kill one another; and that, were it not for aggressive National Policies, or the fear of them by others, war between civilised peoples would seldom take place”.
-Captain Jack, the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles), 13th Jan 1915

But neither this officer nor his men were thinking to try to end the war by their actions. Even some of the senior ‘brass hats’ did not entirely disapprove, as long as efforts to actually win the war were resumed afterward. Some Germans did tell individual Brits that though they could not visit them again, they would “remain (their) comrades” and if they were forced to fire, they would aim high. This by no means reflects a consensus among the troops, as evidenced by the next four years of bitter fighting! Officers did not generally seek to stop the fraternisation; they passed reports up the command chain instead. No doubt some of them did not approve, but neither did some of the men, as letters show. Interestingly, a young Adolf Hitler is supposed to have commented that;
 ‘..such a thing should not happen in wartime…Have you no German sense of honor left at all?’
Certainly not everyone felt like taking part, nor did they all have the opportunity to do so. Some soldiers sent to parley with the enemy ended up as prisoners. The truce(s) were also very much a British/German thing, reflecting the great effort put into averting Britain’s entry into the war, Germany being somewhat kindred, and no direct threat to British sovereignty. The mood of the French and Belgian troops would have been much less buoyant, fighting as they were in their own occupied and war-torn countries. Cease-fires were a result of young men with national but not personal scores to settle, coming from equally diverse backgrounds with plenty in common culturally. They could have been friends under different circumstances. Many had family in Germany, and some German soldiers had lived or even been brought up in Britain. It seems strange to us that sworn enemies having reconciled so easily in this way, could so easily go back to killing each other. It’s a paradox, but it’s not unusual as far as the experience of fighting men goes.
This was not a unique reaction to nor a rejection of the new form of ‘total’ war. Similar incidents of “peace breaking out” are said to have taken place in the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, the Revolutionary war, the Crimean War, and even the Second World War (see Gilbert’s ‘Stalk and Kill’, 1997). In all the theme is similiar, bored battle-fatigued combatants in close proximity start larking about with each other. Gilbert’s stories involve one side holding up a target for the opposing side to shoot at and then cheering or deriding them depending on the marksmanship. They usually seem to be in a spirit of camaraderie, albeit with the enemy. It always ends the same way – back to the business of war the next day. The Civil War story is interesting in that during an unofficial truce one side accidentally fired a round. As the two sides picked up their arms to resume fighting, the offending party sent the man over the trench who had fired the shot and made him parade back and forth carrying a heavy beam for two hours. This appeased the offended party who did not fire at the man but applauded their efforts.
Some have drawn parallels with medieval “truces of God” which allowed combatants to observe sacred feasts whilst on campaign. But there’s also a psycho/sociological angle, that many of us in the civilian world just don’t get. You don’t have to hate your enemy or want to kill him individually, to have no hesitation to kill him in battle. It’s the warrior’s paradox; something peculiar to fighting men and women that people find increasingly difficult to understand. Patriotic ideals aside (though there was no shortage of these during the War), it’s about doing what you’ve been trained to do, no hard feelings (at least at this stage of the war). Richard Dawkins has speculated that one of his theories may apply here, wherein two competing groups will work together for mutual benefit; in this case, getting a break from the fear and tension of war. Participants would have known that it couldn’t last, so took advantage of the opportunity to blow off steam.
I would conclude by saying that though ‘the truce’ happened, it wasn’t really the universal realisation of the futility of war that many think. No more than 50% of the Western Front took part, and many protested the fraternisation, both officers and men. The great human cost of the war as it developed, and the subsequent reaction against imperialism and economic/territorial war between states, has led us to reimagine the various separate incidents of fraternisation as a single organised legendary event. So much so, that people receiving a version of the story in their email inboxes in recent years have questioned its veracity, hence the Snopes verdict. However the phenomenon has been altered by time and hindsight, there’s no doubt that the men of both sides appreciated the chance for a brief return to normality and civilisation, and looked forward to the return of real peace to Europe.


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.

Parthian Shot

November 5, 2013

Another big gap between posts – I keep trying to update more frequently but less verbosely, and failing dismally. But I’m not about to give up, so here’s a brief comment on a folk etymology I hadn’t come across before; the ‘Parthian shot’/’parting shot’.

As a student of arms, I frequent the excellent, where a commenter recently posted;

‘In classic times, the Parthian cavalry were famous for their tactic for riding up to the enemy, taking a single bowshot and then riding off.. from which we get the expression – taking a Parthian (or Parting) shot..!’

With due respect to the chap posting, this is about as redundant an etymology as I’ve ever seen. Parting = to separate, to leave. Shot=to shoot. How much more complex does it need to be? Even if there were a documented source for this claim, we couldn’t be sure that a given use of the phrase meant literally a parting shot, or was alluding to the supposed Parthian origin. The complicating factor is that, as it turns out, people actually have used ‘Parthian shot’ in the same context as ‘parting shot’. But there remains no evidence for their etymological connection. nails this one, so jump over there to see the first cites for each of the two phrases.



Brushing off the cobwebs…

June 24, 2013

I’ve been very remiss lately, pressures of work and writing for another unrelated blog I’m afraid. But I’m not dead yet! For the time being have a look at this fascinating post over at Spooky Paradigm about the inextricable link between archaeology and museums (and any heritage site I think) and the paranormal.

It reminded me of some old notes I have on the subject of psychometry being done at a Scottish museum, so I’m planning to dust that off and write a post about it when I have a moment.

Easter a pagan festival? Eggstremely Unlikely!

March 31, 2013

As alluring as the idea is to atheists like me, the claim that Easter was derived from a pre-existing pagan festival in honour of the goddess ‘Eostre’ turns out to have very little basis indeed. It amounts to one reference. CJ Romer has this tied up on his blog;

Eostre never existed???: why Easter is NOT a Pagan Holiday

CJ is a Christian, so in case you think there’s bias at work, here’s another three-part debunk from a Neo-Pagan writer;

Eostre: The Making of a Myth

An instructive lesson in not buying into claims just becuase they agree with our (pagan or atheist) preconceptions and biases.

Slicing the Upper Crust

March 24, 2013

I caught some of ‘Paul Hollywood’s Bread’ today on TV, and heard him pronounce that the phrase ‘the upper crust’, to mean the British upper class, originated with the practice of giving used bread trenchers to the poor. As we’ve seen before on this blog,  this kind of etmylogical literalism is usually bogus – phrases very rarely arise in this convenient, pat way, and if you hear an explanation of this sort, chances are it’s outright BS, or is at the least unprovable/unfalsifiable. But they’re appealing, easy to understand, and to remember, which is why they’ve been ‘going viral’ since well before the internet even existed (it just makes the process easier!). In this case, a TV reviewer was taken in.

This one is no exception – fortunately I don’t have to embark on an essay about it though, because has this one nailed, the key sentence being this one;

‘The term ‘upper crust’ didn’t in fact come to be used figuratively to refer to the aristocracy until the 19th century.’

The fact is we can’t know what was in the head of the person who coined the phrase, but the trencher explanation is at least no more likely than any other you care to dream up. In fact, it’s arguably less so, since the use of bread trenchers was long dead by this time. The earliest Google Books reference for the origin (as opposed to the phrase) is 2001, and Snopes has it appearing as part of a hoax list dating to 1999. I could find no references via the Google news archive either. It’s possible that it was in oral circulation prior to ’99, but my money’s on that list, which seems to me to have been an exercise in seeing what historical tomfoolery one could get away with in a single email forward (though elements of it certainly did pre-exist the list).

It amazes me in this day and age that TV researchers either don’t bother to take 10 seconds to check something like this. But then I suspect that, like the tour guides mentions, they’re more interested in storytelling and traditional history than in the real thing. But when you’re recreating historical breads as the focus of your programme, why do you need this extra fluff?

Spear of Destiny

January 4, 2013

Anyone following my blog is probably following Bad Archaeology, but in case not, you should check out this fascinating piece on the origin of the now traditional association between the Spear of Destiny and the Nazis.

Sanity Clause

December 23, 2012

OK, this one actually IS relevant to the season. This is a fascinating piece on the ‘links’ between shamanism, drug-taking, and the modern figure of Santa Claus. Not because of the hypothesis itself, which is pretty tenuous to say the least, but for the fact that it’s actually self-debunking. It starts out making specious connections between the (pre)historic reality of spiritual leaders taking drugs to (amongst other things) experience flight, and the folkloric/fictional activities of St. Nicholas and his derivatives. But the last third or so makes pretty clear that there’s no evidence for any of it, and those who actually work in the relevant historical fields aren’t convinced. Ronald Hutton’s comments should carry particular weight. Even the editor has left a qualifying ‘may’ in the title. Thus, no journalistic standards have been compromised, and yet I wonder whether most readers won’t still come away with the impression that Santa = Shaman.

Whilst part of me wants to rant about this, actually I wonder if this isn’t a clever way for everyone to enjoy this story. My own work on the vampire killing kits ended up being reported in a similar way, and despite my best efforts, many would still have failed to pick up the message I’ve been trying to convey (they’re not ‘real’, but they’re still worthy of interest). But the comments on the above article demonstrate a good deal of incredulity and some actual scepticism, so people are thinking critically about this kind of bold historical claim.