“I don’t hold with this new fangled doctoring. Any problems, I go to the Wise Woman.”

(Title quote courtesy of S. Baldrick, c1590AD)

NB – see my earlier post about Helen Duncan here for the full background to this review of a recent UK TV programme.

See also Jon Donnis’ takedown of some of the rubbish “mediumship” on display in this programme, on the Bad Psychics website.

It’s always warmingly nostalgic to see Tony Robinson reprising his Baldrick role. But I wish he’d stop doing it in supposedly “factual” television programmes. This time it’s a new 3-part series called “Unexplained”, with feisty science journo Becky McCall cast in the “closed-minded” sceptical redhead role, and Robinson all the while “wanting to believe” as the Mulder of the piece.

It’s a frustrating set-up, because there’s some good sceptical content in this first episode, which deals with fraudulent wartime medium Helen Duncan. Professor Chris French ably demonstrates the Barnum effect with a Derren Brown-esque identical horoscope trick, and Dr Richard Wiseman does a (too brief and limited) bit of physical mediumship. McCall is instantly convinced (despite a lack of reproduciton of Duncan’s methods), and Robinson too is swayed. The pattern continues, with  McCall steadfastly poo-poohing and Robinson by turns sceptical and credulous. I can’t actually be too hard on him here (or the daft laddie character he’s possibly playing here, a la early Time Team), because if his experience of filming is anything like the finished product, I can understand his mixed feelings. The scepticism here feels badly aimed, and I think goes off half-cocked.

The result is a programme that simply confirms one’s prior feelings, whatever they might be. Equal weight is given to anecdotal evidence and appeal to emotion as it is to debunking and critical thought. The sceptical demonstrations either do not directly address the claims being made, or they go only so far, leaving easily answerable questions unanswered (e.g. despite two images of WW2 seamen being shown with the correct “HMS” on their tally bands – no ship name) – the claim that “Syd” the dead sailor was identified by the “HMS Barham” on his cap went unchallenged. Cold reading wasn’t really adequately explained (not French’s fault – I think this can only be done quickly and effectively by demonstration), though it was at least offered as a sound explanation for the “clairvoyance” of the Barham sinking. Yet towards the end of the programme, the earlier seance is mentioned in which Duncan is supposed to have divined the sinking of HMS Hood – and our Tony doesn’t see any way but via the spirit realm that this could have been achieved. Why on earth doesn’t the same possibility apply? That Brigadier R.C. Firebrace (a spiritualist and astrologer himself – not mentioned in the programme), present at the seance, might have been cold-read himself? It would go something like this – Duncan throws out (or has a “spirit” report that) “A ship has gone down…a big warship”. Firebrace says something like “good god, not the Hood!?”, and Duncan (perhaps deciding he knows something she doesn’t) decides to go with a “yes”. Now, this was a famous ship even then. But as ever in mediumship/cold reading, had she been wrong, she could have modified her question/statement, or just relied on the limitless good will of  her sitters to let the miss drop. In that case Firebrace would have been astounded to hear from the Admiralty that the Hood had indeed been sunk. By readily ignoring the method used, the level of information volunteered by the sitters, and probably even misremembering Duncan’s exact words, an amazing anecdote is created. Yet whenever  a recording or transcript is obtained, or blinded testing attempted, no psychic can ever show results better than chance. How many “misses” did Duncan register?

Another example of the disjointed feel to the programme is the brief investigation into the dead sailor said to have appeared to Duncan at a seance and announced the sinking of HMS Barham ahead of time. This is perfectly valid as an exercise, but feels out of place at the start of the programme, bearing in mind that much of the remainder is devoted to ostentibly proving or debunking mediumship itself. Cart, horse, anyone? It doesn’t even further the investigation, in either direction. They come up with three possibilities, narrowing it to just one – an Acting Stoker called Sydney A. Fryer. The problem is that this is done on the basis of evidence from an MI5 agent present, who reported that the name “Syd” and the rank of Petty Officer had been mentioned. Here’s an exercise for you – choose a nickname popular in the 1940s, let’s say “Alf”. Then choose a common naval rank or position (there were many at petty officer level) – let’s be charitable and not for just “rating” – how about  “Able Seaman”? See if you got a hit like I did (in fact, I got two). Note that the nickname can be applied to first or other forename, and need not even relate to the man’s actual name (typical in the military). Note that he may never have been known by that nickname (was Sydney known as “Syd”, for example? Or was his loved one simply assuming?). Also bear in mind that as a medium you’d be able to tell the approximate social status of the client in the audience, and therefore have an informed guess at the right rank (seaman, NCO, or officer). And if you extend my guess at Jack to mean “John” (the former being a nickname of the latter), well, you have many more chances of a hit. What I’m saying here is that the exercise only helps progress things if there is NO possible Petty Officer “Syd”. The fact that there is at least one means next to nothing. It gets worse. Five minutes on the same site as the programme’s researchers used, and I get not one, but FOUR possibles (here, here, here and here). If I’ve missed something here, by all means point it out. But this seems to be another exercise in highlighting the possible whilst ignoring the probable – to dishonestly keep the spiritualist hypothesis in the race.

The pseudo-sceptical approach used does nobody any favours. McCall comes across as closed to new evidence – even smug and mean-spirited. The scientists and psychologists appear unable to explain the more extraordinary “feats” performed by Duncan – to the extent of performing their own tricks as distraction. Whilst Tony Robinson throughout cheerfully eschews alternate explanations in favour of emotional eyewitness accounts. He finishes the programme ostensibly still a fence-sitter – sure that Duncan did commit fraud (the photos of her cheesecloth spirits could hardly do otherwise) but still desperately clinging to the sincere testimony of the nice people he has spoken to – that maybe there is something in it all. His last sentence says it all – he wishes he could have attended a Duncan seance himself, as then he could have known for sure either way. And that is the failure here – to even suggest to the viewer that we might ALL be fallible, gullible, easily fooled in the right circumstances. That seeing is NOT always believing, or at least, it shouldn’t be if one is seeking the truth of the matter.

I suspect deliberate sabotage. I suspect that the programme makers, to (possibly!) quote PT Barnum, want to “have something for everybody”. They need an element of doubt so that Robinson can muse on the possibility that Duncan was both a fraud AND a genuine medium – to both provide a false sense of wonder and to make Duncan’s conviction seem all the more unfair. This is a real shame, as with a little more testicular fortitude on the part of the programme makers, those with the truly closed minds would still have come away unaffected, but those really on the fence would have had all the information to REALLY make up their minds. As it is we got a disjointed, pub-level natter about mediumship and spiritualism in general, with maybe half the programme devoted to the Duncan case itself.

I’ll end by pointing out yet again that  Duncan was convicted NOT of witchraft, but of pretending to conjur spirits. Though one contributor did say this, the whole programme and its marketing campaign focussed on the old chestnut that Duncan was Britain’s last convicted witch. And the same man went on to support Tony Robinson’s push for uncritical acceptance of fallible witness testimony by dismissing the juror’s decision in the Duncan case as “prejudice”.

Now Tony, I know you can do critical thinking properly, so repeat after me – if I have two anecdotes, and I add two more anecdotes, what does that make? (Hint – it’s not “evidence“.)

If she weighs the same as a duck…

The ad-hoc witch trial in \

I see that a recent petition to have Britain’s “last witch” pardoned (not, as this piece claims, all those convicted as witches), has been summarily dismissed by the Scottish Government. Although the petition itself attracted only 206 signatures, the comment from the politicians that the attempt “has no purpose whatsoever“, this might seem callous. Why not show compassion? Surely such people were innocent victims of superstition? Or perhaps even harmless self-identifying “wise women” or “cunning men” persecuted for their unorthodox beliefs? Well, many burned in Scotland before the 1735 Witchcraft Act was enacted were (the former at any rate). There is a separate petition (by the same man, to give him his due credit) to pardon those people. They are not who we are talking about here.

“S.-4 Whereby ignorant persons are frequently deluded and defrauded, if any person shall pretend to exercise or use any kind of witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment or conjuration, he shall be exposed to penalties.”
from The Witchcraft Act 1735 (sounds reasonable to me)

I can’t emphasise this enough. Those prosecuted under the 1735 Witchcraft Act were not witches, and they were not unfortunate victims of gossip and personal vendetta, either. They were self-proclaimed mediums and clairvoyants; the Sylvia Browne and Colin Fry equivalents of their day. They weren’t “real” witches, they didn’t think of themselves as witches, and they weren’t seen as such either. At least, not until the tabloid press of the time got hold of the story. No, they were, according to sceptics such as myself, con-artists and charlatans. As, after more than 100 years of searching, there is no evidence whatever that contacting the dead or seeing the future is even possible, I feel that anyone claiming to be able to do so and charging to do so, must be able to put up or shut up. Preferably, with a hefty fine or custodial sentence. These people are preying on the bereaved, after all. As such, I feel any pardon for a person convicted under the original Act would require some sort of retrial, which would be extremely difficult to accomplish these 60 years later.

As you might have guessed, Full Moon Investigations, the paranormalist group that organised the petition, consists mostly of psychic mediums – Spiritualists. This was, as this Independent article suggests, a political move by a religious group; an attempt to legitimise what they do. And as far as I’m concerned, what they do is to take money from the vulnerable and bereaved using simple fairground tricks. The clear intention was to obtain a pardon for medium Helen Duncan as a validation of not only their religion (which shouldn’t even be at issue here) but more importantly, of their primary income stream. Parallel efforts to have all “witches” convicted under the act also pardoned can be seen as a way to appeal to the emotion of a public who will assume that this has to do with the unjust “witch mania” I refer to above. To re-iterate, people convicted under the act were not convicted of witchcraft – this was no longer possible in law as of 1735. They were convicted of pretending to engage in what was still at that time (1735) referred to as witchcraft. The Witchcraft Act was actually a successful reformation of the horrific acts of the preceding 200 years, carried out under the 1536 Witchcraft Act that gave its name, but not its contents, to the later Act. For more on this see Vanessa Chambers’ piece here.

Duncan with a \

“Medium” Helen Duncan with a wholly convincing materialised “spirit”

Back to the case of Helen Duncan, who had already been convicted of fraud in 1933. The evidence against her in the 1944 case was damning. A good account of her story is on the BBC website. Much is made of her alleged prediction in 1941 (post-sinking but pre-announcement) of the sinking of HMS Barham. This is usually claimed as the materialisation (in the manner common to the time) of the ectoplasmic form of a sailor with the ship’s name visible on his cap. I think even believers in the paranormal today would struggle with the notion that this might be possible, especially given all that we now know about physical mediumship (check out this BBC documentary on the subject). Duncan was not especially good at it (or at least, wasn’t worried about sceptics seeing photos of her cheesecloth ectoplasm). Perhaps the name on the prop hat-band she made for the seance was indeed the Barham’s. Perhaps she had really did have a hotline to the spirit world and just decided for some reason to fake the materialisation to get that information across? Perhaps she simply chose a lucky name? Or more likely, perhaps she had been told by a survivor or other sailor? Many other ships witnessed the Barham’s loss, and Portsmouth was the biggest naval base in the UK. It’s even possible that a loved one told her – next of kin were officially informed in December that year – the same month that Duncan’s seance occurred. However she actually became aware of the incident, Duncan must have known that to pre-empt the news would enhance her credibility. Oh, and remember that cap-band? Well, Royal Navy sailor’s caps post-1939 were not permitted to bear the name of the ship. They simply read “H.M.S.” as can be seen in this photograph of one of the sailors tragically lost when the Barham went down. Duncan may well not have appreciated this fact when she fabricated the cap used in the seance. All of this assumes that the claim is accurate in the first place. It seems there may be some doubt that a cap-band was even seen at the seance, and that Duncan may simply have used cold reading techniques to recover the ship’s name from the widow present:

Mrs Duncan did not give the name of the ship, but extracted it from the sitter.
From “Spiritualism a critical survey” by Simeon Edmunds, via this pdf.

In any case this Barham claim is a somewhat of a red herring as far as the safeness of her conviction is concerned, even if Duncan’s propensity for “loose lips” did attract the attention of the authorities. It wasn’t the Barham “leak” that got her busted; her arrest did not take place until three years later. It’s interesting also to note that Churchill himself (understandably) thought the case a waste of resources at a crucial tipping point in the War;

I would hope that the Prime Minister at time of war would have been in the loop regarding the need to stamp out dangerous gossip if that was the goal of the prosecution. Perhaps as mediums claim, he was simpy sympathetic to her cause. Regardless, her conviction was NOT for revealing state secrets, but for taking (a lot!) of money (from bereaved people) for non-existent occult services, which is exactly what the Witchcraft Act was designed to restrict, and certainly what it was interpreted to mean by the 1940s. With the rise of the Spiritualist movement, the Witchcraft Act was in danger of criminalising a large number of people. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle helped ensure that mediums perceived as genuine could practice without threat of prosecution by backing a change in the law; the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951. The shift of emphasis that this created meant that mediums, as long as they played it safe and did away with the spirit cabinets and muslin of the old days, were home free. Today, psychic mediums positively rake in the cash and the adulation using techniques that though obvious, are not possible to prove as fraud under the 1951 act. This month, this act will itself be repealed, by the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations Act 2007. This is an umbrella piece of legislation intending to stop people being misled into parting with their money. Who could object to this? Well, the Spiritualists are justifiably concerned that they might once again be unable to charge money for their “services”. Of course, they are playing this down and crying “religious persecution”, as they frequently and loudly do, regardless of the facts in evidence. This petition was clearly part of this agenda to head off any curtailment of this multi-million pound industry.

It remains to be seen whether this will be better or worse than the Witchcraft or Fraudulent Medium acts, and for whom. Until we find out, I can’t put it any better than this, from Emma-Louise Rhodes of badpsychics.com;

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2007 will hopefully bring such acts of deceit to light and bring to justice those who have cruelly sought to exploit the bereaved and suffering for their own personal financial satisfaction.