“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“.)