Things that visit by night

Annette Taylor has personal experience of a phenomenon that lies behind many tales of ghosts, demonic possession, and alien abduction.

I was asleep. Marley, our cat, was faster asleep by my side.

Suddenly I was awake, at the sound of another cat’s tread in the room. Then something jumped up and landed on the bed, and padded right up to me, wanting under the covers.

I lay absolutely, perfectly still. In fact, I couldn’t move. The cat moved to the end of the bed and settled down. The minutes ticked by, and I worried about an all-out cat fight flaring up. I wondered, for a second, if this could be Willow come a-visiting. The thing was, we’d buried her in the garden not two weeks before (I’m not going to reference Monty Python here), and I was fairly certain it wasn’t poor old Willow, even while half asleep.

Then I came fully awake, groped in the dark for the cat I was convinced was lying there and found only Marley, snoring her head off.

It seemed so real, right down to the whiff of a slightly damp moggy and the pressure of her landing on the bed. A tad confused, I fell asleep. The next morning it had all the weight of a dream.

I was missing my cat and possibly, in a sense, she did come to say hello, but very much in a dream. My dad used to drop by at night after he died, too. We had good chats, but those were definitely dreams. I never thought for a moment he was a spirit hanging about.

This was different. At the time, I was certain there was a cat in the room, on my bed, and I couldn’t move a muscle. In retrospect, I’m deeply disappointed the cat wasn’t unspeakably evil, with glowing coal eyes, yellow fangs and claws of death; that would have ticked every box for being a classic case of sleep paralysis.

No better image conveys the terror this phenomenon can bring than The Nightmare, by Henry Fuseli.

The victim lies helpless on the darkened bed, and gleefully perched on her is the terrifying incubus, peering straight out of the picture. I’ll have you too, it seems to gloat.

The work, painted in 1781, is said to have influenced writers such as Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe and it is still as full of menace today. Hypnopompic dreaming – or more properly Isolated Sleep Paralysis – occurs mainly upon awakening from sleep. It includes a range of visual and auditory experiences:

  • a sense of evil in the room
  • being paralysed or frozen
  • shortness of breath or pressure, as if something or someone is sitting on you
  • being touched

I had all but the first, and the additional olfactory bonus of the smell of damp moggy.

Most people report the experience as being intensely frightening and while mine wasn’t scary, it was definitely disturbing.

Sleep paralysis, also known as night terrors, has been implicated in a lot of things of interest to skeptics, such as alien abductions. Carl Sagan, in The Demon-Haunted World, says it is telling that alien abductions occur mainly on falling asleep or when waking up. “Abduction therapists are puzzled when their patients describe crying out in terror while their spouses sleep leadenly beside them. But isn’t this typical of dreams, our shouts for help unheard?” he writes.

Before we had visits from flying saucers, these vivid dreams were linked with the supernatural – witchcraft, demons, ghosties and things that go bump in the night.

The term hypnopompic comes from 19th century psychic researcher and poet Frederic Myers. He was a founding member of the Society for Psychical Research in 1883 and influenced Carl Jung, among others. He believed apparitions were not hallucinations, but really existed in the ‘metetherial’ dream-like world, which lies beyond everyday existence. It’s a good word, even if these days most (rational) people consider such dreams to be normal phenomena, rather than supernatural.

I mentioned my dream to a friend, who made the comment it would be nice to think that the visitor really was my cat Willow. But no. To allow that comforting thought traction ushers in a flood of superstitions which I really have no time for. It was a genuinely interesting occurrence, in and of itself.

Sleep Paralysis is reported very frequently among people with sleep disorders, and otherwise occurs frequently in 6 percent of the population; and occasionally in 60 percent. When it occurs repeatedly it is categorised as Recurrent Sleep Paralysis. But I’m not going to be putting out a saucer of milk any time soon.


Fake bomb detector leads to deaths

One of the main reasons for the success Al Qaeda has had in getting bombs past checkpoints in Iraq is that the main device used to detect explosives is a uselss fake (NZ Herald, 24 July).

The Iraqi government paid large sums for the detector, originally produced in Britain by a company whose managing director, Jim McCormick, has been arrested on suspicion of fraud. Export of the device, formally known as the ADE-651 but called a ‘sonar’ in Iraq, has now been banned.

The detector, a black plastic grip with a silver-coloured wand out the front, supposedly receives its power from the operator, who shuffles his feet to generate static electricity. If explosives or firearms are present, the wand is meant to incline towards them, like a water diviner’s rod.

The only electronic component is a small disc, similar to that attached to clothes in shops to stop people taking them without paying. Although each device costs US$50 ($68) to make, Iraq spent US$85 million on them in 2008 and 2009.

An Iraqi police chief said privately the police knew the detectors did not work but went on using them because they were ordered to. The presumption is that somebody was paid a bribe to buy them and does not want to admit they are junk. They remain in use today.

According to the Times Online (January 22), McCormick believes a lot of the opposition to the device is driven by its rather primitive appearance. “We are working on a new model that has flashing lights,” he said.

‘Lady Luck’ has no favourites

Sports writer and poker devotee Ian Anderson had some very refreshing things to say about luck in his Waikato Times column (28 August).

“Many people will tell you,” he writes, “that great teams create their own luck. Many people, of course, are idiots. Luck doesn’t get created – it’s a random act of variance – and it doesn’t favour one team or the other, be they great, woeful or middling.”

The All Blacks, in the middle of an unprecedented run of test match victories, had just squeaked home against the Springboks in Johannesburg, thanks to a try which the referee, on another day, might not have given. If it hadn’t been awarded, the All Blacks would have been left licking their wounds – much as they were in the 2007 World Cup when the critical refereeing decisions went the other way.

Sports fans have very selective memories, Anderson says. While people tend to focus on incidents that happen late in a game, a wrongly awarded try in the sixth minute carries as much weight as one in the 76th.

“We can also instantly recall any gross misfortune that has befallen our favourite sides but struggle to dredge up any memories of decisions that go in our favour.”

The same applies to poker players, who without exception think they’re better at the game than they are, and who sincerely believe most losses are the result of incredibly bad luck while victories come simply through outplaying their opponents in the hand.

“Yet a trawl through hand histories will glaringly reveal that each player… receives his fair share of bad beats and fortunate suck-outs.” Presumably these are technical poker terms.

UFO ‘Trick of the light’

A famous UFO filmed in the Australian desert in 1964 has been explained in recently released British Ministry of Defence (MOD) files as a trick of the light (Stuff, 5 August).

When footage of the Blue Streak rocket tests at Woomera were broadcast by the BBC, television viewers were “shocked” to see what appeared to be a flying saucer near the launch pad. Many wrote to the MOD asking for an explanation.

Then, when documentary maker Jenny Randles went to investigate the footage she found it was missing from the National Archives. An MP who saw the documentary then launched an inquiry. The newly released files, however, show that the people who made the film at the time were clear that the ‘UFO’ was an internal camera fault. The ‘missing’ canister of film had been stored at the Imperial War Museum, rather than the National Archives.

The incident is just one of thousands of UFO sightings investigated by the MOD. The latest bunch of files covers more than 5000 pages of correspondence on them.

David Clarke, author of The UFO Files and a senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, said people who believe in UFOs were unlikely to be convinced.

“The truth is that people see things in the sky that they can’t explain, but the vast majority have got simple explanations. That is the truth, but they won’t accept that.”

Massey to study NDEs

If you’ve ever had a Near Death Experience, Massey University researchers would like to talk to you (Dominion Post, 27 August).

Psychologist Natasha Tassell and sociologist Mary Murray are carrying out New Zealand’s first large-scale study of the phenomenon. They estimate up to a quarter of those who have come close to dying may recall a form of near-death experience. “It’s a known phenomenon, but we don’t know how it occurs and exactly how prevalent it is,” Dr Tassell said.

They also wanted to know what variations existed and whether there were cultural dimensions. About 15 people had already shared their experiences, but they were hoping to attract about 100 participants 21 years and older for the two-year study.

Dr Tassell’s interest was sparked after an experience of her own, when she lay down after feeling unwell, and recalled travelling down a tunnel with a bright light at the end.

Alt med scrutinised

It was good to see Victoria University’s Professor Shaun Holt giving a public lecture on the potential dangers of alternative cancer therapies recently (Dominion Post, 1 September).
Chiropractors were good at helping people with bad backs but would not help cancer, reiki was “chanting mumbo jumbo”, reflexology was “absolute nonsense”, and colonic irrigation was dangerous, he said.

Professor Holt was however reported as stating that yoga could be effective for breast cancer patients, though the article didn’t say how. Taking ginger was as effective as pharmaceutical drugs for patients experiencing nausea and vomiting.

He also said acupuncture, massage therapy, aromatherapy and art therapy could help alleviate symptoms such as stress, anxiety, pain and depression. He might perhaps have mentioned that it doesn’t matter where you stick the needles to get a response from acupuncture – it’s more about stimulating endorphin release than directing energy flows.

Toxic slugs create panic

Reports of toxic sea slugs on beaches around Auckland are taking on an almost hysterical flavour with news items about them and their ‘spread’ appearing almost daily (eg TV3 News, 3 September, NZ Herald, 9 September, Radio New Zealand News, 25 September).

The animal in question, Pleurobranchaea maculata, is perhaps the most common and widespread sea slug in the country. It is found all around the coast, in many habitats from low tide to a depth of 250 metres. It gained notoriety in 2009 after some dogs on an Auckland beach were poisoned after eating some that had washed up.

It has always been known that the slugs are toxic – that’s how they can survive without a shell – but it’s since been learned that the toxicity is due to tetrodotoxin, which is originally produced by bacteria, and known from several marine animals including fugu (Japanese puffer fish) and blue-ringed octopus.

It appears that the toxicity levels vary in different areas, and there’s now quite a bit of work going on to learn more about these fascinating animals (Rodney Times, 28 September). It’s a pity it appears to take a certain level of hype to get some basic research done on even the most common of the animals that live in and around this country.

An Identified Flying Object off Abut Head

One of our members almost spots a UFO

In late August 2003, three friends and I spent several nights in a hut on the north bank of the Whataroa River in South Westland, 5km from the river mouth. One evening at about 9.30pm the smoker among us called from outside, saying that a bright light low on the horizon downriver had twice accelerated at high speed and disappeared behind and reappeared from a large hill just to the north, and that the speed was greater than that of any aircraft known to us.

Being a skeptic I at once called for one of us to get binoculars while the fourth person and I dashed outdoors. The sky downriver was mainly clear with just a little wispy cloud moving quite quickly down the coast. I soon realised that the light was in fact a star, which was being obscured intermittently by cloud, but at the same time the night began resounding with cries of “look at it go, look at it go, look at it climb”, and “look at it dive”. The person with the binoculars even saw a winking red light just beneath the bright light. However it was obvious to me that the position of the light in relation to the silhouettes of shrubs just below it on an island in the riverbed was remaining unchanged, and I declaimed so quite loudly, but for several minutes to no avail. Finally, the other three conceded that indeed the light was a star, and the whole situation was summed up by the comment from one of the three that “we (three) have been the victims of mass hysteria”.

In case the thought has crossed your minds, yes, except for the smoker we had indeed had a few drinks before dinner an hour or so earlier, but nobody was at all adversely influenced. Also, all the other three are well-educated and worldly-wise, and have worked in science research all their working lives, and are not the types to readily jump to erroneous conclusions. So how was it that they did believe that a light, which was in fact a star, was moving at great speed?

Well it seems to me that the pattern of cloud movement was such that without referring to stable points of reference such as the outlines of shrubs on the island, the smoker was easily able to conclude that when the light was being obscured by cloud moving south, it was actually moving rapidly to the north behind the hill. The minds of the other two were implanted with the expectation of seeing just this before they went out from the hut, and when the light did disappear they too concluded that it was moving. When there was no cloud between the light and the hill there was an appreciable distance between them, so when the light disappeared, apparently behind the hill, then of course it must have moved at high speed to get there in no time at all. Flashing red lights are often seen on flying craft at night, so the third observer who saw one beneath the light, which the other two were repeatedly confirming was a fast-flying craft, probably saw what he expected to see. Of course his report of a flashing red light in turn reinforced the belief of the other two that they were indeed observing a flying craft.

A few days later an earthquake of magnitude 6.2 rocked the southwest of the South Island, including our hut.

It is interesting to speculate on the possible consequences if heavy cloud had obscured the star permanently just before my skeptical nature had had time to observe the constant spatial relationship between the light and the outlines of shrubs on the island. On the evidence of the other three observers — and perhaps me included — one would have had to conclude that only an alien craft could have moved at the observed speeds. The earthquake might then have been attributed to the disruption of the earth’s gravitational field by the obviously hugely powerful space drive of the alien craft. From a northern hemispheric perspective all this would have occurred at the ends of the Earth. And so another UFO sighting with concrete back-up evidence from scientifically-minded observers would have taken on a life of its own, forever.


Your Future is not in the Stars

Level-headed Virgos everywhere will not be surprised, but a 40-year study of astrology has found it doesn’t work (Dominion Post, August 19).

More than 2000 people, mostly born within minutes of each other, were tracked through the period of the study. According to astrology, the subjects should have had very similar traits. The researchers looked at more than 100 characteristics, including occupation, aggressiveness, sociability, IQ levels and ability in art, sport, maths and reading, but found the subjects no more similar than a randomly selected sample of the general population.

The babies were originally recruited as part of a medical study begun in London into how the circumstances of birth can affect future health. Former astrologer Dr Geoffrey Dean, who analysed the results, also found astrologers could do no better than chance in matching birth charts to the personality profile of a person among a random selection. Their success rate did not improve even when they were given all the information they sought. He said the consistency of the findings weighed heavily against astrology.

“It has no acceptable mechanism, its principles are invalid and it has failed hundreds of tests. But no hint of these problems will be found in astrology books which, in effect, are exercises in deception.”

Roy Gillett, president of the Astrological Association of Great Britain, said the study’s findings should be treated “with extreme caution” and accused Dr Dean of seeking to “discredit astrology”. Frank McGillion, a consultant to the Research Group for the Critical Study of Astrology, said: “It is simplistic and highly selective and does not cover all of the research.” He said he would lodge a complaint with the journal’s editors.

Ashburton Panther a Big Moggy?

A truck driver’s report of a panther not far from Ashburton came as no surprise to many people in the back blocks of the South Island (Rural News, October 20). Richard McNamara, of the Department of Conservation (DoC), says two English tourists reported a “mountain lion” about the size of a labrador at the top of the Lindis Pass, and this was not the first such sighting from the area. Christchurch teacher Marianne Daines also reported a labrador-sized cat, black like the Ashburton beast, from near Twizel.

According to Bendigo Station gamekeeper Steve Brown some of the feral cats in his area are huge — he has one weighing 6kg in his freezer, and says bigger ones are out there. DoC and Otago Regional Council confirm the existence of these big cats, many of which will completely fill a possum trap.

For that matter, this writer and Skeptic editor Annette Taylor saw a cat at Lewis Pass about 20 years ago which, if not as big as a labrador, would have been almost the size of our border collie (who is admittedly not the largest specimen of her breed).

Inaudible “Spooks”

Mysteriously snuffed out candles, weird sensations and shivers down the spine may not be due to ghosts but to low frequency sound inaudible to humans. Dr Richard Lord and his colleagues at the National Physical Laboratory in England have shown that extreme bass sound, known as infrasound, produces a range of bizarre effects in people, including anxiety, extreme sorrow and chills.

The team, who produced infrasound with a sevenmetre pipe and tested its impact on 750 people at a concert, said infrasound was also generated by natural phenomena.

Professor Richard Wiseman, a psychologist at the University of Hertfordshire, whose name often crops up in stories like this, says his findings support the idea that this level of sound may be present at some allegedly haunted sites and so cause people to have odd sensations that they attribute to a ghost.

Sex Abuse Counsellor Faces Tribunal

A tribunal in England has heard that John Eastgate, a consultant working mainly with adolescents, used counselling sessions to “lead” a “vulnerable and angry” 13-year-old girl into believing she had been indecently assaulted by a fellow doctor (Daily Telegraph, September 2).

Joanna Glynn, QC, representing the GMC, said it was “dangerous”, when dealing with a girl suffering from “adolescent difficulties”, to start from the premise that abuse did occur.

She said: “In this case the child was bright, angry and resentful, and it has to be said, a difficult adolescent, and the imposition of such preconceived ideas by the psychiatrist is likely to justify her anger in her own eyes and to colour most of the things she would say afterwards.”

The hearing in London was told that Mr Eastgate began treating the girl, known only as Miss A, at the Marlborough House adolescent unit in Swindon, in April 1996 after she was referred by teachers at her boarding school. He dismissed their fears that she was suffering from anorexia and claimed her lack of appetite was due to profound depression. He prescribed her antidepressants.

During a number of counselling sessions in June and July, he allegedly prompted the girl into believing she had been sexually abused by a doctor who had treated her when she was 9.

Professor X, an endocrinologist, had treated her in London for a growth disorder between January 1993 and August 1995 when she was growing unusually tall. He prescribed oestrogen to induce puberty early and limit her growth and, as part of his treatment, had to monitor her breast and pubic hair growth to assess her development. It was during these sessions that Miss A claimed that Professor X “fondled” her.

Three days later, without informing her parents, he contacted the local child protection team and the police. Miss A, who a month earlier had taken an overdose of antidepressants, was taken into care. The case against Professor X was dropped almost immediately after it emerged that her mother or grandmother attended all her visits to him. They did not see anything untoward. Giving evidence, Miss A’s mother described her reaction.

“I was completely in shock,” she said. “I thought, ‘How could anything have happened while I was there?”

But Miss A was not released from care for three years because during her stay she made further allegations of abuse against three other men, including her father, a businessman. Those charges were later dropped by Miss A, who is now reconciled with her family.

Mr Eastgate, who is in his 50s, denies four charges of misconduct, including failure to keep adequate notes, which if proved amount to serious professional misconduct.

Cell Phones Again

In last issue’s Newsfront, a Wellington School of Medicine study showed no link between tumours and cellphones. Now a doctor in Sweden has come up with a new way to scare cellphone users (Dominion Post, September 15).

Professor Leif Salford of Lund University has spent 15 years investigating whether microwaves could open the blood-brain barrier allowing a protein to pass into the brain and cause damage. The voluntary exposure of the brain to microwaves is, he says, “the largest human biological experiment ever.” No results from these studies were reported, however.

Doctor Found Guilty

A Hamilton doctor who prayed to cure illnesses diagnosed using wands and vials of chemicals has been found guilty of misconduct and disgraceful conduct (Dominion Post, August 13.

Richard Gorringe was found guilty by the Medical Practitioners Disciplinary Tribunal in relation to patients Yvonne Short and Ravaani Ghemmagamy whom he treated in 1998. The tribunal found he exploited Mrs Short for money, and knew, or should have known, that the diagnosis and treatments he gave her were wrong. It also found he did not give either woman enough information about their treatments for them to be able to give their informed consent.

The tribunal was told that Mrs Short’s eczema worsened under Gorringe’s care. Using the peak muscle resistance test, Gorringe asked Mrs Short to touch a metal wand to various vials of chemicals to see how her body “resonated” with them. He then diagnosed her with paraquat poisoning and prescribed homoeopathic injections and other remedies which he sold her.

Dr Gorringe diagnosed Ravaani Ghemmagamy with brucellosis, a rare and notifiable disease most commonly contracted from handling raw meat. After asking if she was open to “spiritual healing”, he raised his hands and prayed: “Lord God Almighty, strike the bacteria from this woman’s body.”

In the weeks since, there have been numerous letters to the Waikato Times from satisfied patients protesting Gorringe’s crucifixion by the medical establishment.


True Home of Father Christmas Discovered!

I am always astonished that famous mystical persons, such as the Virgin Mary (who was transubstantiated into an Australian fencepost in February) reveal themselves to us mere mortals. I once had an experience like that.

Four years ago I was on a German research ship in the Southern Ocean taking sediment cores from the sea bottom. The cores were cut in half lengthwise to expose sedimentary structures. In one of the cores was a clear image of Father Christmas.

Luckily we were thousands of kilometres away from human habitation; otherwise the ship would have been overrun by thousands of children wanting to see this apparition. The consensus of people on board was that, being so close to Antarctica, the message was obvious. Father Christmas does not live at the North Pole, but at the South Pole.

Gerrit van der Lingen

Originally published in the Christchurch Press, February 14, 2003

Indian Socialism

I possibly shouldn’t come into a debate that seems to be going on for some time which I haven’t actually followed, but a couple of the statements that Jim Ring makes in his letter (Autumn 2003) need at least some clarification.

He maintains that “under socialism India was a poor country, people starved”. This is a very vague statement. What does Ring mean by socialism? It has been a pluralist secular democracy since independence, albeit with a fairly controlled economy. More importantly, what is meant by people starved? I doubt if there is a country in the world, socialist or capitalist, where you couldn’t say in the past people starved. People have starved in America, the world’s capitalist icon.

The suggestion to me is that India suffered famines. Perhaps this is not meant but it should be noted India has not had a famine since 1943 when it was under British rule. It has been exporting food on and off for years, even under so-called socialism. The deciding factor for famines according to Sen is not so much whether a country is socialist or capitalist, but whether it is a democracy or dictatorship.

Lastly India has been manufacturing if not exporting (I have little information about exports) much more complicated goods than textiles for years, such as cars and motorbikes. Admittedly these were not particularly modern models, but anyone who has driven in an underdeveloped country would know that once outside the main cities anything that can be repaired by a local blacksmith is a much better bet than the more complicated modern stuff.

Leaving aside the figures on the increase or decline in world poverty for which both sides claim sound evidence, this debate deserves something other than glib generalizations and inaccurate case studies.

Bob Metcalfe

Evolutionary Ethics

I am surprised that the Skeptics have chosen to support this environmentalist campaign (Family Obligations, Skeptic 67). Evolution implies no “family obligations” to our fellow creatures, but a relatively utilitarian attitude. We support cows, wheat, kiwifruit, roses and brewer’s yeast. We discourage possums, rats, the painted apple moth and the Sars virus.

Chimps are cute, but so are rabbits, possums and stoats.They have a lot of our DNA, but the people of Ethiopia, Chechnya, Congo, Bosnia have even more and they need our help.

Chimps would survive longer if they went back to work instead of becoming permanent social welfare beneficiaries. Revive the “chimpanzee’s tea-party” at the zoo. Put them back in the circus. Recruit them for advertising tea, or appearing in movies with US presidential hopefuls. And what is wrong with being an experimental animal?

Vincent Gray


Australians turn up the Heat on Pan

Breaking news as this issue goes to press (Waikato Times, April 30 and elsewhere) is the recall by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) of 219 products manufactured by Pan Pharmaceuticals. This is the biggest recall of medical products in Australia’s history; the TGA has also withdrawn Pan’s licence for six months.

Pan is Australia’s largest contract manufacturer of herbal, vitamin and nutritional supplements, representing 70 per cent of the Australian complementary medicine market and exporting to dozens of countries. It also makes some over-the-counter medicines including paracetamol, codeine, antihistamines and pseudo-ephedrine.

TGA principal medical adviser John McEwen said other products manufactured by Pan but sold under different brand names would be added to the list as they were discovered. Dr McEwen said Pan lost its licence following evidence of substitution of ingredients, manipulation of test results and substandard manufacturing pro-cesses.

Consumers have been warned not to take any vitamins or herbal supplements and even to check the label of headache pills.

The TGA said it was considering laying criminal charges as it continued the investigation.

Equipment at Pan’s headquarters in Sydney was not cleaned between batches, potentially contaminating products.

The investigation was sparked by a travel sickness pill, Travacalm, which the TGA said had sent 19 people to hospital and caused 87 adverse reactions.

“Some people were very, very ill. They tried to jump out of planes, off ships and things like that because of the hallucinatory effect,” federal parliamentary health secretary Trish Worth said. “I’ve been reliably informed it was fortunate nobody died.”

She said Pan’s vitamin A and natural remedy teething gels could be very harmful to pregnant women and children.

The Complementary Health-care Council said the entire health industry would be hurt by a loss of public confidence. The council’s technical director, Ian Crosthwaite, said manufacturers were holding crisis meetings and seeking an urgent meeting with the TGA to stop any further recalls. But the TGA’s Dr McEwen, said: “There is a clear risk with these products of serious injury … the longer we leave these products in the market the risk grows.

Pan recorded a $A13.6 million ($NZ15.30 million) profit last financial year, however founder James Selim saw his personal wealth of $A210 million collapse by $A26 million as shares plunged after the recall.

The Australian Stock Exchange is demanding answers as to why Pan failed to call for a trading halt in its shares as soon as it learned its licence had been suspended.

Sections of the market had the news of the licence suspension for 30 minutes before trading was halted.

A report by ECM Research on Pan Pharmaceuticals in September last year said about 40 per cent of its sales were exported and New Zealand was the most important destination, followed by Asia and Europe. The New Zealand market accounted for about a third of its market revenue.

The report also said Pan was supplying SAM-e, a natural antidepressant, into Australia and New Zealand. SAM-e is listed in advertisements for product recall. Other Pan products sold in New Zealand include libido enhancer Horny Goat Weed.

Great Balls of Fire

Thai scientists are to launch a probe into a famous fireball phenomenon occurring in the Mekong River once a year in the country’s north, (Sydney Morning Herald, April 14). Every year on the first full moon of the 11th lunar month, which coincides with the end of Buddhist Lent, hundreds of red, pink and orange fireballs soar up into the sky from the Mekong, drawing crowds of spectators.

The event known as Naga’s Fireballs, which has been reported by locals for generations, has long mystified scientists. Now nine experts are to start collecting soil and water samples from the areas where the fireballs appear to originate, deputy permanent secretary of the Ministry of Science and Technology, Saksit Tridech, told the Bangkok Post.

“We are quite sure the fireballs are a natural phenomena,” he reportedly said, adding that the team’s initial assumption was that the fireballs were caused by methane and nitrogen. Decomposition of accumulated plant and animal remains on the bottom of the Mekong could lead to the release of the gases, which rise to the surface of the water when the sun heats the water to a certain temperature, Saksit said.

Legend, however, says the flames come from a mythical Naga, or serpent, living in the Mekong river. “Society needs an explanation for this phenomenon,” said Saksit.

Claims by a television program last year that the fireballs were actually caused by tracer bullets fired by Laotian soldiers across the border caused uproar among locals, who called the suggestion insulting.

Abductees Stressed Out

People who claim to have been abducted by aliens suffer many of the same trauma symptoms as Vietnam veterans and World Trade Centre survivors, even though their memories are not real (Dominion Post, February 19).

A Harvard University team found that when recalling experiences they show many of the physical and psychological effects normally seen in post-traumatic stress disorder, including nightmares, anxiety, racing heartbeats and sweating palms.

The team suggests most abductees are not mentally ill and genuinely believe they have been kidnapped, but are experiencing false memories induced by sleep paralysis. This affects 30 per cent of the population at some stage in their lives, and occurs when a patient wakes during rapid eye movement sleep, when dreaming takes place and the entire body is paralysed with the exception of the eyes. It can often lead to frightening visions referred to as hypnopompic (upon awakening) hallucinations as elements of a dream impinge on wakefulness.

Sufferers usually report being unable to move while seeing shadowy figures around their beds, feeling electric currents coursing through their bodies, or levitating. The phenomenon probably explains the witch crazes of the 16th and 17th centuries, ghost sightings and other paranormal events, says Harvard psychology professor Richard McNally.

“Today, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it’s interpreted as abduction by space aliens.”

All 10 abductees in the study recounted reasonably consistent details of their experiences, but these were almost certainly culturally determined. “Their memories were of being subjected to sexual and medical probing on spaceships. I certainly think we can say the X-Files probably helped with all that.”

Extraterrestrial Culture Day

The good folk in Roswell, New Mexico, who would no doubt dismiss the above item, can now celebrate every second Tuesday in February as “Extraterrestrial Culture Day”, after a local lawmaker’s proposal won House approval (Dominion Post, 25 March). Some scoffed at the idea, but memorial sponsor Republican Dan Foley said life on other planets — if you believe in it — surely has its own set of cultural beliefs. He claims aliens have contributed to recognition of New Mexico, and he wants a copy sent into space as a token of peace.

Calling All Spoon-benders

Mind readers, telepaths and anyone who attracts ghosts have been invited to participate in a new course at Griffith University in Australia (Dominion Post, February 21). Senior lecturer Martin Bridgstock says the subject, Scepticism, Science and the Paranormal, will give students the opportunity to study areas of science made famous by television shows such as The X-Files and The Twilight Zone.

Dr Bridgstock said he decided on the subject because he was impressed by the large number of people he encountered who believed in the paranormal. Opinion polls showed a majority of the population believed in psychic healing, while substantial minorities believed in astrology, mind-reading, UFOs and ghosts.

He said he would welcome anyone who approached the university claiming paranormal powers. “I would get the class together and I would invite this person to say exactly what he or she thinks they can do. Then we would try to devise an experiment which would enable that person to show if in fact they could do it under tightly controlled conditions.”

A Classic Updated

The Psychology of the Psychic, 2nd edition, by David Marks. Prometheus Books.

When David Marks and Richard Kammann published the first edition of this book in 1980, it rapidly became a standard source for all interested in psychic phenomena. It combined a thorough critical appraisal of paranormal claims with a study of the mind of the typical “believer”. Especially, it offered a comprehensive exposé of Uri Geller, based on close observation on many occasions. The authors were at that time in the psychology department of the University of Otago. Later, after the untimely death of Kammann, Marks was instrumental in launching New Zealand Skeptics, for which achievement he is our first, and so far only, Honorary Member.

Over a professional career spanning three decades Marks has contributed widely both to academic psychology and to practical topics such as the giving up of smoking. This is in addition to his long-time work on the paranormal, the subject of this book. Where many others who should have known better were persuaded, his persistence and patience exposed the emptiness of many claims. Now professor at the City University, London, he has revised and brought the book up to date. He writes persuasively of the “tingles” and “tangles” of parapsychology – “tingles” are those feelings we get when something apparently paranormal suddenly confronts us, “tangles” are what parapsychologists get into when they try to study these phenomena in the controlled conditions of the laboratory.

Six chapters, five mostly unchanged from the first edition, deal exhaustively with Uri Geller. The sixth traces the ups and downs of his reputation since then. Two decades have done nothing to change the author’s opinion that Geller has no psychic power, but is an accomplished conjuror and showman. He wonders whether, some day, Geller may make a public admission of this, so lifting from his shoulders the albatross of “The Great Psychic Lie”.

Two chapters on remote viewing are reprinted from edition one, followed by three covering subsequent research in this area, including the “psychic spying” attempted during Cold War days. Again, conclusions are as before. A related topic, the Ganzfeld, has been held up for years as the best, and most convincing evidence, for ESP. Thorough investigations by Marks and others has “left this claim…in tatters”.

Chapters on “Psychic Staring” and “Psychic Pets” consider some of the ideas of Rupert Sheldrake, “this latter-day Dr Who”. Marks finds no validity in either.

So far, this accounts for two-thirds of the book, what so many believe about the paranormal, and why they shouldn’t. The rest attempts to answer the questions, why they believe, and why they are so resistant to acceptance of contrary evidence. The author looks at coincidences and oddmatches, self-perpetuating beliefs and superstition.

Like many who have spent years looking for well-authenticated paranormal events, Marks has changed during the time of his researches; starting as “part believer”, progressing through “skeptic” to “disbeliever”, but always “keeping the door open” for what might make him change his mind.

As well as two appendices and an index, the book has an extensive bibliography. Every skeptic should have a copy, and press non-skeptical friends to read it.


More Brocken sightings

I enjoyed Jim Ring’s “the Spectre of Kahurangi” (Autumn 2001). In Kahurangi National Park there is a bridge called “Brocken Bridge”, quite close to Ghost Creek. Could this be an indication of supernatural forces emanating from this enchanting region?

As a NZFS park ranger there for two years, I discovered a more prosaic explanation, at least for the bridge. It seems that someone stampeded a herd of cattle on to the old bridge during a flood, and the cattle – and bridge – were lost in the floodwaters. The name then became “Broken Bridge”. We Forest Service staff were not renowned for our literary skills, and various track junctions started sprouting signs saying “Brocken Bridge”.

Rather disappointing, really.

Piers Maclaren

Homoeopathy test?

As a result of an accident on State Highway One recently a quantity of rat poison was tipped into the sea near Kaikoura. At first sight this seemed to me to be Mother Nature setting up a large-scale test of homoeopathy. My reasoning was as follows: we have a poison diluted with an enormous volume of water (tides are strong and the sea very deep off the Kaikoura coast), and we have succussion (see the surf breaking over the rocks). The rat poison, brodifacoum, like the better known warfarin, is an anti-coagulant, causing death by extensive bleeding. So, by homoeopathic principles, a very high dilution should have the opposite effect, causing strokes and heart failure among the seals, dolphins and whales, brought on by clottability of their blood.

I could see that measuring this effect could be difficult, but I persisted with my calculations. Sadly, I abandoned the project, chiefly because the concentration of rat poison in the sea turned out to be far too high. The amount of material dumped in the sea, 18 tonnes, was quite large, and even allowing for only a low proportion of active ingredient in the bait, and assuming it to have been instantly and uniformly dispersed in deep water of some thousands of square kilometres in area, the final concentration was in the order of one molecule of poison in ten litres of sea. This is, of course, far too high for homoeopathic work, where concentrations of one molecule in a volume equal to that of the Earth are normal. Regretfully, I shall not be issuing an invitation to marine mammals to volunteer for a study of the after-effects of this accident.

Bernard Howard

Sensitive Issues

In the last issue of the Skeptic (Autumn 2001), I quoted the reaction of the Commissioner for Children, Roger McClay, to the news of Liam Williams-Holloways death:

“Whether a different course of action would have been better, there’s not much point in worrying about it now.”

That response troubled me as it seemed so out of character, so I rang the office and asked Mr McClay about it. It seems that news of Liam’s death was sprung on Mr McClay while he was at a conference and he was asked to comment on the spot. The news upset him but he didn’t think it appropriate to take the family to task at that time, and this was the result.

The question now is, having had time to think about the implications of the whole saga, what will the office’s/commissioner’s response be next time? We’ll get a chance to find out at this year’s conference when an advocate from the Office will be speaking, so come to Hamilton with your own questions!

Vicki Hyde

Rebirth of Quackery

G B Shaw once said that the only difference between animals and humans was that humans like taking pills. It’s clear things haven’t changed since his time when you visit a library and see the number of books on how to be healthy.

Many quack medicine producers have made their money here out of our gullibles and have moved on. Bowel cleansers, hair restorers, nail hardeners, bust developers and fat loss treatments to name a few.

As one example, Black strap molasses’s only virtue was that due to insoluble matter it acted as a bowel irritant with laxative results. Now if you have a lot of molasses left over from sugar refining, use it to make rum or stock lick and get rid of the rest as a good health supplement.

When deer lose their antlers in the wild they recycle them, but when farmed the antler is a dangerous weapon so they are removed at the velvet stage. Now because the Chinese have used them for medicine for thousands of years there is money to be made out of this by-product.

Bee keepers and retired politicians are extolling the benefits of pollen, bee venom and propolis. Their claims for vitamin, mineral and amino acid content are way over the top. All the bee venom rubs which claim to be the panacea of all our skeletal and muscular remedies have added counter irritants which give the impression that this wonder of bee venom is being absorbed, which fortunately it is not. Finally, we come to propolis, bee glue, a dark brown resinous substance collected by the bee from trees. This phenolic resin is used to seal the hive and retain warmth, the antispetic properties of the resin will have some effect in keeping the bacterial integrity of the hive intact.

These are but a few of the nonsense claims to which we could add, electrical devices, magnets, emu oil, homeopathics and a plethora of herbals. If proof of efficacy could be established then such items would be added to the orthodox medicinal armoury. Meanwhile remember “ashes to ashes and dust to dust, if the liquor don’t get you the free radicals must”.

Alan Pickmere, retired pharmacist

Belief in the Paranormal on the Increase among Americans

The Gallup Organization released the results of its new poll on paranormal beliefs in June, which indicate increases in the percentage of Americans who believe in communication with the dead, ESP, ghosts, psychic healing and extraterrestrial visitation (see

“This latest Gallup Poll is disturbing”, says Paul Kurtz, chairman of The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), “because it shows an increase in superstition in the US – particularly in regard to communicating with the dead, haunted houses, ghosts, and psychic healing.”

According to the study, the most notable increases between 1990 and 2001 are beliefs in psychic or spiritual healing (up eight per cent to 54 percent); haunted houses (up 13 per cent to 42 per cent); communication with the dead (up 10 per cent to 28 per cent); and witches (up 12 per cent to 26 per cent).

Kurtz blames the media for increased credulity. “These results may be traced directly to the mass media, especially sensationalized TV shows, films, and the tabloid press and publishers. It’s regrettable that Americans show lower scores in scientific literacy among their young people in comparison with other democratic societies. The poll also points to the urgent need, we submit, for teaching critical thinking in schools and colleges. That should have a high national priority.” The National Science Board’s 2000 Science & Engineering Indicators survey found an abysmally low understanding of the scientific method and general science knowledge among Americans (see

CSICOP Senior Research Fellow Joe Nickell feels that the poll asks the wrong questions. “The poll asks people whether they believe in a phenomenon, which amounts to asking them whether they want to believe. They’re polling the heart, not the head. If respondents had also been asked whether they have experienced these phenomena themselves, or whether they thought there was good scientific evidence supporting these beliefs, I suspect those scores would have been much lower.”

CSICOP Press Release

The Spectre of Kahurangi

Goethe’s Faust is a tale of the supernatural. According to a famous passage, on Walpurgisnacht a witch’s sabbat was celebrated on top of the Brocken, a mountain in the Black Forest. Old maps show this point circled by witches on broomsticks. Although probably not a very ancient tradition, it grabbed the imagination of 19th century romantics. They claimed at certain times magical visions could be seen from the peak. Even though no witches were visible on the mountain, gigantic shadowy figures were projected onto the clouds; the Spectre of the Brocken.

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica “this phenomenon is often observed on mountain peaks” but even the non-supernatural explanations seem unbelievable. According to the Britannica “When the sun is low, shadows cast by the sun become magnified and seemingly gigantic silhouettes are cast on the upper surfaces of low-lying clouds or fog below the mountain.”

A later entry is contradictory: “The apparent magnification of size is an optical illusion that occurs when the observer judges his shadow on nearby clouds to be the same distance as faraway objects seen through gaps in the clouds.”

So is the magnification real or an illusion? As the sun’s rays are practically parallel, any shadow cast by the sun remains the same size as the object. Thus a shadow at even a modest distance from the observer can only seem small. In justification Britannica mentions the common sight of an aeroplane’s shadow cast on clouds beneath, but a jumbo jet casts a decent sized shadow, a human sized shadow would be insignificant.

In spite of many literary references (De Quincey for example) first-hand accounts of “the Spectre” by first-rate observers seem non-existent. (Does any reader know of any?). But some accounts state that the figures seem frightened of the observer and rush away as soon as they are seen.

The whole thing seems ridiculous, or so I thought until I saw the phenomenon myself in New Zealand. In fact I have observed this effect twice-which considering the time I have spent in the mountains, implies it is a relatively rare event.

The first occasion was when climbing a ridge above the Wangapeka River in what is now Kahurangi National Park. The sun rose over another ridge behind us and gigantic shadow figures appeared on the hillside across the valley. Before I had fully grasped what was happening they had shrunk down to normal size, where they were just visible. At least that explained the accounts of figures “rushing away”, they simply got smaller, and very rapidly too.

The explanation was quite obvious to anybody with some knowledge of optics; light is refracted when passing over an edge. The first gleam of sunlight over the ridge was bent into a widening beam that produced a huge shadow as effectively as a point of light projects an enlarged shadow onto a screen. The bush-clad hillside opposite us acted as a screen on which we could see the projection. But as the sun rose, the refraction diminished until enough of the sun was visible to produce the normal parallel rays with which we are familiar. So the initial large shadow quickly shrank to normal size.

Was this illusion awe-inspiring? Was it even an illusion? Were we frightened? Was it immediately obvious that we were observing our own shadows not supernatural entities? Well no, no, no, and yes. My wife, the complete skeptic, summed up, “Why make a fuss about shrinking shadows?”

I am confident that I can explain the reports of run-away shadows in mountain regions. The conditions necessary for observing this phenomenon seem to be that the sun must rise over a not too distant sharp edge, the air should be still and very clear. The observers be on a minor peak or ridge, and the projection be onto a fairly plain surface.

Does this explain the “Spectre of the Brocken” better than the Encyclopaedia? Well to be honest, no. The Brocken is the highest mountain around. So how could the sun rise over a sharp edge unless other peaks are very close? I doubt that clouds can ever have sufficiently sharp edges to produce the effect.

Perhaps the Spectre of the Brocken is as real as the reports there of witches, while its magical reputation has seen it acquire stories of phenomenon that are real in other mountainous areas.

What Are We To Make of Exceptional Experience?

The following is an abridged version of a paper presented at Skeptics 2000, Dunedin, New Zealand. The author would like to thank NZCSICOP and NZARH for sponsoring this visit to New Zealand.

In this paper I discuss some major categories of “exceptional” or anomalous experiences and how to interpret them. I am particularly interested in the kinds of experiences studied by parapsychologists (ie ESP, PK, and precognition). An important assumption is that the description of an exceptional experience needs to be kept separate from any of its possible interpretations. The brain/mind is structured in such a way that exceptional experiences and their interpretations easily become conflated.

Interpretations of exceptional experience take principally one of two forms: normal or “N” theory accounts (NIEs) or a paranormal or “P” theory accounts (PIEs). Analysis of lay accounts of exceptional experience suggests an acceptance of and belief in paranormal claims ahead of the evidence that is necessary to warrant these claims.

Evidence supporting PIEs appears to be conflicting, inconsistent and, in other respects, seriously wanting. I argue that PIEs often result from eight special circumstances that pass unnoticed by the original investigators or PIE claimants. These are methodological flaws, sensory cues, imperfect randomisation, selection of best cases, subjective validation, inappropriate statistics, and outright deception, trickery or fraud.

The issue will be illustrated with seven specific examples.

1. Remote viewing ability

(1A) SRI series

This series of experiments on a form of ESP called remote viewing ran from 1972 to 1985 under the direction of Dr Harold Puthoff and Russell Targ at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and created a huge international interest in the paranormal. Unfortunately, the studies were very badly flawed.

Science separates itself from pseudo-science along a number of dimensions. One of these is accessibility of the data. Following publication of interesting and significant observations it is an accepted scientific practice for researchers to allow colleagues who are doing serious research in the same field to have access to their original data. When researchers consistently refuse to allow colleagues such access, something important is being signalled. Of course data may get lost or destroyed or be difficult or costly to retrieve in the form required. Or they may be classified information or have commercial value that a scientist may wish to exploit prior to their general release.

However, when none of these considerations is applicable, refusal to supply a copy of a data-set leads to the unpleasant inference that something is wrong, that the data do not support what is claimed for them, that the data are an embarrassment following an extravagant claim that cannot be substantiated.

During the 1970s I made frequent requests to Puthoff and Targ for copies of their remote viewing transcripts. Targ and Puthoff consistently refused to supply this information, as they did to others I know who have made this request. Their only concession was to supply me with a single transcript from the Price series (Experiment 7) published in Mind-Reach.

Following publication of The Psychology of the Psychic, I conducted a “remote judging” exercise with the Hammid series of remote viewing experiments. The three remote judges had access only to the cues provided in the Hammid transcripts together with the target lists and the map provided to the SRI judge. No site visits were possible and none of the descriptive material from the SRI transcripts was available. A total of 24 cues was found in six Hammid transcripts.

The claim that the Hammid target list given to Arthur Hastings was randomised is also doubtful. It actually depends on which list one is talking about, because, although the SRI researchers were unwilling to admit this, no less than three listings of targets in the Hammid series were given to the judge. “I received three target lists” (letter from Hastings, May 26, 1977). One of these lists was randomised; this is the one cited by Puthoff as the (implying only) target list given to the judge. The other two lists provided by SRI (described in detail by Hastings in his letter to me of May 26, 1977) were not random.

Contrary to Targ and Puthoff’s claims, the quality of the subjects’ descriptions is extremely poor and, without the cues, cannot be matched against the targets. Had cue-less matching been possible, T and P would not have needed to leave these obvious clues in the transcripts in the first place.

Tart, Puthoff and Targ (1980) claimed to have conducted a re-judging of the Price series with all of the cues removed from the transcripts. After asking Puthoff for a set of the edited transcripts on multiple occasions over three years, they were eventually sent to a colleague Dr Chris Scott. On inspecting these supposedly “edited” transcripts, it was readily apparent that many obvious cues were still present (Marks & Scott, 1986). The little remaining credibility for Targ and Puthoff had now been absolutely and irrevocably destroyed.

(1B) SAIC or Star Gate series.

This series of remote viewing studies ran from 1985 until 1995 and was directed by Dr Edwin May. The Star Gate RV series consisted of three projects:

  1. “Operations” using remote viewers stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, to collect intelligence;
  2. “Research and Development”, the laboratory research conducted at SRI and later at SAIC;
  3. “Foreign Assessment” focused on gathering intelligence on what potential enemies were doing in the area of parapsychology.

Much of the information about Operations and Foreign Assessment remains classified although many ex-military remote viewers have established private businesses that offer remote viewing services. They are responsible for a lot of hype in the media, in their books and on their WebPages.

The CIA carried out a review of the SAIC program in 1995 which was aimed at determining: (a) whether Star Gate had any long-term practical value for the intelligence community, and (b) if it did, what changes should be made to enhance the value of remote viewing research. The review reached the following conclusions:

  1. “A statistically significant effect has been observed in the recent laboratory experiments of remote viewing. However, the existence of a statistically significant effect did not lead both reviewers to the conclusion that this research program has provided an unequivocal demonstration that remote viewing exists. A statistically significant effect might result either from the existence of the phenomenon, or, alternatively, to methodological artefacts or other alternative explanations for the observed effects.”

  2. “The experimental research conducted as part of the current program does not unambiguously support the interpretation of the results in terms of a paranormal phenomenon.”

The principal reason for this conclusion is that only one judge, who happened to be the Principal Investigator, was used in assessing matches throughout these experimental studies. The CIA report concluded:

“As a consequence, there is no evidence for agreement across independent judges as to the accuracy of the remote viewings. Failure to provide evidence that independent judges arrive at similar conclusions makes it difficult to unambiguously determine whether the observed effects can be attributed to the remote viewers’ (paranormal) ability, to the ability of the judge to interpret ambiguous information, or to the combination or interaction of the viewers and the judge. Furthermore, given the Principal Investigator’s familiarity with the viewers, the target set, and the experimental procedures, it is possible that subtle, unintentional factors may have influenced the results obtained in these studies.”

2. Ganzfeld ESP ability

This field is a core part of the parapsychology literature and has been intensively researched in at least ten different laboratories in the USA and Europe for about the same length of time as remote viewing. The ganzfeld research has gained an almost symbolic importance for the parapsychology field as the best case for the existence of psi. The results obtained in the ganzfeld allegedly appeared in multiple studies by different investigators with subjects who were not especially selected or gifted as psychics. It is the main focus for discussions of parapsychology in a leading psychology journal (Psychological Bulletin) and it has increasingly been viewed as a genuine and uncontroversial finding. Until now, that is.

Ganzfeld experiments involve two participants, a sender and a receiver, located in separate rooms. The receiver is in a ganzfeld that is usually created by wearing translucent Ping-Pong ball halves taped over the eyes and a red floodlight directed towards the eyes, producing an undifferentiated visual field. White noise is played through headphones. To reduce internal “noise” in the form of somatic sensations, the receiver may be taken through a series of progressive relaxation exercises. The term “ganzfeld”, a German word meaning “total field”, refers to the mild sensory habituation created by the environment described.

The sender is shown a target picture or video clip that has been randomly selected from a large pool of possible targets. The sender is asked to try to send the information about the picture or video to the receiver by psychic means (telepathy). The receiver is asked to receive this information and to report any images, thoughts or feelings that occur during the trial. The receiver is then given a randomly ordered set of four stimuli, the target plus three decoys. If the receiver chooses the correct target it is recorded as a hit. The mean chance expectation (MCE) is 25 percent: a statistically significant deviation above MCE is suggestive of an anomalous effect consistent with psi.

The ganzfeld research is unique in parapsychology for the way in which believers and sceptics have worked together to agree a protocol for properly controlled investigation (Hyman & Honorton, 1986). This resulted from the leadership of two principal figures, the late Charles Honorton and Ray Hyman. One of the progressive outcomes of Hyman and Honorton’s joint communiqué was a set of guidelines concerning methodology. Hopefully these guidelines for ganzfeld research were implemented and the quality of studies improved as a consequence.

Not only should the methodology have improved beyond the earlier studies, which were heavily flawed (Hyman, 1985), but the results should not be dependent on a small band of investigators: when a small number of well-insulated people and organisations are responsible for a program, the research can go badly off the rails.

Milton and Wiseman (1999) systematically reviewed the ganzfeld literature since the Hyman/Honorton joint communiqué, 1987 to February 1997. They found 30 studies in 14 papers by 10 principal authors from seven laboratories; the database included 1,198 ganzfeld trials. They calculated a probability score across all 30 studies of only .24, meaning that the ganzfeld effect was so small it did not differ statistically from chance. Milton and Wiseman’s study, published in the prestigious Psychological Bulletin, has already created a few waves in the parapsychology pond.

Startling Results

As if this result was not damaging enough, the investigators went on to critically examine three of five other claims made by Bem and Honorton (1994) and to determine their methodological rigour. What they found is even more startling. The new ganzfeld studies, 1987-97, examined three out of five variables that Bem and Honorton had suggested were statistically related to high psi scoring rates in the autoganzfeld studies. These three variables were:

  1. Trials with dynamic targets (videos) had been more successful than trials with static targets.
  2. Novices who reported prior psi experiences in everyday life scored more highly than those who did not.
  3. Novices who reported studying a mental discipline such as meditation or yoga scored more highly than people who did not.

Milton and Wiseman’s analysis found only one of these variables to be significant of the new studies (number 2). However when they looked into the original studies examined by Bem and Honorton (1994) they discovered that there appeared to be no good evidence to support this in the first place. The two papers in which this ‘novices with mental training’ effect was allegedly found contained one non-significant effect (Honorton & Schecter, 1986) and one reversed effect (Honorton, 1997). The same problem appeared in respect of another of Bem and Honorton’s “discoveries” about psi, that high scoring novices were also high on Feeling and Perception on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (Briggs & Myers, 1957). This was another “discovery” that appeared in the first study and then disappeared in the second.

Milton (1999) extended the meta-analysis to included nine further well-controlled ganzfeld studies run between February 1997 to March 1999. This longer series of 39 studies managed to reach significance (p= .011) but, when a single highly significant study by Dalton (1997) was excluded, the Stouffer z score was only 1.45 and p=.074 (not significant). Thus, there is no evidence of a consistently replicable ganzfeld effect across a 12-year period of well-controlled ganzfeld research. One or two strikingly significant studies appear now and then but this does not constitute replication. The occurrence of one highly significant study in a general run of non-significant studies in fact sets alarm bells ringing. Dalton’s (1997) study with an effect size that is significantly higher than the general run suggests the need for an in-depth investigation of Dalton’s protocols.

In addition to the non-significant meta-analyses, criticisms of studies included by Bem and Honorton have also arisen. These are:

  • Inadequate randomisation of targets and judging sets (Hyman, 1994)
  • Possible sensory leakage of target information (Wiseman et al, 1996)
  • Lack of replication (Milton & Wiseman, 1999)

3. Ability to detect unseen staring

Rupert Sheldrake (1994) proposed An Alice Through the Looking Glass vision of things that might be so but probably are not. He advocates the collective participation of non-scientists who have the “freedom to explore new areas of research”, and promotes a radically new theory of perception. We do not see images of things inside our brains, he maintains, the images may be outside us: “Vision may involve a two-way process, an inward movement of light and an outward projection of mental images.”

This process of outward projection has some interesting implications. If our minds reach out and “touch” things, then we may affect what we look at. For example, when we stare at somebody from behind s/he may be able to feel that we are staring on the back of his/her neck. Titchener (1898) described the feeling as “a state of unpleasant tingling, which gathers in volume and intensity until a movement which shall relieve it becomes inevitable” (p. 895). Colwell, Schroeder and Sladen (2000) have recently reviewed the literature on psychic staring and carried out some empirical tests.

The idea that “unseen” staring can be detected has been supported in the following research with incidence rates as high as 68-86% (Coover, 1913), 74% (Williams, 1983) and 92% (Braud, Shafer & Andrews, 1993). Titchener rejected the idea that the staring effect was based on telepathy and suggested the hypothesis that the eye is attracted to movement and the starer’s gaze is therefore attracted to the staree’s head turning in his direction.

Sheldrake (1994) has conducted new experiments on the staring phenomenon and encouraged school children and other members of the public to participate in his research program. Experimental kits can be downloaded from the New Scientist Web Site including an interesting list of 24 “random” sequences for use in experimental trials. Sheldrake suggests that each child in a group is tested with a different sequence or use sequences determined by tosses of a coin. The results are being compiled by Sheldrake into a pooled data set.

A colleague, John Colwell, decided to put the Sheldrake findings to rigorous test under controlled laboratory conditions (Colwell et al, 2000). On the basis of Sheldrake’s observations, it was decided to investigate the staring effect both with and without feedback. Colwell’s team carried out two experiments. The results of the first experiment suggested that the subjects in the staring research are able to score above chance as a consequence of being able to learn the non-random patterns in the sequences using the feedback. The tendency of the participants to show negative recency by avoiding multiple repetitions was well matched by Sheldrake’s sequences that showed exactly the same property. The fact that starees can guess when staring is occurring at above chance levels therefore demonstrates nothing other than an ability to notice patterns. This is a low-level ability that even a mouse could manage.

John Colwell and his team repeated the experiment using 10 properly randomised sequences taken from random number tables instead of Sheldrake’s non-random sets. The results support the hypothesis that the improvement in accuracy during staring episodes observed in Experiment One was due to pattern learning. When no feedback was provided and pattern learning was blocked, no ability to detect staring was observed and also no learning.

4. Pets’ ESP ability

Are animals psychic? Since time immemorial human beings have attributed supernatural powers to animals. The latest example of a long tradition of paranormal claims on behalf of our animal friends is the “psychic pet”. For example, a pet dog is claimed to be able to use psychic powers to detect when its owner is returning home. This has been the subject of Sheldrake’s (1999) Dogs that Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home. Sheldrake believes that a dog called Jaytee uses its “sixth sense” of telepathy to determine its owner Pamela Smart’s decision to return home.

According to Sheldrake, many pet owners claim the ability in their pets to know when a member of the household is about to come home. The dog goes and waits for the owner at a door or window, in a driveway, or even at a bus stop.

Sheldrake claims that on 100 different occasions between May 1994 and February 1995 when Pamela left Jaytee with her parents and went out, 85 times Jaytee reacted by going to the French window before Pamela returned, usually at least 10 minutes in advance of Pamela’s decision to set off for home. The anticipatory behaviour occurred regardless of distance or vehicle used. However, as Sheldrake acknowledges, the “anticipatory signalling” behaviour of Jaytee could have been cued by the expectations of Pam’s parents William and Muriel Smart as they consciously or unconsciously cued the dog that Pam would be home soon. It was necessary to conduct trials in which Pam set off for home at randomly selected times that were unknown to William and Muriel.

The story took an interesting twist in 1995 when Rupert Sheldrake (RS) invited Richard Wiseman to investigate Jaytee (Wiseman, Smith and Milton, 1998). Richard Wiseman’s team proposed eight normal explanations for the “psychic pet” phenomenon that controlled studies would need to take into account, including response to routine, sensory cueing, and selective memory.

Wiseman conducted four studies with the full co-operation of Pamela Smart and Sheldrake, based on the above safeguards and precautions. In none of these studies did Jaytee detect accurately when PS set off to return home. If this pet dog had any psychic ability at all, it did not appear in this study.

Rupert Sheldrake (1999) reports a series of observations carried out in a pre-planned series of 12 “experiments” in which Jaytee’s behaviour was recorded throughout Pam’s absences on time-recorded videotape. In these trials Pam came home at randomly selected times that were not known to her in advance. A third party (usually Sheldrake) selected the return time and bleeped Pam on a pager.

The resulting observations were analysed in two ways. First, by plotting the percentage of time that JT spent by the window for three periods:

  1. 1. The first ten minutes following the bleep: 55%
  2. The 10-minute period prior to PS’s return: 23%
  3. The main period when PS was absent prior to the pre-return period that varied between 110 and 150 minutes: 4%.

It would be a common sense interpretation of Sheldrake’s data to assume that JT could learn the timing of PS’s returns. This is exactly what happens. The results of Sheldrake’s tests are therefore not convincing. Why Sheldrake chose to use a pre-arranged bleep period that started between 80 and 170 minutes after PS had left is unclear. This restricted range for the bleep means that the return is more predictable. John Colwell estimated the return periods following the bleep by examining Sheldrake’s plots of the data. He found that PS always returned within a period of 110-200 minutes following her departure, 10 of the returns (83%) occurring during a 40-minute period between 120 and 160 minutes after departure. This means that JT may have learned when PS could be expected home and signalled accordingly. This hypothesis assumes no psychic powers, only the power of memory. The procedures used by Wiseman had allowed the return to occur at any time following PS’s departure. This procedure stopped JT from learning a simple routine based on timing similar to the situation that pertained when PS had followed a daily routine of reliable departures and returns.

5. Uri Geller’s ESP ability

In turning to claims 5-7 by self-proclaimed psychic Uri Geller, the fact that his claims are unproven is so well known among parapsychologists that we do not need to dwell on them for very long. However they need to be discussed because Geller is still actively involved as a paranormalist and many lay people appear to believe that his claims are genuine. There is only one peer-reviewed article on his ESP abilities; this is the same paper that reported the remote viewing studies carried out at the Stanford Research Institute by Russell Targ and Harold Puthoff (1974).

Like the remote viewing studies, Targ and Puthoff’s studies with Geller were very badly flawed. As in the case of remote viewing, however, the flaws were not apparent until in-depth investigations could be carried out into the experimental conditions. Following visits to the SRI laboratory Dick Kammann and I were able to reveal that the investigators Targ and Puthoff had left Geller unobserved in a chamber which had a hole in the wall stuffed only with cotton wool. An intercom was also available for Geller to listen to the investigators as they chose the targets and produced the stimulus drawings. At least one of the drawings (a bunch of grapes) was placed on a wall in the adjoining room opposite the access hole.

There has never been a single replication of this study. Repeated attempts by the author and others to persuade Geller to participate in laboratory experiments have been rejected. Field observations of Geller’s performance have revealed his use of sensory cues available from signals sent by accomplices.

6. Uri Geller’s PK ability

Geller’s claim to be able to bend metal without touching it is well known. However in spite of his claims, there are no peer-reviewed reports of his alleged PK ability (metal bending, influencing objects at a distance). Field observation shows that Geller can only bend metal in his hands.

7. Uri Geller’s clairvoyant ability

A set of 10 trials of a clairvoyance experiment was carried at SRI using a dice in a locked box (Targ & Puthoff, 1974). This study was also seriously flawed because Geller had the time and opportunity to flip open the lid of the box and see the target information. Again there is a lack of replication and field observations of his alleged clairvoyance ability suggest the use of normal perceptual-motor abilities in the form of signals from an accomplice and other means.

The genesis of P Theory

In the seven examples of Exceptional Experience discussed above, a NIE has proved to be a perfectly adequate explanation making any form of PIE redundant or superfluous. This rather pessimistic conclusion about the validity of PIEs is not purely a negative exercise however. Psychological and statistical studies of Exceptional Experience have yielded an interesting account of how the everyday operation of the processes of attention, perception and decision making promote PIE-thinking even when the alternative and more rational NIE-thinking can do perfectly well with the same experiential data. These analyses have revealed processes that make the genesis and high prevalence of PIEs understandable from a psychological viewpoint.

Subjective validation.

This is a powerful effect of belief and selective attention. Subjective validation occurs when support for one’s beliefs is found in a piece of evidence independently of any objective support. This process is also known under the term, “confirmation bias”.

Coincidences as “odd matches”.

There is a compelling and widespread tendency to believe that coincidences cannot occur purely by chance. An “odd match” is an association between two events that appears to lack a causal explanation. In The Psychology of the Psychic (1st ed.) Kammann and I referred to the belief that such odd matches cannot arise by chance as Koestler’s Fallacy after the most famous of its proponents. In fact, odd matches can and do occur by chance. “One-in-a-million” odd matches occur with a probability of precisely one in a million. The problem is that you and I are unaware of the million-minus-one combinations that do not strike us as vivid odd matches.

Assume that at the end of an ordinary day a person can recall 100 distinct events. This gives 4950 pairs of events. In 10 years and 1000 people we have 18 billion pairs of events. This generates 18,000 “one-in-a-million” events, some of which will be very striking.

The numbers of “one-in-a-million” experiences over the entire human population become impressively large. From the statistical viewpoint, that these experiences happen is inevitable. From a psychological viewpoint, it is equally as inevitable that the individuals concerned will have difficulty dealing with the experience without a fatalistic or paranormal interpretation. If a few exceptional experiences inspire their authors to write about them in their full paranormal regalia (e.g. Koestler, 1972) we have discovered the genesis of parapsychology itself. The reason parapsychologists continue to work in their chosen field is not the often disappointing results they obtain from their formal studies but their compelling personal experiences that have a PIE attached.

References available on request from the editor


I hate to spoil a good story, especially a skeptical one, but is there something slightly adrift with William Ireland’s piece on the Kaikoura UFOs?

He says the camera was looking down at an angle of perhaps 38 degrees, but does not use the figure to explain anything. However, looking down at that angle, at an object 6 km away, implies a height of 4.7 km, or 3.7 km if the distance is measured along the line of sight. But I thought an Argosy typically flew at about 6000 or 8000 feet, or 1.8 – 2.4 km.

The 6 km is given as a minimum, so the discrepancy could be worse than this: if the distance comes from the aircraft radar it should be reasonably reliable, so does this mean the angle is wrong, or my figure for a low-tech aircraft cruising height, or what?

Kerry Wood