According to The Hollywood Reporter, SyFy has picked up three new "reality tv" shows, of which two are squarely in the paranormal vein.
The first, Haunted Collector (that's the working title) features a "family of renowed paranormal investigators" (their phrase) that picks up items that are spooked, and keeps them in its museum. Apparently a lot of things fall into this category. Here's a list from Haunted America Tours. One item on it is the mirror at The Myrtles Plantation in St. Francisville, Louisiana. Now, I must say that I have looked into this very mirror a couple of times, and I have even photographed it, and I have seen nothing paranormal of any kind, nor have the people who have been with me. Maybe we were just giving off bad vibrations. Or ghosts don't like lawyers. Since we seem to travel in packs, there were more than a few lawyers hovering. According to the 'net, the noun of venery for lawyers is "huddle." I don't like that--we need something more poetic. Maybe a claim of lawyers. Or a brief. Yes, I like that one better. In any case, one can never prove a negative, so if I haven't seen the ghosts at The Myrtles, I cannot demonstrate that they aren't there. However...
The second is Paranormal Witness, which will present first hand accounts from people who believe they've experienced hauntings or encounters with spirits. But this show will combine "first-hand testimony and gritty drama." I'm not sure I follow the concept: is Paranormal Witness a "reality" show or isn't it? That is, is it "scripted" or not? (and I use the term "scripted" extremely loosely. But still). Is the drama supposed to be a re-enactment of the testimony, à la America's Most Wanted? (America's Most Wanted scary dead people?)
The third show doesn't seem to have that paranormal-ishness to it, but it still has links with the occult. It's Legend Quest, and features "follows real-life symbologist Ashley Cowie as he travels the world in search of hidden, mystical artifacts." I have no idea what symbology is. Does Mr. Cowie perhaps mean he is a "semiotician?" Semiotics is the study of symbols in various environments (including not incidentally law, magic, and many other disciplines).
Linguistic and Cultural Semiotics is a branch of communication theory that investigates sign systems and the modes of representation that humans use to convey feelings, thoughts, ideas, and ideologies. Semiotic analysis is rarely considered a field of study in its own right, but is used in a broad range of disciplines, including art, literature, anthropology, sociology, and the mass media. Semiotic analysis looks for the cultural and psychological patterns that underlie language, art and other cultural expressions. Umberto Eco jokingly suggests that semiotics is a discipline for studying everything which can be used in order to lie." (1976, p7). Whether used as a tool for representing phenomena or for interpreting it, the value of semiotic analysis becomes most pronounced in highly mediated, postmodern environments where encounters with manufactured reality shift our grounding senses of normalcy.
More about semiotics here from the website of Martin Ryder, University of Denver. And here's a video introducing the subject.
Hot on the heels of the BMJ's verdict comes this story from the New York Times, describing the publication of a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that seems to support the idea of the existence of clairvoyance.
One of psychology’s most respected journals has agreed to publish a paper presenting what its author describes as strong evidence for extrasensory perception, the ability to sense future events....The paper describes nine unusual lab experiments performed over the past decade by its author, Daryl J. Bem, an emeritus professor at Cornell, testing the ability of college students to accurately sense random events, like whether a computer program will flash a photograph on the left or right side of its screen. The studies include more than 1,000 subjects.[link omitted]
Charles Judd, the outgoing editor of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which is a publication affiliated with the American Psychological Association, explained to the NYT that “Four reviewers made comments on the manuscript and these are very trusted people.” But one critic says that the standards reviewers use when critiquing articles that challenge accepted science ought to be different from those they use when they examine articles that are building on accepted scientific concepts. "Several top journals publish results only when these appear to support a hypothesis that is counterintuitive or attention-grabbing,” Eric-Jan Wagenmakers, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, wrote by e-mail. “But such a hypothesis probably constitutes an extraordinary claim, and it should undergo more scrutiny before it is allowed to enter the field.” Dr. Wagenmakers writes a response to Dr. Bem's study in the same issue of the Journal. Here's a link to a draft of the study; the text notes that it is "not the copy of record."
Putting aside questions about the validity of the study, what would happen if ESP were to be shown to be a certainable ability? Suppose we could demonstrate that certain individuals had it, and could harness it predictably? Would we enter the world of Philip K. Dick's "minority report"? What would be the implications for free will? For the law?
Currently, we do not arrest people for crimes they are going to or might commit, although in certain cases, prosecutors and legislators try to create situations in which people can be detained or jailed for prospective actions. Consider the situation of an individual who is pleasantly buzzed and sitting behind the wheel of a parked car. Should he be arrested for driving while intoxicated? No, because he's not driving. Can he be arrested for being drunk in public, for example, under California Penal Code section 647(f)? Possibly, even if he isn't completely under the influence, and the arresting officer may also be concerned that the individual might put the keys in the ignition and drive away under the influence, so the officer might arrest for public drunkeness to prevent the greater, potential harm.
Consider an even more interesting problem that has been in the headlines recently. Prosecutors have been attempting to commit sex offenders to a term of civil commitment after they have served their prison terms under the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 (18 U.S.C. § 4248). In U.S. v. Comstock, the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether such an extended term is constitutional and held that Congress had the power to allow extend such terms on the theory that Congress has the right, as guardian of federal prisoners, to extend their care as long as necessary until it (or its appointed caretakers) deem that they are no longer a danger to society. Thus, these particular offenders serve not simply their mandated criminal sentences, but additional civil terms, and these civil terms seem to be open-ended.
If some individuals (let's call them ESPers) had the ability (clairvoyance) to discern who was likely to commit a murder, or a rape, or a kidnapping, or a robbery, and alert the police (or more benignly) the victim in order to avoid those circumstances that would avoid the tragedy, then we might applaud those outcomes. But we would need a 100 percent success rate. And how would we measure that success rate? Life is not a scientific experiment. We have no way of detecting whether, all things being equal, things might have turned out differently without the ESPer's alerts. If we didn't have a 100 percent success rate, then we would run into all sorts of other problems, some of them legal. For example, suppose the standard operating procedure in a non-100 percent success rate environment for an ESPer is to alert the police that a murder will or might occur. Suppose the police, for whatever reason, don't act immediately to prevent the murder, and the ESPer becomes concerned and notifies the possible victim. The victim acts by killing the identified killer, not moments before the identified killer tries to kill the victim (that is, not in self-defense) but an hour before, or days before, because the victim is certain, based on the advice of the ESPer that the victim will be killed by the killer. Now we have a murder, all right, but the victim is the killer. Do we have self-defense, albeit days before? How far can we stretch the self-defense category? Should we stretch it at all in these circumstances? Does the fact that the police do nothing allow the victim to protect herself more than if they had done anything at all? Suppose the victim can show that the (now dead) killer was preparing an attack on her and that the ESPer was in fact correct about the vision of murder? Suppose the victim can show that the ESPer's visions are 95 percent accurate? What if they are only 50 percent accurate? Should testimony about ESPer accuracy be allowed at trial? What about testimony about reasonableness concerning the victim/defendant's reliance on ESPer accuracy?
I'll stop here, because I could go on and on. However, in terms of proof of the existence of ESP--we aren't there yet. We are not anywhere near there. We are in a world in which some people accept that the paranormal exists, some don't, and some wonder, and find the question very interesting. And the courts do not take judicial notice of ESP.
Early in 2011 the Centre for Inquiry Canada will begin its Extraordinary Claims Campaign (assuming it raises enough funds). The Centre will target such items as those listed on its "Extraordinary Claims" page (Bigfoot, Witches, UFOs, Aliens, Water Memory, and yes, mainstream religions). The campaign will include an ad campaign on Toronto buses--which will have to be approved by the proper authority. Coverage here from the Digital Journal and here from the Edmonton Sun. Last year, the Centre was one of the organizations sponsoring a "There's probably no God" campaign on municipal buses and local billboards. Those campaigns caused ruckuses (ruckusi?) everywhere they appeared, and some transit authorities and advertisers got skittish. Check the Atheist Bus website for updates on activites.
School of Law and School of Media, Arts and Design
Supervisors: Annette Hill, Guy Osborn, Stephanie Roberts
The psychic industry today is a multi million pound business; with a plethora of websites, chat lines and text services amongst other ways of consuming the paranormal. Within this, more than 170,000 consumers fall victim to clairvoyant scams every year, losing around £40 million in the process (OFT). The repeal of the Fraudulent Mediums Act 1951 in 2008 addresses the commercial ‘psychic revolution’ by the introduction of new Consumer Protection Regulations, and creates a number of issues and problems. Previously, mediums and psychic professionals had to use the disclaimer of ‘entertainment’ in connection with their services. The consumer of paranormal media can now choose from a wide range of international programming, with formats sold in the global market place, websites profiling ghost hunters, and digital photographs and videos capturing ‘evidence’ of ghosts. All of these examples utilize new trends in the entertainment industry, ranging from interactive elements, spin offs in the form of webisodes to mobile downloads. Similar to the 19th century, paranormal media is both a means to document, create and promote the paranormal. The key issues of illusion and reality, faith and evidence, frame the regulation and reception of paranormal media. High profile fakery scandals surrounding fraudulent mediums and psychic professionals are reported in the press and discussed by audiences of a range of paranormal media, and have been the subject of OFCOM commissioned research. It is timely that a critical study of paranormal media examines the existing and emergent regulatory framework for the paranormal industry in relation to the reception of paranormal media and psychic professionals. Consumer rights are paramount, especially concerning issues of fakery and the exploitation of individuals in scams or within the entertainment industry.
This project will critically examine the policy and regulatory environment for paranormal media and consumer protection within the psychic industry. The project will include empirical research in the reception of paranormal media and consumers of psychic services. The project will further assess and analyse divergent forms of regulatory practice, both legal and extra-legal. This research will be multi-method in its approach, using a combination of policy analysis, quantitative and qualitative audience research. The results will provide empirical evidence for policy recommendations, and will be relevant for the various relevant regulatory bodies and may impact upon future legislative developments.
NB: Annette Hill is the author of the new book Paranormal Media (Routledge, 2010). Guy Osborn writes a great deal in the area of law and popular culture.
From blogger Matt McClusker at Deliberations, a post on the settlement between the Psychic Readers Network and the Federal Trade Commission launches musings on whether consultants can really predict jury verdicts. Says Mr. McClusker in part:
In an end to an illustrious career, Miss Cleo and her Psychic Readers Network came to a landmark settlement with the Federal Trade Commission where the company sacrificed $500 million dollars in fees and paid a $5 million fine for deceptive business practices. This result brought three questions to my mind:
A $500 millionsettlement! How much money was Miss Cleo Making? How much did she “psychically predict” a jury would award?
This is just one example in a sea of settlements based on predictions of trial outcomes, I must ask: How accurate are these predictions?
If I wore a turban and spoke in Jamaican accent, could I be a successful psychic litigation consultant? (Seriously. I cannot get over that $500,000,000 figure for a psychic hotline.)
He wonders, if consultants don't work, what about bumper stickers? I wonder about mentalists.
Peter T. Leeson, George Mason University, Department of Economics, has published Gypsies. Here is the abstract.
Gypsies believe the lower half of the human body is invisibly polluted, that supernatural defilement is physically contagious, and that non-Gypsies are spiritually toxic. I argue that Gypsies use these beliefs, which on the surface regulate their invisible world, to regulate their visible one. They use superstition to create and enforce law and order. Gypsies do this in three ways. First, they make worldly crimes supernatural ones, leveraging fear of the latter to prevent the former. Second, they marshal the belief that spiritual pollution is contagious to incentivize collective punishment of antisocial behavior. Third, they recruit the belief that non-Gypsies are supernatural cesspools to augment such punishment. Gypsies use superstition to substitute for traditional institutions of law and order. Their bizarre belief system is an efficient institutional response to the constraints they face on their choice of mechanisms of social control.
The full text is not now available from SSRN.
For more on the Rom and Irish Travelers available via SSRN, see
According to CNN, about a dozen ghost hunters investigating the legend of a "ghost train" that crosses the Bostian Bridge (more here) near Statesville, North Carolina headed from Salisbury to Asheville August 27th, 1891 encountered a real freight train headed toward the town of Statesville in the early morning hours. Most of the group made it safely off the tracks but two did not. One of them, Christopher Kaiser, pushed a companion off the tracks before she was hit by the train, but he could not save himself. Mr. Kaiser died at the scene. The woman is recovering in a Charlotte hospital.
Law enforcement officials have interviewed the people involved, one police officer telling CNN that "Many fled because they were trespassing on railroad property." (I don't quite understand the comment. Wasn't an oncoming train enough? Or is it that they also left, or tried to leave, the area because they thought they would be cited for trespassing?)
Investigating paranormal phenomena, whether on private property or public areas, involves varying degrees of risk and may involve breaking some sort of law, as it did here. It can also involve risking one's life, as it did here, quite tragically. If the ghost hunters had been carrying on their investigation during the day, perhaps the train's engineer could have seen them and stopped earlier, although perhaps not. It may depend on the geography, and I'm not suggesting that the train's engineer, crew, or the railroad is at fault here. But these ghost hunters, apparently like many I read about, and like the ones on tv, were watching for ghosts at night. At night, some of our senses are heightened, but not all, and not our vision. We mistake many things at night. And we make many mistakes of judgment and perception at night. Sometimes, in the light of morning, the results are awful to behold.