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Brummie Black Shadow

I've been wondering about the ghost captured on film by a 12-year old boy in Birmingham last week. Reece Pitman, aged 12, said he heard whistling and saw a white shadow followed by black shadow of a man, apparently walking towards the banisters. Quick as a flash, he snapped the spook on his mobile. There aren't any other details, apart from Reece's sister complaining that someone had been finishing her jigsaws during the night (oo-er).

Thanks to Tony M, who spotted an attempt by sceptics to debunk it. They point to 'artifacts' that they think show the film was 'crudely hoaxed', and have a go at replicating it - first using a transparent sheet of plastic with a black figure glued to it, then simply hanging a black lace string in front of the camera. They admit it's 'far from perfect' but hope that it demonstrates the effects and ideas involved - 'a healthy and informative exercise and context to evaluate the evidence'.

Well yes, but their modesty is justified - the film's a mess. And it tells its own story: if those effects and ideas really had been involved, then shouldn't it have worked better? Apart from the amateurishness, as Tony points out, the sceptics make a big deal about the bright light in the boy's footage, but overlook the fact that at the very end of it, the dark figure approaches and then passes over the light, an effect that their version doesn't reproduce.

So of the two, it's their's that looks crudely hoaxed, and it made me go back and look with new interest at the original. It's not the white light that gets my attention so much as the black shadow passing from right to left. It does look rather spooky.

Guys, if you want to convince, you have to work at these things. I respect you for attempting a replication, but speaking as a conoisseur I don't think this is good debunking. If it was me, I'd be looking for some naturalistic explanation  - I don't know, off the top of my head, perhaps the shadow of a bird or an aircraft outside the window momentarily blotting out the sun. Something suitably plausible but vague is all that's needed to neutralise it. Trying for a close replication is great, but if you don't come up with one you just end up strengthening the paranormalist view.

Filmed evidence tends to get a lot of attention, I suppose because it's the closest one can get to tangible evidence. The implication is that if it's on film, it must be real. In fact it's the easiest thing to debunk, and it's the thing sceptics quickly zero in on.  Debunking books are full of pics of blurry shadows accompanied by detailed explanations of how they were probably faked, or what natural events they actually consisted of.

One of the most detailed constructions I'm aware of is James Randi's debunking of an AP photograph that purported to show a poltergeist in action, the case of Tina Resch in Columbus, Ohio in 1984 (in Kendrick Frazier, Science Confronts the Paranormal (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1986). In my view this is effective debunking, and it relies on words, not pictures. Randi didn't get into the house, didn't see anything, doesn't know the first thing about the context or background. Most of the paper is taken up with a retrospective analysis of how Resch might have - did - fake the scene immortalised in the photograph. Yet the illusion that he's got to the bottom of the whole affair is so successful, his paper is the star exhibit in the sceptics' case against poltergeists. Truly the work of a master.  

Susan Blackmore on Prayer

Caroline Petrie, a nurse in Weston-Super-Mare, has been suspended for offering to say a prayer for the recovery of an elderly care home resident. The patient complained to the health trust, and next thing, Petrie was being reprimanded by the trust manager, who said she would not work again until the 'incident' had been investigated. This happened before Christmas, and Petrie is to learn her fate next week.

Small minded bureacratese in public institutions is a fact of life, but I can't ever recall hearing anything quite so sad and nonsensical. Couldn't the patient just have just said, 'Sorry dear, I don't believe in any of that'. If you don't believe in God what possible harm can it do? Why make a big deal?  (As the presenter Matthew Bannister gently suggested.)

Of course it's no fun being harangued by a God botherer, especially if you can't escape, and if Petrie had been badgering the woman then I could sort of understand. But she insists she didn't, and she must surely have known that would be overstepping the mark in a professional situation. It's something she often does, she says, and patients are 'delighted'.

By chance, just as I was digesting this from the newspaper it I heard the subject come up on my wife's radio. A woman was forcefully defending the Trust, arguing that Petrie's action had been 'inappropriate' - it would be bad enough if the woman had been in good health, but being poorly, to be in a situation like that would set her pulse racing and make her scared and uncomfortable.

The horror of it! The speaker turned out to be arch-skeptic Susan Blackmore, and I have to say, I hadn't realised she was so militantly atheist: I thought her objections to religion were more a matter of scientific incompatibility than because it's inherently objectionable. But Blackmore sounded genuinely outraged that anyone should be exposed to the threat of having a prayer said for her. I thought atheism was about disbelieving in God as a pointless superstition, not as something that makes the blood run cold.

Psi skeptics often imply, and some say straight out, that parapsychologists are religious nutters who chase after stories of telepathy and near-death experiences and the like because they want to prove the existence of God and the immortal human soul. That's nonsense, of course, and it's impossible to imagine a serious psi investigator like Rupert Sheldrake or Ian Stevenson or Dean Radin making this kind of intervention on a religious matter. Blackmore's outburst underlines what I've long suspected, that between parapsychologists and their critics, it's the latter who are more likely to be motivated by quasi-religious feeling.