Ghosts in the City Hall?

There was a story on the BBC news website a couple of months ago about a local paranormal research group who were seeking access to the city hall to do a ghost hunt. I had intended writing about it at the time, but as usual these things slip my mind. But I was reminded of the story by a recent episode of the Righteous Indignation podcast where Marsh, Hayley and Trystran spent a whole episode talking about the group. The group are called the North Belfast Paranormal Research Group – NBPRG (I’m not aware of a South, East or West Belfast Paranormal Research Group – so they could probably dispense with the North bit) As Marsh said it does remind you of some of the long winded paramilitary names you got in the troubles. Apparently the City Hall are taking this seriously enough that they are asking councillors to rule on the matter. As yet I have been unable to ascertain as to whether the council have made a formal response to the group. Hopefully it wont waste too much more council time.

Obviously there is a need within scepticism to examine claims about the paranormal and this has been done for years by the likes of Joe Nickell and CSICOP. But theirs is an approach that differs radically form the type of group that the NBPRG appear to be. Essentially the NBPRG are the type of group we are familiar with from programmes like Most Haunted who use Electronic Voice Phenomena, EMF Metres and Orb Photography as the tools of their trade. I wont spend any time here explaining the problems with these techniques as Hayley Stephens does it much more succinctly here.

But to be honest I’m not so much bothered about the NBPRG gaining access to the city hall, I’m more curious about how as skeptics we should respond to this kind of story. Shows like “Most Haunted” and “Ghost Hunters” are just the latest incarnation of a centuries old tradition of telling ghost stories. This is a tradition that encompasses cultures across the globe, and has been a way of expressing morality tales or just exploring our fears of the unknown with in the safe confines of an allegory. But where the ghost hunters differ from the oral traditions of old is their attempt to claim scientific credibility through the use of cod scientific methods.

So, how should we respond? Complaining may just confirm to people that we are the cynical kill joys that they already suspected we were. I think any approach needs to be humorous and educational rather than dry and hectoring. A letter to the Belfast Telegraph may have been appropriate but to be honest I think there are bigger fish to fry.

Many people watch “Ghost Hunters” because of its tongue in cheek style and the programme has virtually become a parody of itself – but it has fed in to this world of “big name” psychic readers such as Derek Akora and Sally Morgan, and it is with these high profile characters that the sceptical movement is now focusing its attention. Project Barnum was set up last year after Sally Morgan was accused of being fed information from somebody behind the scenes at her Dublin show. The site aims to provide information to people about the psychological tricks used by mediums to convince people of their “skills”. Sally’s story has remained in the news thanks to the efforts of Simon Singh and The Merseyside Skeptics Society. The latest incident relating to a reading given to Drew McAdam in Edinburgh after he had already e-mailed Sally with the details that she went on to supposedly reveal from the spirit world.

Both Sally Morgan and Derek Akora are “performing” in Belfast over the next couple of months. Although I wouldn’t want to support them by actually paying to hear them talk – it may be a good opportunity to promote the work of Project Barnum.


29th March – Sally Morgan at Belfast Waterfront Hall

18th May – Derek Akora at The Ulster Hall

Wednesday Soapbox: Ideology and Skepticism

This is the second in a series of weekly opinion pieces by various members of the Belfast Skeptics. If you have an opinion to share or just want to rant about something, email us and we’ll have a chat.

Certain things are easy to be skeptical about – bogus health claims, UFO’s, psychics etc. But when it comes to personal politics, we are all under the impression that our own views are the most rational and reasoned approach to any given topic. After a brief flirtation with the Liberal Democrats in my late teens, I went to university and became your typical lefty student involved with the Anti Nazi League, Anti Poll Tax, Animal Rights and Environmental movements. I’m still broadly left wing but hope that my beliefs are more driven by reason than hippy idealism. To look at me as a student, the word “hippy” wouldn’t have been far from your lips but I’ve never really liked the hippy label.

I think it really only applies to a specific time at the end of the 60’s and start of the 70’s when people were really motivated by radical social upheaval – the backdrop of Vietnam and the emergence of a distinctly new type of youth culture providing the impetus for genuine change. But as the hippies grew up and went on to create multi-national ice cream companies, they left behind this legacy of a vague group of wishy washy individuals trying to meld some deeply held revolutionary convictions with a pick and mix eastern mysticism. Maybe I’m being too harsh, as they have also left us a legacy of sexual liberation and a wider acceptance of alternative lifestyles which many of us benefit from today.

But it’s the emphasis on “spirituality” in the environmental movement that I want to focus on here, and I’m afraid the hippies must take some of the blame. The environmental movement has some important messages to get across and I don’t think it does itself any favours by aligning itself with the shamans and mystics. Don’t get me wrong; there are a lot of clear-thinking rational people in the environmental movement -particularly working in the area of climate science but this seems to me slightly at odds with the “Mother Earth” approach.

A couple of years ago The Guardian ran an article bemoaning the decline of spirituality in the environmental movement. Here are a couple of quotes:

The hippies were fond of speaking of Gaia, Mother Earth, as a living organism. But as the environmental debate eventually reached the ears of politicians and scientists, it moved away from talk of spirituality and began to concentrate solely on a rational, scientific analysis of the effects of climate change.

“Look at what realists have done for us. They have led us to war and climate change, poverty on an unimaginable scale, and wholesale ecological destruction. Half of humanity goes to bed hungry because of all the realistic leaders in the world. I tell people who call me ‘unrealistic’ to show me what their realism has done. Realism is an outdated, overplayed and wholly exaggerated concept.”

– Satish Kumar

“Realists” seems to be a very broad category of people to blame for all the worlds ills. Anyway, this was my response:

The implication here seems to be that if you aren’t “spiritual” then you don’t truly understand the needs of the planet.

I’m more of a rationalist, and at the same time as understanding the need for respecting the planet and moving towards a less consumer based society, I would also be sceptical of this wishy washy spiritualism that supposedly gives certain “enlightened” people a direct line to the earth’s “energies”.

Your spirituality may give you a sense of personal fulfilment and motivate you as a steward for the planet, but that doesn’t mean that the non-spiritual are any less capable.

I acknowledge that some spiritual leaders have some wise things to say about the planet, but I don’t get this reverence for spiritual wisdom above reason and evidence.

Some writers such as Alastair Mcintosh make important points about the relationship between small communities and large corporations but then go and spoil it with references to pagan Christianity. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe these are the kinds of ideas that people feel they can invest in. Maybe the “Mother Earth” idea is a necessary narrative device to get people to take an interest in the planet and it’s survival. But in my experience it’s the preachy “mother earth” types that put people off environmentalism. I still get portrayed as a bit of an “eco-warrior” at work, just because I cycle in and do the recycling.

If I started to tell my colleagues that they needed to be at one with the planet I’d be laughed out of the office, but start talking about the top speed and range of the new generation of electric cars and their ears prick up. In reality change is only going to come with innovation and development in eco technology combined with a move away from an oil based economy which will be driven by cheaper alternatives becoming more readily available. Even though I am convinced by the ethical arguments for reducing our carbon foot print now – most people are only going to change their habits when it saves them money.

One final word on Climate “skeptics”. They have taken our word and soiled it. We need to take it back, and the only way we can do that is by proving the validity of our claims and by re-imagining the earth mother narrative in a secular context.