Wednesday, 21 March 2018

Are rare events paranormal?

Paper standing on edgeWhat makes an event so unlikely that a paranormal explanation becomes a reasonable one? It is a difficult question to answer. And I think it's made even more difficult by the fact that people tend to be bad at estimating the statistical likelihood of an event occurring by pure chance.

It is very difficult to work out how frequently most unusual event might occur by pure chance. That's because such events involve many different factors interacting. So the easiest way to work out the frequency of an event is by looking at actual reports of it happening. But that relies on people noticing all such occurrences.

And I wonder how many truly extraordinary events are missed. I suspect it is a lot! Even though I believe I notice more strange things than most people I said in my last post "I absentmindedly picked it up and threw it in a bin". I was referring to a piece of paper that had somehow landed on its edge and stayed there! I only realised afterwards how extraordinary the event was. And I might easily have missed it completely.

I think most people miss extraordinary events most of the time. And, as a result, when they DO occasionally notice something unusual they think it's more unlikely than it really is because of all the other instances they failed to notice. Taking the example of the paper landing on its edge, it is clearly a rare event. But how rare? I've seen it twice in three and a half years so it's clearly not just a once in a lifetime event. But I wonder, given that I almost missed it on the second occasion, whether it might actually be much more common than I think.

So my point is this: rare events may not be as unusual as we think. And, therefore, we should resist labelling something as paranormal simply because it appears incredibly unlikely to have happened by chance. I think there is a good chance that it really is just a coincidence.
PS: While typing this I heard the sounds of someone moving around in the empty building where I am. I am playing loud music. Yes it's sounds behind music again. I can hear it right now as I write this! Spooky ...

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Twice in three years!

Paper standing on edgeI am SO annoyed with myself! It happened again and I failed to take a photo! A piece of paper landed on its edge and this time it stayed there, so I would have had plenty of time to take its photo. Instead, I absentmindedly picked it up and threw it in a bin. It was only afterwards I realised what I'd done.

As you may gather, this unlikely phenomenon has happened before to me (see here). The fact that I've only noticed it twice shows just how rare it is. The fact that the current bit of paper stayed upright is even more extraordinary. In the original incident, illustrated by this staged photo (right), an A4 sheet landed on its side and stayed upright for about a second. The latest bit of paper was a quite different shape. It was long and thin, about 4 cm by 20 cm. Crucially, it had a couple of bends in it which I think is why it was able to stay upright. I tried bending a bit of paper and placing it on a level surface and it easily stayed upright. However, it wouldn't stay upright if I dropped it which tried many times. In fact, putting a bend in the paper caused it to drop in a way that reduced the chances of it landing on its side.

What does this have to do with the paranormal? Well, a piece of paper landing on its side might be seen as a paranormal event by some. In fact, it is perfectly possible, given the right circumstances, by natural causes. However, if it started happening frequently then it might indeed indicate some sort of paranormal influence. It is three and a half years since the original incident which gives an indication of how rarely it happens in natural circumstances. This is why I am so SO annoyed with myself.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The strange leaning man

Weird sunI noticed a short man, leaning over, in someone's garden as I walked past recently. I didn't really think anything of it for a second or two. That's when I realised it wasn't a real person at all but a misperception. I notice such misperceptions fairly frequently but something struck me as particularly odd about this incident. The 'man' actually consisted of two stacked recycling boxes and a jutting out part of a hedge behind.

Frankly, I was amazed that such a combination of shapes could be misperceived as a human figure, even for the few seconds I saw them like that. It was remarkable both for being made up of three separate objects and because one was not even touching the others but merely in the same line of sight. I was also intrigued by why I was so I convinced it was a short man rather than, say, a boy or even a girl. I don't know what factors control these things beyond shape, patterns of light and shade and expectation. The 'man' was 'standing' on a path which may have contributed to my unconscious interpretation. Another witness might have seen the figure as a ghost once it 'vanished'.

Meanwhile I repeated my 'without glasses' experiment (see here). Once again, I went outside for a walk wearing no glasses, something I never do normally. As before, I noticed no misperceptions. It is a surprising result, at first sight, because misperception relies on not seeing something well. So I would have thought that when everything looks indistinct, as happens when I'm not wearing my glasses or in low light, I should notice lots of misperceptions. Instead, I noticed none. I think it's because when you deliberately look for misperceptions you don't see them, an effect I've noticed on many occasions. I HAVE occasionally noticed misperceptions when not wearing glasses (see here). Interestingly, the misperceived objects always look in focus when clearly they cannot be. But during my latest 'without glasses' test I saw nothing in focus at all.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Like a time slip!

Weird sunI was looking out from a bus as it went along an urban street recently when I saw something utterly bizarre. There was one small shop, among a line of them, that was different. It had no shop sign or anything in the window to suggest what it was selling. In fact, the shop contained just a few chairs and a computer on a desk. There were only bare walls and a single closed door at the back. Despite being so threadbare there were several people in the shop. I saw all this in just a few seconds and spent the rest of my journey speculating about the shop's function. I even imagined it as the opening scene to a thriller!

Two days later, around the same time of day, I travelled on the same bus along the same road. I had another surprise! I saw the same shop, except it wasn't. The shop looked just like any other in the same row. In fact, I didn't recognise it as the same shop at all though I knew from its position that it had to be!

So, had I just imagined the earlier version of the shop from two days before? Or was it a time slip type experience? I've come across a number of accounts of apparent time slips where witnesses see a place as it was at a completely different time. Or it might simply look so substantially different that the witness assumes it must be from a different time. Either way, this could be put down to some kind of hallucination except that some of these experiences involve multiple witnesses.

My strange shop experience suggest a possible contributory factor that might be considered when investigating time slip reports. Significantly, I only had a limited time to view the shop because I was in a moving bus. I spent the limited time I had looking at the scene concentrating on its weirdness. In other words, I did not look for any other details that might have helped explain what I was looking at. I'm sure I missed much that might well have explained the scene.

I have noticed this effect in several of my experiences written up in this blog over the years. Luckily, in many of those experiences I had more time available and so was also able to look at things other than the strange bit. These details did, indeed, help explain the apparent odd phenomenon. So when someone reports something like a time slip it would be worth knowing whether they were able to examine what they were seeing in any detail and for how long. And it is always worth asking if they noticed anything else, even apparently irrelevant, at the time. It can be difficult to take your eyes off something really unusual!

So what is my theory about what I saw? I think my first sighting may have been a recruiting session for a new shop, with interviews being conducted in a room behind the door. Then the shop was fitted out in two days. Well, it's just an idea ...

Monday, 5 March 2018

Mystery orange flashing light

Weird sunRecent days have seen snow all over the UK. As I was watching a familiar, if snowy, scene the other day I was startled by a sudden really bright orange flash in the middle distance. A few seconds later it happened again. Indeed, it repeated several times at odd intervals. The light appeared to be coming from a bush or tree but I had no way of getting any closer to check it out. I had absolutely no idea what might be causing this mysterious light.

Luckily, being a birder, I just happened to have a pair of binoculars handy. So I looked at the flash and found it was a piece of glass suspended from a cord. It was blowing around in the strong wind and sometimes refracting the bright sunlight towards me. When I returned to the exactly the same viewing spot 10 minutes later there was no orange flashing light to be seen, even though I waited for a long time.

Putting together the clues it looked as though several factors had to come together to see the orange flash. Firstly, it had to be sunny. Secondly, I had to be standing in just the right place. Thirdly, the sun had to be at the right position in the sky. Fourthly, there needed to be a stiff breeze to move the glass enough to get a refraction pointing at me. Having all those factors together only happens rarely. That is, no doubt, why I have looked at that exact same scene many times and never seen the orange flash before.

It is unlikely anyone would report this phenomenon as anomalous (though I recall mysterious flashing lights reported on ghost vigils). However, another unlikely set of circumstances could easily produce a sight that might well be reported as anomalous. I have come across several such rare coincidental phenomenon before. There's an example here. Indeed this class of anomaly explanation is probably common enough to deserve its own name. As time and place are usually involved maybe PTEPAs - Precise Time Exact Place Anomalies. Or something pronounceable.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Another explanation for apparent precognition

Weird sunCould superforecasting be confused with precognition? An article in this week's New Scientist made me think it might. Superforecasters are a small proportion (maybe 2 to 3%) of the general population who are able to predict unobvious future events with a better accuracy than experts in the field concerned.

There have been many dramatic examples of apparent precognition where the subject only ever forecasts one event. These could be down to coincidence. For any given event, it only takes one person out of a population of millions to guess it correctly to obtain an apparent precognition hit. Indeed, statistically, it's almost inevitable that someone, somewhere in a large population will guess correctly what will happen. But that person might well only make such an apparent prediction once in their lifetime. It is more likely to be coincidence than precognition.

However, superforecasters can predict many unobvious events over their lifetime. But it is still not precognition. They are simply better at putting together insightfully the clues from the information they have to make an accurate prediction. So even someone who is consistently good at predicting unobvious future world events is not necessarily precognitive.

This raises an interesting question about testing precognitive ability. Supposing someone tested well at guessing cards but was unable to predict future world events. Would they be considered to have a precognitive gift? And what about a person who did poorly predicting cards but well at predicting future world events. Would that be precognition? The existence of superforecasters makes the answer to the second question 'unlikely'.

Thursday, 22 February 2018

I was wrong!

Weird sunI have, in the past, talked about a 'ghost hunting boom' going on at present. This implies that I'm expecting the current high popularity of ghost hunting to stop at some point. Well, it's been going on for well over a decade now and is showing no signs of stopping any time soon. So I'm prepared to drop the word 'boom' and admit I was wrong!

It does raise the question, though, why is ghost hunting so popular? You might think that as someone who has been fascinated by ghosts since I was a kid it would not need any explanation. But I can remember a time, in the early days of ASSAP and before, when ghost hunting was an obscure pastime enjoyed by just a tiny number of people. So what changed?

The obvious answer is that the popularity of ghost hunting is a result of the paranormal TV shows. But does that explains the longevity of the phenomenon? To find out why ghost hunting remains so popular there is an important question to answer. Are the people who were originally inspired by the paranormal TV programmes still ghost hunting? Or have they lost interest to be replaced by others? It matters because if there is continual turnover of people interested in ghost hunting then it will one day it will lose popularity. Though interest in ghosts is high in the general population, there is still a finite limit to the numbers. I've no idea if there is a big turnover of people interested in the subject, only research could determine that.

From what I've seen most contemporary ghost hunting seems to use assumption-led methods where there is a clear central assumption that ghosts are spirits. This is despite a lack of any compelling evidence from ghost research that ghosts are indeed spirits. And all that ghost hunting still hasn't produced any compelling evidence.

So, if there is a big turnover of people interested in ghost hunting then, given its ongoing popularity, there must be a huge pool of people in the population enthusiastic about ghosts. But maybe it is more likely that the the turnover of people interested in ghost hunting is actually quite low. But if that's so, why aren't people becoming disillusioned when they find little or no definitive evidence of ghosts as spirits? Scientific research shows that people's basic beliefs tend to change little over time, even when there is little evidence supporting those beliefs. If this is the case then the current high popularity of ghost hunting is likely to continue indefinitely and its nature is likely to change little. So, no boom after all. Probably.