Monday, 22 December 2014

Sally More-gan

A little while ago I went to see the UK’s favourite Psychic - Sally Morgan. I was interested to see what her show was like and if she would be able to challenge my preconception that no-one can actually speak to the dead. If you read my previous blog on the subject you’ll know that I wasn’t really that impressed – but thanks to the hard work of my friend Steve we’ve been able to make a rough transcript of the show and count up how successful Sally was at bringing messages from beyond the grave.

When marking the transcript, I've changed the real names, as I wouldn't want to upset a grieving audience member and appear to detract from the the memory of a loved one just to make a point. I’ve tried to keep whether or not Sally scored a “hit” as simple as possible and considered the questions recommended by the Good Thinking Society:

·         Is she making specific statements? 
·         Is she speaking clearly or in riddles?
·         How Many statements are incorrect?
·         Were we asked to give information?

Using these as a guide, I measured 290 separate statements made by Sally during the 2 hour show. The theatre had a capacity of around 600 and it was full (at £25 per head that’s £15,000 by the way). The number of statements is interesting; as it reminded me of the Birthday Paradox  whereby all you need is a group of 23 people in the same room for it to be more likely than not for there to be 2 people who share a birthday. While birthdays and loved ones are quite different a room of 600 people creates a lot of chances for a statement to hit.

Considering this, as well as Sally’s claims to have been guided by the spirits of relatives of people in the audience, you would expect her statements to be unerringly accurate. In actual fact, I counted 41 “hits” out of 290 statements - a success rate of 14%. Looking it another way, Sally Morgan (the UK’s favourite Psychic) made 249 statements that drew blanks from a room of 600 people (many of whom desperately wanted to speak to a dead relative).

Which without wanting to be unkind is… not very good really.

I enjoy a graph (I know, but those long Norfolk nights as a child were long and in Norfolk) so I’ve tried to create a visual record of her performance.  By putting all of Sally’s statements chronologically in order we can check the frequency of her success and see a story of the performance.

Sally's statements have been grouped in 5's

We can see that there were only 3 occasions when Sally was regularly enjoying a better than 50-50 “hit” rate.  The first occasion was very early on and covered statements 1-20 and our rough transcripts provide the following detail:

Sally’s Statement
Audience Response
Young boy Jeff
He says Terry
He says Andrew
or Alan
John died, Jeff is my Son, John was friend of Son
He’s confused about his death, Did he get thrown around?
Who is Andrew?
Andrew was the driver
Were you with relatives today?
No, with my partner
His heart went 'boom'
that’s how he died, his blood rushed around his body too quick
I've never met you before
I have met you before - Skegness
Other two girls who also stood up, Did you stand up for Jeff?
No, Terry, Andrew, Paul
Did I say Terry?
Somebody said Sam, may own a motorbike?
Sam was the stepfather
and Sam owns the motorbike?
No my cousin owns the motorbike
And your cousin is in spirit?
And your stepfather is in spirit?

So even during her most successful 20 statement spell, Sally provided 6 different names and asked 10 different questions.  If Sally was indeed in contact with “John” I wonder why he didn’t tell her ”My name’s John, I can see Jeff’s mum in the crowd, get her to say hello to my Mum called Doris for me will you? The car crash was horrible but I’m OK now”.  I’m also confused as to why Sally, who is apparently talking to the spirit of a particular person, can’t even tell if it’s Sam or Andrew who are dead.

The best conversion that Sally had all night, was with a regular attendee of her shows (Skegness at least), who also claimed to understand a further 2 messages during the night.  If I were a fan of Sally’s, I might wonder why the only real run of success she had all evening came when speaking to someone with whom she had already had spoken at a previous show.  Where it seemed Sally hadn’t met the audience member before, she was significantly less successful.

The second successful grouping was around statements 31-35:

Sally’s Statement
Audience Response
And Jonny?
And Young?
I heard the word Jonny  before you said it
And did you hear it 'like that'?
Are you a medium?
no, im totally skeptical
Is your surname Young?
Do you know who Emma  may be?
Jonny's wife
Do you know who Jonny  is?
My grandfather
Is there the name cliff?
Clifford Street?
connected to Jonny?
This time of year is poignant time for you, start of Nov, up to the 12th?

Again, every single statement is a question and the more specific the question the less success Sally has in being able to provide anything meaningful to the audience member.
The third Successful grouping was around statements 65-75:

Sally’s Statement
Audience Response
Surname Follows?
Ted and Jodie Fellows, Ted is my step dad
In a wheelchair
whos Jodie
His wife
Who is Berts
My family name
There was Parkinsons?
Hands waxy
Was fun?
did you find a bible or documents recently
photos a week ago
did you see a photo of Jonny?
yes first time last week
Head trauma
Going to the dogs
dog racing?

While, the questions about the documents and photos are quite accurate (if a little obvious), Sally manages to get the Spirit’s surname wrong twice, as well as mis-diagnosing him with Parkinson’s Disease.  Oddly this conversation was with the same audience member who claimed to be “totally sceptical” in statement 32.  I had a brief conversation with him after the show and he was an absolute convert - clearly, he had only remembered the “hits”.  This really does show the power of our memory’s ability to deceive us, and the importance of being able to create an accurate record of events, to consider dispassionately. Without this, like the regular attendee from statements 1-11, the skeptical audience member seemed to have done Sally’s hard work for her.

Sally was apparently guided by the spirits of people who knew members of the audience; however it’s undeniable that the likelihood of randomly finding a hit within a room of 600 people is very high. When looking at Sally’s evening, I’ve intentionally cherry picked the best moments from her performance – the ones where Sally appears to be providing the most accurate information. Even considering only the best of Sally’s readings, I can’t say I’m very impressed by these conversations or Sally’s abilities as a psychic.

Essentially, I would have expected any-one who was speaking directly to a dead relative to be able to give specific personal information, as they could if they were speaking to a living relative.  If a psychic cannot do this, I would be skeptical about whether they are actually speaking to my dead relative at all. Even if they could demonstrate that they were speaking to my dead relative, I would wonder what possible use these limited conversations could serve.  Sally’s revelations mostly revealed that a loved one had died and that they were a loved one.  She finished most of her “readings” with a bland statement such as “…anyway I feel a lot of love there and he’s looking out for you…”

I know my Granddad was a lovely man and that he loved me. Most people would be able to say the same. So, even if these super natural powers are real, what possible insight and use could a psychic provide, if all they can do is pass dull blandishments from one side of the mortal plane to the other?

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Waking the Dead Bored

First of all, I need to be clear. I do not believe in an afterlife – and so find it hard to believe that anyone can speak with the dead – because there isn’t “any-body there”.   However, nobody really knows if it is possible that people can contact the spirit world, so I find the idea of mediums fascinating and have spent a quiet night or two sat at the back of a Spiritualist Church enjoying the amateur dramatics along with a cup of tea and a biscuit. (Nice folks at the Derby Spiritualist Church…they had hob-nobs).  A Trance Medium whose wife would sing a song “of her own making” to invite the spirits to visit was particular treat.

Best bit of talking to dead people
Despite the fact that Derren Brown is clear in his assertion that he is not a  medium – the results he gets are spooky – and always provoke the question “how did he do it?!” So, I was curious to see what a show by the UK’s leading Psychic Sally Morgan, who claims to have an extraordinary gift, would be like.  Would I leave converted? Amazed? Entertained?  Sadly the answer is no. I got Bored.

On arrival my friends and I were invited to complete a “love letter” on which you could write your name and the details of a dead love one you wished to contact.  I’m not certain I really understand why some-one with an extraordinary gift would need these prompts (especially as they were only used twice in the show) but we all cheerfully completed ours trying to encourage my friend’s Granddad to get in contact (He didn’t). 

Once in the theatre we were stoically informed that due to New European Legislation Sally can’t claim to be Psychic and that the show was for ”entertainment purposes”… That legislation would be The Consumer Protectionfrom Unfair Trading Regulations 2008…hardly new and not very European. Seems the language of UKIP has seeped into the next life too… 

The show was split into 2 halves of an hour each and if I’m honest was dreadfully dull.  Sally started strongly and (working from memory) was speaking to a “Paul”, who died in a way that involved him shaking.  A lady stood-up and identified who this was that he had been in a car accident driving near Skegness.  “That’s it!” declared Sally; apparently the crash would explain the shaking.  Although why “Paul” didn’t just say “I died in a car crash” only his spirit will know.  There followed a conversation about the accident that warmed the audience to Sally’s ability.
The impact of this conversation was diluted for me when the lady being contacted confirmed that she’d seen and met Sally in Skegness. The same lady also claimed to recognise at least 3 other “leads” throughout the night – she clearly enjoyed the interactive part of the show.  This was interesting. The lead from the spirit could have been as vague as “I’m getting the name Brian…” and hands would shoot up all over the theatre. People were so desperate to either be put in contact with loved ones or to be part of the show. 

This desperation inadvertently produced the funniest/saddest part of the night. While putting a woman in touch with her dead husband (and I feel faintly disgusted writing that sentence) Sally asked if the name Michelle meant anything…possibly to do with work.  The Dead Man’s weeping wife – clutching at any part of his life to make the message more personal was reduced to offering that he bought his petrol at a Shell garage. The crowd laughed and moved on. Reflecting the day after, I feel embarrassed to have been involved in finding her grief entertaining.

The second half matched the first in terms of form, but without any big wins for Sally’s extraordinary gift. As lead after lead went cold and Sally’s suggestions were met with blank faces and shrugs, the crowd around me got bored and started giggling.  And this is ultimately how I feel about the show now. Bored. If this is typical of a big Psychic show I simply don’t understand how they make a living out of it. 

There are many reasons you might think you want to go to a Sally Morgan show but I think most people will leave disappointed.

If you’re a Skeptic hoping to understand how a top drawer Psychic operates – you won’t get much insight, if I were you, I’d spend your money on a James Randi Doll. If you’re hoping to get in touch with a loved one (and you’re lucky enough to get a lead) you won’t receive much of a message beyond “They love you”, which you already knew.  A friend or relative who actually knew your Dad can share his memory and tell you that he loved you while you save 25 quid. If you’re looking for a good night out, you won’t find it here.

Next time I need to be bored by a woman shouting out seemingly unconnected names for 2 hours– I’ll ask my Gran about the old days…  So, we still don’t really know if it is possible that people can contact the spirit world, but I do know I expected a bit more of a show from a woman with a self-proclaimed extraordinary gift. There weren’t even any biscuits.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

This is not the Activism I'm looking for...

I’ve been attending Nottingham Skeptics in the Pub for almost 2 years and always considered it a bit of “info-tainment”. An opportunity to perhaps learn about something I didn’t know about, experience a different point of view and meet interesting people.

During this time I’ve found that the best company and best skeptics have been the people  whose most likely answer to a question is “I don’t know” or “that’s interesting”. Exploring an issue or opinion through conversation and consideration seemed the most easy way to understand something and avoided the sham dichotomy of a show-boat debate.  Its always been a positive and friendly environment - if a little comfy.

Following @MrMMarsh excellent talk last month about his work in Skeptical Activism I (and others) were provoked into considering if Skeptics is just for a nice night out once a month, or should we put our money where our mouth is? So @TheWholeT00th and I have decided to see of we can create or at least start a group interested in exploring what Skeptical Activism might mean in the East Midlands.

I have no real idea what this might look like or what it will try and achieve, however this month’s Skeptics meeting offered an opportunity to see what a well established and vocal activist group do.

On tuesday night @iamhazelgibson spoke to us about her PhD research into different perspectives on fracking, based on interviews with, and consideration of Scientists (she is herself a geologist), Activists and Local Residents.  The talk itself was heavy on the “tainment” and a bit light on the “info” however, the Q&A afterwards provided a fascinating case study into the perspectives of one of the groups, the Activists. The following are some observations I have and lessons for any Activist group that I would want to be part of.

They were obviously committed, impassioned and well organised.  Several members of @FrackFreeNotts were present and were armed with posters, flyers and pads for making notes and taking names.  All of which seemed a bit of overkill for a relaxed chat in the pub on a tuesday night.  It seemed to me that they came having no real idea of what Skeptics was for, or about, and seemed committed to use it as a platform for themselves rather than any genuine attempt to engage with the people there.

@FrackFreeNotts had earlier tweeted that they were looking forward to the debate at Skeptics. However a debate about fracking when was not the purpose of the talk and it was never advertised as one. No Nottingham Skeptics meeting has ever been a debate. So, it seems a good idea that an activist should pay attention to the where they are going and make sure they understand other people’s purpose for being there. This will help to align your goals with theirs and engender sympathy for your point of view.

At Skeptics there is always an element of people wanting to talk about what they think rather than ask a genuine question and each Q&A is always preceded with a request to make the questions actually questions and (hopefully) to the point.

Sadly, the Fracking Activists seemed determined in giving (at length) individual opinions with “why didn’t you say that?” at the end to provide a mask of inquiry.  I found this deeply frustrating and it took up valuable time that meant regular attendees may have been unable to ask their questions fully. It struck me that if you disagreed with someone, you could simply challenge them by asking a better question, rather than reeling off your contrary position. For example, rather than listing (again at length) a number of studies that do not agree with a statement made by the speaker you could easily ask... “ you make it sound like there is a scientific consensus that fracking is safe, is this true?”

It takes about 15 seconds, is in total context with the evening and puts the knowledge and honesty of the speaker to test. The approach of The Fracking Activists suggested that they didn't seem to understand or care that people in the room weren't as passionate or turned on to their cause or point of view as them and only interested in using the evening as a platform for their goals rather than being interested in the evening itself or the people there.  It became perilously close to Bullying.

This was a shame as one of the best challenges to Hazel was about how her depiction of activists was stereotypical and mocking.  Due to the slightly glib and entertaining presentation style I think this criticism was fair and I was glad that during the Q&A we could explore the ordinary, local activists and the positive action they are taking.  Sadly, this challenge was followed up by asking how Hazel’s PhD was funded.  The inference of that question is quite insulting to someone who spent 6 hours on a train for no payment other than a couple of pints and a night in the Jury's Inn Hotel. Make it personable not personal.

After the event I spoke to a few regulars and friends of mine. None of us really know anything about fracking and certainly hadn't formed any opinion about it prior to the talk.  None of us had been able to by the end of the night either. However, a lot of the “don’t know’s” were turned off by the Fracking Activists and left being less sympathetic to their views. I can only imagine that this is the opposite of what they wanted to achieve.

There are circumstances where aggressive, disrespectful action is appropriate and necessary and I can easily imagine glueing yourself to a bulldozer outside a local beauty spot to be one of those.

However,it seems clear to me that if you genuinely want to affect people opinions you need a plurality of message and the ability to appropriately apply that message in context.  A warm, personal approach will always so much more useful than the hectoring indignation of believing you are right.

So, I don’t know what Skeptical Activism might take place in the East Midlands, but I do hope it will be charming, friendly and win over the “don’t knows” by being not only right but also being very bloody nice about it.