This essay won the second Roger Sandell Memorial Essay Competition, and was published in Magonia 70, March 2000. Dr French is the Head of the Psychology Department at Goldsmith’s College, London.
A few years ago, I took part in a Study Day organised by the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) on the topic of “The Paranormal and the Media”. As the publicity material for the session pointed out:
“The relationship between the media and psychical research has always been rather ambivalent. On the positive side, the media provide a valuable means of educating the public, a useful source of anecdotal material, contact with potential psychics and the opportunity to do experiments with a large number of subjects or to conduct surveys. On the negative side, the need for the media to entertain rather than conduct rigorous investigations often produces a somewhat sensationalised view of the paranormal, and this can be frustrating for the serious researcher”.
I agreed to present the sceptic’s perspective on this relationship, as I am one of a few British sceptics who appear fairly regularly on the media commenting upon paranormal and related claims. This essay is largely based upon my presentation to the SPR. In the first half of the essay, I will consider the relative advantages and disadvantages of the roles of believer and disbeliever in media contexts. In the second half, I will discuss the issue of bias in the media, with particular reference to the series, The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna.
I should begin, however, by outlining my own personal perspective on the paranormal. I am generally unconvinced by evidence put forward in support of paranormal claims. However, I cannot deny that most people do believe in at least some aspects of the paranormal and a sizeable minority claim to have had direct experience of the paranormal.
As a psychologist, therefore, I am faced with a challenge. Why do so many people believe in the paranormal and what might underlie ostensibly paranormal experiences if in fact paranormal forces do not exist? One possibility is that certain situations may wrongly be perceived by the observer as only being interpretable in terms of paranormal forces where in fact normal physical and psychological explanations may be quite adequate. This is clearly only a working hypothesis, but it is one which I feel is much more powerful in explanatory terms than is generally appreciated. Whether it is powerful enough to account for all paranormal claims only time (and further research) will tell. It might come to pass that parapsychologists will establish beyond all doubt that paranormal forces do exist. Perhaps the autoganzfeld studies are an important step in that direction (Bem & Honorton, 1994; but see Milton & Wiseman, 1999). I will wait and see. In the meantime, I will continue to investigate plausible non-paranormal explanations for ostensibly paranormal experiences. If it turns out that I am wrong and paranormal forces really do exist, I do not feel that the approach I am taking will have been invalidated. There is no doubt at all that the majority of experiences which people explain in paranormal terms are in fact nothing of the kind, as most serious parapsychologists would readily acknowledge. If my research helps parapsychologists to sort the “real thing” (if there is such a thing) from the convincing illusion, then it will have served a useful purpose.
I do not believe that it is possible to approach paranormal issues “without prejudice or prepossession”. We all, whether we admit it or not, approach such issues with our own preconceptions.
My research interests fit reasonably well with the declared purpose of the SPR which is to “examine without prejudice or prepossession and in a scientific spirit those faculties of man, real or supposed, which appear to be inexplicable on any generally recognised hypothesis.” I say “reasonably well” advisedly. I do not believe that it is possible to approach paranormal issues “without prejudice or prepossession”. We all, whether we admit it or not, approach such issues with our own preconceptions. Indeed, one of the central topics of my own research is the effect that belief and disbelief have upon the interpretation of ostensibly paranormal phenomena. On paranormal issues, as with other issues, our beliefs bias our interpretations in predictable ways. This does not mean that our beliefs cannot change of course. In my own case, I have moved from unquestioning belief to extreme scepticism and slightly back again. I would like to feel that I am now best described as a moderate sceptic although I am sure that I struck many members of the SPR audience as anything but moderate. I would put that down to the biasing effect of their beliefs of course!
I believe passionately that the best way to decide the issue of whether or not paranormal forces exist is by carrying out scientific research under tightly controlled conditions. Although not perfect, this is the best means that we have of controlling for our own inevitable biases. Therefore, I strongly support good mainstream parapsychological research.
Many of the issues that I have just raised are relevant to a discussion of the relationship between the media and the paranormal. There is little doubt that the media play an important role in influencing the level of belief in the paranormal. In general, I will concentrate upon the role of television and radio in dealing with the paranormal, but many of the same issues are relevant to the treatment of such matters in newspapers and magazines.
There are various types of programme to be considered. Probably the most frequently broadcast are the audience participation programmes such as, in Britain, Kilroy, Vanessa, Esther, and The Time, The Place, and those regional programmes aimed primarily at the late-night viewer who has just returned from the pub, with titles like Late and Live. The level of debate on the latter can be summed up by the fact that the programme-makers themselves will often openly tell you that they are aiming for something like “Oprah Winfrey on speed”. It is clear that such programmes cannot hope to provide any serious in-depth treatment of paranormal topics. The nearest radio equivalent to this type of format is the phone-in with a few experts in the studio. In my experience, the latter is often an altogether more civilised affair and can even be quite productive if enough time is devoted to a topic. The problem is that the only time that a couple of hours will be devoted to a paranormal topic is likely to be between midnight and the early hours – not exactly peak listening times.
Then there are the serious documentaries. Given the nature of the paranormal, these may fit into either the scientific category, such as Equinox or Horizon, or the broadly religious category, such as Heart of the Matter and Everyman. In my opinion, these types of programme often provide the best treatment of paranormal and related issues. This probably reflects the fact that the programme-makers are able to devote more than a couple of days to making the programmes and those involved are often proud of the generally high quality of their programmes. Furthermore, the issues are considered with respect to broader scientific or religious contexts, adding depth to the treatment.
Over recent years, in Britain, we have been deluged by a host of series devoted more or less exclusively to the paranormal, including: Michael Aspel’s Strange but True? (with its ever-so-unbiased question mark at the end of the title), Schofield’s Quest (in which members of the public were asked to help solve paranormal mysteries), The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna (about which, more later), Secrets of the Paranormal (produced, surprisingly, by BBC2′s Community Programme Unit), and Mysteries (presented by the ubiquitous Carol Vorderman). Needless to say, sceptics get a little annoyed by the generally uncritical treatment of the paranormal in such programmes. In some cases, even when sceptics are featured, the presentation can still be somewhat biased as I will show later.
The fact that programme-makers have bothered to contact informed sceptics at all is an indication that they wish to give at least the appearance of balance. It is clear that some programme-makers have either never approached informed sceptics or else completely ignored their advice. A case in pint would be the Beyond Belief programmes hosted by David Frost, Uri Geller and Matthew Manning. As Polly Toynbee commented in the Radio Times, “Beyond Belief was a well-titled programme, but here its merit ceased”.
In contrast to the numerous pro-paranormal series that have been broadcast recently, I can remember only one series ever with a decidedly sceptical approach to the paranormal and that was James Randi: Psychic Investigator, broadcast in 1991. There have been a few memorable one-offs, such as the excellent Equinox programmes on The Guru-Busters and Secrets of the Psychics, and a superb Horizon on the Bermuda Triangle many years ago, but the fact is that such programmes are few and far between.
Believers vs. Sceptics
So, what then are the relative advantages and disadvantages of being presented in the media as either a “believer” or a “disbeliever”? One clear advantage that the informed sceptic has over the informed believer is that of rarity value. Quite simply, there are very few people who are deeply interested in things that they do not believe in, but usually several dozen available informed believers for each paranormal topic. For me, paranormal claims are worth studying whether or not they are valid. If they are valid, then this is of profound importance in that it suggests that the current scientific world-view is mistaken or at least incomplete in major respects. If they are not valid, then study of such claims can tell us a great deal about the human mind, in the same way that studying the perceptual errors produced by visual illusions can tell us a lot about visual processing in general.
Because of the relative scarcity of informed sceptics, one can find oneself presenting the sceptical perspective on a wide range of issues, from angels to zombies. OK, I admit that I’ve never done a programme on zombies, but I’ve done yetis so that gets me most of the way through the alphabet. I did consider at one stage having some cards printed with “RENT-A-Sceptic” printed on them (with the emphasis on “RENT”). I considered adopting the slogan, “You name it, I’ll doubt it”, but I thought that some people might think I was being serious. It is largely thanks to our rarity value that informed sceptics appear as frequently as we do on the media. Thus when I arrived to present a lecture on my own research to the SPR, I was greeted at the door by a distinguished SPR member with the somewhat sarcastic comment, “I thought you were dead. I hadn’t seen you on TV for three days.”
A problem which is faced by the sceptic but not by the believer is what one might call “tokenism”. By this I mean the tendency of some programmes to feature a token sceptic for whatever reason. This can take a variety of forms. On occasions I have taken part in programmes which were essentially PR jobs for various psychics with little attempt at any critical evaluation of the claims presented. Such programmes are dominated by the psychics, who are given star billing up on the stage, with the help of a supportive presenter. The opportunity to express any doubts from one’s seat in the audience can be very limited. I have also taken part in programmes where there was simply no need for an informed sceptic as the psychic claimant being featured was clearly deluded. I do not see it as my role to ridicule such individuals whose claims are unlikely to impress even the most fervent believer. Such programmes leave a bad taste in one’s mouth. The subtlest form of tokenism is that where every effort is made to give the appearance of an unbiased presentation but where there is in fact definite bias. The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna is a case in point which I will deal with more fully later.
Sceptics and believers often come across as stereotypes on TV programmes. This is partly because the stereotypes are true to some extent. If I am doing a discussion programme on astrology and I learn that I will be sitting next to Professor X, an astronomer from the University of Y, I can be fairly sure that he will be on my side. If I find a place name with a single, often exotic, name, such as Zelda or Darius, I can guess which side they will be on. Their flowing robes and crystal amulets are also something of a give-away.
Depending upon the presenter, sceptics may find themselves cast in the positive role of “the voice of reason” (with the totally unjustified implication that anyone who believes in the paranormal must be a little bit crazy). On the other side of the coin, the sceptic can be presented as cold, scientific and uncaring. Believers in the paranormal are often embodiments of New Age thinking. They are emotional, intuitive and warm. They really are (usually) very nice people. Once again, there is some truth in these stereotypes although like all stereotypes they can be overplayed. The belief system of the true believer is usually rather more positive than that of the sceptic. The basic message is that we all have amazing powers and that the soul will survive bodily death. In contrast, the standard sceptical position is that we are all made of essentially the same stuff as everything else in the universe and death is simply the point at which biochemistry turns into chemistry. In terms of emotional appeal, there is simply no contest.
I sometimes find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to argue against the possibility of life after death to an audience containing many individuals who sincerely believe that they are still in touch with their dear departed. Whilst this is not a position that I enjoy, the bottom line is that science is about truth not happiness – and it seems quite likely to me that our true position in the scheme of things is not necessarily one with which we would be very happy.
Although the world-view of the believer is in general more emotionally appealing than that of the sceptic, there are important exceptions. For example, one might assume that most people would prefer a world which did not include alien abductions or poltergeists. In my experience, however, it is often the case that claimants in such cases are very unwilling to consider even the possibility that their experiences might have a non-paranormal explanation. There are several possible reasons for this, but one fairly important one is probably that such individuals are likely to feel special as a result of their experience, even though they may genuinely be frightened by it. After all, they would not have got to appear on television without it.
The presenter of the programme is usually the most important factor in determining which side appears to have the best arguments. Often the presenter will remain resolutely neutral, but not always so. If the presenter is rather sceptical, one’s job is made very easy. If the presenter is a true believer, the sceptic will have a hard time. I remember on one occasion doing a programme on UFOs and being told just before I went on that the presenter was a keen UFO spotter. Predictably, I had a hard time.
I will usually try to emphasise the fact that most responsible parapsychologists will readily admit that most claims are best explained in prosaic terms
If a presenter is biased towards the believers’ position, there are various ways in which the sceptics’ position can be undermined. For example, the believer has one very real advantage over the sceptic which the presenter might emphasise in various ways, and it is this. Just because someone believes that some paranormal claims are true does not mean that they therefore accept all paranormal claims. The believer can therefore often be presented as someone who judiciously weighs the evidence in each individual case before coming to a conclusion. I have yet to meet a believer who did not claim that they themselves approached each case critically. They are hardly going to say “Me, I just believe everything I’m told”, are they? The sceptic, on the other hand, starts from the working assumption that all cases have non-paranormal explanations. It is not hard to see how this can be presented as pure prejudice on the part of the sceptic. Partly to counter this, I will usually try to emphasise the fact that most responsible parapsychologists will readily admit that most claims are best explained in prosaic terms. The cases where disagreement arises between sceptic and believer are therefore a very small minority. The difference between the two sides is that the believer accepts those few cases as proof of the existence of paranormal forces, whereas the sceptic believes that there will inevitably be some cases where human ingenuity is not capable of figuring out the true explanation.
Another way in which an audience can be made to feel hostility towards a sceptic is by setting the sceptic up as some arrogant know-it-all who is dismissing experiences that they have never themselves had. The point here is that informed sceptics are rarely rejecting the alleged paranormal experience itself, they are questioning the interpretation of that experience. Just because a person who has had a near-death experience genuinely feels that it was the most real and profound experience of their lives does not prove that their soul really left their body as they believe. Psychologists are all too familiar with cases of delusional belief systems of the most bizarre kinds that are all held with absolute conviction.
Another problem faced by the sceptic is the reliance in such programmes on numerous anecdotal accounts as opposed to any considered appraisal of well-controlled studies. The latter is clearly not going to attract the same viewing figures as lurid personal accounts. I am often surprised at how weak the accounts presented on discussion programmes are given that they have been selected from dozens of people telephoning the programmes in response to an appeal for suitable cases. When faced with such personal accounts, one has to simply assert that one cannot really comment on them as one has usually only just heard of them. In most instances, no proper investigation has been carried out by anyone. Sometimes, of course, one might be reminded of a similar claim which was properly investigated and accounted for. Many programmes will include a couple of cases which have been investigated and pronounced genuine, in which case one should try to do one’s homework in advance, in order to find out if the case is really as strong as it appears. Often it is not.
A problem faced by both the sceptic and the believer as one that might be referred to as the “with-friends-like-these” syndrome. there are times when I shudder to hear the comments of other sceptics featured in these programmes. There is no doubt that the strongest evidence in support of paranormal claims deserves to be taken seriously and is not easily dismissed. It is all too rare for this type of evidence to be included in discussion programmes but when it does crop up, it does the sceptics’ cause no good if some uninformed bigot simply rejects it on the grounds that “It’s just not possible!” The other type of sceptic that I dread is the kind that has a blanket explanation for all paranormal claims, e.g., all claimants are liars, all claimants are mad, all claimants are stupid. This is clearly not the case and such a sceptic is merely demonstrating their own ignorance. Unfortunately, most sceptics are very uninformed regarding the paranormal. Another kind of sceptic that worries me is the type who will believe any non-paranormal account, no matter how far-fetched and unsupported by the evidence, rather than consider the possibility that paranormal forces might actually exist. I imagine that my feelings towards such sceptics are somewhat similar to those of the parapsychologist who receives the support of some audience member who asserts that they know that telepathy exists because that is how they communicate with Zog, the pan-dimensional being that lives in their fridge.
The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna
At least with live programmes one does not have to worry about the role of the editor. The way that a programme is edited can, potentially, completely distort what actually happened. I want to finish by giving several examples of biased presentation from the series The Paranormal World of Paul McKenna. My reason for focusing upon two programmes from this particular series is that I took part in both programmes and was disappointed, although not altogether surprised, by the final product.
The first of the two programmes in question to be broadcast dealt with telepathy. One of the demonstrations featured Albert Ignatenko from the Ukraine who demonstrated a so-called “psychic punch”. The sequence of events as seen by the viewer at home involved the presenter, Paul McKenna, asking for a volunteer from the audience. From the raised arms, one individual was invited to take part. Mr McKenna explicitly asked the volunteer to confirm that he had not met Mr Ignatenko before that day which he did. Mr Ignatenko moved the young man gently forwards and backwards in order, he claimed, to prepare him to receive his psychic energy. he then walked away, stopped, raised his arm and the volunteer fell back onto a mat.
This demonstration, on the surface, might look impressive to some. It appeared that a volunteer had been more or less randomly chosen from the audience and within a couple of minutes a complete stranger had used some kind of influence, perhaps psychic, in order to make this healthy young man fall over. For those of us in the studio for the rehearsals, however, a rather different version of events was apparent. The same young man had taken part in the rehearsals earlier in the day. he had spent an unknown amount of time with Mr Ignatenko during the day. For all we know, he may have been selected for his high level of suggestibility, in much the same way that stage hypnotists select volunteers. To ask for a volunteer from the audience when you know in advance who is going to be picked and to then get that person to confirm that they had not met the psychic before that day might reasonably be seen as intentionally trying to create a false impression in one’s audience without actually lying. It may also be worth noting that Paul McKenna’s main claim to fame in the UK is as the country’s most popular stage hypnotist.
Also in the programme, Pam Smart from Lancashire and her dog Jaytee were featured. Jaytee, it was claimed, knows when Pam is about to return home even if no one else in the house knows and the time is randomly determined. Jaytee moves to the window at the time when Pam sets out on her return journey and sits and waits for her. A film clip featuring Jaytee contained several errors, all of which resulted in the claim appearing to be more impressive than it actually is. I am grateful to Richard Wiseman for drawing these to my attention. The programme showed a clip from a test of Jaytee carried out by Austrian TV, in which Jaytee is clearly seen moving to the window seconds after Pam sets off for home.
As Richard pointed out on the programme, it is important to see the rest of the film to know how many times the dog goes to the window anyway. When Richard raised this issue during rehearsals he was informed by Paul McKenna, perhaps relaying information from the production team, that the rest of the tape had been viewed by the programme-makers and that the dog had not moved to the window previously. In fact, no one had seen the footage.
Furthermore, the voice-over said the dog is always correct. It isn’t. The voice-over also said that Pam was six miles away from the dog at the time of the test. In fact, she was down the road, between half and three-quarters of a mile away. This caused Pam considerable embarrassment when facing her neighbours all of whom recognised the locations featured. The voice-over also incorrectly stated that she had been away for five hours. Richard’s source for this information was Pam Smart herself, who was fed up with the way the claim was portrayed. Since that programme, Richard and his colleagues have tested Jaytee in a controlled manner – and found no evidence for canine paranormal powers (Wiseman, Smith & Milton, 1998).
The other programme that I featured in dealt with psychic detectives. The programme included pieces about Dorothy Allison, the New Jersey psychic, and the British psychic Nella Jones, famous for her apparent accuracy in coming up with information relating to the Yorkshire Ripper, Peter Sutcliffe. All of my specific criticisms of Dorothy Allison’s claims were edited out. The criticisms were generally in terms of the need to look not only at the apparent hits of the psychic detectives but also at their failure rate if one is to stand any chance of reliably assessing their true level of performance.
I had made similar points against Nella Jones when we both appeared on the chat programme, Esther. I pointed out that she had claimed that Peter Sutcliffe could and did pass himself off as a woman. She simply denied this, attributing these claims to the late Doris Stokes, another British psychic. I was somewhat wrong-footed by this – I seem to remember a member of the audience shouting “Get your facts right!” – although, with presenter Esther Rantzen’s help, we did finally get Nella to admit that she had only ever drawn the Yorkshire Ripper as clean-shaven. In fact, he had a full beard throughout the period of the murders (which would make passing himself off as a woman slightly problematic!).
Subsequently, with Mike Hutchinson’s help, I was able to track down the actual piece in the Psychic News where Nella had indeed made the claim she later denied. I had the piece with me when I went along for the McKenna programme and I asked the programme-makers if they would let me confront her with it. I thought it would make good television. They didn’t. The final version of the programme was basically nothing more than good uncritical PR for Nella.
I was also in the studio during the rehearsals for the programme on psychokinesis. This included one demonstration in which the audience was asked to use their combined psychic ability in order to influence a random event generator which would determine how two computer-scrambled pictures would unscramble. The final outcome would be either a picture of a tiger or an astronaut. Given that there was a 50:50 chance of either outcome, this was clearly not going to say much one way or the other regarding the audience’s PK ability. The audience chose to concentrate on trying to make the astronaut appear, but after a couple of minutes the picture of the tiger appeared. Amazingly, it was decided to simply have another go! On this occasion, according to my recollection, the astronaut appeared fairly quickly. To no one’s great surprise, the viewers at home only got to see the successful outcome. However, it appears that some clever editing has been used to combine the start of the first trial with the end of the second. The overall impression is that the audience had managed to use their combined will-power to produce the desired outcome even though it initially appeared to be going in the wrong direction.
I hope by now I have given enough examples to illustrate the bias in this particular series. In addition to all these specific examples, as so often happens, the tests carried out on psychic claimants were generally poorly controlled and extremely limited in terms of the conclusions that could be drawn from them. It is for reasons such as these that sceptics are often cautious in accepting at face value presentations on television. TV producers have to be concerned about viewing figures and therefore are often more concerned with entertainment value than careful critical analysis. There is a general consensus amongst programme-makers that I have met that pro-paranormal programmes are more entertaining than sceptical programmes. I am not sure that they are right, but they are the ones who decide what kind of programmes get made. I think that moderate researchers on both sides of the debate would welcome programmes that dealt with strong evidence for the paranormal with the seriousness that it deserves. But given the over-riding importance of viewing figures, I do not think that this will happen very often.
Bem, D.J. & Honorton, C. (1994), Does psi exist? Evidence for an anomalous process of information transfer, Psychological Bulletin, 115, 4-18
Milton, J. & Wiseman, R. (1999), Does psi exist? Lack of replication of an anomalous process of information transfer, Psychological Bulletin, 125, 387-391
Wiseman, R., Smith, M. & Milton, J. (1998), Can animals detect when their owners are returning home? An experimental test of the “psychic pet” phenomenon, British Journal of Psychology, 89, 453-462