Monday, 30 September 2013

On Seeing a Dead Badger by the Road

On Sunday morning I was surprised to find a dead badger on a piece of grass less than a hundred yards from my house.  Despite the odd bluebottle it looked fairly fresh, perhaps just a little bloated.  The breeze rippling its fur made me wonder as I approached from the back whether it was still breathing.  But I couldn’t think where it had sprung from.  I doubt that there are any badger setts around here, though you can never be completely sure as they are such elusive creatures.  While the housing is fairly low density, and the piece of grass on which the animal lay is situated next to houses that are in an area called ‘The Coppice’ for a good reason, there are no extensive woodlands where badgers would be able to live undisturbed.  On the other hand their presence, otherwise secretive, might explain another mystery that has been puzzling me recently: why I have seen so few slugs this year.

My immediate assumption was that it had been killed by a car but it is unlikely, though possible, that it would have been thrown into that position, and the body appeared relatively undamaged.  It looked like it had been placed there, but that would be an odd thing to do with road kill, unless a mortified driver decided to treat it with more respect than is usually accorded to cats and other small mammals knocked down on the roads.  Getting closer I noticed an abrasion on the side of the head.  It was impossible for me to tell whether it was made pre- or post-mortem and whether it was related to the cause of death.  I didn’t turn the body over to check the other side.

If not by a car, perhaps the badger had been killed by a marksman.  Cambridge is well outside the cull area that is currently operating in the west of England, but that doesn’t mean that they are safe from assassination – remember David in The Archers illegally shooting one unwise enough to wander too close to his cows when he had had several TB reactors.  It transpired at the time that there were a few farmers taking the law into their own hands to protect their herds, and it must still go on discreetly.  The same day I saw the body, David Archer was on air ranting about badgers again in what can only have been a show of support for the National Farmers’ Union’s pro-culling stance.  Even so, an illegal shooter would surely not dump a corpse like that in such a visible place.  Anyway, I don‘t think there are any dairy farms close by, it’s arable in this area on the edge of Cambridge.  Thus cause of death is a mystery, and one not to be solved without an examination by a vet.

I think this is the first time I have ever seen one of these animals in person, alive or dead.  It was a sad sight, and made concrete just what the fierce controversy that I have been reading about in the news really means.  These are superb creatures, and their loss from the landscape, from whatever cause, diminishes us all and degrades our environment.  Whether or not culling badgers will prove to be an effective way of stopping bovine TB in cattle I have no idea but critics argue that there is more hope than science in the effort.  Still, if the NFU figure of 38,000 cattle slaughtered last year alone because of bovine TB is correct, I can understand the desperation behind the act.  Whether the cull is successful or not, seeing the animal lying there, its fur rippling in a warm September breeze, it seemed an emblem that we can be too quick to prioritise our own interests over the other inhabitants of our world.  It may have been shot, run over by a car, or died of age or disease.  Whatever its fate, it made me think of how many badgers are being killed legally every night at present, with such an uncertain outcome, to ensure that we have a ready supply of dairy products on our tables.


We rang the RSPCA when we got home to tell them about the death, and they recorded our statement.  They are taking reports of dead badgers seriously because of the risk of illegal shooting.  In fact, they are taking them so seriously that an inspector came out to examine the body the following day, but by the time he arrived the evidence had vanished, possibly removed by the Council as a health hazard.  Fortunately I was able to show him my photographs and his verdict was that it was likely to have been hit by a car.  The hole in its neck was certainly pre-mortem as the surrounding hair had fallen away because of inflammation, and was probably caused by fighting with another badger.

The distance it was lying from the road could be explained by the species’ robustness.  After a collision with a vehicle they often go under the car rather than bounce off the radiator grill, and are able to get up and walk some distance before collapsing.  As to whether there could be a badger clan in what I assumed was an unpromising area, he thought it entirely possible.  They tend to have a main sett with satellite setts further away, and the latter do not need access to a wide range of food resources to be viable.  We could have badgers fairly close and not realise it, perhaps living by a large lake which isn’t far away, and is across the main road from where the body lay.  So some answers, and while it is sad to think that one of these magnificent creatures was the victim of a car, at least it doesn’t look as if we have a rogue farmer deciding to extend the cull to this neck of Impington.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

A Brief Guide to Ghost Hunting, by Leo Ruickbie

In an age when ghost hunting groups proliferate but their standards are often woefully inadequate, solid and reliable information on how to carry out an investigation properly is essential.  In response to that need, Leo Ruickbie has written a useful guide which will assist investigators to conduct meaningful research.  Subtitled ‘How to Identify and Investigate Spirits, Poltergeists, Hauntings and Other Paranormal Activity’, its progression is logical, taking the reader through the process of evaluation, equipment, investigation methods, analysis, and interpretation of results.  In addition he discusses more general issues of psychical research, drawing heavily on the files of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and the Ghost Club.  Supplementing such historical material he conducted two surveys, the ‘Ghost Hunting Survey’, interviewing investigators, and a ‘Preliminary Survey of Hauntings’, the latter examining nearly a thousand reports from across the UK.

Sections look at ghosts in detail, categorising them in terms of factors such as degree of visibility, whether or not they communicate or appear to have purpose, and the sorts of places where they are said to be found, including a roundup of the most famous locations (the SPR is often asked for its ‘Top 10”, but such lists are more about marketing than psychical research).  Methods used to obtain information are covered, such as the Ouija board, mediums, dowsing, Electronic Voice Phenomena, even necromancy (though you will need a bit more information than is provided here if you fancy a go at that).  Then Ruickbie considers what might be going on, looking of course at the spirit hypothesis, but covering other possibilities of varying degrees of plausibility.  These include the environment, such as faulty plumbing, underground water, carbon monoxide poisoning, infrasound, geo- and electromagnetism, the ‘stone tape’ theory and more.  Psychological factors are dealt with: misperception, hallucination, the fantasy-prone personality etc.  Possible causes of poltergeists are covered: spirits, recurrent spontaneous psychokinesis, a desire to be rehoused, even stories put about as a cover for criminal activity.

After this wide-ranging tour, the final chapter looks at the perils that can befall the unwary investigator, from hit-and-runs, falling under trains, to being shot (the last one more an American than a British problem these days, but presumably a real danger for those groups foolhardy enough to commit trespass in search of ghosts).  Ruickbie found in his Ghost Hunting Survey that over half of his respondents had been frightened at least once during an investigation.  As he concludes, “ghost hunting is not for the faint-hearted.”  At the very least it requires good social skills, confidence when alone in the dark, and the ability to balance open-mindedness with scepticism.  Completing the package, unlike many publications dealing with spontaneous cases it has an excellent index and detailed endnotes which amply demonstrate the extensive reading that informs the volume.

Unsurprisingly, while it covers the full range of the aspects of investigation, the broad coverage means that the book isn’t comprehensive, and readers wanting a practical nuts-and-bolts technical guide taking them through the stages in further detail should supplement it with information from other sources (my preference is still Rosney et al’s A Beginner’s Guide to Paranormal Investigation, published by Amberley)Ghost Hunting is strong on the environmental factors that need to be taken into account, and forceful on the distinction between assumption-led research, for example that there is a haunting by a discarnate entity which only has to be documented, as opposed to evidence-led research which tries to avoid prior assumptions.  Equipment is dealt with lightly, and Ruickbie questions the appropriateness of much of the ghost hunters’ typical gear as it is frequently misused and cannot provide the evidence for paranormal activity that its users assume.

The book certainly manages to cover a lot of ground and as Ruickbie acknowledges the “Brief guide” in the title is something of a misnomer given that it is over 360 pages. Even so, the very breadth of coverage suggests that depth has had to be sacrificed.  That breadth though means that there is something here for everybody who has an interest in spontaneous case investigation, both the historical context and current best practice.  One can quibble with the book’s title as many researchers do not like the term ‘ghost hunting’, because it can be seen as self-aggrandising, has aggressive connotations, and if consciousness does continue is insulting to the dead.  Unfortunately publishers’ wishes often prevail over authors’ preferences in such matters.

Ruickbie notes (and is not alone in so doing) the widespread influence that television shows have had in shaping perceptions of ghost hunting and encouraging substandard methodologies, making books such as this valuable as an antidote.  Good information has to fight hard to hold its own amongst the dross, a situation made difficult by its relative scarcity, and he has helped to rectify that deficiency most ably.  No doubt there will still be groups who think that they know best with their gadgets, their obsession with orbs and even demons, and their readiness to attribute every unusual occurrence they experience to ghosts.  But with such level-headed books as this readily available, they will have even less excuse for their antics.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Fatality in Fleet Street, by Christopher St John Sprigg

It comes as a surprise to discover that the author of this detective novel was Christopher Caudwell (his mother’s surname), the Communist Party member who wrote on cultural issues from a left-wing perspective, and who died fighting in the Spanish Civil War in February 1937 at the age of 29.  His was a strange, accelerated, career with distinct segments encompassing prolific journalism, poetry and writing on aeronautics in addition to the novels and Marxist polemic.  The posthumous political works by Caudwell are not much read now, the fiction even less so; the seven novels written under his real name have faded from view to such an extent that an MA thesis dealing in part with a couple of them referred to him as Caudwell throughout, as it was better known.

Fatality in Fleet Street was published in 1933, before Sprigg joined the Communist Party.  It concerns a Fleet Street proprietor, Lord Carpenter, the “Governing Director of Affiliated Publications, the biggest newspaper group in the world”.  Carpenter is anti-Soviet and seeks to foment war with the USSR as the latter’s trade balance has become comparable with England’s, making it an economic threat.  The policy is widely opposed among his staff and by the Prime Minister.  Carpenter also happens to be a philandering bully, so that when he is found dead there are plenty of suspects with a wide variety of motives.  Beneath the conventional detective story is a satire on the power of press barons to manipulate public opinion, with even the PM helpless when faced by the ability of the warmongering Carpenter to determine the country’s political actions.  This manipulation is reinforced by Carpenter’s virtual monopoly on news, assisted by the passing of laws circumscribing the discussion of foreign policy on the wireless.

Although the book was published in 1933, for some reason it is set in the future, in the autumn of 1938 (p.2), November 1939 (p.155) or, if the date of Tuesday 12 October is accurate, 1937 (p.32).  Clearly Sprigg was not overly concerned with fine detail.  Whichever date is correct, it leads to one or two departures from history in our time-line, a world in which the Crystal Palace (destroyed by fire in November 1936) is still standing, there is no reference to the rise of Nazism and, if the events are taking place in late 1939, the Second World War hasn’t broken out.  Stalin has gone, replaced with “rulers gentler in political methods”, and the USSR is a great manufacturer thanks to her Twelve-Year Plan (p.153), which reads like science fiction.  The reference to Ukraine as a success story is particularly ironic because the Holodomor took place during 1931-2 (about the time Sprigg was writing his novel), Soviet mismanagement resulting in the deaths of millions through starvation.

The characters are broadly drawn, and there is a suspicion that they have suffered because of hasty writing.  The main one, Charles Venables, with monocle, is a journalist and crime expert on Carpenter’s newspaper who delves into the mystery, which often means going head to head with the police in the shape of the standard issue Inspector Manciple.  Venables appears in four of Sprigg’s books, of which Fatality in Fleet Street is the second.   He evokes Lord Peter Wimsey and Albert Campion, both of whom were well established by 1933, and an unreciprocated love interest (but which promises more) reminds one of Wimsey and Harriet Vane.

A group of Russian revolutionaries hiding out in the East End have apparently dropped in from a discarded draft of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, odd considering Caudwell would so shortly embrace radical politics.  Their clichéd attributes may have been the product of Sprigg’s false consciousness, soon to undergo a far-reaching transformation, or they may represent a dislike of clandestine political action compared to the mass agitation that he would later undertake as a member of the CPGB in Poplar.  Middle class women are generally well-rounded compared to the menfolk, the working class characters tend to be a bit ‘gor blimey’.  The most amusing secondary character is a highly intelligent Chinese journalist, Lee Kum Tong, whose depiction may have been influence by Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan, with his pithy sayings designed to subvert patronising Western notions of Chinese eternal wisdom.  The plotting is reasonable, though the identity of the murderer is not difficult to guess fairly early on.  A large part is taken up by a trial, the outcome of which is not in doubt, and it pads out the novel.  There is a neat twist that is not too far away from a scenario employed by Agatha Christie in Murder on the Orient Express, which appeared at the beginning of 1934.

Even though superficially they seem very different, a certain continuity exists between Fatality in Fleet Street and the political works such as Illusion and Reality and Studies in a Dying Culture.  The connection is the crisis in bourgeois culture; its exploration from a liberal standpoint in the detective novel is examined from a class-based perspective in the non-fiction.  Patriotism is manufactured cynically by Lord Carpenter to promote war for commercial advantage, parliamentary democracy is at risk of subversion by special interests while the public is kept in the dark and persuaded of courses of action on flimsy and exaggerated evidence.  These are linkages with resonance even today.

Sprigg/Caudwell would have been sorry to see the obscurity into which his cultural analyses have sunk with the demise of the Communist Party as a political force and Marx as an influential thinker, but it might have been some consolation to see his novels rediscovered, and Christopher St John Sprigg come out from the shadow cast by Christopher Caudwell.  The range and quantity of Sprigg’s writing shows that he had a formidable intellect, and had he survived the Spanish Civil War who knows what he would have achieved.  One thing seems fairly clear, however:  with the principle of Socialist Realism taking firm hold after the 1934 Soviet Writers’ Congress, Caudwell would not have returned to such a bourgeois form as the detective novel even if he had written more fiction.

It would be good to see all of his books back in print, but sadly Fatality in Fleet Street has not been issued as part of a Sprigg collection but as one of a series with the label ‘London Bound’, classic crime novels all set in the capital.  Oleander have produced an attractive volume, and even though Sprigg’s effort does not quite come up to the level of the best detective fiction of the period, it is still recommended as an enjoyable read, by one of the Golden Age’s most fascinating figures.

Monday, 2 September 2013

Extra Sensory: The Science and Pseudoscience of Telepathy and Other Powers of the Mind, by Brian Clegg

Reading Brian Clegg’s book I felt there was some sleight of hand going on.  He poses as a true sceptic rather than a pseudo-sceptic, the latter being the sort that won’t look at the evidence because it’s all nonsense, but it is obvious on which side of the fence he is going to come down; the reference to pseudoscience in the subtitle gives the game away.  Yet because his stance is that of the disinterested investigator willing to examine the issue from all sides, stressing repeatedly that psychic abilities should not be dismissed out of hand, his verdict is supposed to carry more weight than if he had adopted a partisan standpoint from the outset.  Unfortunately, one of his major criticisms of parapsychologists is cherry-picking, choosing the best results and discarding those not favourable to their hypothesis, and he seems to have done some of that himself.  The casual reader will obtain a very selective view of the field from his book.

It is important to stress that he is not addressing the entire field of psychical research.  As the subtitle suggests, he is investigating alleged “powers of the mind”: telepathy, clairvoyance/remote viewing, psychokinesis (which he consistently calls telekinesis for some reason, though he does not advance any reason for adopting the older usage) and precognition.  Then he takes a close look at the work of J. B. Rhine; the psychic cold war between the USA and USSR, including the Stargate project (naturally referencing The Men Who Stare at Goats); the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research (PEAR) lab; and Uri Geller and spoon bending.  Clegg does not address survival issues, though he does mention cold reading, and the problem evaluating the Scole sittings because of the spirits’ refusal to allow infrared during séances.  There is nothing on apparitions or poltergeists, the latter not even in terms of Recurrent Spontaneous Psychokinesis – a living individual being the agent – as a possible cause (he would doubtless argue that if there are problems influencing dice, psychokinesis is not likely to work on heavier objects over longer distances).  Even with this focus it is a lot of ground to cover, and Clegg tends not to analyse any of the phenomena he examines in depth.

The root of the problem with the book is that Clegg does not have a parapsychology background but is a popular science writer.  That means he has not immersed himself in the literature, and selectively chooses what he needs to support a point; James Randi in particular looms large as the model of a scientific investigator.  Clegg’s references are embedded in the endnotes, which helps to disguise the limited range of primary sources he has consulted.  While much of what he says is pertinent and should be taken on board by researchers, you feel repeatedly that you are only getting part of the story.  This may be for space reasons, but anyone who has a nodding acquaintance with the literature will start to wonder if he is keen to skate over details that might muddy his narrative.  For example, the chapter on PEAR relies on the project’s website and a 2005 article by Robert Jahn and Brenda Dunne in the Journal of Scientific Exploration. There is no mention of their books Margins of Reality: The Role of Consciousness in the Physical World (2009) and Consciousness and the Source of Reality: The PEAR Odyssey (2011), which would seem to be essential to a reliable scrutiny of their work.  Clegg’s dismissal would carry a lot more weight if it had been based on deeper reading.

There is a selective approach in other chapters too.  He makes great play of the telepathy experiments conducted by the early Society for Psychical Research with George Albert Smith and Douglas Blackburn. (Incidentally anyone looking for the SPR under ‘S’ in the index will be disappointed – as sometimes happens with books published in the United States it is listed under ‘B’ as the ‘British Society for Psychical Research’, an organisation that does not exist, presumably to distinguish it from the American Society for Psychical Research, which does – just about.)  Clegg has taken his information on the Smith-Blackburn trials from C E M Hansel’s sceptical 1966 book ESP: A Scientific Evaluation without attribution, though he does cite Hansel’s book later when discussing J. B Rhine’s laboratory.  The only reference Clegg provides to the Smith-Blackburn trials is an article Blackburn wrote much later for the Daily News, 1 September 1911, a reference to which is included in Hansel, though it was only one of a number of articles Blackburn wrote for both the Daily News and previously for John Bull.  The News article is reprinted in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research – though there is no evidence that Clegg has consulted the SPR’s literature because if he had he would have seen the various responses it provoked, including from Smith himself – as well as in Paul Kurtz’s A Skeptic’s Handbook of Parapsychology.  Clegg does not indicate, and possibly does not appreciate, that Blackburn was an unreliable witness with his own agenda.  Further, Clegg does not, as Hansel does not, address the SPR experiments in which Smith was involved after Blackburn’s departure, reported in exhausting detail in its Proceedings.  Clegg would probably have found this series similarly flawed, but to reach a balanced conclusion on the early SPR’s experiments they need to be taken into account.  Unless that is, Clegg merely wished to provide sufficient evidence to support an opinion he had already reached.

There is a chapter on Uri Geller that recounts the well-worn story of his spoon-bending career.  Just to rub in how credulous investigators can be we have a section on the sad business of the mini-Gellers investigated by John Taylor, as recounted in his book Superminds (1975), though not anything about the book Taylor wrote after his change of heart, Science and the Supernatural (1980).  But while we can nod sagely at the ridiculousness of anybody believing that Geller bends spoon and forks using anything other than a bit of manual dexterity, what about that 18mm chrome vanadium combination Snap-On spanner that Geller is said to have bent at the Silverstone Grand Prix in 1998?  To do that required somewhat more force than Geller would have been able to muster with thumb and forefinger.  Admittedly he could have hidden a pre-bent spanner in his underpants and made a switch at an opportune moment, or perhaps achieved the effect with the assistance of a confederate, on the assumption that mechanics wouldn’t necessarily recognise every single spanner they own.  But this is of a different order to manipulating table cutlery, and Clegg should have included it in his account.

He also polarises the issue of reliability into psi proponents vs sceptics, drawing heavily on people like Randi, Hansel and Martin Gardner, though curiously not Richard Wiseman or Chris French, as if they are the guardians of truth against the gullibility of parapsychologists.  That parapsychologists have been gullible is not in doubt, as Clegg is quick to note, but he fails to add that often accusations of fraud come from within the field itself.  In particular he mentions Walter J Levy and Samuel Soal.  Levy was exposed not by a crusading sceptic but by fellow researchers.  Betty Markwick uncovered cheating by Soal, yet Clegg does not mention that she is the longstanding Hon Statistical Advisor of the SPR.  And Clegg’s source for his description of Markwick’s analysis of Soal’s data?  Not her seminal paper ‘The Soal-Goldney Experiments with Basil Shackleton: New Evidence of Data Manipulation’, in the SPR’s Proceedings, but Randi’s Flim-Flam.

Extra Sensory is clearly written, albeit with more on quantum physics than seems strictly necessary for the discussion of possible mechanisms for telepathy.  Clegg covers the principles of the scientific approach, always worth hearing, and the dangers of relying on anecdotal evidence.  His verdict on the banality of much of what passes for parapsychology is sadly true, though his final words seem curious: “It’s time to switch off the life support for parapsychology in its present form and get the researchers to bite the bullet and go for the real thing.”  It was news to me that parapsychology was on life support at the present time and it will probably come as a surprise to practising parapsychologists as well.  He is right though to be wary of experiments that produce only tiny statistical effects that could be attributed to normal causes in both equipment and statistical analyses, because the results are so often ambiguous and unrepresentative of how psi is supposed to work in the real world.  It is also a sad fact of the field that promising avenues of research have a tendency to peter out, often after becoming mired in controversy.

However, while acknowledging that there are methodological problems in parapsychology, it needs to be borne in mind that Clegg is not the open-minded sceptic that he claims to be, and he draws on only a small part of the findings that have accumulated.  Teasingly he keeps the possibility of telepathy open, but rather damned by the grudging “There is some evidence that has not been proved worthless” (“not yet anyway”, he might have added).  The rest of it can, in his opinion, be written off as tainted by issues of coincidence, poor experimental procedure, statistical noise, misperception and selective memory, and of course fraud.  One wonders what grounds for optimism he has for thinking that there might be something in it that is still worth investigation.