Thursday, 26 March 2015

Why I do not intend to leave money to the Society for Psychical Research


This may seem a surprising statement from someone who has been involved with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) for nearly 30 years, many of those as a Council member.  My affection for the Society and my commitment to its aims have not wavered, but I am concerned that the enormous sum bequeathed by Mr Nigel Buckmaster is not being used as wisely as it might, and I am not confident that any money I might leave would be used wisely either.

In what follows I must stress that I am not divulging any privileged information gleaned through SPR Council meetings.  Matters discussed within them are confidential, and although that principle has not always been honoured by some Council members, I feel I should restrict myself to what has appeared in the public domain – or can be deduced from it.  The necessity for deduction is because the official communications have not always been terribly explicit about how money will be used; you would think that there was some embarrassment about it judging by the lack of detail in the Society’s various announcements.  There is still enough information available to allow me to express my disquiet at some of the things that have occurred since the Buckmaster funds began flowing into the SPR’s coffers.

Exactly a year ago I wrote a couple of blog posts about the Buckmaster bequest, as a result of the publication of the SPR’s 2012-13 Annual Report and Statement of Accounts.  Now that the 2013-14 Report and Accounts (the reporting period ends on 30 September) are available, it is possible to see what further information has been supplied on the matters I wrote about then.  Buckmaster is prominent in the Report, starting with outgoing president Dr Richard Broughton in his own report alluding to the difficulties encountered within Council in deciding what to do with the money.  Unfortunately the Accounts feel very short on detail, and while they are acceptable to the auditors and other official bodies, the interested member might struggle to determine exactly how some of the Society’s resources are being expended.

In addition to the reference in his presidential section in the 2013-14 Annual Report Dr Broughton, who also chairs the Buckmaster Oversight Committee (BOC), contributes the BOC’s first annual report.  In it he briefly lists the four elements of the ‘Buckmaster project’:  1) the online encyclopaedia/books/website upgrade; 2) ‘a research and publication project to develop Systems Methodology as a new tool especially suited to the investigation of spontaneous cases’; 3) ‘updating and upgrading the Lexscien online library’; and 4) the creation of an online open data repository.  What is left goes into a building fund in the hope of finding a freehold property at some point.

Some of the Buckmaster initiatives are to be admired, though it might be felt that more money is being spent on them than should be necessary (some £350,000 on the publishing programme, for example).  In particular, even though the earlier CaseBase proposal promoted by David and Julie Rousseau, which was to gather a collection of what are considered to be the best paradigm-challenging cases, had been withdrawn because it was so controversial, leading to the formation of the BOC, David Rousseau (the Society’s Hon. Treasurer) and Julie Rousseau, also a Council member, seem to loom large in the disbursement of the Buckmaster money.

One sum that went to them – or rather their organisation C-FAR, the Centre for Fundamental and Anomalies Research – was £11,600 for the updating and upgrading of the Lexscien online library, which among other publications houses the SPR’s Proceedings and Journal back to 1882 (item 3 on Dr Broughton’s list of Buckmaster projects).  There had been embarrassing complaints about the online library’s usability for some time which reflected badly on the SPR, and it also stopped at 2008.  The new money will allow it to be brought up to date, but it does seem to be a huge amount of money to support a database that also brings in subscription money to C-FAR from non-SPR members.  A useful comparator is Marc Demarest’s IAPSOP database, which is growing at a phenomenal pace and houses far more content than the relatively static Lexscien.  IAPSOP is clearly done for love by volunteers, Lexscien is a more hard-headed enterprise.  C-FAR by the way does not itself seem to do much research as an organisation, despite its title (though I am happy to be corrected), but it does appear to be a registered company so must be handy for tax purposes.

Number 2 on Dr Broughton’s list is the Systems Methodology project, which Dr Broughton’s report specifies is being conducted by Dr Rousseau.  C-FAR was given £26,000 for this purpose, and as it is a neat third of the £78,000 noted in the SPR Buckmaster announcement of 24 March 2014, it is not difficult to figure out that this is the first of three tranches of £26,000 being paid to Dr Rousseau.  The total amount he is receiving, £78,000, seems clear, but not what he is doing for the money, which is nowhere elaborated.  What can be said with certainty is that despite the Systems Methodology project grant to Dr Rousseau being a grant for a project, it is not as one might have expected administered by the SPR’s Research Grants Committee (RGC), even though one would normally expect such an application to be made to them rather than direct to the BOC, and there is no indication that the BOC would entertain other grant applications.

I have previously noted that the annual sum paid to Dr Rousseau is completely out of scale with the average RGC award.  This year (2013-14) the RGC awarded a mere four grants ranging from £750 to £3,300, averaging £2,050 per applicant.  There were in addition seven grants awarded by the Society’s Survival Research Committee, ranging from three of £1,000 to one of £4,500, the seven averaging £2,663.  The total amount awarded to all eleven by both committees comes to £26,842.87, only slightly more than awarded to Dr Rousseau alone in the same year.  The £78,000 to be given to Dr Rousseau, something like a tenth of the Buckmaster bequest, is totally unlike the grants normally given to applicants.  That must be some Systems Methodology.  What can it possibly contain that is worth so much?  Half way through the 2014-15 reporting year and we are still none the wiser.

Finally, there is one item glaringly missing from the 2014 Report: any reference to the Research Activities Committee (RAC), which Dr Rousseau chaired for some years, but which was long inactive apart from the promotion of the Rousseaus’ CaseBase project (as can be seen from Dr Rousseau’s notes as chair in previous Annual Reports).  I am particularly sorry to see it go because I was on Robert Morris’s steering group that resulted in the RAC’s formation in 1992.  Anybody wishing to see what the RAC was intended to do should read Professor Bernard Carr’s article written when he was RAC chair, ‘Research Activities in the SPR: New Initiatives’, which appeared in the SPR’s Paranormal Review in January 1999.  The committee had a wide remit, but this languished under Dr Rousseau’s chairmanship.  The cynic might think that, the CaseBase initiative having been shelved, the RAC had fulfilled its function and was of no further interest to Dr Rousseau.  I’m sure it is a coincidence but the conjunction is unfortunate in terms of perception.  Anyway, it would have been nice to see some mention of it in the Annual Report, but the loss of a committee specifically dealing with research activities is not something one would necessarily wish to draw attention to as it suggests a certain poverty of ideas.

To sum up, I had intended to leave money to the SPR.  Not on the scale of Nigel Buckmaster admittedly, but an amount nonetheless.  I shall certainly not do so now, because of the way I feel that the Buckmaster money is being so poorly utilised.  This is not my opinion alone.  I know of a couple of SPR members who feel the same way, and will not remember the SPR in their wills.  That is money that would have come in over the next few decades which will instead go to other homes.  The Society has done very well from legacies in the past, and they have got the organisation through some tough periods when outgoings otherwise outstripped income.  But times change, the profile of the membership has changed with them, and it cannot be assumed that legacies will always flow in as they have in the past.  If potential donors see that money is being frittered, they will look elsewhere.  There are many competing causes, and some who would once have considered putting the SPR in their wills could decide that other charities, such as Cancer Research, or the Alzheimer’s Society, will be more likely to use their money wisely.  That is what I am going to be doing.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

Books Lost; Books Regained


I recently read a blog post by Luke McKernan, ‘Lost Books’, in which he discusses his attitude to the ownership of books.  His key point is that the act of reading a book makes it part of the reader, and looking along a shelf of them is a reminder of the intellectual journey to which they have been the accompaniment.  He tells the story of how, when moving house, he gave a quantity of his books, perhaps a couple of hundred, to a charity shop and has regretted it ever since because in a very real way he had disposed of a part of himself.  He can recall where he bought all his books and where he read them, so at a meta level they contain a story over and above that found in the content, which in reading them became part of Luke’s own story.  If they’ve gone, they’ve gone, and not even an identical replacement will carry that sense of having been absorbed; it would be merely a ringer, not the same.  To reinstate the meaning that the original copy had would mean rereading it, and overlaying the first set of associations with a new one.

I can understand this view, but my engagement, while I hope as intense, is somewhat different.  After a time I do not as a rule recall where I bought a book, nor often where in particular I read it, though I do often associate particular books with certain times, usually longer books read in summer holidays when young – War and Peace, Don Quixote and Ulysses spring to mind.  As a rule it’s the words that count, not the book as an object, but it was not always so: at one time (my teens and 20s) I had the ambition of owning every book I read.  This proved impractical but I still built up large sub-collections.  Unfortunately space is the enemy, and I eventually decided I had to weed out some of the things I had read and would probably not need again (a dangerous assumption).  Early victims of this culling process were the poetry pamphlets which I had accumulated during my regular trips to Compendium at Camden Town, and later, when married with a small child, many of my science fiction and crime novels.  It hurt at first, but I found that I gradually became less sentimental, and didn’t consider that I was diminished by their absence.  I certainly don’t feel, as Luke suggests, that their absence tells an incomplete story about me, and if it does, who cares?

In general I still find that I don’t miss the ones that are gone, with exceptions.  Some books I do kick myself about, like the one I got a few pounds for on eBay which I later discovered was worth rather a lot, or the politics books from my student days I sold to a specialist dealer that I wish I had kept (but I really didn’t think at the time I would want to consult Lenin’s What is to Be Done? again, or what must have been everything Trotsky wrote that was in English translation at the time, let alone reread them, and perhaps I mourn the loss of the younger me they represent as much as the volumes themselves).  Mostly I take a pragmatic view, keeping books I think will be useful, notably on cinema, psychical research and the nineteenth century.  I don’t read ebooks for pleasure, but I do have a large collection of PDFs for reference or just-in-case, and some of those have replaced physical copies that I have read and am unlikely to want to reread in their entirety.

I am not a slave to the editions I have read either.  If a more recent version comes out, I’m happy to replace my old one, invariably when I find a cheap second-hand copy.  Thus recently the 2003 revised Penguin edition of Frankenstein, which I haven’t yet read, replaced the 1992 Penguin edition, which in turn replaced the still earlier one I had read, simply because it is more up to date.  On the McKernan system I would either have to eschew the new one,  or else read it in order to make it part of me, overlaying the trace of the old one I had read which had gone.  The latter I may or may not do, but should I need to consult it – and who knows where research will take one – it’s good to know that I have the copy that has been revised and which can be considered more authoritative than its predecessors, including the one I read.

There are some books I won’t part with, such as the battered copies of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn my father bought me when I was a child and which evoke the original pleasure of reading them whenever I look at the covers.  The Beatrix Potter books I received from relatives fall into the same category.  For most of them though I do not feel that strength of attachment.  I certainly do not regard them as part of me in the way that Luke does his.  I’ve already mentioned, in reviewing Penguin’s compilation of covers, Seven Hundred Penguins, how I once thought nice hardbacks were preferable to Penguins and changed them over as a matter of course when I had the opportunity, only to change them back where appropriate when I came to appreciate that it was the content that mattered, not the format.  These days I divide books into those which are keepers and those which are disposable.  The latter, mostly modern fiction, go off the charity shop when read, yet they often achieve a kind of permanence in my memory through the act of writing about them.  If space were limitless I would have a grand library in which to retain every book I acquire, with no disposal policy, and once something like that was an ambition.  They are wonderful to have about the place, but one has to be practical, and moving thousands of books is a nightmare.  Some balance is required.

One thing I disagree with Luke about is his definition of a bibliophile, which he characterises as someone who collects books or reveres them for their own sake.  He sees the bibliophile fetishizing objects, and by that narrow definition neither am I one.  Really it is too narrow, and I think we both are really, or else why would we be writing about our books with such affection?  They are obviously important to us both.  We may have different approaches to the books we own but I bet he loves them as much as I do.  I love the texture, the weight, the design, above all the promise contained inside.  Sometimes the promise is unfulfilled, at other times it exceeds expectations.  Bibliophilia is about the attitude one takes to one’s books and what they contain, which is essentially a deep connection.  I feel it, and the fact that Luke mourns those lost paperbacks puts him very firmly in that category too.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

A visit to Kazerne Dossin, Mechelen, Belgium


Mechelen was chosen as a transport hub for the deportation of Jews and others deemed undesirable by the Nazis from 1942 to 1944 because it was conveniently located between Brussels and Antwerp and had good railway links.  Kazerne Dossin is a fitting monument to the lives and deaths of the Jews, gypsies, and others who suffered under the Nazi regime before and during the war, in Belgium and elsewhere.  Opened in 2012, it is described in its literature as a ‘Memorial Museum and Documentation Centre about the Holocaust and Human Rights’.

Occupying five floors in a massive purpose-built structure, it covers and contextualises the rise of Nazism in Germany after 1918; Jewish life in Belgium during the same period; the occupation; registration of Jewish citizens and increasing restrictions on their freedom as they were excluded from mainstream society; the often enthusiastic cooperation given by the Belgian authorities, at least in the early stages; the strains of living in hiding for those Jews who chose not to submit;  the theft of property, and the transports East leaving from the Dossin Barracks opposite (after which the museum is named) to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other camps; the mass murder; and the trauma of those who survived.  Photographs, objects and information panels are interspersed with audio commentaries describing some of the stories of those caught up in this dreadful period that make compelling listening, and films of Holocaust survivors recounting their own experiences.  All information is trilingual, including English.

A video near reception orients the visitor with a brief history of anti-semitism and the way in which those who are seen to be different can be ostracised and bullied.  The main exhibition is divided into three parts, a floor devoted to each: ‘Mass’, creating the environment in which maaltreatment can flourish by taking away a sense of individual responsibility and forming an outgroup to despise; ‘Fear’, the imposition of a state of terror after the German invasion of Belgium in 1940, leading to the deportations; and ‘Death’, the camps and the extermination.  Included here are photographs of SS personnel enjoying themselves, seemingly oblivious of the horrors around them which were all in a day’s work.  As well as the conveyor belt to the gas chambers, the mass executions carried out on the Eastern Front are included, naked individuals lined up and shot at the edges of huge pits.   Importantly in all this it is stressed that the Holocaust did not come out of a vacuum, but built on anti-Semitic attitudes which pre-dated the Third Reich.

Cumulatively the displays show the infliction of terror on an unimaginable scale.  To reinforce that message, one huge wall of the museum is covered with photographs of the deportees, a remarkable and sombre display which is designed to give them back the identities of which they were so cruelly deprived.  The predominant colour of the museum is white, symbolic of purity and innocence, while reminiscent of gravestone marble.  It is a huge building, imposing and functional, with no unnecessary frills to distract from the content, towering over the old barracks that for some 26,000 people was the start of their journey away from Mechelen.  The whole place is an act of commemoration, while asking hard questions about how such an act could happen.

The Belgian state apparatus which collaborated with the Nazi authorities does not on the whole – with notable exceptions – come out well, though the fact that large numbers of Jews remained in hiding is testament to the support of sections of the wider community, and Belgian co-operation decreased as the German persecution became more naked.  This is in contrast to the tolerance Belgium displayed before the invasion, becoming home to many displaced Jews from other countries, notably Poland.  But the focus is not just on those who actively assisted the Nazis; those who stood by passively were also complicit.  The centre is thus an act of remembrance for all Belgians, not just its Jewish citizens.  The top floor is given over to temporary exhibitions about other genocides, broadening the scope from what happened at Mechelen and elsewhere during the Second World War; the one during my visit comprised large-scale photographs dealing with the documentation of the victims and the crimes that were perpetrated against them during the Guatemalan civil war.

Looking at the photographs of those who died in the concentration camps, what struck me was how ordinary they looked.  One that caught my eye was of a casually-dressed man in glasses sitting on a sofa.  He looked much like I do, casually dressed, in glasses, sitting on the sofa.  I couldn’t really see how he was so different from me in any way that someone would want to murder him for no other reason than that he happened to be Jewish.  These are not anonymous individuals, statistics, they are real people, who had hopes and fears like anybody else.  What really made me think how much alike they and we are though was a particular photograph.  It is of two men standing side by side, with cigarettes in their hands, taken outside a Jewish restaurant in Charleois, Belgium, in 1936.  That they are both holding their cigarettes in their left hands suggests that they are brothers. 


 Whether they are or not, the picture reminded me strongly of one of my favourite photographs of my father (on the left), standing outside the Union Tavern, Camberwell New Road, south London, in 1955 with his brother George, the pair similarly holding cigarettes. 


 Different times and circumstances, but still two ordinary men standing in the street with cigarettes.  Was either of those men photographed in 1936 alive a decade later?  We can be thankful that we in the West today are immeasurably more comfortable than are those who suffer oppression, while we are reminded, both from historical and contemporary examples, how fragile that comfort can be.

When we arrived at Kazerne Dossin a party of school students was just finishing a tour and congregating with their mobile phones. It was good to see young people being exposed to these exhibits, though who knows what lessons they took away, but otherwise it was all fairly quiet.  More people should make the trip to Mechelen and see what can happen to ordinary people, little different to anybody else, who are persecuted by those who pursue a ruthless and unbending ideology of hate.  That anti-Semitism is still a problem was demonstrated by the presence of armed soldiers in the foyer (we also visited the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels, where four people were murdered in May 2014, and that too has armed guards among other stringent security measures).

The barracks across the road, where deportees gathered to wait for the transports, have been converted into flats, the courtyard landscaped.  The building has been put to positive use, but it still felt a little uncomfortable walking through the doorway and visualising where, based on a photograph we saw in the museum, arrivals had clustered, lorries had stood, and where possessions had been left, symbolic of the soon-to-be absence of those rounded up.  The past suddenly felt very present as we stood there.


 Anybody visiting Brussels or Antwerp should seriously consider visiting Kazerne Dossin.  It deals with specific instances of mass murder but draws out broader lessons which are timeless.  These oblige us to think about the mechanisms that enable such barbarous acts and how we might respond in similar circumstances; how resistant to demagoguery we would be when the entire regime is bent on the systematic annihilation of its opponents and those who, for ideological reasons, it deems unworthy of life.

The Nazis’ victims may be gone, but Kazerne Dossin, for as long as it stands, will perpetuate their memory.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage


Lines in the Ice: Seeking the Northwest Passage (or a Northwest Passage according to one title panel at the gallery’s entrance) is the current British Library exhibition in what is now called, slightly misleadingly, the ‘Entrance Hall’ rather than the more specific Folio Gallery, the Folio Society presumably having ceased its sponsorship of the space.  Lines in the Ice charts the European – notably Norwegian, Russian, Dutch, but principally English – fascination with the Arctic over the course of four hundred years and the often fraught relationship with the region,  and with its inhabitants whose way of life has been put under increasing pressure since contact was first made.

The displays particularly focus on the search for the Northwest Passage linking Atlantic and Pacific, a venture full of drama and tragedy that reflects the outward urge of Europeans at a time of trade and colonial expansion.  Curated by Philip Hatfield (the British Library’s Canadian Collections) and Tom Harper (Map Library), there are some wonderful items: books, maps of increasing accuracy (including Charles II’s own atlas), letters, photographs, and moving images.  The overall design is thoughtful, the information panels’ colour scheme evoking the icy Arctic environment.

There are some well-known names connected with the region here, starting with the Elizabethan explorer Sir Martin Frobisher, shown in a confrontation with Greenland Inuit in the 1570s.  The bulk of the exhibition though is devoted to the nineteenth century efforts at Arctic exploration, reflecting British maritime dominance, the most famous name from that period of course being Sir John Franklin.  He and his ill-fated expedition, as well as those that set out to discover his fate, have a central place in the display.  There is also film of the great Roald Amundsen, and not forgetting Father Christmas in the roll-call of famous figures associated with the Arctic, who it turns out has been issued with a Canadian passport.

Inuit accounts of the European presence were often dismissed when they did not suit the prevailing narrative, such as stories of cannibalism among Franklin’s men reported by John Rae from Inuit eyewitness accounts, later found to be true.  Inuit identity and culture tended to be ignored by European interlopers, their existence – if noticed at all – seen as irrelevant, but the exhibition ensures that we are reminded of their presence.  It is significant that Amundsen’s success in navigating the Northwest Passage in 1903-6 was partly reliant on local Inuit knowledge.  He was always ready to learn from those with greater experience.

The fate of Franklin’s expedition highlights the Gothic feel of the region, one that Shane McCorristine has examined.  Even before Franklin, though, Mary Shelley had seen the Arctic’s uncanny potential in her 1818 novel Frankenstein.  The flipside is the attempt to impose an element of domesticity on the alien landscape, as can be seen in a print of crew members playing cricket in an 1824 book by Captain William Parry.  One of the most striking images in the exhibition is an 1848 illustration of Peter Halkett’s very English combination inflatable dinghy and cloak, with an umbrella that doubled as a sail – except how much use would an umbrella be in such a cold place?

Sound is not forgotten as an aid to evoke atmosphere, and it expands the visual experience.  Part of the display has a soundtrack of surf and seabirds to accompany the exhibits.  There are also headphones where one can listen to recordings from the natural world: icebergs as they sound underwater, the echolocation of a male sperm whale, and the subsurface vocalisations of bearded seals and walruses.

Recent decades are dealt with somewhat cursorily at the end, perhaps because this is a story that is still being written.  The recent discovery of the whereabouts of Franklin’s HMS Erebus has fuelled interest in the Arctic, and the exhibition comes up to date with the political manoeuvrings for territory and access to resources as illustrated in maps issued by the Russians and Canadians.  The demarcation problem will become all the more pressing as the ice continues to recede and, given Russia’s current attitude to diplomacy, is a potentially significant international flashpoint, while at the same time the Arctic is increasingly important to environmentalists as a symbol of the destruction of the planet in the pursuit of profit.

The Arctic is a place of breath-taking beauty, danger, and wonder.  It has long loomed large in our imagination, and while it is right to be concerned for its future as a site of national rivalries and degradation from climate change and commercial exploitation, it is worth being reminded of those who risked, and often lost, their lives as they went West in pursuit of a passage to the East, becoming part of legend in the process.  Lines in the Ice is a worthy tribute to their endurance.

The exhibition has been extended and closes on Sunday 19 April 2015.

Friday, 30 January 2015

On discovering that I have a RationalWiki entry



I was surprised to learn recently that I have acquired a page of my own on the website RationalWiki (RW) which prides itself, according to its subtitle, on ‘Cleaning up toxic waste spills in the waterways of public discourse!’  So if you are targeted by them you can assume that you fall in the category of toxic waste.  Putting aside this unattractive image, what does their entry on me say (as it stood on 27 January 2015)?

It starts gently enough: ‘Tom Ruffles is a British paranormal writer and Communications Officer for the Society for Psychical Research.’  The second half is definitely true, while the first half is debatable as I have written about quite a bit more than that, but I’m not quibbling.  Then there are some random facts extracted from my entry on the SPR website’s trustees’ page, under the heading ‘Psychical Research’:

‘Ruffles joined the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1987. He has co-designed the current SPR logo. He has worked as a Book Reviews Editor and as their Communications Officer. He was involved in the Anglia Paranormal Research Group and has contributed to the Fortean Times. A firm believer in ghosts and the paranormal, Ruffles is the author of the book Ghost Images: Cinema of the Afterlife (2004).’

For good measure the following is taken from the ‘Major activities’ section of my blog: ‘Ruffles currently manages the Society for Psychical Research facebook page.’  As I wrote my SPR trustees’ entry I can vouch for the accuracy of RW’s inelegant précis, with one glaring exception: my entry does not say that I am ‘a firm believer in ghosts and the paranormal’.  As we shall see, the anonymous RW contributor inferred that from links I have posted on the SPR’s Facebook page.  I certainly wasn’t asked for my views.

So what have I done to merit the attention of RW?  My guess is that it was because a number of the links I have posted on the SPR’s Facebook page have been critical of Guerrilla Skeptics, an organisation with a similar mind-set to RW’s, and because I wrote a sympathetic review for the SPR website of a book by a bête noir of RW’s, Craig Weiler's Psi Wars.  My reason for thinking so is because at this point the RW entry veers off into strange territory.  Under the heading ‘Conspiracy theories’ we find:

‘Ruffles has re-blogged [referring to the SPR’s Facebook page] and supported the conspiracy theories of Deepak Chopra, Craig Weiler and Rupert Sheldrake that materialists and skeptics have highjacked Wikipedia to upload skeptical material on paranormal-related articles.

‘Ruffles has positively reviewed a conspiracy theory book written by paranormal blogger Craig Weiler which incorrectly claimed that the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia and related skeptic groups were ruining parapsychological Wikipedia articles.’

To support the contention that I have ‘re-blogged and supported’ said conspiracy theories there are a number of links provided in the references to blog posts which I had included on the SPR’s Facebook page.  The first is to a blog post by Weiler, ‘Chopra Vs. The Wikipedia Trolls, er, Editors’; the second is to another Weiler blog post, ‘The Guerrilla Skeptics: Taking Creepy to 11’ (you can see why they dislike this guy); the third is to a post on another blog, ‘Rupert Sheldrake talks about "Guerrilla Skeptics" (VIDEO)’; and the fourth is to a post by Robert McLuhan (an SPR Council colleague), ‘Guerrilla Skeptics’, on his Paranormalia blog.   I need to make two points here.

Firstly, the reason I posted links to these specific items on the SPR Facebook page is because at the time Susan Gerbic’s Guerrilla Skeptics were making a lot of news, and I link to items that are topical.  Secondly, I try to include as wide a range of links as possible on the Facebook page, representing all shades of opinion.  The SPR has no corporate views, and I do not promote a ‘party line’.

This can be a difficult balancing act.  I have been berated by both sceptics and psi proponents for posting ‘rubbish’ – that is, material with which they personally disagreed.  I try to be neutral and include anything that is relevant, and likely to be of interest to visitors to the page.  I don’t always succeed, but the Facebook page (as well as the SPR’s Twitter feed, which RW ignored), have I hope become lively sources of information and discussion in the field.

That the links I post cover a broad swathe is evidenced by the fifth RW reference to posts which I have included on the SPR’s Facebook page.  The RW editor cannot have scrutinised it carefully, assuming it was more criticism of the Guerrilla Skeptics.  Its title is ‘Guerrilla Skeptics create and update Wikipedia pages (including mine)’, but this one was written by Jerry Coyne on his blog Why Evolution is True, and was extremely enthusiastic about the Guerrilla Skeptics!  Just because I link to something on the SPR’s Facebook page does not mean that I am endorsing Deepak Chopra, Rupert Sheldrake, Craig Weiler or Jerry Coyne.

What of Weiler’s book, and my review of it?  I tried to be even-handed, noting where I thought he had gone too far, but broadly sympathising with his contention that there was a conspiracy (and Gerbic has referred to her ‘secret groups’ of editors, which sounds kind of like a conspiracy) by opponents to manipulate Wikipedia pages to which they objected.  Even if it the efforts are being conducted by lone individuals, it is clear that there are concerted efforts to damage those pages.

There has been an attempt to distract attention from this manipulation by banging on that it is wrong to say that the Guerrilla Skeptics had edited Rupert Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page.  Referring to my review of Psi Wars, the RW writer adds the following comment in a footnote:

‘Ruffles endorsed Weiler's conspiracy theory here [i.e. in my review of Psi Wars].  However, according to the skeptic Tim Farley, “none of Susan's editors are editing that article [Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page]. It's completely a conspiracy theory” and also see refutation of the conspiracy theory from the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia founder’.

Leaving aside the incoherence of that last part, I think it is clear that the Guerrilla Skeptics have not edited Sheldrake’s page, and I never said that they had in my review, so the RW reference to it is irrelevant, but that does not mean there isn’t a widespread, systematic effort by like-minded individuals, organised or not, to block sympathetic attempts to edit pages they characterise as pseudoscience.  I have had first-hand experience of obstruction when trying to improve the SPR’s Wikipedia page, and it is because of this type of difficulty that there are efforts to by-pass Wikipedia and construct online encyclopaedias that are not open to vandalism and contain reliable information.  One of these is an initiative of the SPR.

Actually, I refer to Guerrilla Skeptics once in my review of Psi Wars, but not to any claim that they edited Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page.  I said:

‘This is all useful information but when Weiler is being particularly combative his passion can run away with him: it isn’t helpful to say of the Guerrilla Skeptics on Wikipedia that “much of what they do is fairly evil”, whatever one thinks of their approach.’

It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of Weiler’s position, yet the RW view is that because Weiler thought the Guerrilla Skeptics had edited Sheldrake’s Wikipedia page, the only reasonable act would have been to rubbish the whole of his book as the product of an unsound conspiracy (that is, automatically untrustworthy) theorist.  It’s a cheap tactic by any standards, lobbing a red herring in to distract attention from the strengths of a critique.  Another is focusing on Weiler’s day job as a handyman, thereby implying that his views on psi and scepticism have no significance – really, who cares whether he’s a handyman or not.  It’s the points he makes that count, his construction skills are irrelevant.

The error that the RW editor has made in trying to put together a page on me is in assuming that writing about or linking to something is the same as supporting it.  It doesn’t follow, but the assumption does indicate the impoverished world-view of RW.  The website cherry-picks facts (notably omitting any mention of my academic qualifications when giving a thumb-nail sketch of my activities because they would bolster my credibility) to paint a particular picture, a stark black-and-white one without nuance.  It is a case of either being explicitly with the RW programme, or being against it.  There is no middle ground.

I put a link to my RW page on the SPR’s Facebook page, to see what people thought.   One person noticed the cherry-picking, ignoring those Facebook links that are sceptical in tone.   Someone else thought that being given a page on RW was a badge of honour, I suppose on the grounds that I must be doing something right for them to notice.

I was a bit surprised to find myself on their radar and wasn’t sure at first whether to be amused or irritated at the assumptions in the RW entry, but on balance, now my initial surprise has worn off, it all seems irrelevant.  RW is for true believers who are talking to themselves while the real (not pseudo-) sceptics get on with the business of trying to take a scientific approach to the subject matter in which they are interested, rather than dismissing it a priori because it doesn’t conform to their own particular world-view.


Update 9 February 2015: On discovering that I no longer have a RationalWiki entry

Ah, fame is fleeting.  I have discovered that my RationalWiki page has been deleted and the details combined with those of the Society for Psychical Research, presumably on the grounds that I am not weighty enough to merit my own entry.  Strangely though I have a subheading to myself, the only person with one.  It has the bizarre effect of making me look a more significant figure in the Society’s history than say Sidgwick, Myers or Gurney, who are only mentioned in passing.  Despite this reworking there are still unsupported assertions in my entry, despite the RW author having actually read my 30 January post rebutting the original RW entry on me; I know this because it is now listed in the references (with a link, thank you for that).

The new version (as at 9 February 2015) still says that I am a firm believer in ghosts and the paranormal and still has the bit about it being wrong to say that the Guerrilla Skeptics edited Rupert Sheldrake’s page, when I have never said they did.  There is a fresh charge: using this blog post as a source it claims that ‘Ruffles has complained that RationalWiki described Weiler as only a handyman, not a scientist’.  Someone is going to have to show me where I complained about that.  I don’t think I have ever said that Weiler is a scientist and should be described as such, all I said was that his day job is irrelevant to the points he makes in his book.  Cavalier distortions like that indicate why RationalWiki is not a source to be trusted.

In one way my demotion is fitting, as the tendency to be able to determine things without any evidence is demonstrated in the SPR entry as well.  Thus we read (as it also stood on 9 February 2015, these pages seem pretty dynamic) that:

‘The SPR claims not to hold any corporate opinions on the paranormal as it's [sic] members have a variety of beliefs or lack thereof about the reality and nature of the phenomena studied; however by reading over the publications of the SPR you can see that most of the members believe in the existence of the paranormal.’

How can you tell that by merely reading its publications, containing articles written by individuals who may not be members, and who would in any case represent a small proportion of the membership?  To make such a charge credible requires some kind of properly-conducted survey.  It may be true, it may not, or more probably its members, with a finer sense of discrimination than shown by the RW author, have a range of opinions on a range of topics subsumed under that umbrella.  It’s not, to labour the obvious, but a point which eludes the RW people, a monolithic subject towards which one automatically takes a binary position, either believing in ‘the paranormal’ or not.

Similarly:

‘The SPR has had a number of skeptical members but this seems to have declined in recent years. … Apart from a few skeptical members many members of the SPR seem to be very gullible and fall into the trap of magical thinking about some of the phenomena investigated, rejecting natural explanations for paranormal ones.’

How does one work out the decline in sceptical membership and the attitudes of those benighted souls that remain?  Again you would need an independent survey with a rigorous sampling mechanism to determine the range of attitudes, but as far as I’m aware none has been conducted among the SPR’s membership, and no evidence is supplied for the gullibility claim, with its weasely ‘seem to be’.  If those they criticise made such sloppy assertions, RW would be over them like a shot, and rightly.  My guess is that RW is mainly run by undergraduates with more zeal than knowledge, limited copy editing skills, and a simplistic understanding of how people work.  But I would want to do a survey to be sure before making a firm pronouncement.