ASSAP is an association dedicated to discovering the scientific truth behind unexplained anomalous phenomena. ASSAP has no corporate beliefs and encourages an open-minded, undogmatic scientific approach to its subject. The main activities of the association are research into reports of anomalous phenomena and the analysis and publication of the results of such investigation.- Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena
ASSAP, "investigating the weird seriously (and the seriously weird)", was founded in 1981. Though not large ("present world-wide membership of 300") it is well known in the field. The organisation features several well known names as members. It presents a plethora of information on how to study and explain a wide range of more or less (or very) weird stuff, arranges conferences on various related subjects, and even makes research grants.
Much of the material on the web site is impeccable:
Science is, in essence, verifiable knowledge. Unlike some other philosophical systems, science is not an immutable set of beliefs. All scientific theories are provisional. As long as they pass all the current tests, they remain part of scientific thinking. However, they can be superceded at any time by new evidence. Demonstrable facts are everything.- ASSAP: "What is science?" on Why study the paranormal scientifically?
Let's take one good example: Orbs, those familiar blobs of light that occasionally show up in photos, which some people believe are ghosts or something. ASSAP has more on the subject than I'd thought possible, and as far as I've seen, it's the good stuff.
Though there is overwhelming evidence that orbs are out of focus bits of dust and raindrops, many people still continue to believe that they are paranormal in origin- ASSAP: Orbs
The optics and physics of orbs are explained thoroughly. They seem to have collected all kinds of questions for years ("Aren't luminous orbs paranormal?"), and answer them as well as one could hope for, in tone as well as content ("there is no evidence...").
Now for a completely different example: Table tilting or table turning is a classic spiritist routine where a table appears to move by itself. It doesn't move by itself, of course; though none of the participants feels as if he or she contributes to the movement, they all do.
That is not, however, the explanation that ASSAP prefers. Instead we're given "a practical guide" that tells us that table tilting is "a physical effect which directly contradicts current theories of physics". We're told "it does seem to be possible to use a tape recorder"; apparently the ghosts don't mind. We're told that table tilting is useful for researchers "who do not have access to psychically gifted subjects". And it's "one of the most baffling phenomena of our time".
If things go well, a complete levitation might ultimately be achieved, with the sitters' hands still on top of the table! There have even been reported incidents where a table has moved or even levitated while nobody was touching it at all. This is often only realised by group discussion after the event (remember that the sessions are usually in the dark).- ASSAP: Table tilting - a practical guide
And this naïve junk is linked to from Wikipedia: Table-turning ...
Finally, the event that brought my attention to the dubious nature of ASSAP: Seriously Bewitched, a conference on witches and witchcraft. It was held 28 November 2015 at Goldsmiths, London. A detailed report from the meeting was published in the latest issue of Fortean Times (Bob Rickard, the founder and editor of FT, is also one of the founders of ASSAP).
Such a conference can of course be held in a perfectly sensible way. It could deal with the history, sociology and psychology of witches, witchcraft and witch hunts, without assuming for a moment that any actual witch ever did actual magic that actually worked. This, however, was not such a conference.
One speaker argued how to create effective spells. Another, who claims herself to be an actual witch, described her witchcraft, with second hand crystals and IKEA candles. And the easily most reprehensible and un-funny speaker delved into fake history when explaining that the witch hunts weren't pursued by priests but by men of science [ update: As Mr Romer has pointed out here in this blog, he didn't refer to witch hunts in general but to the very specific instance of the Salem witch trials of 1692-93 ]; and even today, people who consider themselves witches have much more to fear from the latter than from the former. The notion is eagerly picked up by the writer, who happens to be FT:s man of the cloth:
The elaborate witch tests were science gone mad, not faith, [Christian Jensen] Romer argues and he frequently mentions the many local clerics who were against them. He ends by warning the witches present to stay away from the science focused ASSAP members. It's a funny, thought-provoking session.- Rev. Peter Laws, Fortean Times 337
Why such a ridiculous and thoroughly unscientific gathering should choose to convene at Goldsmiths, University of London, is anybody's guess. And how come UoL accepted them? Perhaps they were tricked by the reputation of ASSAP? Which could count as a kind of witchcraft: How a disreputable organization, wallowing in pseudo science and bunk, can maintain an aura of scientific rigour.