ASSAP less than serious

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 However, they can be superceded at any time by new evidence.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.

10 kommentarer:

CJ sa...

Hullo. CJ here. Ok I gave the paper you object to pointing out that the Salem and East Anglian witch trials of the 17th century were conducted by a sophisticated urban elite. I pointed out the not inconsiderable scientific achievements and solid good sense deployed in other matters by those who were prosecuting and supporting the witch trial, and that the Salem trial was one of the greatest gatherings of highly educated men including members of the Royal Society that century. Salem was 14 miles from Harvard University; Bury St Edmunds is 28 miles from Cambridge University. These were not prosecutions by backwoods superstitious Puritans; rather quite the opposite. I demonstrated these conclusions by use of the primary sources. If I made an error of fact or interpretation then I'm sure it will be clear once the conference papers are published.

I limited my conclusions to cases from the 17th century English speaking world, and make no broader claim. I did draw examples from Matthew Hopkins writings and use them to joke that people like ASSAP and Chris French were the real danger to witches not Puritans, but that was clearly a joke. I don't think French and Wiseman are planning to start ducking witches.

Your opinion of my paper seems to be based on a paragraph in the FT: in fact it was a skeptical debunk of ancient media myths about backwards clergy persecuting batty little old ladies. It was all far more unpleasant I'm afraid.

I am fond of debunking myths: I have previously made the case on the JREF forum, Rational Slepticism and the old Dawkins forum and had no negative reaction, so I suspect if you read what I actually said you may revise your opinion.

I will happily send you a copy once published.

CJ x

Anonym sa...

Can you please tell which ones your "primary sources" are? I seriously doubt that the Royal Society had anything to do with the Witch Trials. Especially since the great mayority of the Witch Trials took place before this organisation was formed in 1660. In fact, the majority of them took place before there were any organised scientists in the modern sense of the word.

CJ sa...

Cotton Mather who you can hardly have failed to hear of if you have heard of Salem for instance? See https://archive.org/details/cottonmathersele00kitt

Or the record of the Royal Society. Mather was made a fellow in 1713 and was an impressive academic. This is long before Whelan coins the phrase scientist.

I actually know about the subject I'm afraid.

CJ x

Anonym sa...

I know some basic things about the Witch Trials in general but not much about the Salem witch trials. If you refer to the most (in)famous ones I can tell they took place in Massachusetts in 1692 – 93. This information can be easily found in popular scientific literature. If your statement on Cotton Mather is correct he became a member of the Royal Society 20 years later. I don’t think he had much to do with starting those particular witch trials. Anyway, he was at least as much as theologian as a scientist.
The Witch Trials started in Central Europe in the 15th century, peaked around 1600 and ebbed out during the 18th century. The “witches” were formally accused for having made a pact with the Devil. Personally, I don’t think anyone at the accuracy of his or her sense would actually do so. So why were so many people accused for a crime which – as Jan Guillou put it – don’t exist? We don’t know which factors caused the Witch Trials. But the people first accusing others for being “witches” were usually poor illiterates. Having a highly educated person acting on his own to accuse others for it seem to have been rare.

CJ sa...

The accusers were in many trials children or ordinary people and members of the accused community. Those who tried them and investigated the accusations were elite academics in the English speaking world.

Matthew Hopkins was probably a Cambridge educated lawyer; Baron Hale was one of the great intellectuals of his age; Cotton Mather was a pioneer in many fields but a great man of science as well as a theologian - and the narrative them employ in their works purports to be sceptical and empirical in favour of witches existence.

Opposing them were Puritan ministers like John Gaule who wrote a book denouncing Matthew Hopkins (the Witchfinder General) and the Barebones Parliament of Oliver Cromwell who ended his reign of terror. Likewise at Salem several prominent clergy spoke out against the trials

Anonym sa...

Plenty of the people “investigating” in connection with Witch Trials were certainly highly educated. Does this make scientists as a group responsible for the Witch Trials? I would say “no” because they stated at a time when there were hardly any people I would call “scientists”.
You still have not stated which ones your “primary sources” are. Is there even a place in East Anglia named Salem? The English-language version of Wikipedia lists four places in Britain with this name. One is in Cornwall, two are in Wales and one within the Greater Manchester area.
During the 16th and 17th centuries some people protested against the Witch Trials:
¤ There were theologians thinking that “witches” were deluded.
¤ There were clergy complaining that the Witch Trials were cruel.
¤ There were lawyers protesting that the “witches” did not get any fair trials.
¤ There were physicians considering “witches” insane or pointing out that mad(wo)men could be mistaken for such.
It is quite likely the members of the Royal Society were aware of at least some of these protests. If so, I think they would have kept this organisation out of any contemporary Witch Trials. During the period in question they systematically avoided any references to religious concepts they knew were controversial in discussions within their organisation. In light of this fact it appears quite unlikely that the Royal Society was involved in any witch trial.

CJ sa...

Firstly - my claims are limited to the 17th century English speaking world. I can't generalse beyond that.

You need to adopt a more critical and sceptical approach. You are going from a third hand review in the Fortean Times, not what I actually said, or what I actually claim. ;)As I said once the paper is published I will send you a copy to critique.

I never said scientists as a body were responsible for that - I joked that witches had more to fear from ASSAP than from Puritans. I pointed out the myth from films like Witchfinder General that religious fanatics went round executing witches was in fact just that - a myth. I pointed out that men of science who prided themselves on their empirical evidence led thinking were the prosecutors, and that the witch trials were not back woods superstition run amok but took place within a days travel of the intellectual capitals of learning - Cambridge UK, and Harvard US.

The confusion you have about Salem is easily put to rest - I'm dealing with Salem, Massachusetts, and the East Anglian Witch Trials - Matthew Hopkins ones, and the second Bury Assize which set the precedent for the Massachsetts trial at Salem in law - remember Massachusetts is a British colony in 1692, and they invoke the ruling on "spectral evidence" from Bury three decades before.

Now on the Royal Society, I am not claiming they were all witchunters. ;) I'm not even claiming that they are now - I doubt he has ducked any witches recently. Quite clearly they think such stuff is nonsense, and given innocent women are still murdered for accusations of this sort, would detest any such claim. Besides I think Martin Rees would look silly in a floppy hat and puritan collar. ;) I'm not denigrating modern scientists.

What I pointed out was that it was 17th century scientists and academics who hanged witches, based not on religion but what they saw was evidence. And the Royal Society is involved, because they admitted Cotton Mather, for which I offered you the contemporary book "On the Election of Cotton Mather to the Royal Society" as evidence. Now Cotton had cheer-led the Salem witch trials, was a major instigator, and was notorious for this when the tide turned and people saw sense. It was why he was denied the chance to become President of Harvard like his equally witch-hating father Increase Mather. And the Royal Society admitted him twenty years AFTER the Salem trials, when he was notorious. Now he was an excellent scientist, true - but that was a courageous decision. After all he had published this not that long before - http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/etas/19/

Now if you have specific requests fro documents just ask and I can provide. Almost all of the relevant papers seems to be available as e-books now after all. However, as a sceptic consider if perhaps what you have believed might actually be wrong, and have a look for yourself. In fact there is one bunch who really did get the Witchtrials right - do check out this link


CJ x

Anonym sa...

Thank you for the clarifications, they were really needed. You initially made it sound like you had mixed up witch trials taking place in East Anglia with the later ones in Massachusetts. Of cause, I know that Massachusetts was a colony of England in 1692 – 93. I just expressed my doubts that the Royal Society as an organisation was involved in any witch trial during the first 90 years of its existence. After 1750 all European authorities seems to have stopped taking accusations of being a “witch” seriously.

Hexmaster sa...

Hello, CJ. Hexmaster here, who actually writes this blog (as indicated by the signature on top of this comment.)

Nice to see you here! Of course I'd like to see a copy of your article. If it's mailable, send it to peter@hexmaster.com.

As your lecture is described in FT337, there is simply no way to tell it deals with a specific instance, rather than witch hunts in general. (Especially as it's directly after a description of Hyde's lecture, which specifically dealt with a broad historical context.) I'm sorry, and a little surprised, that the writer, for whatever reason, wrote the way he did. I'll edit my blog post soon.

(As for witch hunts in general: Since you know the subject, you know they varied widely in scope, style and severity, over time and between countries and regions.)

As for the credentials of various people involved, I find it less relevant what else they did in their lives than what they did in the actual witch hunts. Isaac Newton did some of the best science ever, yet dabbled in theology and alchemy as much as he could.

CJ sa...

Absolutely. The Italian witch trials are vastly different to those of Germany and Denmark; and across time things change radically. That is my main critique of the idea put forward by Thomas in Religion and the Decline of Magic - too broad a claim; why the claims I made were so loaded with caveats. Good to meet you by the way and shall follow your blog with interest. I know some Danish skeptics but this is the first Swedish blog I have seen.