Speaking Skeptically

We are hosting another “open mic” style evening for our August event and would love to see as many people taking the microphone to speak for 15 minutes about a subject that fits with a science/skepticism/critical thinking theme.

All you need to do is fill in the form below and a member of the Bath Skeptics team will get back to you.


An interview with Ash Pryce

‘If someone is using trickery to convince someone they have supernatural abilities then that is fraud and we should be stopping them, exposing them for what they are like when Randi exposes Peter Popoff.’

We spoke to Ash Pryce about psychics, ghosts, skepticism and his show How To Talk To The Dead. Here’s what he had to say. (Please note that if you’re going to see Ash perform the show there may be spoilers below.)

What is it that first interested you in the paranormal in the first place?

Ash: I’m not sure there was ever one unique moment that piqued my interest.  I just always from a young age seemed to gravitate toward the paranormal.  My favourite film as a kid was Ghostbusters, a movie I rented on video as often as I could- usually during school lunches giving me a shortened experience of the film and for years I just assumed fighting Slimer was the big finale!  But generally, from a young age I always found ghosts and ghouls far more interesting than football or whatever it is kids are *supposed* to be in to.

Were you always skeptical or was there a Eureka moment? 

Ash: No, I wasn’t always skeptical.  I think part of my early love of the paranormal was because I believed it.  One of my fondest memories is visiting a Spiritualist Church with my Grandfather and seeing Table Tipping which stayed with me for years, unable to explain it.  Even as late as a decade ago in my early twenties I was still a believer – in fact out of all my non-skeptical beliefs, the one in ghosts and psychics was the last to go. Me and a college friend would sit for hours discussing theories and explanations for ghosts- the Stone Tapes Theory (though we didn’t know its name then) was a popular idea and if you don’t think too deeply about it then it can be a very sciencey and rational sounding explanation.

Ultimately what turned me skeptic was working for a ghost tour company in Edinburgh.  Being in that environment day in day out and seeing how and why people reacted to certain things got me looking more critically at ghosts and the supernatural.  

How long does it take you to develop a trick or an aspect of your show?

Ash: That’s actually a really difficult question to answer because different sections, routines and aspects of the show really vary in how long they take to develop.  Some routines, such as the levitating table I perform took a long time to work on and is probably the most rehearsed section of the show.  Same with most of the more trick based sections- they can take a few hours to get the basics but then its constant rehearsing- I’d even go as far as to say these are continuous and I never really stop rehearsing them.

How to Talk to the Dead has evolved and changed over the years and, though I’d likely recognise some of it, I imagine looking back on the very first show would be a very different experience.  Also, I don’t tend to write jokes, I am more comfortable ad-libbing and seeing what sticks.

Would you ever share the secrets of the tricks?

Ash: Oh, look out the window.  SQUIRREL! [editor: there was no squirrel]

What are your thoughts on people who use tricks but don’t tell their audience?

Ash: I think it depends on the situation.  Someone going to see a ghost story that involves the use of Peppers Ghost might not know it’s a classic stage trick, but then they also wouldn’t likely assume it’s a real apparition.  If we look at the Davenport Brothers of the 19th century, they were on very dodgy ground as they were seen by many as genuine spiritualist mediums. It was only later in life that one of the brothers admitted they hadn’t set out to be mediums at all but very much got swept up in the growing Spiritualist movement.

How much truth there is in that I couldn’t say but they certainly used deception in their work without being honest about it.  But I would say that if someone is using trickery to convince someone they have supernatural abilities then that is fraud and we should be stopping them, exposing them for what they are like when Randi exposes Peter Popoff.

Do you find it easier to spot psychics and tricksters for what they are?

Ash: I think I’m certainly aware of what can be causing certain paranormal phenomenon, be it cold reading for stage mediumship or some magic routine for physical psychic trickery.  I have seen people on Youtube using James Hydricks old pencil telekinesis routine and claiming it genuinely psychic when they’re simply blowing on the pencil.

But as with anything, I might not always spot anything- there may only in reality be a handful of tricks, but there are so many ways to perform them that I may only be able to say “I know that’s a trick, but I can’t show how its done” which of course makes me look like I don’t know what I’m talking about and supports the viewers belief that the alleged psychic is genuine.

[learn more about James Hydrick here]

What tell-tale signs can people look out for if visiting a psychic?

Ash: Always get a recording of the reading so you can listen back as it is quite common to miss and forget the things that don’t stick, and people focus on the hits.  I’d also be wary of vague statements such as “money worries” or “there is a change on the horizon” or if common things are mentioned like heart problems or cancer that could be an indication the psychic is just fishing for information.  Chest conditions especially – most things that kill you are chest related and even with a bit of a stretch you could make things like Aneurysms tie in (aneurysm, blood clots anything related to the blood therefore to the heart basically).

For cold reading to work the reader needs you to be vocal and interactive with them, simply sitting still and not responding would be enough to stop a cold read.  Also try and insist on surnames- a psychic might give you the name Michael, but in and of itself that is pretty useless and if they get a clear forename then I always fail to see why even a soundalike surname cant be given.

Do you think visiting a psychic can be harmful? Should it be discouraged?

Ash: Can be?  Sure. Is it usually?  Not so sure.  I think if you visit a psychic and they give you incorrect information it can be quite damaging depending of course eon what that information is.  Sylvia Browne was a particularly nasty example of emotional harm- she was frequently a guest on the Montel Williams show and would “help” parents of missing children.  Several times she got it wrong, telling parents their child was alive when they were not and then telling parents their child was dead when they were still living. The parents of Shawn Hornbeck were told he was dead by Sylvia Browne, but he was alive.  Amanda Berry who spent years as a prisoner of Ariel Castro was allowed to watch television in her cell and saw her mother on the Montel Show along with Browne, who told her mother that Amanda was dead.

Amanda was apparently screaming at the TV and begging Castro to let her mother know she was indeed alive.  This obviously didn’t happen and her mother died a short while late, never finding out that Browne was wrong and apparently a changed women from the moment Browne told her. That is some very real harm there, how much impact the Browne revelation had in relation to the mothers dying we can only speculate, but at best it certainly didn’t help her.  As to whether it should be discouraged, I honestly don’t know.  The examples above are the exceptions, I think the majority of people get genuine comfort from visits to psychics and if it is helping then I’m not sure I want to be the one to say “Sorry, your baby is actually dead forever and not a ghost.  Sorry”. [Learn more about Shawn Hornbeck here, and Amanda Berry here]

Why do you think people still believe in ghosts in rapidly developing societies? 

Ash: I think there are a variety of reasons why people continue to believe.  If you wake up in the middle of the night, unable to move, feeling a presence, pressure on your chest and even seeing an entity and you HAVEN’T been aware of sleep paralysis I can see why some might attribute that experience to a ghost- what other explanations could there be for some?  We are brought up in a society where the majority believe in ghosts, so there is also the idea that if so many have experienced X then X must be true- along the same lines as why people think homeopathy works, or belief in gods.

Also, and I don’t think this is necessarily the main reason but its up there, the idea of a loved one being gone for ever is difficult for some to accept, and the belief in an afterlife gives them comfort.  Then there are also people who might not have been told anything different, that they believe because they always have, because they were raised that way and it makes sense.  I imagine you could get quite a hefty book out of just looking at why people believe in ghosts and nothing more.

Spiritualism seems to be as popular now as it has ever been, what do you think sets it apart from other religions? What similarities are there?

Ash: Spiritualism has links to Quakerism in its origins as the Fox Sisters who all but founded Spiritualism had radical Quakers among their first converts, but also has been greatly influenced by Protestant Christianity, emerging from a world deeply steeped in it.  The Bible isn’t a key part of Spiritualism, but there is certainly a belief in a monotheist deity of Abrahamic origins and I’d imagine many see Spiritualism as just a part of the large umbrella of Christianity- my grandfather certainly did. One of the biggest differences between Spiritualism and say Christianity is how they view the soul and its existence after death.

In Spiritualism the afterlife isn’t static, its not as simple as good people go to Heaven, bad ones to Hell.  The soul can continue to interact with those in the living world.  Although its not entirely a Christian belief, with many Christians seeing it as dangerous or simply wrong, I’d say it is close enough to it that you could be forgiven for seeing it as just another, albeit radical, denomination of Christianity or at least Abrahamic monotheism.

What is your favourite non-fiction ghost story?

Ash: The story of Annie.  Here in Edinburgh there is an old section of the city that was sealed up called Mary Kings Close.  It’s a collection of streets, now underground, that haven’t changed in centuries.  Back in the 1990s a psychic called Aiko Gibo visited and said she felt a young girl tugging at her hand, apparently the girl died during the plague and was sad because she lost her dolly.  Gibo went out and bought her a tartan covered dolly and since then tourists have left various gifts for Annie- including a Westlife CD, though they were considerate enough not to leave a CD player.  Gibo visited at the height of a myth that was circulating saying Mary Kings Close had been bricked up with hundreds inside riddled with plague, but now we know that story was made up, I think Gibos story loses some of its charm.

What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever experienced? 

Ash: A lot of things that happened in my Grandparents house.  It was an old house and at night it was not uncommon to hear what sounded like footsteps on the landing, that always freaked me out.  I also remember one time after I’d taken tourists on a ghost tour to the Underground City of Edinburgh a couple came into the office and showed me some scratches they’d found on their lower back.  This was when I was still in my believer mind set and it really made me uncomfortable.  Then there is sleep paralysis- I can completely understand why some might think it supernatural if they hadn’t heard of it.

See Ash Pryce on tour with How To Talk To The Dead – check for local shows here, or keep up to date with all of his work by checking out his website.

Call To Action: Chair Of The Select Health Committee

Do you value evidence based healthcare and health-related policies? On June 17th MPs can decide who will chair the Health Select Committee. The two potential candidates for chair are:

  • Dr Sarah Wollaston MP – Member of Parliament for Totnes
  • David Tredinnick MP – Member of Parliament for Bosworth

Why should skeptics care?

David Tredinnick is a fan of Medical Astrology and once claimed £210 for astrology software and £300 for tuition for the software. He believes that surgeons do not operate when the moon is full as it causes increased bleeding, he has spoken in the house on funding for Chinese herbal medicine, accusing critics of being racist and his questions in parliament have promoted homeopathy, radionics (remote psychic healing) and astrology. He has also been involved in campaigns to promote herbalism and has also been the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Integrated and Complementary Healthcare since 2002

Is this really a man what you want to chair the Select Health Committee – the governmental committee appointed to examine and assess the policies of the Department of Health?

Visit Write To Them.com to write directly to your MP today. Pop in your postcode and follow the instructions.

The Good Thinking Society have provided a letter template than you can copy and paste here.


Bath Skeptical Society denounce Chaplaincy at University of Bath

Bath Skeptical Society today denounce the action of the Chaplaincy at the University of Bath who censored material being performed by students who are part of the Comedy Writing Improvisation and Performance Society (CWIPS) because it was deemed offensive to religious people.

Bath Impact reports that ‘just four hours prior to opening night the committee of CWIPS was told that a sketch involving the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed titled ‘Cooking with Christ’ should be cut. “The SU couldn’t give more of an explanation,” recalls one of the members of the committee regarding the lack of justification given for the changes being made to the show, especially on such short notice.

It became known that the Chaplaincy of the University had become involved in the decision making process of the SU. “We were told that the chaplaincy had read it and pronounced that sketch too graphic”, the committee member said, “we come under the authority of the SU, so whilst we don’t necessarily agree with what they asked us to cut we have to respect them as they are elected to their position, however the chaplaincy is not part of the SU.”

In the wake of atrocities across the globe attempting to silence the criticism or mockery of religious ideas and figures we feel that this is unacceptable. For people to be censored from mocking ideas simply for fear of offending those who are not open minded enough to accept challenges to ideas they are invested in is not compatible with a fair society, and should not be tolerated within a university. It insults not only those of us who champion freedom of speech but also the religious people whom those responsible for this decision have attempted to save from being offended.

I, on behalf of the Bath Skeptical Society have reached out today via the National Secular Society to the students who were censored in this manner to offer them the chance to perform their work, uncensored, at one of our future events in the city centre and I hope they will take up the offer.

Hayley Stevens, on behalf of the Bath Skeptical Society.

Conscious Robots for December

You may recognise our December speaker from previous Bath Skeptics events as Joanna Bryson is sometimes in attendance at our monthly talks (even when she has no voice!)

Dr Joanna Bryson will be taking the microphone at our December event on Tuesday 6th with a talk entitled ‘The ethics on conscious robots’ that will look at whether it is possible that artifical intelligence built as artefacts by humans might themselves be considered moral subjects?  Moral patients that deserve our protection, or even moral agents that deserve credit or responsibility for their own actions? And what, if anything, would a robot’s consciousness contribute to this question?

photo of Dr Joanna Bryson

After twenty years of involvement in artificial intelligence, Joanna has come to the conclusion that the answers to these questions have less to do with technology and more to do with sceptical enquiry into the origins of our concepts of morality.

Joanna has been at Bath University since 2002 and in 2010 was made a Reader in Computer Science. We’re really excited that Joanna is going to be speaking to us on a subject that is something we’ve never explored before.

There have been a few changes to the way our events are organised – we are now trialing the use of Eventbrite to see if we can get a better head for numbers of those attending the event (something that will help us set up the room accordingly etc.) If you are thinking of coming to our December talk then please select how many free tickets you need by clicking here and we’ll see you on the night!

We’re currently organising events for 2012 so watch our event website for details of upcoming talks as they’re organised and arranged.

Also worth a mention is the fact that on November 29th the very first Bristol Bright Club is talking place and previous Bath Skeptics in the Pub speaker, Ian Walker, is on the line up! More details here.

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vampires, tattoos & robots – oh my!

The rest of the year looks very exciting for Bath Skeptics in the Pub with a whole range of different talks coming our way – not only that, but we’ve already started to plan ahead for 2012 too!

On Tuesday October 4th we have Deborah Hyde coming to talk for us about ‘Unnatural Predators’. Deborah is the acting editor of The Skeptic Magazine and also blogs as Jourdemayne. Below is a look at some of the word Deborah has done in the past on ‘The Vampires of Rhode Island’ and demonstrates how interesting her talk promises to be.

Our November speaker, Dr Matt Lodder, was recommended to us by the previous ‘Skeptics in the Pub’ groups he has spoken for. His talk will be a fascinating look at how the media perception of tattoos has been trying to convince people that tattoos are ‘not just for sailors’ for a very long time.

Matt recently wrote a brilliant piece for The Guardian outlining some of the most common myths surrounding those who are tattooed. Did you know Winston Churchill’s mum was even inked? Neither did I, which is why I can’t wait for this talk to learn about more myths surrounding body modification and tattoo art.

It’s a talk with a difference, but it’s important to remember that there are claims made in all walks of life that effect people and the way they view others, that deserve equal skepticism. Those who have tattoos will be able to relate to some of the myths Matt wrote about in The Guardian. This talk may challenge the view of tattoos you hold – it promises to be an enlightening discussion.

In December Dr Joanna Bryson, from Bath University (we ❤ local academics!) will be talking to us about the ethics of conscious robots. Learn more about Joanna on her website here.

We hope to see you on Tuesday at the usual venue (The Westgate) which has recently has a lovely refurbishment and is even cosier than it used to be. We’re busy looking for speakers for 2012 so if you have any suggestions or recommendations to do be sure to get in touch with us.