Back to the Scene of the Crime

 

Today there is an auction in West Sussex with the peculiar Lot 202 – ‘felon’s skull’ and newspaper cutting. The item is a human skull mounted inside a glass dome that has been partially dissected to use as an anatomical display. It belonged to John Parker from Langley near Chippenham, Wiltshire, who was hanged alongside another burglar at the top of ‘Glocester Gaol’ in the ealy 19th century.

Generally I would not pay much attention to these common macabre trophies but the information from the cutting stopped me in my tracks.

 “Execution – On Saturday John Parker, aged 36, and Thomas Rodway, aged 30, were executed at the drop, on the top of the lodge at Glocester Gaol, pursuant to the sentence at the late Assized, for a burglary in the dwelling-house of Mrs Grey, at Clifton, near Bristol. Although obdurate at first, they at last became more sensible of their awful situation, and died with due penitence.”

I happen to live in Clifton and for one momentary moment of madness, I thought it would be a good idea to own this relic to put on the mantelpiece. It felt that it was important to return this skull to the location that was the scene of the crime.

Clearly no logic to this whim whatsoever but I am sure that many think that there is a sense of order and closure when remains are reunited to locations where events took place that eventually led to their death. It is irrational because that location could have been anywhere – the scene of the crime, the location of the gallows and so on. We have brains that seek out patterns that are relevant to us and so when a place is significant to us we are inclined to pay attention to events that are related. There again, at an estimated sale value of £2-3,000, I think that is one curiosity that I will leave for others.

 

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East versus West When it Comes to Celebrity Collectibles

Darren Julien, founder and president of one of Julien’s Auctions, a Beverly Hills based auction house, specializing in high-profile celebrity auctions and the only celebrity auction house with a license to trade in mainland China has noted that Asian interest in memorabilia is driven by different motivations than Western collectors – one that is primarily as investment. However, anyone who has ever been to a collector’s convention in the West knows that there are obsessional fans who want to own personal objects that they believe can put them in touch with their idols. Even Brittany Spears’s used wads of chewing gum famously reached outrageous prices when they were put up for sale on the web. Many obsessional collectors have no intention of selling on their prized collectibles.

 We’ve been studying the phenomenon of memorabilia and collectibles for some time now and next week, we are presenting our recent PlosOne paper, “Individualism and the extended-self:  Cross-cultural differences in the valuation of authentic objects,” to academics gathered at Yale to discuss the psychology of art collecting at meeting at the International Center for Finance in the Business School.

Our research is motivated by two separate strands of work, essentialism and the extended self that you can read about in SuperSense and The Self Illusion. Essentialism is the idea that authenticity is inferred by a hidden dimension or “essence” that defines the true nature of objects. It has its origins in the classical philosophy of Plato and is best captured by thought experiments such as the Ship of Theseus problem (you know the one – if you replace every plank of wood of a ship, when does it cease to remain original?). The Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit has conjured up similar scenarios with duplicating humans. We have shown that children reject duplicated teddy bears, think that cutlery that was belonged to Queen Elizabeth II is worth more than identical duplicates and touching the clothing of a killer can morally contaminate oneself.

We think that all of these diverse areas of research findings can be explained by naïve psychological essentialism that operates through the mode of contagion similar to Paul Rozin’s seminal (ha!) work on disgust which explains why washing celebrity clothing is believed to significantly devalue the object.

The second strand of research into collectibles is the extended self hypothesis whereby we use objects to signal to others our status which is why they become extensions of our self worth. As William James noted,

‘‘A man’s Self is the sum total of all that he CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account.’’

(James, 1890, p. 291)

Manifestation of the extended self is the well-known endowment effect whereby individuals believe their personal possessions are worth more that identical objects owned by others. However, both the endowment effect and possibly the extended self are reflections of cultural norms where personal possessions are given elevated status. For example, there is one report of a hunter-gather tribe that do not show the endowment effect and it has not been found in children below the age of 5 years though they do show preferences and have sentimental personal objects which are probably rudimentary forerunners of the adult endowment effect. 

In our recent study conducted via the MTurk platform, we asked Western (mostly US) and Eastern (mostly Indian) adults to estimate the value of four types of collectible, a work of art, a celebrity sweater, a dinosaur bone and moon rock. We then told them about a machine that can create an identical duplicate and asked them to value the copy. In two studies of over 800 adults we found the same basic pattern. Overall, both cultures think originals are worth more than copies but the two cultures diverge on the celebrity clothing. Eastern adults see the duplicate as not significantly different from the original compared to the Westerns adults. These results support the hypothesis that individualistic cultures place a greater value on objects associated with unique persons, which explains why the valuation of certain authentic items may vary cross-culturally.

It’s not that Eastern cultures do not have their idols. They certainly have their superstars in film and music as well, but the desire to collect celebrity possessions may not be such a cultural tradition. Eastern cultures also exhibit essentialist contagion in their rituals and concerns about moral contamination (the caste system being the notable example) but essentialist concerns are primarily heightened for negative contamination as opposed to positive transfer which is what is believed to be operating in celebrity clothing.

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The Strange Case of Mabus

I received an email earlier this week from Dennis Markuze AKA Mabus which I have posted here for readers to consider. For some reason, this chap has singled me out along with Tim Farley, Richard Wiseman and other skeptics in what he perceives as a campaign of persecution against him. I have occasionally reported on his past correspondence with me as frankly, he does seem a bit “nutty” as Richard Feynman would say.

I am not a psychiatrist nor a clinical psychologist but it seems to me that Dennis Markuze has some serious mental health problems. At one point he was sending threatening emails to a number of us which ended up with him being arrested and prosecuted (see below). Personally, I am far enough away from the man and so have never felt under any real threat so I did question the wisdom of prosecuting someone who has a psychiatric condition.  However, I am reminded that there are cases where disturbed individuals have sent threatening correspondence that was unheeded and then they went on to commit attacks. It is not always a clear cut situation.

Anyway, here is the email he sent me. In comparison to most of his earlier messages which were made up of bizarre, unconnected ramblings, punctuated by the occasional “BOOM” written in bold parenthesis, this message seems quite coherent. Maybe Dennis is receiving treatment which is a good thing. On other hand, maybe with more clarity of thoughts and cognitive ability, he may get his act together in seeking revenge!

Anyway, I have never really understood why I am one of his targets but I have no plans to visit Montreal for a while.

AFFIDAVIT OF TRUTH

 

CANADA

 

PROVINCE OF Quebec

IN THE MATTER OF

Tim Farley vs Dennis Markuze

 

I, DENNIS MARKUZE, of the City of MONTREAL, in the Province of QUEBEC, DO SOLEMNLY DECLARE THAT:

1.         I am the person named in, and who subscribed, the AFFIDAVIT OF TRUTH dated the 3rd day of February, 2014

2.         To the best of my knowledge and belief, the matters and facts in it are true.

3.         Where matters specifically stated in it are made upon information and belief, I believe them to be true.

AFFIDAVIT OF TRUTH FOR DISMISALL OF ALL CHARGES:

THIS DOCUMENT IS FOR THE PUBLIC RECORD AND THE COURT RECORD:

For over 40 years a man by the name of James Randi, founder of the James Randi Educational foundation (JREF), has challenged anyone to provide proof of the paranormal and that he would pay them $1,000,000 if they could. Hundreds have tried and all have failed the test.

http://www.randi.org/site/index.php/1m-challenge.html

We accepted the challenge.

Ever since I have been attacked, harassed, and targeted by atheists and skeptics from all over the world. They have made up lies and accusations against me. Threatened me and my family, and done whatever they can to silence me.

I plead guilty last time in court because I was under duress and did not really understand what was going on. The media ran a false story on me even before I was tried, disgracing me publicly. They were building an unlawful case against me even before I was heard.

I am a Christian being charged for my controversial ideas on religion and politics not for any offense. People have published and republished my work all over the internet. Online strangers thousands of kilometers away have misrepresented my words, fabricated threats to silence me, to have me arrested, to seize my property, to imprison me, to take away my rights. The charges laid on me are based on hearsay and conjecture and wish. These are subjective charges, and the only party that has really been injured has been me!

Farley doesn’t like what I have to say about him and his organization, the James Randi Foundation, an atheist group, of which he is a senior member. But most importantly he does not want the public to see how we won the paranormal prize, and is doing everything in his power to prevent us from revealing how we did it.

But here is how we won the paranormal challenge:

http://storify.com/deltoidmachine/how-we-won-the-james-randi-dollar-1-000-000-parano

Apart from providing proof of the supernatural, my actual ideas center upon the utter waste of intelligence used in the ideology of atheism and the importance of peace and disarmament for the planet, and the terrible costs of war. My real words can be found here not the broken fragments they produce to use as lies to condemn me.

These claims of alleged harassment are unfounded and based on presumption, and I believe no evidence to the contrary and none exists.

AND I make this declaration conscientiously believing it to be true and knowing that it is of the same force and effect as if made under oath.

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Wowi Maui

Image

I have not been posting alot recently because I have been trying to finish a bunch of work. But as you can now see, I have finally found my self stranded on a desert island so I have time to start blogging again. My new book. “The Domesticated Brain” has been handed in to the publishers and is due out next May. So what next? While the Western hemisphere settles down to miserable winter, I am on the island of Maui working on a film project based around SuperSense. I am here to edit the footage that we have shot and get some inspiration – well that was the line that my partners sold me when they persuaded me to come out to the Pacific island

Maui is a real trip. Unbelievable beauty and some of the most “colorful” individuals. Last night I met Mur at a dinner party who is an “Earthman” currently visiting the island. He proceeded to tell the gathered guests about his new book where he describes his love affair with a goddess from another dimension, his travels in Tibet and his personal war against authority, the Vietnam war, and yup everything that was not cool. Some asked him what was it like making love to a goddess. With a completely straight face he explained how their auras of different shades of light had mixed to form a new blend. I’m thinking cosmic photoshop. He really did make me think I had entered a wormhole as it sounded straight out of an Oliver Stone reconstruction movie of the 1960’s. Another guest asked me, “Well that’s amazing, how does a scientist make sense of that story?” I was dumb-struck and offered “No comment.” Jeez, Maui is Californian woo on steroids.

There is so much woo in Maui that I am regarded as a bit of an outcast which is an interesting turn up for the books. Still I hope to report back shortly with more stories of the extra-dimensional people I hope to meet. At the very least I hope to work on my tan  – oops – I mean chakras.

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Indian “Randi” Murdered

Narendra Dabholkar murdered for being a skeptic

Narendra Dabholkar murdered for being a skeptic

I must confess I did not know who Narendra Dabholkar was, but I should have. Today I learned that this man was executed by assassins most likely because of his outspoken criticism of superstition in India. Dabholkar was at the forefront of a long-running campaign to ban superstitious religious practices by getting the state of Maharashtra to pass an anti black-magic bill. He died on Tuesday after being shot by two gunmen riding a motorcycle.

According to Michael Shermer on Twitter, he was the Indian equivalent of James Randi, offering 500,000 rupees (£5,000) to any spiritualist who could successfully summon spirits. The licence plate of the attackers was noted but as yet, nothing has been done. One wonders whether anything will in a country where superstitious practices are very prevalent.

Of course, we have had our own religiously motivated murders in the West so maybe we should not be too surprised. Still it is shocking, when someone is killed for simply asking those to verify their claims. This leads me back to consider activism against believers. I see that Dave Mabus has started up his activities again leaving his deranged comments here as well as emailing me and many other prominent skeptics again  – BOOM… those who get the messages will get the joke. Still, how do we protect ourselves from the deluded who become dangerous. Dabholkar’s death reminds us not to become complacent.

UPDATE: We have just learned that there has been a call for a strike in protest at the killing. One hopes that this goes ahead.

New Update: It has just been announced that the Government has passed the anti-magic bill that Dabholkar had fought to get passed. I guess that is a comfort to those he left behind.

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Not Just Ladders Trigger Superstitious Behavior

 

I am appearing at this years Secret Garden Party where the theme is Superstition….though with David Icke on the bill, general wackiness might be more appropriate as a theme. Anyway, it has been a while since I posted (The new book is nearly done!). So I was pleased when my Icelandic friend Hjalti Hjalmarsson sent me this photograph of a public path in Russia. It is not a ladder but clearly there is some superstitious thinking going on. It reminds me of an old 1974 study where they found that people would be more likely to walk under a ladder after observing a someone else tempting fate, but not when they were unobserved.

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Updates & Next Year

It has been a while since I last blogged but it’s not because I did not have anything to say but rather there has been too much happening. I was abroad touring most of April and have yet to write up my account of China and S. Korea as well as Sweden. I hope to get to them soon as I have some interesting insights.

Then there was the outcome of the trial of Jim McCormick, the businessman who sold dowsing rods as bomb detectors on the day of my return to the UK. There is still more to come from that story over the coming months as Gary Bolton and others face the wrath of the law.

In the meantime, it has been exam period so that has been busy. I  have also been fitting in a bit of  TV here and there but increasingly I am finding that I have to turn down invitations – which is a good thing I guess. One thing I did do this week was Dara O’Briain’s Science Club – a popular BBC2 science show which was a great laugh. I will post nearer the broadcast date but here is a picture of me with this giant of a man – he really is – I look like his glove puppet in this pictureImage

I have just finished marking the final year exam papers for my undergraduate and aside from some project students and admin, I am nearly the completion of the 2012/13 academic year.

So what of next year? Well I am finally taking that sabbatical fellowship I was awarded last year by my wonderful University who have been incredibly supportive in my activities. I doubt another institution would have been so good – how many workers get to say that about their employers? I really cannot say how much I enjoy being at Bristol.

Even though I could just sit about on my backside, the reality is that I will be working harder than ever. I have a new book published by Penguin which is currently going through the edit stage but due out in the summer of 2014. I also have a controversial new grant starting in September which I will tell you more about then. There are various other seeds that have been planted but the one thing that I am most excited about is that I am making an independent documentary based on the content of “SuperSense” that will be filmed over the course of the next year. These are definitely unchartered waters but after years, I am finally been given the opportunity to do something that I want.

So hopefully I will be able to keep you posted with updates of the various events along the way – if I get the time.

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