Richard Saunders: Adventures of an Australian Paranormal Investigator


Screenshot from 2013-04-11 09:37:41Last night I had the privilege of hanging out at Dublin Skeptics in the Pub … or to be more precise “Skeptics in the Exchange” … where Richard Saunders, the well-known Australian Paranormal Investigator was giving a fascinating talk.

Richard explained that he has been flown over by some folks to present his film on Water Dousing at a Czech film festival, and so he struck a deal with them to extend his stay and visit friends. He has been with the Spektics in Norway earlier in the week, then with the Dublin Skpetics last night, and is now off to QED for the skeptic conference in Manchester.

After telling us all about himself, he the proceeded to relate some of his adventures and covered a broad range of topics including ghost-hunting, water dowsing, and encounters with various psychics.

Who is Richard?

Apart from being a Web Designer, he has also worked part-time as a film and TV extra appearing in the background in such feature films as Superman Returns and Australia as well as in the background for TV shows such as Home And Away. He is rather bemused by the fact that the picture of him on his Wikipedia page is of him playing the role of a nutter on Home and Away. However, none of that is why he was with us, he has over 10 years gained experience researching claims of the paranormal.Back in 2001 he joined the committee of the Australian Skeptics and is now its President, and in 2003 also co-founded The Mystery Investigators Show for schools. That is a program that demonstrates scientific concepts by testing claims of the paranormal. He is also the resident skeptic judge on The One, an Australian reality television program on ATN 7 Australia, that tests the alleged powers of several psychics.

And if all that is not enough, he is also an origami expert … he designed an origami pigasus for the JREF After the talk last night a few of us all trooped off to the pub and apparently an impromptu origami session broke out after I left (I got to see the results via twitter while on the dart).

Richard covered quite a lot, and so I cannot capture it all, but here are a few highlights, in a bit of a random order. Oh, and I had my kids with me, they were quite impressed, so that alone tells you all you really need to know.

One side note, the screen saver on his iPad is darn impressive, it had nothing at all to do with his talk, but still cool (conjure up images of being able to zoom in and out of our place in the galaxy, and also view various satellites in orbit … three words … “cool”, and “I want”.

Ghosts

He showed us video clips of various “ghosts” that he was called upon to investigate, then asked a room full of skeptics, “Now what do you think that really was”, a few folks laughed and he commented, “Ah yes a few of you got it”. Upon first viewing it looks very impressive, a ghostly aura captured on CCTV; it looks real, but is not, and is simply a moth fluttering near the camera out of focus. Once you know and watch it again you suddenly see it as it really is and face-palm. Richard also talked about other cases he has investigated – they all had natural explanations … no exceptions. (You are not surprised at that … right?)

Psychics

Yep, those that claim to talk to the dead and bring back messages. He went though the details of how it really works and outlined what cold reading it all about. We got a list of things that people think cold reading is, and Richard then illustrated that it is in fact none of those, then gave a demonstration. He showed how he could toss out a question and get the audience to do all the work and generate hits, and even that is only one of the many strategies that are often utilized. So are these people fraudsters? Richard explained that often they are not, and have themselves been fooled into thinking they have psychic powers. What happens is that people go back to the psychic and reenforce the belief by telling the “psychic” how accurate and amazing he was, and so he (or she) believes. He was also talking about (I forget the name, but it was a great example) of somebody who invented a fake way of doing psychic readings and would go to science fairs under the banner of “fake psychic” to do readings and show people how easy it was to fool them. She had a rule that when they broke down and cried, she would stop. Apparently it was all very powerful and worked really well, people did indeed believe even when told it was fake.

Powerbands

You too can have magical powers all via a 10c bit of plastic and a cheap Hologram, ah but it actually gets sold for $30 AU. Richard spoke about how he had seen this scam advertised, and so he contacted the TV company and told them that they needed to look into it all … here is what happened …

This broadcast set wheels in motion and eventually the Australian government banned it as a fraud. Richard however retains a great deal of sympathy for Tom, the chap he went head-to-head with in the above clip, he feels that Tom truly believed and was quite sure it really worked; even when the test failed Tom rationalized it away as not a real test.

We also got a live demo last night, Richard had a “placebo”-band and demonstrated the before and after effect of it on a volunteer, then explained how the trick worked and how easy it was to both fool and be fooled by this.

Water Dowsing
Another live demo, a few folks were encouraged to have a go at detecting water hidden under a flowerpot … and knowing where it was ensured a hit most times (yes, it’s the Ideomotor effect)., but when blinded and double-blinded, oh, it suddenly ceased to work, gosh I wonder why? :-) #think

What Richard was actually doing was to illustrate how he uses a double-blind scientific approach to test such claims and so eliminate the very natural conscious and sub-conscious bias that will normally skew the results. He uses this with schools to illustrate scientific concepts by testing such claims, and so help them to learn that applied critical thinking like this really is the very best way to work out the things that are actually true.

Final Thoughts

One very interesting thing to observe is the deep sympathy that Richard has for claimants, he recognizes the importance of not deploying derision, but rather takes a respectful stance when dealing with claimants, and instead permits the evidence of the test to speak for itself.  People can and do fool themselves into believing that their claims are true and valid, not because they are in some way stupid, but simply because, like all of us, they are human and so are very prone to being fooled… no exceptions. Understanding that we can all be fooled, is perhaps the one insight that nurtures such a sympathy, for it is an attribute I have also personally seen others such a Joe Nickel and James Randi demonstrate, and is perhaps the hallmark of a truly experienced skeptical investigator.

Finally, thinking about all that Richard covered, which struck a chord? … for me it was the above observation, but for a really independent litmus test I asked my 13 year old –  she loved the powerband debunking.

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