Monday, 27 June 2016

Hands off our science

I get a little thrill whenever I see the word 'science' in a place of entertainment - I'm always happy to see new ways of communicating science, and when a science gig reaches a mainstream theatre, for example, that's brilliant.

But when I saw the entry below in my local theatre's events programme, my reaction was not excitement, but concern.


As you can see, the S word is prominent. Now, one of the performers is the spirit medium Derek Acorah - hence, presumably the 'psychic' bit - but the other is Richard Felix, described in the programme as a 'Ghost and Scientific Historian'. I assume that means that he studies the history of ghosts and of science, rather than that he is a ghost who also happens to be a scientific historian.

As a science writer I get to communicate with a lot of historians of science, but I'd never come across his name, so I looked up his profile on his website. Confusingly, this only describes him as a historian - the word 'science' does not appear at all. And, if his Wikipedia entry is accurate, he left school at 15 and had no further opportunity for science or history of science training. Of course, this doesn't stop him being self-trained, but if he was, you'd think there'd be a mention of it somewhere.

So what's this all about? I emailed his website asking for details, but they haven't replied. I also contacted the theatre, where their marketing and sales manager replied:
...we are advertising [...] a show that is touring the UK discussing paranormal investigations.  The event is chaired by a sceptic and features theories about ghosts and mediumship.  Regarding the background of Mr Felix, he has studied this area for more than three decades and so will be sharing the history of the scientific theories of the paranormal as part of the evening.
When I queried the term 'scientific historian', she came back:
As the venue who are hosting the show we have booked the performance in good faith and will forward your e-mail to the production company who will be in the best position to answer you.
As yet they have not done so.

Although I wrote the book Extra Sensory on paranormal abilities, I explicitly left out ghosts and spirit mediums, so I checked with Hayley Stevens, someone with wide experience in the field, and was told that the only reason she could think the S word was being used was because Mr Felix is an enthusiast for ghost hunting technology - the mostly electronic equipment favoured by some ghost hunters, which sadly lacks any verified scientific basis. But even if it were 100% acceptable as genuine science-based equipment, this misses the point.

Everyone uses electronic equipment these days. A plumber does. The bloke who delivers parcels from Amazon does. However, this doesn't give them the right to describe what they do as science or to append the word 'scientific' to their role. A historian of science (I've never come across the term 'scientific historian') is someone with expertise in, you guessed it - the history of science, not a historian who uses gadgets. It's hard not to see this as marketing that strains credibility to its very limits.

1 comment:

  1. Somestimes its hard to believe what comes along as 'science'...and there are more "mystery science"-TV programs than serious ones. But its the same in Germany! One should vote against this.
    And, by the way, Britons should have voted agains Brexit. World's problems are so manifold and entangled that we (scientists) need to stand together.
    Thx for commenting this, Brian

    ReplyDelete