Lynne Kelly is a science teacher who would prefer to believe the truth than airy-fairy nonsense, and as far as that goes, puts together a strong case with her recently published The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal . An easy book to read written by an easy author to interview, I’d happily recommend both. The interview was broadcast on ABC NewsRadio some Saturdays ago, and on the subsequent Sunday as well.
Demetrius Romeo: Lynne, what led you to write A Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal?
LYNNE KELLY: I love science. I think the real world is awesome and people keep making claims saying they defy science; well that’s fine, because science doesn’t know everything, but I don’t like it when they defy the science that I teach. If people can levitate, then what I teach in Year 11 Physics is wrong, and I want to get my teaching right. It’s also that I am, by nature, gullible. I trust and believe what people tell me, starting from my big brother that fooled me constantly as a child, and so skepticism is also a protection against being exploited both emotionally and financially.
Demetrius Romeo: Who did you write this book for? I would have thought that skeptics don’t believe in the paranormal in the first place.
LYNNE KELLY: I didn’t write this book for skeptics. The skeptics have a great literature already that’s much more complex, but it tends to be very academic. I’ve written a book very much for the sort of people that I meet over the dinner table, or in schools, and that’s why it’s not heavily scientific. It’s written as an emotional person trying to understand these claims, in the hope that we’ll raise the debate. I’m sick of the extremists on either side saying you should believe everything, or, you shouldn’t believe anything, it’s all rubbish. Neither side is going to help us get towards a better understanding of what is real.
Demetrius Romeo: What’s the reaction been to your book so far?
LYNNE KELLY: I’ve been really surprised. I was very worried about putting it out that I would offend people because that’s the last thing that I want to do, but I’ve been very surprised on how many people who are firm believers in the paranormal, have been coming back to me saying, “that’s very interesting, I’m looking at it in a different way; I still believe, but you’ve raised different ways of thinking about it”. That’s been terrifically rewarding, because it wasn’t written for hardcore skeptics.
Demetrius Romeo: Has anyone taken you on, or taken issue with it?
LYNNE KELLY: Actually, the only people who have taken issue with it is a magician, and that’s because I do reveal some magic tricks – in particular, how spoon bending’s done. That was a hard decision for me, because I have a huge respect for magicians; I adore them. But I felt that, because some of them step over the line and claim they are psychic and aren’t pleased to announce that they are magicians who are professional frauds and deceivers, that they’ve crossed the line and are misrepresenting and misleading people, and therefore I felt obliged to reveal those methods. That’s the main area I’ve been criticised in and I regret it has to happen, but I made an ethical decision in that case.
Demetrius Romeo: Was there anything you learnt in the process about any of the topics you tackled?
LYNNE KELLY: A great deal, especially in cold readings and psychic readings. In order to fully understand why people believe, when a reading using, for example, astrology, numerology or just psychic abilities, why it felt so real, I not only had to experience readings, but I also had to deliver them.
Demetrius Romeo: In your book you reduce a lot of the work that psychics do down to psychology.
LYNNE KELLY: I think there’s a blurry line between what’s intuition and what is truly psychic. I use my own system, called ‘tauromancy’, because if I used tarot or astrology, people would say ‘you think you’re just using psychology, but the system is working’. So I created, using the scientific underpinnings of what psychology is involved, a complete system, and I read a tarot reader. At the end, she said it was a very successful reading. She was very impressed. And then we started talking about exactly what we do, and we came to the conclusion that we do exactly the same thing. I’m taking all the credit for myself, while she’s giving it away to the cards.
Demetrius Romeo: Do you think that a lot of what is perceived as ‘paranormal activity’ can be just broken down to very common sense things?
LYNNE KELLY: You use the term ‘just broken down to’; I think it’s exactly the reverse. I think the human abilities – brain, the human spirit – are things we constantly underestimate, and so we simplify the explanations. I don’t think it’s ‘just broken down’, I think what I’m doing is looking at the absolute wonder that is the human ability and saying ‘hey, let’s take the credit and let’s explore this, let’s not give it away to something unexplained; let’s start exploring it for ourselves’. So, yes, it is human ability and instinct, but it’s pretty amazing stuff.
Demetrius Romeo: But sometimes the explanation isn’t as exciting as what we’d rather believe. Like crop circles: to find out that it can be done with a length of rope and a piece of wood isn’t as exciting as even knowing that it was electrical discharge or weather.
LYNNE KELLY: True, but for me, I’d rather believe things that are true, and there is so much that is exciting in the real world. I’ve had a daughter; from the beginning, which we won’t discuss in detail, to the end when she was born and that little body came out with ten fingers and ten toes and little wrinkles in all the right places. That is so extraordinary, I don’t think making a crop circle using electrical discharges or aliens is as exciting as anything we humans do as part of nature. I want to believe in the real things and I want to understand just how great it is without having to resort to simplistic explanations.
Demetrius Romeo: One of the chapters I really enjoyed was the one on spontaneous combustion, because even when you explain what that’s about, it’s still just as eerie and as weird as all the things we might have believed about people who would just burst into flames.
LYNNE KELLY: Spontaneous human combustion was only explained in 1998 which means that for a long, long time, we had to say that science can’t explain it. That doesn’t mean accept a paranormal explanation. What happens – I’ll take the example that I described in the book of a French murder, where the murderers used Chanel No. 5 as one would in France to ignite the body. So they use an accelerant of some kind in a small area. The intense flames in that small area start to burn the body fat and what happens is the clothes act as a wick, so imagine it as a candle that is inside-out, with the wick on the outside being the clothes, and the wax being the body fat. And so what happens is, an intense flame starts, using the clothes as a wick, and burns the whole body. But it’s not spontaneous; it takes about seven hours. And it completely destroys the body – and the bones by burning the bone marrow – but leaves the surrounding areas intact. And that’s why you’ll often get a leg or an arm left, because that’s an area without body fat, and without clothes on it.
Demetrius Romeo: Because of the eeriness of that image, I find that that still is as weird and as exciting as if there was something supernatural or spooky at work.
LYNNE KELLY: Yep. It’s extremely rare, and it is eerie and spooky, but it is real.
Demetrius Romeo: Are there topics you haven’t explored yet that you would like to write about in the future?
LYNNE KELLY: So many of them! The area that I’m going to look at next is the health and medical one, and this is very, very touchy, because it would be very easy as a skeptic to destroy something – like the effect of positive thinking on health – to destroy it without questions, and that area has to be taken very, very carefully. There are a lot of exploitative methods in health, but there is also a lot that the conventional methods don’t know about.
Demetrius Romeo: So when you come to things like the copper bracelets that people believe help arthritis, and in some cases, you think that it’s more the belief than the copper that’s actually helping, where do you stand on that?
LYNNE KELLY: This is where you hit a real ethical issue. If it’s a choice between taking drugs or a copper band, and they feel better with both, I’m all for the copper band, even if the scientific evidence is that the copper band doesn’t actually make any difference. So, we’ve got to be very careful. If belief in things will help, then let’s go for it. I would rather be cured by a placebo, than take a real drug. It’s a very difficult one for me and I’m struggling with the ethics.
Demetrius Romeo: Having written a book that exposes so many things about what people believe were real and what we now know isn’t, where does that leave things like faith and religious belief?
LYNNE KELLY: That’s a really good question, because I don’t think, as a science person who is looking at tangible claims that have failed tangible tests, that religion is within my scope; I don’t think that I have the expertise. So I might look at the Shroud of Turin, which has been shown to date from the Middle Ages due to carbon dating, and therefore wasn’t… or, I don’t believe it was the burial shroud of Christ – that’s not saying that a belief in Christ isn’t legitimate. So I don’t think that using the methods I use, which is strait science, that faith is really within my gambit.
Demetrius Romeo: Lynne Kelly, thank you very much.
LYNNE KELLY: Thanks Dom.
Photo the ghost of Lynne Kelly by Damian Kelly, 2002