If you put all paranormal claims on a chart with the most likely at the top, orbs would be several pages down, perhaps only a few slots above stories of Neil Armstrong having traces of Cheddar on his boots when he returned to Earth.

Orbs can be created easily by the home enthusiast or naïve ghost hunter. First, you need a digital camera, preferably a basic one, but with a flash. Next find a suitable location – somewhere old, dark and dusty – orbs can still be seen in daylight, but they don’t show up so well. Then start snapping away. As long as there are some small particles caught in the flash, directly in front of the lens, but too close to be in focus, you’ll get good results. If by good results you mean blurry translucent circles across your image.

They are quite obviously natural rather than supernatural. Unfocussed light from a point source can appear as a circle when photographed and even with the naked eye if you’re too lazy to focus properly. However, it has been claimed that some orbs move or act intelligently, responding to commands. Unsurprisingly this claim has been investigated and found lacking.

The videos sometimes showed faster moving Orbs that performed aerobatic manoeuvres. They were as claimed under intelligent control, but, in these cases they were explainable by the fact that many buildings are inhabited by almost microscopic flying insects that survive all year round due to factors such as central heating and the milder winters. An evening spent in a haunted building with some flypaper and a UV Insect acuter soon proved they existed.
– http://www.parascience.org.uk/articles/orbs.htm

Orbs (or insects) responding to commands could certainly be explained by wishful thinking and confirmation bias – until some reliable evidence can show otherwise. In fact there good answers to all the “mysteries” surrounding orbs.

All of which makes orbs as a paranormal phenomenon seem pretty far-fetched, but doesn’t seem to stop people believing in them.

Leonore Sweet is one such person. Although she insists that she’s neither an expert on the paranormal nor on photography, she has written a book entitled How to Photograph the Paranormal. She also has a PhD, although in what, she doesn’t say.  She refers to orbs as “Light forms”, perhaps sounding deliberately similar to “Life forms”. Naturally she is forced to acknowledge that orbs can be created by dust, water droplets, etc, or it would be pretty easy to prove her wrong. But, like so many similar claims she insists that at least some of them are indeed real – just not the ones which have been properly investigated. Have a look at the photos on her What They [orbs] Are page and see what you make of the “types” she claims are legitimate.

If nothing else, these light forms have taught me I know next to nothing in the total scheme of things. This is an uncomfortable feeling for most. Loss of their comfort zone must be why people can look at ten inexplicable photographs and totally dismiss all of them as fraudulent when just one is shown to be from a natural cause.
– http://www.photographingtheparanormal.com/are.htm

That’s because it is the simpler explanation. The onus is on the claimant to provide evidence that these are something paranormal. If you can’t explain something it’s not enough to say, “It must be paranormal” – that’s not the default answer. If the police come questioning you about a murder and you don’t have an alibi, they don’t say, “Then you must be the murderer” and march you off to prison. They’d need some positive evidence too.

For example you could take simultaneous photos of the same person from different angles and see if the orb appears in exactly the same place. Get consistent results from two or more angles and you will actually have some idea if that orb is hovering right behind someone or is a speck only centimetres from the lens.

Leonore Sweet is smart enough not to make any solid claims about the “light forms” she photographs, in fact she rarely even speculates about what they are. Instead she points out that one appeared above a woman who had breathed her last breath or another seems to be hovering protectively near a child. This makes it harder to directly criticise her claims and leaves the speculation up to the reader’s imagination.

Other orb enthusiasts are not so guarded, however. The Sunday Times recently features a piece on Klaus Heinemann, an experimental physicist researching orbs. After waffling about science and how “orthodox research methods often go out the window” he makes some interesting claims:

Hundreds of sequential pictures of the same orb, taken under scientifically sound conditions in rapid succession, have demonstrated that they’re capable of moving very fast — up to 500mph or more. They can also change size and orientation almost instantaneously.
– Klaus Heinemann

Now if he says they can move at a particular speed he needs to know how far away they are – which must be difficult when they can also change size spontaneously. Sadly there’s not the room in this piece to examine his methods, nor any link that might allow us to do so. He goes on to say,

My working theory is that orbs are emanations from spirit beings. There has always been a huge body of anecdotal evidence that the spirit world exists, that consciousness survives physical death, and now, thanks to digital technology, we believe we are seeing it. Orbs are a non-physical, albeit real, phenomenon that can now be detected by physical means.
– Klaus Heinemann

I’d be interested to know how he intends to test that theory or indeed what made him believe it in the first place. Without these details his claims are little more than vague and imaginative claims that I suspect are intended to promote his book rather than help discover anything about reality.

Readers won’t be surprised to hear that the woo-spectrum doesn’t stop here on orbs. The furthest I’ve dared to tread is the delightfully-named Orbs by Beans. Put on your sunglasses and prepare to be dazzled by a smorgasbord of flim-flam!

When woo works


I recently became aware of Tellington T Touch therapy which is an animal healing technique, partly influenced by the Feldenkrais Method. It is principally used on ailing horses, cats and dogs, although it can be applied to many species. I’ve even heard reports of it being used on snakes and tarantulas – apparently they “touched” the snake with sticks. According to the official spiel, instructors and practitioners can be found in 27 countries. The inventor was Linda Tellington-Jones; her website explains how it works:

The intent of the TTouch is to activate the function of the cells and awaken cellular intelligence – a little like “turning on the electric lights of the body.”

Predictably, no explanation of “cellular intelligence” is given, but I’m guessing it has nothing to do with the cellular neural network parallel computing paradigm. Further reading reveals that Ms Tellington Jones received an honorary doctorate degree from the dubiously accredited and pompously-named Wisdom University.

None of which means that Tellington T Touch therapy won’t work; it just sets off the woo-alarm.

So what is Tellington T Touch therapy?

Using a combination of specific touches, lifts, and movement exercises, TTouch helps to release tension and increase body awareness.

Which I sounds a lot like massage and exercise and I think it’s quite reasonable that massage and exercise should be good for animals. The physical and mental benefits of exercise for humans are well-known. Ordinary, non-magical massage – with no ineffable cellular intelligence – shows signs of being beneficial to elderly people suffering loneliness or depression amongst others. It makes sense that social creatures, be they humans or dogs, would benefit from physical contact and connection to those around them.

So I can really see Tellington T Touch working. I expect that a well-intentioned practitioner really could improve a pet’s behaviour and to some extent its general health. But I seriously doubt it could perform significantly better than a combination of loving attention and regular “walkies”.

Which rather clouds the issue. Practitioners vary in how much they market the pseudo-scientific side of their animal therapy; many of the UK ones steer clear of the vague explanations and simply use Tellington T Touch as an extra skill on their CV – no need to scare off the skeptics when the rest of what they do is fairly “normal”.

However, there are plenty who do claim that some holistic, cellular level awakening of energies or similar is behind the effects. Is such an animal therapist a con artist or not? If they can achieve the results they claim, then what does the reasoning behind it matter? After all, there are a number of medicines in common usage whose exact mechanisms are poorly-understood, but they are still rigorously tested before being administered to the general public.

Which is exactly the point – all alternative therapies should be tested, like any other medical treatment. That means randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled trials.

It’s also worth noting that it doesn’t matter what the claimed reasoning behind the treatment might be. Whether it’s “cellular intelligence” or “a certain energy” or just “a mystery” – whether it works or not can still be tested. As long as you can compare it against a “fake” version without the patients or those measuring the results knowing, you have a double-blind trial. I think it’s safe to say that the animals won’t be able to read the Tellington T Touch practitioner’s certificates on the wall, so will be unaware of which is a real treatment and which is the control. As for the measurers, there’s no need for them to see the therapy or control being carried out and they could assess the results over the next few days or weeks. As long as it’s done on a statistically signficant number of animals the study can be fair and informative.

I think testing is important and I see no reason that alternative therapies should be able to shirk this responsibility. Few people would be willing to take a pharmaceutical company’s products if for example, they said “Yes it works, although it can’t be tested, but they’ve been using it in the far East for generations and my grandmother swears by it” (that’s probably more akin to Reiki than T Touch, but the implications are similar). I’d like all “medical” treatments to be held to the same high standards. If “Fairy dust” or “cellular intelligence” is an unreasonable explanation for GlaxoSmithKline, then it’s unreasonable for everyone.

Granted, a bit of ineffective massage is unlikely to make your eyes drop out or to cause sterility (unless it’s very clumsy). However, even if you were to give the therapy for free, I still don’t think it’s entirely harmless. An ailing person (or animal) only has a certain amount of time and energy to spend trying out alternatives. Confusing the issue with ill-defined treatments of dubious efficacy is at best an irresponsible waste of people’s time and at worst cruel and deceitful.

As regards Tellington T Touch, I think it sits on a borderline. Most of the claims it makes sound reasonable for simple massage and exercise (except perhaps the treatment of snakes and spiders), so why add all the magical nonsense? Perhaps it means they can charge more or take on cases where traditional therapy has failed. In any case, I think they should undergo independent clinical trials – preferably by an institution which doesn’t have “Truth” or “Wisdom” in the title. If their techniques show significantly better results than plain massage and exercise, then they’ve earned the right to be respected medical practitioners. If not, then they should call a spade a spade and admit it’s just massge and exercise.