Over the past month and a half, I’ve been researching Dr Barry Taff’s career and his poltergeist cases, and having conversations with him to write an article. Imagine my surprise when Ben Radford, writing for the Skeptical Inquirer, published a criticism of Dr Taff’s most famous poltergeist case, known as The Entity.
Image: Dr Barry Taff, barrytaff.net
While there was certainly an air of synchronicity about it for me, the likely reason for Radford’s timing was the Skeptical Inquirer going for the Halloween theme. Regardless, I was already familiar with the case and the sources that Radford was using to draw his conclusions. It happened in 1974. That’s almost 50 years ago. Quite a few people associated with this case have shuffled off their mortal coil and the world has changed dramatically in the meantime. Rebuttals are necessarily long, so bear with me.
Many Sources for “The Entity” are Gone
The only original sources of information about The Entity that we have at this point are Dr Taff’s blog posts, his book and, of course, Barryhimself,f as well as some interviews and shows that made it online. His source material is not online. It’s in a storage unit in a small town south of Los Angeles, CA. In his book he has reprinted the scientific article published in the PSI Journal of Investigative Psychical Research. That report is not online either. The easiest way to access it is to read his book, Aliens Above, Ghosts Below, which is only available in paperback.
The only sources of photos from The Entity case are online. This is problematic for research because forensic examination of photos from that era requires that you possess the original negatives. Or in the case of Polaroids, that you possess the original photo. In addition to that, the expertise surrounding these cameras is nearly gone. At the time of the investigation, there were experts who used these cameras regularly and were familiar with their quirks, strengths and limitations in a way that no present - day hobbyist can possibly match.
It’s not a case, in other words, that lends itself to easy re-examination, let alone drawing new conclusions. Any such attempt should be met with extreme skepticism. You have to evaluate the case according to the era in which it took place. Radford was four at the time. (I was fifteen.)
The Entity case centered around Doris Bither, a woman who was living in Culver City, CA, in a small, rundown house with her three sons. The movie and the sensationalism surrounding the case involved her unsubstantiated claim to have been raped by three ghosts. When Dr Taff was first approached with this story, he dismissed it as fantasy and as he put it to me: “When people lie about paranormal phenomena, they tend to be whoppers.” He only followed up on the case after neighbors of Bither reported unusual things happening next door.
You can read about the case on Dr Taff’s blog.
Smearing Barry Taff
This article is focused on the skeptical reconning of The Entity case and Radford’s portrayal of Dr Barry Taff as an opportunist exploiting a mentally vulnerable woman and doing shoddy work that he then promoted as proof that something paranormal was happening.
Before I get into the details of what is wrong with this attempt to re-write the history of a decades old poltergeist case, it’s important to understand why Radford would go to the trouble of smearing the name of a septuagenarian about a case that happened well before Radford even learned to read.
100% Certainty of Denial
Radford is deputy editor for the Skeptical Inquirer and research fellow for the Center for Inquiry, which is part of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which used to be known as the Committee for Skeptical Investigations of Claims of the Paranormal.
It’s an organization built around complete denial of the paranormal as well as actively opposing pretty much every type of holistic medicine you care to name, whether it’s a crusade against chiropractors, or an assault on acupuncture. They have even declared war on Santa Claus. This weird mindset is reflected in Radford’s work.
His bio on the Center for Inquiry describes him as “one of the world’s few science-based paranormal investigators.” That’s a bit of a whopper. His efforts do not compare favorably with actual scientists studying these phenomena. World renowned Dr Barry Taff, PhD, for instance, has done 4,579 investigations over 50 years. Lloyd Auerbach, M.S. in parapsychology, has done field work for 32 years and has affiliations with numerous scientific organizations and presents his cases at scientific conferences. Dr William Roll was also active in several scientific organizations, spent 20 years working on investigations and wrote many scientific papers on the subject.
Real Research Similar to “The Entity”
Poltergeist cases, such as The Entity are extremely rare. True scientific research involves following up on hundreds or in Dr Taff’s case, thousands of leads, most of which are dead ends. They are often time - consuming and boring, where researchers unsuccessfully attempt to get phenomena to occur. As Dr Taff put it,
“If poltergeist phenomena were completely fictional, we would have nothing to talk about. If it were completely common, we would also have nothing to talk about.”
It’s only because it’s very difficult, but not entirely impossible to investigate, that there is room for discussion and controversy.
If you’re curious about the actual science of poltergeists, here is a relatively short document that will get you up to date on the real research.
Because Radford has never found anything paranormal to the best of my knowledge, he has learned nothing of the phenomena and has nothing of interest to report from his own investigations. He’s not affiliated with any organizations that take the phenomena seriously nor has he advanced the field in any way. His only goal appears to be debunking all of it and painting everyone involved as either deluded or opportunists.
Conclusions Before Research
I have little doubt that his mind was made up well before he did any research. With the Skeptical Inquirer, it was undoubtedly just a question of what negative spin to put on The Entity case, not whether it was a good idea.
It is so predictable that the moment I knew that the Skeptical Inquirer article existed, I was 99.9% certain that it would be negative. Getting the opinions of atheist materialists about a subject with obvious spiritual implications is like asking Christian evangelicals about evolution. You are not going to get an objective review.
Radford’s article mostly takes the facts of The Entity case and then interprets them in the most negative way possible. It gives him the cover of not lying, while presenting his own beliefs as objective analysis.
A Haunted Woman
He first paints Bither as a troubled woman. That’s correct. He also paints her as an alcoholic and drug user. There seems to be a bit of debate on that point, coming from her middle son, but as she did drink and use drugs — it’s a matter of how much. Radford sets up his point that:
“the introduction of psychics, paranormal investigators, and other self-styled ghost hunters escalated—and arguably exacerbated—Bither’s situation. Where a trained psychologist or social worker might have seen a troubled woman needing help, Taff and Gaynor saw a golden opportunity to research a real haunting.”
I suppose that if you believe that none of it is real and that these investigations just prey on vulnerable people and exploit them, then Radford’s speculations might make sense. But when the phenomena are real, as was obviously the case, then it’s an entirely different story.
Bither reached out to Dr Barry Taff because she needed someone to take her seriously, and she found one of the few people who were familiar with this extremely rare situation and would handle it professionally. She needed someone to say “you’re not crazy, this is really happening.” According to Dr Taff, she turned down requests for her to seek medical assistance anyway.
Fear of Being Labeled Crazy?
And that may have been due to her very legitimate fear of being labeled as a crazy person. I wasn’t there and I don’t know for sure, but it would be consistent with other people I’ve encountered. Relying on medical professionals when it comes to the paranormal can be a huge gamble. At the very least they can assume you’re spinning a tale and at the worst they can assume that you’re having a psychotic episode and involuntarily commit you.
There are very few safe people to turn to and Dr Taff was one of them. Radford’s conclusion here is based on his ignorance of what people actually go through when they experience extreme paranormal phenomena. So, on to the next thing.
Why did Dr Taff introduce seances? If you are going to observe the phenomena, you can either wait around in the hope that it randomly happens or you can try to trigger it. For The Entity case, Dr Taff chose the latter course. It’s something Radford would know if he had any familiarity with the subject.
The Omnipotent Skeptic
Radford didn’t have access to the original notes, yet he felt confident in saying that the case “was never competently investigated” as though he had some supernatural power of Omnipotent Skeptical Insight.™
And how about this gem: “There is curiously little independent corroboration of the allegedly extraordinary events, and we are forced to rely extensively (if not exclusively) on secondary sources.” Yeah, that happens after 47 years. Not only was there no Internet back then, the personal computer had only just been invented. A lot of people involved have either died or tracking them down is not worth the effort.
According to Radford, “Taff is still capitalizing on his involvement in the famous case through media interviews and books.” That’s news to me. Taff wrote one book and the case is one chapter of it. The media interviews about the case are long gone and in fact, he’s been on the brink of homelessness due to medical issues and accrued debt from not being able to work, barely surviving financially on social security and relying on charity and housing assistance.
Skeptic Doesn’t Know What “Documented” Means
Radford then moves on to write: “. . . had many of the phenomena typically associated with ghost reports: cold spots; odd, subjective sensations; a bad smell; and so on. The pair claimed to have experienced some unexplained phenomena, for example, “suddenly the cabinet door swung open. A frying pan flew out of the cabinet, following a curved path to the floor over 2.5 feet away, hitting with quite a thud.” Sadly and predictably, none of this was documented.”
“Sadly.” It’s one of those words that skeptics overuse to profess their fake disappointment that something didn’t live up to their Obviously Superior Skeptical Standards.™ Radford’s claim that none of this was documented is rather idiotic in my opinion. Of course, it was documented. Taff wrote down what happened. That’s how Radford knows about it. It. Was. Documented.
Otherwise, what on earth does Radford expect from Dr Taff? In 1974, the technology wasn’t there to film everything continuously. Capturing any photo at all is one of the more remarkable things about the case. The criticism is complete nonsense. In addition to that, this is an investigation, not an experimental trial. Investigations are about writing up observations and providing other types of documentation when possible. That’s exactly what Dr Taff did.
Scientific vs. Debunking
This is where scientifically minded people diverge from debunking skeptics like Radford. If you are going to seriously evaluate this report of poltergeist activity, you compare it to other poltergeist reports. The skeptical conceit that investigative researchers like Dr Barry Taff must either be lying or deluded is not how you do science, it’s just emotionally charged bias.
Records of poltergeist cases go as far back as 530 AD with more complete documentation dating back as far as 1526, in a monastery in France. Perhaps since Radford is so fond of old cases he can criticize the reporting of the nuns who lived 700 years ago.
It’s an incredibly rare phenomenon, but the other side of this is that it’s so remarkable that when it happened, people documented it. And we have enough of those cases throughout history that we can see similarities in the reports.
There is only so much evidence that you can dismiss as insane before the dismissal itself becomes the insanity.
If you are going to go about this scientifically, you should measure this case against all the others and add it to the database if it seems reasonable by those standards. The Entity certainly falls within the boundaries of other poltergeist cases and that’s how it should be judged.
Bad Photo Examination
In a separate article, a skeptic photography hobbyist, Kenny Biddle, criticizes the photos. The Entity photos were vetted by an expert of the time, Adrian Vance, editor of the West Coast edition of Popular Photography. In keeping with the skeptic tradition of interpreting everything in the worst way possible, he uses a quote from Vance and turns it on its head.
“As for Vance giving his opinion on whether the photo shows an apparition, he merely writes, “it now appears (to them) that they had some success” (Vance 1976). This does not appear to be an enthusiastic endorsement of the photo’s authenticity as depicting some unknown energy.”
It was the photographer’s job to merely rule out artifacts as an explanation, not vet the pictures as paranormal. And that’s exactly what he did. And our skeptical hobbyist goes on to criticize the original photos because the poster board wasn’t up. He got his timeline wrong. The poster board came later after Dr Taff and others realized that there was something to photograph. It’s another pointless and inaccurate criticism.
Maybe Pay More Attention?
And he goes on to compare this:
And forgets to include this:
The images look nothing alike. The hair artifact in the first picture isn’t uniformly illuminated like in The Entity pictures and it has well-defined edges, which the entity anomalies do not. In the second picture, the light is interacting with the curtain and there are two of them. It makes the claim of hair outright impossible.
Another thing I’d like to point out is that the aspect ratio of that picture is different from an SX-70; the photo is overexposed and the hair looks like a digital artifact. The picture could have been cropped, but it seems to be digital. I am not certain of this, but if that’s the case, then this is an outright dishonest comparison.
When Skeptics Attack
So there you have it. Bad skepticism. A couple of guys with no feel for the subject or any clue as to how to properly assess a poltergeist investigation have taken a decades old case launched into an over-the-top biased assessment of it. Sadly, (see what I did there?) all Radford and Biddle have shown is ignorance and bias.