It appears that the much-ballyhooed DNA match that identified a Ripper victim's blood on a 19th-centruy shawl has now turned out to be much less significant than originally claimed. The online Ripperologists who looked critically at this claim seem to have been vindicated.
The Independent, a British paper, reports:
[T]he scientist who carried out the DNA analysis has apparently made a fundamental error that fatally undermines his case against Kosminski – and once again throws open the debate over who the identity of the Ripper.
The scientist, Jari Louhelainen, is said to have made an "error of nomenclature" when using a DNA database to calculate the chances of a genetic match. If true, it would mean his calculations were wrong and that virtually anyone could have left the DNA that he insisted came from the Ripper's victim.
The apparent error, first noticed by crime enthusiasts in Australia blogging on the casebook.org website, has been highlighted by four experts with intimate knowledge of DNA analysis – including Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, the inventor of genetic fingerprinting – who found that Dr Louhelainen made a basic mistake in analysing the DNA extracted from a shawl supposedly found near the badly disfigured body of Ripper victim Catherine Eddowes. They say the error means no DNA connection can be made between Kosminski and Eddowes ...
[E]xperts with detailed knowledge of the GMI's mtDNA database claimed that Dr Louhelainen made an "error of nomenclature" because the mutation in question should be written as "315.1C" and not "314.1C". Had Dr Louhelainen done this, and followed standard forensic practice, he would have discovered the mutation was not rare at all but shared by more than 99 per cent of people of European descent.
This potential problem was discussed in more detail in an earlier post about the Ripper story. Given the authority of the scientists who are now weighing in, and the continuing silence from Dr. Louhelainen, I'd say the DNA claim has been decisively debunked.
In terms of the usual subject matter of this blog, the take-away is that even experts can make rather obvious mistakes when they get caught up in the excitement of the chase. This can apply both to parapsychologists and their critics. We need to look critically at all claims, whether pro- or anti-paranormal, and keep emotion out of it as much as possible.
Admittedly, easier said than done ...
The American Society for Psychical Research is but a shadow of its former self. So says Guy Lyon Playfair in a recent overview of the ASPR's history published in the Fortean Times (not available online as far as I know).
The Society, founded in 1885 as a companion organization to England's previously established Society for Psychical Research, has had a storied history marked by the contributions of many leading figures in the field, including William James, James Hyslop, Walter Franklin Pierce, Gardner Murphy, and Karlis Osis. In 1972 membership peaked at 2,554.
These days, Playfair argues, it's all gone downhill.
With the retirement of Osis in 1983, in-house activity slowed down and soon ground to a near-halt, or so it appears. For the past 20 years or so, information on the Society’s current activities has been hard to come by. My own request for it was not answered or acknowledged. There have been no Journal or Proceedings since 2004, although the ASPR website remains, inviting those with personal experiences to report to send them to William Roll (although he died in January 2012). Veteran parapsychologist George Hansen estimated in 2007 after a trawl through the society’s tax returns, that membership had fallen from 591 in 1988 to just 23 in 2005. He also noted that its current executive director still enjoys a six-figure salary. His tersely understated conclusion: “It is unclear what services the ASPR actually provides.”
Author Stacy Horn is quoted as saying that her repeated requests to access the ASPR’s archive were rebuffed. “For a year and a half they put me off and I finally accepted that they just didn’t want me to see anything. They wouldn’t even tell me what they had. I’ve since learned that I am just one in a long line of people who had similar experiences with the ASPR.”
It's too bad. With the growth of paranormal websites and TV shows, there's a real opportunity for a revival of the ASPR. Sadly, Playfair's account makes that rosy scenario seem unlikely.
As sort of a follow-up to "The widening gyre," here's a longish Facebook post that I thought might be worth reposting here.
A break from my usual gloom 'n' doom:
Everyone is worried about Ebola in America. I'm a little worried too. But I'm not that worried. Because America is different from West Africa.
It's true that in West Africa the rate of infection doubles every three weeks. But that doesn't mean we're going to see that kind of exponential increase in the United States. West Africa is still a very primitive place. Not long ago a bunch of villagers burned down an Ebola clinic and brought all the patients home, insisting they were not really sick. They believed Ebola was a government hoax. In other cases, villagers have terrorized arriving health workers and forced them to flee. Their reasoning, apparently, is that the health workers show up wherever Ebola is found; therefore, if you get rid of the health workers, you won't get Ebola.
We in the USA may not be quite as scientifically sophisticated as we like to believe, but we are miles ahead of rural Africans, some of whom persist in killing "witches." True, our initial response to the outbreak has been chaotic and incompetent, and the Dallas hospital showed no common sense in handling the Duncan case. But the upside is that now we know what not to do. We are already organizing to do a better job in the future. And we will. Public pressure will become ever more intense, forcing officials to behave responsibly and intelligently, even if this is not their first inclination.
When people cite the exponential growth of Ebola in African outbreaks (a doubling every three weeks leads to 1,000 cases within seven months), they forget that rural Africans still practice unsafe burial practices, often live in unsanitary conditions, have limited access to medical care, and are seldom effectively quarantined even after they are obviously symptomatic. This is a part of the world where doctors routinely reused unsterilized needles not long ago - and maybe some of them still do.
Ebola is a challenge, but it's unlikely to become a true epidemic in the developed world. Fear-mongering headlines are actually useful if they prompt the authorities to raise their game. But it's not time to panic, and I don't think it ever will be.
I now return to my normal curmudgeonly dyspepsia.