The case of the Welsh Tidy Mouse: incredibly unlikely explanations are sometimes correct Chris French The Skeptic

I always keep an eye on the news for any topical stories that I can include in public lectures to illustrate points I want to make. So you can imagine how delighted I was with the story of a cute little mouse in the Welsh market town of Builth Wells that had been videoed tidying up 75-year-old Rodney Holbrook’s workbench every night. Or maybe you can’t? It may not be immediately obvious what relevance this story has to my research interests but in fact it has relevance to two topics that fascinate me. You can read the full story from the BBC, who even provided a video of the “Welsh Tidy Mouse” in action. Unsurprisingly, the story went viral within hours.

So, how is this relevant to anomalistic psychology? Readers may recall that this is not the first time that a story about a houseproud mouse has gone viral. Back in 2019, 72-year-old Steve Mckears had been puzzled by the fact that on repeated occasions his untidy workbench was tidied up overnight even though Steve was making sure that his shed was securely locked when he finished work for the day. In Steve’s case, he did begin to wonder whether his shed might be haunted by some sort of anti-poltergeist – a spirit that, in contrast to traditional poltergeists, produced order from chaos. With the help of a neighbour, he set up a video camera and the truth was revealed. Steve had a tiny mouse to thank for keeping his shed tidy. You can also read about Steve’s mouse and watch the rodent in action via the BBC.

I like to show that video when I do my talk on the psychology of ghosts and hauntings for two reasons. First, it’s just so cute! Secondly (and a bit more seriously), it is a wonderful illustration of a very important principle that should be applied to all claims of alleged hauntings: just because you cannot think of a normal explanation for baffling events does not mean there isn’t one.

Before catching Mickey/Minnie in action, Steve himself was completely baffled by the situation. If a skeptic had suggested that maybe the explanation was a murine equivalent of Marie Kondo they would understandably have been laughed out of the room. But, thanks to Steve’s determination to solve the puzzle, we have irrefutable proof that that was indeed the correct explanation.

I describe this case in my forthcoming book, The Science of Weird Shit: Why Our Minds Conjure the Paranormal (to be published by MIT Press on 19 March 2024, but available now to pre-order – just saying!). I also reproduce a list of other obscure causes of physical effects (from Vic Tandy and Tony Lawrence, 1998, p. 360) that might lead someone to conclude that their house is haunted: “water hammer in pipes and radiators (noises), electrical faults (fires, phone calls, video problems), structural faults (draughts, cold spots, damp spots, noises), seismic activity (object movement/destruction, noises), […] and exotic organic phenomena (rats scratching, beetles ticking).” Of course, there are lots of other reasons why someone might come to believe that their house is haunted but allegedly inexplicable physical effects are certainly one major factor.

Another topic that I deal with at length in my book and discuss in public lectures is the psychology of coincidences. The nature of coincidences is centrally important in addressing a wide range of paranormal claims. To give but one example, consider the phenomenon of ostensibly precognitive dreams. It is not uncommon for people to report having a dream that appears to bear a striking correspondence to an event that takes place after the dream has occurred. Is it possible that dreams sometimes give us a psychic glimpse into the future? Maybe. But one obvious alternative, non-paranormal, explanation is that the correspondence may be nothing more than a coincidence.

If you are the person who has had such a dream, especially if you judge the probability of such a correspondence arising by chance to be astronomically unlikely, mere coincidence may appear to be a totally ridiculous explanation. Surely something more than blind chance is at work here? But think about it. There are around eight billion people on the planet. Even if each of us only remembered on average one dream per night that is around eight billion potential opportunities every night for someone to have such an ostensibly ‘precognitive’ dream. By the Law of Very Large Numbers, it would be really spooky if no one ever had such a dream!

We are not surprised that people sometimes win the jackpot in lotteries because we appreciate that so many people play lotteries that it is bound to happen. Exactly the same principle applies when considering precognitive dreams. If you were to have such a dream you might ask yourself, “What were the chances of me having that particular dream and then that corresponding event taking place in real life some time later?” If a reasonable estimate of that probability makes it clear that the answer is many millions to one, it is not surprising that a paranormal explanation may seem reasonable. But the wrong question is being asked in the first place. The correct question to ask is, “What are the chances of anybody anywhere having such a dream that matches a future event with such an unlikely degree of correspondence?”

So what is the connection between coincidence and the Welsh Tidy Mouse? Well, it turns out that Rodney Holbrook, of Welsh Tidy Mouse fame, is a friend of Steve Mckears, of ghost mouse fame! In fact, Rodney was the friendly neighbour who had set up the video camera to record Steve’s polter-mouse before he moved to Wales. What were the chances of that? Another nice example of an unlikely but true coincidence.

If you, like me, are also fascinated by the mathematics and psychology of coincidences, I would highly recommend David Hand’s excellent book, The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles and Rare Events Happen All the Time (Corgi, 2015). Oh, and did I mention that there’s a chapter on this very topic in my own forthcoming book, The Science of Weird Shit: Why Our Minds Conjure the Paranormal?

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As video footage of two very houseproud mice proves, the solutions to real life mysteries can be incredibly implausible, without resorting to the paranormal
The post The case of the Welsh Tidy Mouse: incredibly unlikely explanations are sometimes correct appeared first on The Skeptic.