A comment on Byrne and Normand – The Demon-Haunted Sentence: A Skeptical Analysis of Reverse Speech

Byrne and Normand. (2000). The Demon-Haunted Sentence: A Skeptical Analysis of Reverse Speech

The authors make claims that can lead readers to believe that David Oates is a shyster, fraudently profiteering from his claims. For example:

  • ‘His company … is dedicated to profiting from his discovery’.
  • A ‘reviewer’ of David Oates’ book, Susan Brombacher, concluded ‘that (Oates) seems more interested in making a profit than educating others.
  • ‘The Reverse Speech Web page contains a plethora of merchandise and services available to consumers at considerable prices’.
  • ‘ ….. those who pay (David Oates) a hefty sum and go through his training can then serve as expert witnesses and command hefty sums themselves’.

It is my suggestion that researchers like Byrne and Normand drop the fact that David Oates makes an income from Reverse Speech, and avoid the urge to use this as a method to discredit the man and the phenomenon.

The attention given to the fact that Reverse Speech is an income-producing enterprise takes away from the necessary argument concerning its genuineness, appears as small-mindedness, and smacks of academic ‘poor form’.  They would do well in ascertaining whether real speech exists, and what it is that is producing it.

The authors write:

“The person trained to hear reverse messages could intentionally or unintentionally report that speech contains hidden incriminating evidence. Many people are not prepared to refute such contrived evidence”.

The authors state that the potential for harm is enormous if Reverse Speech is accepted in places such as a court of law. I agree that it is problematic. It is easy to err without sound skills. This goes for any use of Reverse Speech. A certain perceived stress pattern and the existence of some phonemes can cause the listener to hear a phrase even though other phonemes are incorrect, ambiguous or missing. The ambiguities can mean that it lacks evidence as the documented reversal, and could easily be heard as something else, or nothing at all. Of course, in normal speech, all kinds of processes occur – phoneme assimilations, elision, dropped phonemes and so on – one needs to work with a knowledge of language and its processes and what might be viable within a reasonable set of limitations. After an informed analysis leads the analyser to believe that the reversal indeed represents the sounds of language, it needs to be ascertained whether it is genuine unconscious language rather than just coincidental language-like sounds. Next, what/who the language refers to would have to be identified through a cogent interpretation. What aspect of the person is the ‘voice’? Is it an aspect that represents normal conscious thinking or how he/she views events and those around them? Or is it a denied aspect of the self? Or is it an aspect that communicates at a deeper, more profound level? When the voice uses personal pronouns, such as ‘I’, ‘he’ and ‘you’, who is this entity referring to? Is it the speaker himself or a third person, and if so, who is that third person?  Does the reversal refer directly to the spoken forward speech, or is it the indirect result of a trigger from the forward speech, and refer instead to events or memories of the further past?

The authors apply to Reverse Speech circumstances and conditions which can result in misunderstood and misinterpreted language. For example, they refer to B.F. Skinner’s verbal summator. The authors state:

“The verbal summator consisted of a phonograph (or tape) of random vowel sounds that were grouped together in such a way as to not produce any systematic phonetic groupings. These random phonetic sounds were arranged into patterns that approximated common stress patterns in everyday conversation’.

After such strings of nonsense syllables were arranged, they were played for subjects at barely audible volume levels. After repeatedly listening to these sounds, subjects reported “hearing” the phonograph or the tape “say” things. These sentences, or sentence fragments, did not actually exist and, as such, were considered to be utterances that were already strong in the subject’s repertoire. Put another way, they were “projecting” their own thoughts onto the sounds they were hearing”.

The authors go on to add, “phonemes may sound similar to a meaningful phrase but are really sound salad’. A listener expecting to hear a certain phrase will likely do so”.

Quite true, we project into the signal to hear language, and even more so when there are issues of low audibility, background noise, or audio noise occurring. Masking effects cause the listener to hear a particular utterance that is not there. However, it is not only in Reverse Speech that this can occur; it also occurs in normal speech. Projection into sounds and priming or prompting are issues that affect the hearing of speech whether it is forward or backward. However, Reverse Speech is at a distinct disadvantage compared to normal speech. Here is why:

  • When listening to normal speech, we know it is real language (unless someone has played a trick and recorded noises from a dog that mirror a human stress pattern, and used masking noise over it!). With Reverse Speech, speech needs to be identified from non-speech. This means recognising what sounds reasonably constitute language. It also means being able to recognise a structure that sounds like language as being genuine or simply coincidental.
  • The analyst needs to identify the beginning and the end of the reversal. Identifying only some of it can alter how it is interpreted overall, or it can result in completely different words due to how it has been ‘cut’ from a longer utterance. The same thing would occur in normal speech.
  • People are not used to hearing Reverse Speech and, much like hearing an accent or language style one is not used to, it can lead to difficulties in comprehension.
  • We do not understand the mechanisms by which it occurs.

These issues do not mean that Reverse Speech is not a real phenomenon. But it does mean that there are considerable challenges associated with it – many of the difficulties that can occur with normal speech in a comparable situation. Because of the inherent challenges of Reverse Speech, those who investigate it ought to possess appropriate linguistic skills.

In reference to papers such as Byrne and Normand, I suggest that anyone who seeks to offer a critique of the existence of Reverse Speech, do so by first identifying whether there are grammatically-acceptable, linguistically-viable utterances in reverse that are significant in number. I have yet to see a critical study that addresses this basic first point of consideration. From the recognition of the large number of utterances in reverse which are of interest linguistically, one then needs to show whether they are simply coincidental sounds and have nothing to do with  some level of consciousness. An honest appraisal of the not-insignificant amount of material available that is arguably linguistically-viable, as well as grammatically and syntactically acceptable, should then lead to the question of whether an act of intelligence/awareness can or does produce it. Of course, we are unable to demonstrate scientific evidence of this at this time. Nevertheless, psychology has increasingly become more comfortable with the existence of the unconscious and the subpersonalities that act upon the person. Of course, it is quite a jump to a consideration of the unconscious aspects of a person communicating via the reversed sounds of the speaker. Perhaps in time, further understanding of the mysteries of the brain and the unconscious will lead toward more consideration of the phenomenon.

Byrne, T & Normand, M. (2000). The demon-haunted sentence: A skeptical analysis of Reverse Speech. Skeptical Inquirer (24)2. Retrieved from http://www.csicop.org/si/show/demon- haunted_sentence_a_skeptical_analysis_of_reverse_speech1

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