Posts Tagged ‘ghosts’

I watched the film Flatliners yesterday, because this was apparently an event many years overdue in my life. It was solid, silly 90s fun, with Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, a Baldwin of some sort, Julia Roberts, and that guy from that thing. It made something pretty obvious occur to me.

We, as a species, really don’t seem to like ghosts.

I mean, there aren’t many ways in which the dead can rise and find our approval, but we always assume the worst of ghosts. So much of the time, the unfinished business which provides the only reason they’re sticking around in this world is something vengeful, something to satisfy their anger and hatred.

Among the world’s most haunted places are said to be a number of ghosts, who generally met some bloody end, and have been loitering for centuries. Everybody who could ever have wronged these individuals in life is long dead; any vendetta or feud, long since irrelevant. There’s nothing left for them to achieve here, no wrong to right, no justice to be had. But still we suppose they stay, angry and miserable and trapped.

And since, y’know, ghosts don’t exist, this can’t reflect badly on them. Only on us.

Apparently, lust for revenge is one of the strongest reasons for us not to want death to be the end of us. When our bodies give in, we don’t want to go, mostly because we haven’t yet had a chance to get back at some bastard who pissed us off. We loves us some retribution, and we assume most dead people do too, even after you might think they’d have been able to leave all worldly concerns behind.

Not every restless soul is like this, but they so rarely stick around here if they’re actually happy. They tend to move on to some higher ethereal plane, only communicating with us, in unreliable fragments of conversation, “from the other side”, through an assortment of con-men. They never seem to feel the need to stick around here to get anything done. The only thing ever worth clinging on to this world for is finishing up some brutal revenge.

What does this say about us, that these are the things we imagine we’ll be focused on for centuries once we’re dead? Is it just that it’s harder to tell a fun story if you imagine deceased spirits are capable of forgiveness and kindness, or are we preoccupied with all the wrong things?


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Joe Nickell is one of the big dogs of skepticism.

Less well known on my side of the pond, perhaps, but still a huge deal in the world of skeptical inquiry, particularly as regards paranormal investigations. He’s done a huge amount of work over a number of decades, exploring claims of supernatural phenomena, assessing bizarre and potentially anomalous situations, and seeking any evidence that they might be caused by things beyond the material world.

The list of books he’s written and TV shows he’s contributed to is truly intimidating, and his work has no doubt been hugely beneficial in bringing home the importance of rationality and evidence-based reasoning to a wide audience.

And this interview I heard him give recently bugged the shit out of me.

D.J. Grothe was speaking to him for the For Good Reason podcast, and Joe was discussing his lengthy career investigating alleged paranormal phenomena. Like the various ghost-hunting TV shows, he’s visited many sites of supposedly spooky happenings, trying to pin down whether there might be a ghost causing it all, and avoiding the common pitfalls that these shows tend to fall into, such as screaming and leaping into the air every time someone clears their throat, tuning your psychic vibes into a porn channel by mistake, or just plain making shit up.

So far, Joe’s found nothing conclusive to support any supernatural claims, but obviously he keeps an open mind with every new investigation he goes into.

In fact, a far greater bugbear for Joe than people touting unsubstantiated paranormal woo seemed to be the “armchair skeptics”, who like to sit comfortably at home and proclaim knowledgeably to the world that there’s simply no such thing as ghosts, no matter what some deluded fools with a creaky house think they’ve been hearing.

I obviously took this as the personal insult it was no doubt intended to be. So, I’m going to say it:

There’s no such thing as ghosts.

I’m not in an armchair, but I’m sitting comfortably enough, so it probably still counts.

Look, just because I have the balls to state an opinion doesn’t mean I consider every aspect of the matter incontrovertibly settled and have no interest in re-evaluating my position based on new evidence. I’ve wondered before why atheism seems to come under disproportionate fire for being closed-mindedly certain about things, as if religious believers were generally any better at honestly considering the evidence that they might be completely wrong in what they believe.

I’d say that applies to things like ghosts too. Believers don’t seem to be obliged to genuinely consider alternative explanations which undermine the foundations of what they think, but people who don’t get on board are often branded as stubbornly refusing to accept the evidence just because they dare to question it.

I’m getting off track. Obviously Joe Nickell isn’t convinced by claims about ghosts either, so he’s not railing against fellow non-believers like this. But he did spend a good deal of the interview distancing himself from anyone who simply dismisses ghostly reportings without investigating them. On his website he describes his position as a kind of middle ground between “mystery-mongerers on the one hand and so-called debunkers on the other”.

I’m going to call bullshit on the dichotomy he claims to reject. (And also on the suffix “mongerers”.)

If someone professes a belief in ghosts, I have never once heard someone else then immediately respond by sneering: “Oh, so you’ve already made your mind up that ghosts definitely exist? You’re not even prepared to consider the possibility that you might be wrong? That’s such a closed-minded approach to take.”

And yet these exact assumptions are regularly made about non-believers in all kinds of things, even by fellow skeptics.

Why? If I don’t believe in ghosts, it’s because I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that they exist. Nowhere within that statement is any implicit assertion that I wouldn’t believe it even if I did encounter convincing evidence. I hope I would change my mind under such conditions, since I claim to aspire toward rationality.

In fact, it can be a fun and worthwhile exercise to try and pin down exactly what would constitute “convincing evidence” for such a supernatural phenomenon. I haven’t done this for ghosts yet, and would need to research the background to the phenomenon more before I tried. I would hope that paranormal investigators who claim to be scientific about what they do have at least some idea of what these criteria might be.

It’s clear that an armchair skeptic (hi!) is quite capable of expressing an opinion far less presumptive, condescending, and assholeish than Joe seems to think a good deal of other skeptics really hold. Many would say something like:

Well, I don’t believe in ghosts, but I can’t know for sure what was going on in [allegedly ghostly/haunted/whatever location], because I haven’t checked it out, and no other investigative teams have looked at what’s going on yet. I’m yet to see anything to convince me, but who knows what might be causing [observed phenomenon]? I can’t say anything without having been anywhere near the place. This armchair is really comfy. Someone get me some more Doritos, I don’t want to get up.

And this would be all very fair and reasonable and inclusive and probably mollify Joe a good deal. But I think a reasonable armchair skeptic can say more than this, and doesn’t have to sound so wussy and accommodating.

I’ve mentioned this quote which I can’t precisely remember at least once before on this blog, and do please let me know if you have any idea who said it better than I’m going to – but the point is this:

Yes, we shouldn’t go into situations like this assuming that we know what’s going on, seeking only to confirm our initial suspicions and ignoring or explaining away any evidence that might point to a new and unexpected (possibly paranormal) phenomenon.

But, we also don’t have to act like these exact initial reports – strange noises in old buildings, spooky sightings of people who weren’t there, unexplained images appearing in photographs, whatever – haven’t been seen before thousands of times and always led to nothing.

I think a more appropriate skeptical position would be something like:

Well, I can’t know for sure what was going on in [allegedly ghostly/haunted/whatever location], because I haven’t checked it out, and no other investigative teams have looked at what’s going on. But I can tell you the type of things people have discovered in other similar-sounding cases, when they’ve looked into it and found no real evidence for anything supernatural. Based on the present evidence in this case, some combination of these explanations, or something similar, is just more likely than a sudden breakout of actual ghosts. Do we have any salsa dip?

Based on the available evidence so far, “There’s no such thing as ghosts” is an entirely reasonable provisional conclusion to draw.

(A thought occurred shamefully late in my redrafting of this piece, which I’m adding in here: The reason that “the available evidence so far” is of any worthwhile quality at all, and can lead us toward any useful kind of conclusions, is in very large part due to the hard work and dedication of people like Joe Nickell, who aren’t satisfied to just sit in their chairs and philosophise, and devote a great deal of time and energy to getting out there and investigating these things and solving genuine mysteries.

I don’t want it to sound for a moment like I’m saying that scientifically minded skeptical investigators of the paranormal aren’t doing brilliant and vital work in enriching our understanding of the world. All I’m doing is defending some of the people who don’t choose to do that themselves, and who on occasion get a slightly unfair deal.)

If some evidence turns up which this provisional conclusion cannot satisfactorily account for, then we will have to abandon what would then an inadequate theory in favour of a superior one. But the fact that this could happen doesn’t diminish our confidence in our current theory for the time being.

There’s no such thing as ghosts.

So, yes, if I were investigating some allegedly paranormal experience, I would go in there working under the assumption that it’s not a ghost. Just like a biologist discovering a new species would work under the assumption that it evolved by natural selection and is related to all other life on the planet. They would try to find out more about exactly how it relates to other species, and would give absolutely no serious thought during this time to the possibility that it had been intelligently designed.

Maybe, after much research, it would turn out that there was no plausible way this creature could have evolved through Darwinian means, and intelligent design must become the hypothesis that best fits the facts. Although I have no idea how this could be established in practice, if that was truly where the evidence ended up leading, a reasonable biologist would have to accept it.

But they wouldn’t have been wrong to have ignored that possibility in the first place and continued assuming it had evolved. Evolution is a pretty damn solidly established model of reality. Years of experience have given us good reason to use it as our default setting, and to demand a high level of evidence before abandoning it for something better.

I’ve not decided a priori that there’s no such thing as ghosts, that no further discussion is needed, and that any future observations must always by necessity be explainable through other means.

It’s just a good model of reality to work from.

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You keep saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
– Inigo Montoya

This is a staple of pseudoscience. Not quoting The Princess Bride – everyone does that too much, regardless of their scientific credibility. I mean anomaly hunting. But the anomalies that woo-mongers think they’re looking for often aren’t anomalous in any useful, scientific sense of the word.

A scientific anomaly is a fact that is strange or unusual, in that it doesn’t fit into the model suggested by a particular theory. It’s some piece of data which genuinely oughtn’t to be there, if our present understanding is completely correct.

A scientific anomaly is emphatically not any event or occurrence that makes you go, “Oooh, that’s spooky“.

For instance. If biologists ever observed a modern chimpanzee giving birth to human offspring, that would be an anomaly totally irreconcilable with the current theory of evolution. This is true despite the persistently ignorant insistence of some creationists, who think that this is exactly what would be needed to finally prove Darwin right. Similarly, a verifiable discovery of those famous rabbits in the Precambrian would be entirely anomalous, and could not be accounted for within evolution.

If psychics exist, they would presumably be able to demonstrate their powers under controlled experimental conditions. If their rate of success at telling me what number I’m thinking of was sufficiently above what you’d expect from chance guesswork, then this would be an anomalous result, incompatible with the current scientific worldview which does not admit psychic powers. So, we would need to update our picture of the universe to accommodate this. This kind of anomaly can’t simply be left hanging.

One real anomaly, which intruded into astronomy in the mid-19th century, concerned the orbit of the planet Uranus. We had a wonderful theory of how everything in the solar system moved, and could predict where all the known planets would be at future times with fantastic accuracy, using Newton’s law of gravitation. But Uranus wasn’t quite behaving. People had checked and double-checked the numbers, but the seventh planet was definitely wandering very slightly off course, if the information they were plugging into the calculations was right.

So, this anomaly prompted people to start wondering what was going on that we weren’t seeing. For the most part, we had a pretty good theory going, and it turned out that it could be saved if we supposed that there was another planet further out, tugging on Uranus’ orbit a little with its gravitational pull. Then the numbers would all work beautifully again.

Crucially, though, they weren’t just assuming that some other massive body must exist out there, because the theory just had to be true. They were refining the theory, adding new elements to it, and in so doing they made a new prediction, by which they could test whether the new version of the theory was any good. Theories do that. If it can’t predict specific future observations, it ain’t a theory. And in this case, the Newtonian model of the solar system predicted a new planet of a specific mass, in a specific place, with a specific orbit.

They worked out where it should be, aimed their telescopes thataway, and, lo and behold: Neptune.

So, looking for anomalies and ways to account for them can be productive. But if you go chasing after things that aren’t truly anomalies in this sense, you’re not going to be doing anything as awesome as finding new planets. It just becomes pseudoscience.

The kinds of anomalies that some people go hunting for don’t hint at improvements to good scientific theories, but consist simply of any result which stands out in some way. Anything that looks a bit weird can be seen as an “anomaly” – even though weirdness is often a fundamental and entirely expected feature of the universe. Not every theory should be expected to immediately explain every observation. To suggest that a theory needs to be entirely thrown out, and replaced with some entirely new paradigm, is a common overreaction to one small “anomaly” being found.

So, when anomaly hunters approach an idea that’s actually pretty solid and widely accepted – say, that 9/11 was perpetrated by a band of Islamic extremists, or that ghosts don’t exist – they might pick up on some small factors that seem at first glance not to fit perfectly with the established explanation – say, that “fire can’t melt steel”, or that there’s something strange in your neighbourhood – and use these to call the established explanation into question. The very fact that anomalies exist – in this sense of strange-seeming things that can’t be immediately explained – is held up as evidence of the weakness of the prevailing theory.

But it may well easily be shown, with a little more work, that the prevailing theory is entirely consistent with everything we’ve seen – say, by slowly explaining how chemistry works, or by just growing up. These aren’t genuine anomalies, in that they don’t really need any new phenomena to be invoked to explain them. They fit just fine into a description of the world that we already have.

The kinds of anomalies that people latch onto might be things that we really don’t know the answer to, and can’t explain with certainty to everyone’s absolute satisfaction. But y’know, those are actually okay too. The unknown is pretty consistent with a lot of good ideas. Failing to absolutely nail every single detail of everything that’s going on is not scientifically anomalous at all. There’s no problem if it’s just an uncertainty; it’s only when something is truly inexplicable that your theory needs to be re-worked.

Every so often, a person might see some strange-looking lights in the sky which they can’t accurately identify. These reports are exactly the types of anomalies that UFO-enthusiasts go hunting for, but they’re not comparable to the problem with the orbit of Uranus. There’s nothing about a world free from alien visitors which implies that everyone will know exactly what they’re looking at every single time they spot a thing in the air. People occasionally squinting up at the sky and going “Wassat? I dunno… some geese maybe? Helicopter?” doesn’t undermine the skeptical position, because that could easily happen if there weren’t any aliens around. It would take much more than that – a genuine scientific anomaly, entirely lacking in plausible naturalistic explanations – before their case is supported.

This actually relates to Ockham’s razor, which I’ve apparently neglected to provide its own entry yet. These supposed “anomalies” are often held up as being evidence of some new and strange phenomenon, but if that phenomenon is something completely unproven, then a more mundane explanation might be far more reasonable to assume, even if we can’t be sure of all the details. There was no plausible mundane explanation – one that didn’t introduce some new assumption – as to why Uranus’ orbit shouldn’t fit the calculations; but people thinking they see stuff in the sky can easily be explained without bringing aliens into the equation. The Moon confuses some people. We know that boring stuff is often what causes these things. Saying that it might do so again, even without absolute proof, isn’t much of a stretch.

To see someone getting this particular point really wrong, check out Steve Novella‘s blog on this topic, in the section where he mentions Richard Hoagland. The “anomalies” that guy finds have only the flimsiest connection to his pet crazy ideas, and have very easy explanations already that don’t require massive leaps of logic to some totally new concept. When you have to invent vast alien civilisations and sinister, all-encompassing government cover-ups to account for the fact that there’s no other evidence for what you’re saying… at what point do you decide that maybe some mountains just happened to make a kinda interesting shape that one time? It’s a quirk, but not an anomaly.

Exploring the limits of a prevailing scientific theory’s power to explain the available evidence is one thing. But anomaly hunting, tracking down any slightly funny-looking result or interesting quirk of data, and using it to bolster the standing of your alternative hypothesis, however tenuous the connection might be, regardless of whether it matches with any of your own predictions, and without exhaustively checking whether it can be reconciled with the original theory, is not good science. It’s a wander into crazyville.

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Cargo cults are fun.

You don’t get to say that about many types of cult, but this is really fascinating.

The best known (though not the earliest) examples of cargo cults seem to come from around the Second World War. The Allied forces would often set up military bases on remote Pacific islands, where the native inhabitants had had little or no previous contact with the Western world. The Allies would establish airstrips on these islands, so that equipment and supplies could be flown in, and would often share the incoming food and medicine with the natives who were helping them out.

The islanders clearly saw the benefit in having all this stuff delivered, but didn’t have any context into which to place the idea of airdrops, so they often attributed a great deal of mystique and supernatural wonder to the process. When the war ended, the Allies packed up and left, and there was no need for any more deliveries to be flown out to these islands – but the islanders themselves were still keen to bring in the goods, and looked for any way they might be able to make it happen.

They’d seen how the Westerners had made it happen, of course. Whenever they’d summoned the vessels bearing goods, there were people out there on the airstrips, waving signals to the incoming aircraft and lighting up the runway, and sitting in the control towers wearing strange-looking headgear. If the islanders could just emulate this behaviour with sufficient fidelity, then surely they too could earn similar gifts from whatever forces the Allies had previously evoked.

So, they tried to summon back the planes full of food and medicine and clothing. They went out and lit signal fires. They built big aircraft-shaped straw models. They made up little control towers to sit in, and held headphones carved from wood to their ears, and did everything they’d seen the Westerners doing which had made aeroplanes come and unload their stuff. They set up their own little cult, based around the cargo.

Sadly, they’re yet to succeed.

Putting together mock planes, constructed of whatever materials were available and entirely non-functioning, was clearly never going to achieve the same goals as, y’know, an actual plane being flown in. And we know that sitting in a thrown-together control tower with some wood and bamboo on your head doesn’t adequately serve any of the purposes of a military headset – the islanders’ carved equipment had none of the electronic components needed to communicate with the pilots, who weren’t there anyway. That’s just not how things work.

But the people who lived isolated lives on these islands couldn’t possibly have had any conception of the massive international infrastructure behind the Allies’ missions and the airdrops they involved. There was no possible way they could infer all the chains of reasoning that led to all this food turning up in flying metal containers, knowing as little as they did about this distant civilisation. They just read what they could into events they couldn’t fully understand, and tried to work with it in a way that made sense to them. They knew that the rituals the Westerners performed with the landing strips and control towers were important somehow, but not their ultimate significance, when it came to looking at the big picture.

And this kind of erroneous thinking can be seen in other circumstances, such as in what Nobel prize-winning king of awesome Richard Feynman dubbed “cargo cult science“. It describes a more general way of getting things wrong: an attempt to work with a particular set of facts and to make scientific progress in a particular area, while missing a fundamental understanding of some deeper principles at work. Particularly, cases where the outer form of some phenomenon is replicated, and it is assumed that whatever underlying principles made it work in the first place will also be copied.

One example springs to mind, relating this idea to the kinds of things I’m usually actively skeptical of on this blog: ghost hunters. Scientists often do use lots of technical electronic measuring equipment when investigating things, but the sole fact that you’re waving around a spookyometer as you wander about an old creaky house in the dark isn’t enough to imply that you’re doing science now. They mean well, and they’re often sincerely trying to replicate the authentic scientific processes they’ve seen other people using. But the fundamental principles of objectively gathering data, testing hypotheses, and building up strong and resilient theories over time still escapes them.

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It’s logical fallacy hour again, here in Skeptictionary corner.

That rule doesn’t apply to me because I’m a beautiful and unique snowflake.

Special pleading can often look reasonably convincing, and be quite persuasive if you don’t know what to watch out for. It might also appeal if you’re already inclined to believe in the amazing specialness of the snowflake in question. It’s when someone presents what they want to use as a get-out clause, to stop you from drawing a particular conclusion. If the evidence seems to lead in a direction that they have a problem with, they might jump in with a special pleading to divert you from it. It can essentially be boiled down to, “That doesn’t count in this case, because…” followed by an irrelevant justification for why some particular example should be considered an exception to the rule.

I’m not selling medicines; all my products are natural herbal remedies, which re-align people with the spiritual energies of their mother Earth. So of course they shouldn’t be regulated for safety and efficacy the same way as conventional pharmaceuticals.

The love potion didn’t work? Ah, it’s because you used it when Mercury was in retrograde. That’ll be what went wrong.

It’s a popular one among psychics, or other supernatural nuts who’ve never managed to give any convincing demonstration of their supposed abilities. The JREF often sees it in applicants to their million-dollar challenge, who were all set to wow the world with their powers, agreed to all the conditions set, then fizzled out hopelessly when it came to the crunch. Patricia Putt was a recent example of this: after failing to do anything impressive, she started coming up with excuses as to why it didn’t work, in an effort to avoid the obvious, simple, parsimonious solution that her magical powers are all in her head. The “negative skeptical energies” which so often throw the powers out of alignment only seem to come up after the fact, when the psychic powers have failed to do what was promised and we’re ready to conclude that they don’t exist. Then a special pleading is necessary to try and get around this; suddenly there’s “a perfectly good reason” why it didn’t work.

When considering this fallacy, it’s important to remember that not all post-hoc reasoning is invalid, and not every exception to a rule means there must be an unfair double standard at work. The Fallacy Files use the example of police officers being permitted to break certain laws which normally apply to all road users, such as speed limits, under certain conditions which we can agree justify this exception being made (like if they’re in hot pursuit of some villainous mastermind). Police needing to drive fast to do their job properly is a relevant and realistic exception to the normal rules. My urgently needing to get home in time to catch the final of The Apprentice, however, is not.

Or, if I claim to be able to run a marathon in under 3 hours, it’s not special pleading to insist that the course avoid scaling any mountains. That’s a reasonable request, perfectly in line with what any reasonable person would infer from the initial statement, and doesn’t much diminish the claim. But if I also say that I have to be allowed to use rollerskates, because that’s just how I’m used to running, then that’s less logically sound.

A crucial part of what makes this argument fallacious, then, is that the excuse has to fail to explain why this example should be treated differently than it would normally be. This might be because it’s irrelevant (like the “natural” status of alternative medicinal treatments) or because there’s no reason to suppose it’s true (what the hell does Mercury have to do with anything?). This latter is the form that tends to crop up when skeptically analysing unlikely claims.

If, to leap haphazardly across to yet another example, your highly technical ghost-measuring device is failing to measure any ghosts where ghosts ought to be, but you then find out that you forgot to put the batteries in, then fair enough. It’s clear that an electronic gadget needs power to run, so it’s not like you’re only bringing this up now as a post-hoc excuse. You still haven’t proved anything, but we can agree that you’re not simply making a special pleading to explain this.

On the other hand, if everything was functioning properly, and you had to resort to complaining about “negative vibes” to explain why the ghosts didn’t seem to be there, then you’re floundering in fallacy. If your magic powers haven’t worked, then it doesn’t make your position any more tenable to blame it on someone else’s bad juju, when there’s no more evidence for that than for the ghosts. It just adds another layer of implausible claims which there’s no good reason to take seriously.

You still haven’t proved that someone doesn’t have magic powers, or that ghosts don’t exist, just by bringing the whininess of their special pleading into light, of course. But the burden of proof is on them if they want to be believed, and conjuring elaborate circumstances to excuse a failed attempt just raises the bar higher for how much evidence they need to bring.

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