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Posts Tagged ‘joe nickell’

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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