Fear of the knowable

Richard Wiseman prompted his readers to check out the comments on a recent article without getting depressed. The article? A short blurb about his new book, Paranormality, which deals with critical examination of paranormal activity. Wiseman possesses a PhD in psychology and specializes in perception, as well as being an accomplished magician, and the book (according to reviewers – I do not have my copy yet) deals not just with debunking paranormal experiences, but in demonstrating how they work and how the reader can even duplicate them. Many of the commenters, however, knew better, and were quite prepared to pass judgment on both the book and Wiseman without any apparent knowledge of either. The general gist of it is, nobody was going to tell them they were mistaken about ghosts.

This is a fairly common attitude: what someone has experienced personally, or often only through accounts from someone they know, trumps any kind of rigorous tests, controlled situations, and the knowledge of people who know about the limits of perception. While we have an aversion to simply being wrong, there’s an even greater factor at work when it comes to things like ghosts, psychic powers, alternative medicine, UFOs, and similar subjects. The defensiveness over these borders on the pathological – it’s hard to say how much anyone might trust scientific studies regarding other topics, but it takes no effort whatsoever to find open dismissal of science when it comes to paranormal/alternative subjects, as the comments show disturbingly well.

Most noticeable, though, is that science becomes supremely trustworthy when it appears to support the existence of ghost and visiting aliens, and this takes no effort to find either. It becomes obvious that we’re not even talking double-standards here, but actually no standards at all – the only factor is selecting only confirming accounts and ignoring the rest. While examples of hoaxes, mistakes, and suggestibility abound everywhere we look, somehow none of these must be considered applicable in any way to these treasured beliefs, and even implying that some effort might be made to rule out such common factors is insulting in the extreme.

Many people aren’t capable of facing the concept that what they (or any witness, really) experienced may not be what it was interpreted as – mistakes simply cannot be made. Nor does suggestibility or subconscious desire play any role; this is inconceivable! This is one of the reasons I promote critical thinking skills so often. Such denial really doesn’t belong in a species with the remarkable thinking capacity that we possess. While I see such arrogant and dismissive comments, it’s easy to view such people with condescension, but not everyone has received any background whatsoever in critical thinking, and in many places and subcultures the lack thereof is considered a virtue. I’m split on the issue myself – I don’t think it’s necessary to berate someone about something they’re ignorant of, but our society has certainly demonstrated the need for skepticism repeatedly. The article itself was far too brief to do the topic justice, and able to be misinterpreted, but the reasonable thing to do is to read the book, rather than judging from a 450-word article.

Regardless, as an exercise and demonstration, I’m going to take several actual comments and show how critical thinking can be applied to them. I’m not going to disprove the existence of ghosts by doing so, and that’s not the intent; the intent is to show that what is often considered “evidence” isn’t as compelling as it is usually treated.

First off, let’s get something clear: ghost stories are popular, and have been for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Yes, many of them are made up entirely from someone’s imagination. This does not say that all of them must be, but it does mean that some effort should be made to rule this possibility out before proceeding (lest one look like a gullible fool.) If all you have is a story, well, you really have nothing to work with. And despite the insistence of many that they can tell when someone is lying, such abilities have never been demonstrated successfully in the history of mankind, and even science hasn’t found a dependable way of determining this. Should we presume that those that claim this ability have never had a bad relationship, or even watched a terrible movie based on its marketing hype? Such ideas strain credulity.

Nor does considering the possibility that an oral account might be inaccurate imply intentional deceit – mistakes can be made, and witnesses that are quite sure they saw a ghost might easily have seen something else. This is not impugning them, except to say that they are not perfect, which I’m fairly certain is a prerequisite for being considered human. It doesn’t deserve any kind of defensive response.

So, let’s take a look at how we can apply critical thinking to these brief comments, recognizing that a detailed interview is going to be capable of producing plenty of additional factors, and not all of them supporting the witness. The comments here are all cut-and-pasted, with spelling, grammar, and punctuation intact – they’re right here if you want to check. And while we’re at it, notice the consistent tone expressed, especially towards scientists.

Watson-3812521 says:

How does the egghead explain 3 different people “seeing” the same thing in the same house without knowing the others had seen this thing that isn’t apparently real? We only discovered we each saw the same little “ghost” girl after one of us had brought it up!!

These sightings occurred separately, independently over a year period.

So, did these three people relate their accounts independently of the others, where the others could not have heard them? That might be significant. But if it’s a case where someone tells a story and someone else blurts out, “Me too!”, well, wake me when you have something interesting. Playing “Can you top this?” is not what anyone can decently call “evidence.”

The idea of double-blind studies, as well as police interrogating witnesses individually and comparing the stories, is because we can easily be influenced by others, especially when something interesting is at stake. Even memories can be altered by this, as has been established time and again (some more info on this available here.)

Ahmed-3816577 says:

There are alot of things cannot be explained and scientist always look for a way to explain them. The sleep paralsis is crap because i experienced it a few times and the last time i experienced it,i wasntt fully asleep. I was laying on my belly and my head was turn to the left and i decided to change the position i was sleeping in so i was awake for a little while, I got up and turn my whole body to lie on the right and after 30 secs i felt my ears clogged up (like when you’re in an airplane) and i couldn’t move or my body or talk, and my eyes were half open, i decided to pray as soon as it happen (my mom told to pray when it happens) and it left after about 50 seconds, when i turned to see what was there, there was nothing.

That wasn’t any sleep paralysis…..

Anyone who has actually looked up the traits of sleep paralysis would simply ask in what way this does not fit. It occurs in transitional stages of sleep, and is frequently (perhaps most frequently) known to convince the person experiencing it that they are not asleep at all – the same way that vivid dreams and nightmares do – and often involve dreaming about actually waking up. It frequently occurs when someone returns to sleep after waking briefly. If you’re going to relate details to disprove an explanation, it helps to actually rule out common factors in the phenomenon rather than confirming them.

JB1972 (let me guess how old you are, JB):

Richard Wiseman my have his Ph.D., but he should not write about things he is completely ignorant about. He can explain away cold spots, orbs in photos, and flickering lights. What he can’t explain away is a skeptic seeing a man very clearly in their home before he vanished, not knowing who he was until they saw him in a photo and found out he was deceased but had lived in the home previously.

I would begin by asking how this photo was introduced, and who mentioned the apparition. For instance, if someone pointed to a photo on the mantle and said they’d seen that person as a ghost, just go away, seriously. If they’d said they saw a ghost and someone showed them the photo, I’d congratulate that person on feeding the answer to the witness (it’s called, “cold reading.”) Now, perhaps if a whole collection of photos, only one of them related in any way to the circumstances, were shown to the witness and they picked out the one key photo, we can start to talk “evidence” (I would try to determine if they had any way of knowing the image through other means, as well as making sure that anyone who knew which photo was key was out of the room and unable to provide inadvertent cues.) If the witness sketched the apparition before being shown any photos, even better. Even see a police lineup? Why do they have more than one person in them, do you think?

One might also ask who would be better qualified to speak on the subject of ghosts, if not someone who does serious research on the matter? Presumably JB1972 is qualified, since they offer their own opinion?


I saw a ghost when I was about 4 years old,in the sixties. We never saw scary movies, in bed by 7, had limited access to outside influences,and my parents were not the types to tell stories, and were almost boring people. We went to my mothers cousins house, and i saw a lady above the staircase in a pretty dress, she warned me to be careful playing on the stairs. I knew she looked odd and told my mom and her cousins wife about it, later my mom told my dad that I’d seen the wifes mother…as i’d described her….she’d been passed for many years by then.

So, Wendy had no friends, never watched TV, and lived in a box until this apparition was seen? (I believe we are to assume that this child did not know what a ghost was.) And, at four years old, she could describe the apparition good enough for an adult to positively identify it? Pretty impressive, especially since adults witnessing crimes routinely fail this. But otherwise, I’m going to say that the description assigns more factors to support the story than the story holds on its own. It would be fun, I think, to interview the mother and cousin’s wife to see how the story holds up. Notice, however, that identifying the experience as a ghost does not come from Wendy herself, by her own admission, but from her mother, so it doesn’t really matter how much Wendy knows about ghosts at that point – this is simply obfuscating the account unnecessarily (and misleadingly.) Am I assuming too much by pointing out that the mother seems not to be skeptical of ghosts herself? You will note that Wendy did not actually offer this key bit of information – all she said was her parents “were not the types to tell stories,” and we’re left to ourselves to determine what this is supposed to mean. Decent investigators, however, ask.

Dave1981 (I’m guessing nine years younger than JB):

I’m as skeptical as anyone when it comes to ghosts, having never experienced one myself. However, I’m also open-minded enough to know that just because we can’t prove the existence of something, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. We just don’t have the tools to verify it. Scientists believe something has to be empirically proven before they will embrace its existence.

This is what’s called “begging the question,” or perhaps this is better expressed as “arguing in a vacuum.” Granted, more than one source has credited Wiseman with stating that the paranormal does not exist, which technically is a contentious statement – all we can establish reasonably is what does exist. But the argument about being open-minded is merely a cop-out, an excuse to believe when there’s nothing to support it. Yes, it’s true that science requires evidence to demonstrate that something exists – how else should it be? We have believed in the existence of countless things throughout history, but mere belief does not provide any knowledge whatsoever; we gain value only from verifiable evidence. But not being able to prove the existence of something, and such a thing not existing, aren’t distinguishable in any way (except philosophically, and what does that provide?) If someone tells me they have a flying horse, I’m going to want to see it – I’m not going to congratulate myself on being gullible enough to believe the statement.

Moreover, the book isn’t about a lack of evidence – it’s about examining the evidence that does exist and showing how it is explained by mundane means. This is the point that was missed by so many commenters. If something that was assumed to be paranormal is instead explained in routine ways, this automatically reduces the “evidence” for paranormal activity, just like a surveillance camera might eliminate tall skinny blond men as suspects in a crime. One must reasonably ask how often such mistakes might occur, and how strong the evidence actually was when decent scientific investigation poked holes in it. We shouldn’t be defensive over such things – we should embrace them for helping us to know what really is happening, and preventing us from being taken in by human traits like believing large numbers of stories leads to a verifiable phenomenon.

This is the beauty of critical thinking. While many people think it takes away the magic and mystery, that’s not what it removes in the slightest – it removes the bullshit and the foolishness. What remains are the things we can now be confident are real, that are useful, trustworthy, and accountable. There are plenty of things in the world that are full of wonder and mystery, magic of their own kind. But to simply hang onto some idea solely (a ha ha) for the mystery, even when that mystery can be shown not to exist – to remain willfully blind and deny what we can find by careful examination – that’s disturbing, to the point of being pathetic. Living in a fantasy world is not worthy of rational adults.

If you’re interested, this paper excellently details how an investigation into quintessential evidence for paranormal explanations can be performed, and what can come of it.

Then you can follow-up with this one. And show me the “ghost hunter” who has bothered to go through this kind of meticulous and documented effort.

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