Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Ghosthunters, redux

Today’s planned post is being pre-empted because of what happened yesterday.

Yesterday, you may recall, I wrote about some folks who are offering ghosthunting classes in England.  Toward the end of the post, in what I hoped was the spirit of goodwill, I mentioned what it would take to convince me (concrete evidence, with witnesses present), and actually recommended that people sign up for the workshops.

Well. You’d have thought I had written a post advocating kicking puppies, or something.

I have gotten, at last count, twelve emails, most of which suggest in no uncertain terms that I’m a moron.  I have had only three people post publicly – two were, I have to say, measured and thoughtful responses, but the third was written by someone whose opinion was that I wasn’t really a skeptic, had no credentials, and generally should just shut the hell up.

I paraphrase, but that’s the spirit of the thing.

Several of the emails asked (or demanded) what my own credentials were – why on earth I thought I had the right to write what I did – and after momentarily bristling, I thought, Okay, fair enough. That’s a legitimate question.

My credentials: I hold a bachelor’s degree in physics, a second major in biology (focus on population genetics and evolutionary biology), and a master’s degree in linguistics.   I’ve been a high school teacher for 25 years, and I teach various levels of biological science, from introductory to advanced, and also teach an introduction to logic course called Critical Thinking.  I’m not a researcher, and have never published in a peer-reviewed journal, but I’m well and widely read and consider myself a fairly smart guy.  I’m happy to say that the majority of the people who know me concur.

That said, I’m well aware that I don’t know everything.   In fact, to quote Socrates, “The more I know, the more I realize how little I know.”  Faced with greater knowledge than my own, I happily defer to those who know better (and print a retraction, if I’ve said something that was incorrect).

However… and it’s a big however…

I’m not going to accept something simply because you believe it.  I teach an intro to neurology course, and I know enough to realize how flawed the human perceptive systems are.  We are, unfortunately, easily fooled, and even with the best intentions we see things that aren’t there, don’t see things that are there, and (sometimes) see what we wanted or expected to see.  My skepticism is borne in part from a knowledge of how sketchy our own sensory apparatus is.   So, I’m sorry if it seems closed-minded, but I’m not just going to turn your story of lights in the sky into alien spacecraft, or your tale of seeing moving shadows in an empty house at night into ghosts.   I want more than that.

Hard evidence is the gold standard, of course; but even in the absence of hard evidence, a good, solid logical argument is at least sterling silver.  And, for crying out loud, learn the science before you start trying to sound scientific.   Don’t talk about energies and fields and forces, and expect me not to think you’re applying those words in the way a physicist would.  If something is an energy or field or force, it should be measurable.  If you want me to believe it, show me.

So, the bottom line; I’m convincible.  I’m not going to stand here and say that your favorite example of paranormality – be it Bigfoot, ghosts, aliens, telepathy, or whatever – doesn’t exist.  But I do believe that if you think those things are true, the burden of the proof is on you.  It comes back to the ECREE principle – Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence.  It may not be a hard and fast scientific law, but as a general rule of thumb, it works pretty damn well.

So, I may be all of the things I’m being accused of – of being an “armchair skeptic” (whatever that is – other than The Amazing Randi, I don’t think there’s any other kind), of being a broad-brush non-specialist, of lacking publications and research credentials and whatnot, of being a bit of an arrogant ass at times.  Okay, guilty as charged.  But your pointing out any or all of those things doesn’t mean that your claims are true.  For that, it might be time for you to get up out of your own armchair and show me evidence that meets some kind of minimum scientific standard.  Until you can do that, I stand unmoved.


  1. Nice way to lay it out there Gordon! Good show.

    I love the idea that folks who are true believers in whatever they may believe need to show the burden of proof. Excellent!

  2. I'm going to start calling you Scully. Oh, except that Scully was a devout Catholic.... back to the drawing board.....

  3. In your article you state: “If something is an energy or field or force, it should be measurable. If you want me to believe it, show me.”

    I would offer that the simple fact that we cannot measure, or even detect, an energy field does not mean that it does not exist. If in the 1800’s if you tried to explain to an Astronomer that stars generated far more kinds of energy than just visible light they would scoff at the suggestion. Today, more astronomy is probably done using Radio Telescopes than the optical variety. This would be a case of a failure to detect energy because it existed outside of the range of the state of the art technology of the time, not a failure to detect the energy because it does not exist.

    If, as traditional sources maintain, the energy fields associated with consciousness, ghosts, esp., etc. are of a frequency that is far higher than any so far detected on “the physical plane”, then lack of detection of these energy fields or forces does not mean that they are not there, but may just indicate that we have yet to develop the technology required to monitor them.

    The modern definition of a “Skeptic’s” approach is pretty well summed up in your statement, “If you want me to believe it, show me.” I take this to mean that even though you probably do believe that you are open to reviewing new evidence in an impartial manner, you have already decided not to believe any of it until someone convinces you otherwise. That’s not quite the same thing as saying “I will wait and form my opinions based on the evidence provided”, which would be a quite reasonable approach to this subject.

    John R. DeLorez

  4. Hi John,

    Your final paragraph seems to me to be a fine distinction; I'm certainly in agreement with either statement. My general opinion on such things as ghosts and other sorts of paranormal claims is that "the jury's still out." Those things may be true or may be false -- there's no evidence either way. Put a different way, a lack of evidence is not the same thing as evidence AGAINST a claim. If, as you suggest, we simply lack the technology to detect such phenomena, I am perfectly willing to revise my opinion when such technology is developed & evidence is found.

    That said, I am wary about hoaxes, which are all too common in these fields, and also the less deliberate (but therefore more insidious) capacity for our senses to be fooled. I tend to assume there's a natural explanation until evidence proves otherwise. But I maintain that I am a skeptic in the literal sense of the word -- I am entirely willing to jettison my current belief/explanation in the face of evidence that shows me that I'm wrong.



  5. This is pretty old but I thought I would point out teh flaw in johns argument.

    You say:

    If, as traditional sources maintain, the energy fields associated with consciousness, ghosts, esp., etc. are of a frequency that is far higher than any so far detected on “the physical plane”.

    By your use of the word frequency you prove Gordons point:

    " Don’t talk about energies and fields and forces, and expect me not to think you’re applying those words in the way a physicist would."

    Clearly you are not using it the way a physicist would. What do you mean by higher frequency? Higher frequency of what? It is a term as misused as quantum.... A frequency isn't something on its own. Its a measured quantity.

    To give you an idea, I could argue that ghost's must exist because they've been known to display a higher frequency of scatting than humans and simians combined, there's been an unusual amount of scatting incidents as of late, so ghost must be doing it, therefor they exist.