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.

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Ghost shortage

I sometimes get grief from readers because of my tendency to dismiss claims of the paranormal.

In my own defense, I am convincible.  It just takes more than personal anecdote and eyewitness accounts to do it.  Our memories and sensory-perceptive apparatus are simply not accurate enough recording devices to be relied on for anything requiring scientific rigor.  I find myself agreeing with the hard-nosed skeptic MacPhee in C. S. Lewis's novel That Hideous Strength:
"My uncle, Dr. Duncanson," said MacPhee, "whose name may be familiar to you — he was Moderator of the General Assembly over the water, in Scotland — used to say, 'Show it to me in the word of God.'  And then he’d slap the big Bible on the table.  It was a way he had of shutting up people that came to him blathering about religious experiences.  And granting his premises, he was quite right.  I don’t hold his views, Mrs. Studdock, you understand, but I work on the same principles.  If anything wants Andrew MacPhee to believe in its existence, I’ll be obliged if it will present itself in full daylight, with a sufficient number of witnesses present, and not get shy if you hold up a camera or a thermometer."

So it's not that I'm rejecting anything out of hand, nor saying that your story of seeing your Great Aunt Mildred's ghost fluttering about in your attic last week isn't true.  What I'm saying is that thus far, I personally don't have enough evidence to support a belief in ghosts.  Neither the attempts at rigorous study I've seen, nor my own individual experience, would be at all convincing to someone who didn't already have their mind made up.

And, if you believe an article I just ran across yesterday, any opportunities I might have for changing my opinion are waning fast.

According to paranormal researcher/nuclear physicist Paul Lee, the United Kingdom is "running out of ghosts."  Lee, author of The Ghosts of King's Lynn and West Norfolk, has been tracking paranormal activity in Britain since January 2020, and has seen a marked decline in reports.  "I've been contacting all the reportedly haunted locations on my app, and asking if the residents, owners or staff have experienced any unexplained activity," Lee said.  "So far I've had almost eight hundred replies, and even some supposedly highly haunted places like Conisbrough Castle in South Yorkshire, the Ettington Park Hotel in Stratford -- said to be one of the most haunted hotels in the UK -- and Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly, say they haven't experienced anything in the last few years."

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Gallowglass, Medieval ghost, CC BY-SA 3.0]

As far as what's happened to all these spirits, Lee says they may have "moved on."  I guess, like in The Good Place, anything gets boring after a while, and after a few centuries of scaring the shit out of tourists, the ghosts are probably eager for a change of venue.  On the other hand, Lee cautions, just because a particular ghost hasn't been heard from in a while doesn't mean it's gone permanently.  "It may be that ghosts can be recharged," he said.  "You sometimes hear stories of ghosts suddenly reappearing again after many years' absence."

So it could be that this is just a temporary lull, and the ghosts will all come back at some point.  Maybe when the Tories get voted out.

But you have to wonder, of course, if there's something more rational going on here, like the fact that people are wising up to how easy it is to slip into superstition and credulity, and attribute every creaking floorboard to the tread of a spectral foot.  While there are groups that approach these sorts of phenomena the right way (the Society for Psychical Research comes to mind), there are so many more that look at claims of hauntings as a way of turning a quick buck that maybe people are just getting fed up.  Shows like Ghost Hunters can't have helped; week after week, they go to supposedly haunted sites, wander around brushing aside cobwebs and waving their flashlights about in an atmospheric fashion, and like Monty Python's Camel Spotters, every week find conclusive evidence of nearly one ghost.  Despite a zero percent success rate, they always high-five each other for a job well done at the end of the episode, counting on the fact that viewers will already have forgotten that they'd just spent forty-five minutes watching nothing happening.

So maybe there are fewer ghost reports because people are getting smarter about what actually constitutes something worth investigating.  Wouldn't that be nice?

Anyhow, I wish Paul Lee the best of luck.  If the sightings don't pick up, he'll have to go back to nuclear physics to make ends meet, and that would be a damn shame.  And to reiterate my first point, it's not that I'm saying what he claims is impossible; no one would be happier than me if there turned out to be an afterlife, preferably on the beach and involving hammocks, sunshine, the minimum legally-allowable amount of clothing, and drinks with cheerful little paper umbrellas.

In the interim, however, I'll keep looking for hard evidence.  And if tonight I get visited by the spirit of your Great Aunt Mildred and she gives me a stern talking-to, I guess it will serve me right.


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