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, June 26, 2024

Primed and ready

One of the beefs a lot of aficionados of the paranormal have with us skeptics has to do with a disagreement over the quality of evidence.

Take, for example, Hans Holzer, who was one of the first serious ghost hunters.  His work in the field started in the mid-twentieth century and continued right up to his death in 2009 at the venerable age of 89, during which time he not only visited hundreds of allegedly haunted sites but authored 120 books documenting his experiences.

No one doubts Holzer's sincerity; he clearly believed what he wrote, and was not a hoaxer or a charlatan.  But if you read his books, what will strike anyone of a skeptical bent is that virtually all of it is comprised of anecdote.  Stories from homeowners, accounts of "psychic mediums," recounting of old tales and legends.  None of it is demonstrated scientifically, in the sense of encounters that occur in controlled circumstances where credulity or outright fakery by others can be rigorously ruled out.

After all, Holzer may well have been scrupulously honest, but that doesn't mean that the people he worked with were.

I'll just interject my usual disclaimer; none of this constitutes disproof, either.  But in the absence of evidence that meets the minimum standard acceptable in science, the most parsimonious explanation is that Holzer's many stories are accounted for by human psychology, flaws in perception, and the plasticity of memory, and the possibility that at least some of his informants were exaggerating or lying about their own experiences.

As an illustration of just one of the difficulties with accepting anecdote, consider the phenomenon of priming.  What we experience is strongly affected by what we expect to experience; even a minor interjection ahead of time of a mental image (for example) can alter how we see, interpret, and remember something else that occurred afterward.  A simple example -- if someone is shown a yellow object and afterward asked to name a fruit, they come up with "banana" or "lemon" far more frequently than someone who was shown a different color (or who wasn't primed at all).  It all occurs without our conscious awareness; often the person who was primed didn't even know it was happening.

This becomes more insidious when it starts affecting how people understand the world around them.  To take another lightweight example, but which gets at how claims of the supernatural start, take the currently popular "paranormal game" called "Red Door, Yellow Door."  "Red Door, Yellow Door" is a little like the game that all of us Of A Certain Age will remember, the one called "Bloody Mary."  The way "Bloody Mary" works is that you stand in front of a mirror, stare into it, and chant "Bloody Mary" over and over, and after a moment, nothing happens.

What's supposed to happen is that your face turns into the blood-dripping visage of a woman, or else you see her over your shoulder.  Most of us who tried it, of course, got what the paranormal investigators call "disappointing results."  But "Red Door, Yellow Door" moves even one step further from verifiable reality,  because the whole thing takes place in your mind.  You're supposed to lie down and close your eyes, while a friend (the "guide") massages your temples and says, "Red door, yellow door, any other color door" over and over.  You're supposed to picture a hallway in your mind, and as soon as you've got a clear image, you give a hand signal to the guide to stop chanting.  Then you describe it, entering doors as you see fit and describing to the guide what you're seeing.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons dying_grotesque from Richards Bay, South Africa, Red Door (3275822777), CC BY 2.0]

Thus far, it's just an exercise in imagination, and innocent enough; but the claim is, what you're seeing is real -- and can harm you.  Because of the alleged danger, there are a variety of rules you are supposed to remember.  If a room you enter has clocks in it, get out fast -- you can get trapped permanently.  If there are staircases, never take one leading downward.  If you meet a man with a suit, open your eyes and end the game immediately, because he's evil and can latch on to you and start following you around in real life if you don't act quickly enough.

Oh, and to add the obligatory frisson to the whole thing: if you die in the game, you actually die.

What's striking about "Red Door, Yellow Door" is that despite the fact that its claims are patently absurd, there are huge numbers of apparently completely serious people who have had terrifying experiences while playing it -- not only manifestations during the game, but afterward.  (If you search for the game, you'll find hundreds of accounts, many of them warning people from ever playing it because they were so traumatized by it.)  The thing is, what did they expect would happen?  They'd been primed by all of the setup; it's unsurprising they saw clocks and eerie staircases descending into darkness and evil guys in suits, and that those same images haunted their memories for some time after the game ended.

And if a silly game for gullible teenagers can do that, how much more do our perception and memory get tainted by how we're primed, especially by our prior notions of what might be going on?  Hang out in graveyards and spooky attics, and you're likely to see ghosts whether or not they're there.

As I recounted in Monday's post, I've been fascinated by tales of the supernatural since I was a kid, and on some level, I'm like Fox Mulder -- "I Want To Believe."  But the fact is, the evidence we have thus far just isn't enough.  Humans are way too suggestible to rely entirely on anecdote.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson put it most succinctly: "In science, we need more than 'you saw it.'  When you have something tangible we can bring back to the lab and analyze, then we can talk."


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