Daily Atheist Quote

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Oh, the ghost hunters are mad at me! Quick, get the EKG meter

Janine Melnitz: Do you believe in UFOs, astral projections, mental telepathy, ESP, clairvoyance, spirit photography, telekinetic movement, full trance mediums, the Loch Ness monster and the theory of Atlantis?

Winston Zeddemore: Ah, if there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say.

-Ghostbusters (1984)

Ah, what happens when you rattle the cages the bit eh?

If you been reading the Handbook lately, you'll have noticed some rather angry ladies blasting me for a
column I wrote at the newspaper I work for, in which I took their Niagara Area Paranormal Society's "ghost hunting" activities, and the credulous reporters in some area media who took their dubious claims at face value, to task. The column also gave me an excuse to chat again with James Randi, who is always fun to interview.

Carol Taylor and Shannon Delury took great exception to my piece, claiming I just don't know enough about the "field" of ghost hunting to really criticize it. Also, they don't much like James Randi. Other members of this ghost hunting cabal took to sending hate mail to my Facebook inbox, rather than send in letters to the editors or even to my work email. These folk just think I suck and really, REALLY wanted me to know it.

Now, generally speaking the reaction from this fine folks are up there with the threats of Bible thumpers and angry Muslims who often write to tell me, at great length, that I will be burning in hell for all times because of my blasphemy, and how much they will enjoy that. Nice people. Really. Now, the ghost hunters haven't threatened my eternal soul, but they do think I am "ignorant" and that I clearly don't know jack about science. You know, "science" where you don't follow the actual scientific method, and use anything you don't fully understand as "evidence" of your pre-determined conclusion. Like ghosts whispers in the dark.

Now, Carol Taylor is the founder of the local paranormal society and in her rather lengthy correspondences insists that her "field" is on equal footing with any scientific dispcline. She writes: "The protocols we have in place are comparable to those that are used in other scientific fields of study." In other words, her ghost hunting is just as scientific as the disciplines that send men to the moon, cure fatal illnesses, mapped the human genetic code, created super computers and can see out into the vast, trackless ink of deep space. I am sure the folks at MIT are really impressed.

She also writes that "With so many misconceptions out there in the media, I am appalled to see this sort of ignorance firsthand from someone within my own community." Oddly, she has no complaints about the credulous reportage of other outlets who accepted her claims about spirits in the Welland Museum with nary a skeptical thought. Of course, she is appalled that someone in "her" community would take their pseudo-scientific nonsense to task. For the groups entire existence no one in the news media has bothered to call them on their mumbo-jumbo. In other words, she wants reporters to simply accept what she says and proclaim as truth.

Miss Delury, whose Facebook page features applications about "crystal healings" and the like, simply calls me a "closed minded bigot," for not accepting their claims of spooks. She, along with Carol, both ask me to disprove their ghosts exist.

*sigh* And people wonder why our society is so scientifically illiterate? As I have discussed
before, asking someone to disprove a faith a claim - or any claim for which there is no evidence - is the logical fallacy called "proving a negative." It is like trying to prove that Zeus doesn't exist. Or the Loch Ness monster doesn't exist. There isn't any evidence to prove that either does, but the true believers want their claims to be taken as fact in that vacuum of evidence. When I wrote about this particularly symptom of true believerism before I said:

It's called "proving a negative." Essentially they are saying this: "X is true (X in this case being the existence of god) because you cannot disprove X as false." You should already see the massive problem with his argument. What it means is that you can essentially make any claim about the universe you want and then say that because no evidence exists to disprove it, it must be true. The fact that you have no evidence to support your claim is, in this line of unreason, seen as a proof you're right.

I attempted to illustrate the point by using a variation on Bertrand Russell's celestial teapot. In this case, riffing off a joke earlier in the discussion about the universe being run by a cosmic platypus:

For instance, to use a tongue in cheek example, if I said that the entire universe was created and governed by the Cosmic Platypus, and the only way to save our immortal souls was to make making offerings of frog eggs to the Cosmic Platypus. Further, the commandments of the Cosmic Playtpus, as laid down in the Texts of the Oracle of the Venomous Mammals, are prefect in every detail and cannot be questioned. Also the Cosmic Platypus, living in a river outside of time and space, cannot be seen or touched or otherwise detected, but I nevertheless claim the Cosmic Platypus, in his all beaky glory, is as real as the nose on your face.

Now, even though that is a farcical example, the fact is you cannot disprove the existence of the Cosmic Platypus, can you? Really, you cannot. Show me the evidence that the Cosmic Platypus doesn't exist.

So if I was seriously making the above claim about the Cosmic Platypus, his slappy tail be praised, would it not be reasonable for you to demand evidence? And would it not be unreasonable for me to be insulted by your request?

That is all the atheist is saying. The theist is making an extraordinary claim about the universe, and therefore the atheist wants to see evidence to support those claims. That is not an act of faith, it is a demand for fact. And if no evidence is forthcoming, there is little reason to believe said claims are true.

If we worked the other way, we would have no choice but to accept all claims about, well, anything to be true if there is no evidence to demonstrate it is not true. Like the Cosmic Platypus. You cannot disprove it, therefore it can be regarded as true. Clearly, that is a cart before the horse methodology that gets you nowhere.
Of course, the true believer has to go at science from the ass end because its the only way they can make their claims. Like the intelligent design crowd, they want to try and turn science on its head and have their faith claims - and that is what they are - taken as fact right out of the gate. And heaven help you if you question their methods or conclusions! Don't you know when they claim to have recorded the voice of a ghost its true and that's that?

And like the intelligent design crowd, they dress up their belief in the supernatural in sciency sounding talk in order try and give it the appearance of being scientific.

Still, I could be wrong couldn't I? Maybe there are ghosts lurking about in the Welland Museum. Maybe Taylor and her syntax and logically challenged friend are right. And if they were ever proven right I would happily admit so, both here and in the paper. In fact, I am willing to put a wager on it.

Look again at Carol Taylor's claim: she says ghost hunting is a real science like any other, using solid scientific "protocols" that demonstrate their belief in ghosts is justified by facts. Ok, there is a VERY easy way to prove this.

My challenge to the Niagara Area Paranormal Society is this: Write a scientific paper on your "findings" presenting your "evidence" that the voices you recorded at the Welland Museum are in fact the voices of dead people. Then submit that paper to a credible scientific journal - like Nature for example. Let your paper be vetted through the regular scientific peer review process (this is standard for ANY scientific paper to be published in a journal.) If it passes the muster of the rigors of scientific peer review and gets published, I will be more than happy to concede the point.

So there you go Carol and Shannon. Don't give us the tired clap trap of doing this for yourself and helping people in "need". (They offer their hunting services for free, but charge for "courses" on ghost tracking. I wonder if those courses are taught at MIT? Can I get a science credit toward a Bsc?) If you want your claims of being real science taken seriously, then step up to the plate, write a paper and present it to real scientists and see what happens. Surely, if your claims are as true as you say they are, this should be a simple matter shouldn't it?

For the rest of us concerned with that little thing called reality, I suggest you watch Richard Dawkins brilliant documentary titled "Enemies of Reason" which examines the kind of junk science ghost hunters are up to. It's well worth the watch. Here is part one as presented on Youtube, but I strongly suggest you order the disks from RichardDawkins.net. It's great stuff:


Badger3k said...

SAPS (http://www.skepticalanalysis.com/) has some good material on these ghost-hunting bits. Another site I just saw had video of Michael Shermer and Allison Smith (http://theatheisthandbook.blogspot.com/2008/05/ghost-hunters-get-spanked-dragoncon-07.html) at DragonCon on this subject.

Just FYI

Grant LaFleche said...

badger, thanks for stopping by the Handbook.

Just an FYI the "other site" you linked to is this blog! LOL.

podblack said...

Great work, I'm currently researching beliefs in the paranormal, particularly gender differences. What you've mentioned is not that unusual! Thanks for the 'Enemies of Reason' link, it's available on DVD now too, I notice.

Psychodiva said...

Great post - I've been watching your um- 'debate' with these idiot ghosthunters - keep it up :)

Piera said...

Great work.

Enshoku said...

Sorry to hear that you've incurred their disfavor. It may turn out for the best though, as maybe Carol will actually consider a skeptics opinion while going about her writing from now on... but probably not.

Anonymous said...

I'm not religious, nor am I going to call myself an Atheist. I think Dawkins is a very intelligent man, but his flaw is believing that science itself has everything figured out, when we know that science is constantly changing it's view of the world. When we look at Quantum mechanics, or if you look at Einstein's theory of relativity you can see how "ghosts" can be possible. Not as dead people coming back, but as time colliding with itself. Be very careful about what you call as absolute, especially when you may see "something" standing in your doorway one day, then someone runs up to you and calls you hysterical. On the flip side, there are many insane people who preach superstition without understanding that there is a scientific explanation that includes multiple universes and existences (That Dawkins believes) that may generate these 'ghosts". UFO's as well are something that should be taken very seriously as well, as it is not based in superstition but in evidence that goes back centuries. It is also not hard to believe that if we had a 1000 year head start, we may be flying through the galaxy. But hey, who am I to argue with the "science". Cheers.

Anonymous said...

Also, you posted a Dawkins quote where he says he wants to Keep on the tradition of Carl Sagan. Well as you may know from the Cosmos series that Carl Sagan was a great believer in UFO's and other life in the universe. He also believed in ghosts.
As soon as you look at multi- universes, you must be able to look at the possibility of intelligent life or lives that may exists within these universes. But ya, organized religion and TV ghost hunters makes me want to weep too...Good blog.

Grant LaFleche said...

oh for Jebus' sake. Carl Sagan did NOT believe in UFO's. Read 'Demon Haunted World" for his views on the subject. Nor did he believe in ghosts.

Sorry, but you could not be more wrong about this if you tried.

Anonymous said...

You know, I am a scientist. I have a couple of degrees... and before you ask, and yes they are from an actual accredited university. To me, it seems you are pointing a finger at one type of group and using them to look at the whole.

What is funny is that there are people who are looking into "ghosts" who are using rigid scientific methods. However these people normally shun, or are shunned by, the mainstream media.

I am not saying I believe in "ghosts", however I am curious that thousands of reported claims are written off as a fantasy disorder or as Thomas Grey would put it "a failure to judge the evidence given for the paranormal critically". That is a lot of claims to discredit by saying it is a mental defect. Heck even the belief of college educated people seems to be on the rise, if you believe Farha & Steward. Even then, isn't college about learning to critically evaluate evidence?

Thomas Gieryn states that science sets itself apart from non-science as a way to insure its position as the authority of knowledge. This authority provides “considerable material opportunities and professional advantages available only to ‘scientists’”. So this whole debate sounds like a great example of boundary construction. So that science doesn't lose its authority as the purveyor of knowledge.

I know I am rambling a bit, but I don't think it is as simple as you guys are putting it. With new dimensions of quantum mechanics being discovered every day, and with the gaps in our current understanding of the "reality" you so sharply asked us to look at, we cannot simply look at this as black and white.

Grant LaFleche said...

I'm always suspicious of those who appeal to quantum theory because 9 times out of 10, they don't understand it and are making an appeal to ignorance by using something that sounds knowledgeable. The fact is that nothing in quantum theory makes ghosts and the like more likely. It does not improve the terrible evidence and sloppy methods of "ghost hunters."

Always keep in mind what was famously said about quantum theory: "if you think you understand quantum theory you don't understand quantum theory."

This is not about "boundaries" as you claim, but the evidence. No credible evidence has been put forward to even begin to take the claims of people who claim to "see the dead" seriously. Until such time as such evidence is presented, we can dismiss that which is claimed without proof.

Anonymous said...

I mentioned quantum physics because of its relevance as a frontier field, an area that our understanding is advancing more and more as time goes on. Not as some explanation or scapegoat. Sorry that the reference was not understood as it was intended.

What would you consider proof? It appears to me that anything that is brought forward is dismissed as a fraud, hoax, or some glitch that fooled those who spent their time working to find it. That sounds a bit too easy to me. I am sorry that the only evidence you will consider, even if it only in consideration of more research, is something that you collect.

Therefore, by leaving people to their own devises to look at something that is affecting people, you have doomed them to ridicule. What do you have to say to the Real Estate agent who experiences something she cannot explain? Or the people who leave their houses because nobody will believe their claims? If you feel that positivism is the end all and be all of scientific knowledge, then responsibility falls on those scientists to find a way to help people rather than write them off as all mentally deficient or frauds.

David Hume, it appears, addresses the belief of ghosts. ‘The evidence for ghosts comes to us by two ways. He states that we know of ghosts from witnesses and mediums. However, science shows us that there are “laws” constructed that can show us how the world works. These “laws” do not however give any credence to the theory that ghosts exist, or that there is a separation of the mind from the body. So when the body dies, that is it.’ So there within I guess would be Hume’s point. It apparently says nature shows us that ghosts do not exist.’

There is a flaw in that argument. I mean, if we are regulating Hume’s two ways of knowing about the paranormal to nonsense then when someone has an experience or has a credible encounter they are removed from the “science” and placed in the with the mediums and witnesses. Therefore, they become irrelevant to process. How can you hope to come to the truth of a matter, if you are constantly discounting part of the equation?

As for the boundaries comment, if you understood the concept of boundary construction you would see where it fits into the narrative. I can suggest some reading if you would like…