An evening at Cafe Skeptique – A discussion on ghosts

This evening I attended an event hosted by The Center for Inquiry (CFI) Toronto, called Cafe Skeptique. The event is held once a month with a different topic each time. This was my first time attending as I only learned of CFI a few weeks ago. I attended a talk by Penn Jillette that was hosted by them a few weeks ago, and I have thoughts to share about that but just haven’t had sufficient time to write them all down yet.

Tonight’s Cafe Skeptique topic was Ghost Hunting. Essentially it boiled down to, does each attendee believe in ghosts, and what are our thoughts of ghost hunting TV shows, websites and methods.

It was a very interesting discussion that ended up going “outside the lines” several times, as we needed to clarify some other concepts to really tackle the main topic. But during the discussion several thoughts occurred to me that I wanted to document here as well.

We tried to decide what constituted a “ghost” (I don’t think we actually settled on any specific, concrete definition), and how you would even go about testing for one. We of course came at it from the angle of the scientific method, as opposed to relying on arguably faulty human interpretations of things that may be seen, heard or felt. But since we weren’t even able to decide or agree upon what a ghost is or would be and how you could test for it, we could only wonder about the people on the TV shows in question. They are using equipment, but can it even measure whatever a ghost is? One attendee even made the point that ghosts might exist as separate things – i.e. a force, a presence, an energy. Do you have to test for each one separately and then put the results together to deduce what they mean as a whole?

I also pointed out (unless I’m incorrect about this), that “proper skepticism” would probably mean that the ghost hunters would be trying to conceive of every possible non-paranormal explanation for what they experience on their hunt before attributing anything to being a ghost. For example, if you hear a strange hissing sound but don’t see anything, perhaps the sound is coming from steam moving through a pipe in the wall, and not some spirit that is trying to scare you away? Essentially, “ghost” shouldn’t be the first conclusion, it should be the last once all other possibilities are eliminated.

We talked about how things such as ghost hunting (arguably a pseudoscience) get popularized and have validity or credence lent to them by celebrity endorsements, and again, people fail to appropriately question how or why the celebrity has arrived at that conclusion (the example cited to illustrate this concept was the Autism/Vaccine connection which turned out to be false). We seem much more willing to accept and believe something is real when a celebrity puts their seal of approval on the concept, than if some random person in a coffee shop does the same. But celebrities are not generally famous for their rigorous adherence to skepticism and science, so why do we so readily go along with them on things? Even with our friends, if a friend of yours came to you tomorrow and said they had been abducted by aliens, you would likely not readily, fully believe them, but if your favourite celebrity said they were, you would perhaps hesitate to dismiss the claim as easily. We also discussed the idea that having seen a real ghost or alien or whatever, was more exciting and “sexier” than just having seen something weird, but explainable. The truth isn’t always sexy, but it is the truth.

Another idea that came up was the idea of “unexplainable phenomenon”. But that might be more of a matter of “not explained¬†yet“. After all, the tides used to be a mystery to humanity, and now we can explain why the tides rise and fall. Science just hasn’t found the answer yet, if there is one to be found. In listening to the Skeptoid Podcast, many “ghost stories” have been explained and thus debunked, and that has led me to the point of thinking that most ghost stories and/or sighting can be explained, you just have to spend the necessary amount of time and research to get right down to the fine details.

We got into a discussion about spirits, souls and an afterlife, if they exist or not and if that is what ghosts are (inconclusive). Again, we were not really able to agree on definitions for these concepts.

We talked about how ghost hunters don’t really follow the scientific method properly, and how they go in believing, and looking for proof of their belief (which makes you far more susceptible to confirmation bias). This is similar to how one possible way to explain a lucky number “following” a person. If you get one particular piece of information in your awareness, your subconscious will be watching the world around you for that information, and when you see it, your brain will throw up a flag to alert you to its presence. This helps explain why you can walk down an unfamiliar street and notice a familiar store (such as the golden arches), but not notice whatever is right next to it, because that isn’t the thing your brain has been primed to look. If your lucky number was 3, you would notice 3s everywhere you go, because you’re primed to notice them vs all other numbers. Some people take this to mean that the universe, or “fate” is trying to lead them somewhere, but really it’s just a misinterpretation of an explainable psychological occurrence.

This is why it was stressed that you should make a point of trying to find logical, rational explanations for things other than what you think is the case, and dismiss them first, rather than choosing the most convenient (but possibly incorrect) answer.

It was a really enjoyable discussion, and even though no real conclusion was reached, we certainly explored a lot of ideas and concepts (we even got into quantum physics at one point briefly), and I definitely plan to return in future. If there is a Center for Inquiry chapter in your city, I recommend checking them out and even making a donation if you believe in the work they do and the value it contributes to society.

Not quite ghosts, but on the subject of psychics and how easily the mind can be tricked and deceived, I recently watched this and I think it’s definitely worth a watch for anyone who is willing to consider the idea that the human mind and memory are not perfect and we can’t always trust what we think we experience:

This is also a good (and much shorter video) about the same concept, also not specifically focused on ghosts:

Oh, and in case you didn’t know, here’s a tid bit about the James Randi One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge (from wikipedia):

The James Randi Educational Foundation currently offers a prize of one million U.S. dollars to eligible applicants who can demonstrate a supernatural ability under agreed-upon scientific testing criteria. Similar to the paranormal challenges of John Nevil Maskelyne and Houdini, in 1964, Randi put up $1,000 of his own money payable to anyone who could provide objective proof of the paranormal.[75] Since then, the prize money has grown to the current $1,000,000, and has formal published rules. No one has progressed past the preliminary test, which is set up with parameters agreed to by both Randi and the applicant.

I have to wonder, after nearly 50 years of this offer being “on the table”, and no one having claimed it, that also casts a large amount of doubt on the legitimacy of paranormal claims.

Thanks for reading, I hope you learned something (as I did), and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below!

Care to share your thoughts?