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SKEPTOID BLOG:

In Which I Respond to Josh & Chuck of @SYSKPodcast regarding Ghosts

by Brian Dunning

June 22, 2013

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Donate In a recent episode of Discovery's Stuff You Should Know podcast, hosts Josh & Chuck discussed the subject of ghosts, what they are, and "how they work", in other words, what their properties are and what they consist of.

At the very end of the episode, they gave Skeptoid and me a very nice mention, and I thought they perfectly captured what it is that I try to make the show about; to wit, digging deeper than the popular tripe into legends and beliefs, and uncovering the true science of what's going on. I liken it to saying not simply "There's gold up in them thar hills," but actually going and finding out for sure. So, thanks to Josh and Chuck (and Tracy, whom I presume is their research assistant who provided my quote to them) for giving scientific skepticism this positive nod.

I was less enthralled with most of the rest of their episode. By way of full disclosure, I've tweetered in the past that I stopped listening to SYSK a couple years ago, because every time they mentioned a subject I'd researched myself, I found that they almost never got past the popular Wikipedia version of events, which in articles about controversial subjects, are often grossly vandalized by pro-paranormal researchers or other anti-science folks. I felt a Discovery Networks show should be held to a higher standard. With respect to Josh and Chuck, who I like a lot and think are very talented hosts, I have to say the quality of information presented in this episode has failed to improve since I last listened.

Most notably, they grossly exaggerated and mispresented 1960s-1980s research into infrasound as a possible cause for ghostly experiences. They described legitimate experimental psychologist Richard Wiseman as a paranormal researcher, and extensively discussed some of his research -- which was into the psychological factors of people who believe they're having a ghost experience -- as validating certain haunted locations. Josh, who strikes me as the more credulous of the two, proposed "energy" and "quantum particles" as probable candidates for the physical makeup of ghosts. He also spoke quite derisively of James Randi (and other "skeptics" as a group) as one who delights in telling people their cherished beliefs are false, when anyone who actually knows Randi and is familiar with his work at the James Randi Educational Foundation knows that couldn't be farther from the truth; he's a dedicated and ruthless consumer advocate.

The episode failed entirely to mention what I've long said is the most significant thing about ghosts. They have no detectable, describable properties. Witness accounts do not remotely suggest a single cause. Whatever it was that all of these witness (myself included) have experienced, or the way we've interpreted our experiences, can hardly be said to be consistent with "a ghost". Logically, an experience cannot be found to be consistent with an explanation that has no comparable properties. Science has never had a testable hypothesis, science has never had a repeatable observation; so far there is no science to be done. This is not because scientists dismiss or pooh-pooh it; it's merely because no testable hypothesis -- square one for the scientific method -- has ever yet materialized. We all certainly hope that changes in the future.

My main quarrel with their episode was that, despite a number of qualifications like "ghosts, if they exist...", it was largely from the perspective that ghosts are very much a part of our world, and they strived to explain what ghosts might be. When they mentioned specific cases, like certain famous ghost photos, their description of skeptical perspectives was universally scornful and often presented a straw-man response to some ignorant and hateful thing that a scientific skeptic might say.

Chuck reported that the National Science Board has said that belief in the paranormal is dangerous because it means you have reduced critical thinking skills and can't make great day-today decisions (I can't find where they found such a statement, but it's certainly a valid analysis in my opinion). They said it was mean, and it irked them. Really guys? You believe people should not have critical thinking skills? I hope you misspoke. Josh continued with a very standard and very tired old anti-science response, one of the mainstays of those who are openly hostile to the scientific method:
At the other end of the spectrum, just pooh-poohing out of hand as nonexistent anything that science can't explain shows a distinct lack of critical thinking and, even more dangerously, a lack of imagination.
My question for Josh is what is it you think scientists are hired to do? Why do we have the scientific method? It's specifically to answer the questions that science doesn't yet know. Scientists need imagination and can never afford to dismiss things that are potentially valid. I am not aware of a single colleague who thinks the way you describe. Oh, I know there are people out there who do think that way, but they're not scientists and it absolutely does not represent the process of scientific skepticism.

And Josh, though like I said he's a good host, even had to throw a little barb at me personally:
I think he likes killing fun a little, though.
I really hope I've never given you that impression, Josh. If I were to boil down what I try to do to a single point, I would say it's to infect people with the joy of discovery, and it hurt a little to hear you say that I've missed that goal so widely. A lot of people listen to your show, and many of them assume that what comes from Discovery is well-researched and thoroughly fact checked. That gives weight to what you say, including this comment.

I hope the many good folks at @SYSK don't take this as barb thrown back at them by me, and again I repeat that that the bulk of their mention of Skeptoid was complimentary, and they have my thanks for that. But I hope they will consider that very few hard working professional scientific skeptics and science writers like myself have mean-spirited intentions, or enjoy finding out that something sensational turns out to have a mundane explanation. I hope Chuck checks the EXIF data on his orb photo that he took (I posted some of my own here), and I hope he doesn't actually cut within a few feet of pedestrians (ghostly or otherwise) when he's driving through an intersection. I hope Josh reads some of Richard Wiseman's books and learns how amazing his real work (which is not paranormal) is. There is great joy in discovery.

by Brian Dunning

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