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Your Weirdest Thing, Vol. 1

Donate I take a shot at critical analysis of your weirdest experiences.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Logic & Persuasion

Skeptoid Podcast #685
July 23, 2019
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Rarely does a day go by that I don't receive an email from a random person describing a strange experience they've had and asking me for my take on it. This is not limited to wooists who believe their experience was unequivocally supernatural and intended to challenge me with it; just as often, I hear from skeptics who are lucky enough to have witnessed something without an evident explanation. So, as I do from time to time, I sent a special invitation out to all of Skeptoid's premium members — if you are one, you probably read that email — and asked those of you with such experiences to share them on the show. Here they are.

I do want to start with a preamble that applies to all of these. I wasn't there, and am therefore a terrible person to presume some kind of superior insight to what you experienced. And normally I wouldn't; however, today's exercise is explicitly for me to offer my particular take on your stories, for what little it may or may not be worth.

The Imploding Window

Let's begin with a creepy tale from England. This comes from premium member Phil, who did ghost hunting in college and was called to a local business:

Having a look around the place, we decided the most malevolent room was the one at the top floor of this business, and it was full of personal effects and bric-a-brac and stuff which people had accumulated over the years. We put a cross in the corner and left for the day. The next day, something had seriously happened. The room was utterly and completely destroyed. The solid brass table was smashed in half, a chair that had been next to it was shoved through the window, and most of the stuff just completely destroyed really. But what was interesting, the challenging bit, was that the chair had been shoved through the window, and all the glass, and I mean all of it, had fallen inside the room, which would have been pretty difficult to do because the window only opened outwards. So that one challenged me, and to this day still does.

Maybe it's because I wasn't there because I'm not seeing a mystery; I can think of at least two ways to break the window like that. First, just throw something through it from the outside. Second, pop a small hole through it from inside and pull the rest inward. Perhaps other options might present if we had a look at the place.

If someone has suggested that a ghost was involved here, I'm not seeing where that suggestion is coming from. I don't hear anything at all that excludes human intervention; and I expect that if you'd left a hidden camera instead of just a cross you'd have caught the culprit. It's never helpful to note the shopkeeper was a level-headed person and would never make something up. You and I and most people are level-headed and people make things up all the time for all sorts of reasons, like gaining publicity for your shop; and on top of that we know nothing about their friends and neighbors and mischievous little brothers, or what role some laughing unknown rapscallion might have had in this.

The Dying Pope

Next we have a common type of story; several of you sent me essentially the same one, and I chose this one as a representative sample. It comes from listener David in Adelaide, who had met the Pope once when he'd been a young boy:

Fast forward 17 years later, but this time I'm living in Australia. One Sunday morning I woke up at 4:00am and just could not get back to sleep. When I turned on the morning news that day, it was reported that John Paul II had died at 7:30 the day before. Anyway I worked out the time difference, and that calculated to be 4:00am on that day that I woke up and couldn't get back to sleep. The exact same time the Holy Father entered his eternal sleep.

So while this seems like a coincidence so radically improbable that only some supernatural intervention could be behind it, mathematically it's actually quite common.

Let's estimate the average person wakes up early for no good reason about once a month. That gives a 1-in-30 chance that your one special famous person will die on a day you wake up early. With 7.7 billion people in the world, this will happen to about 256 million people. But let's narrow it down to the exact same time of day; and let's make that a 5-minute margin of error. There are 288 5-minute blocks in a day. This means that about 891,000 people alive today will wake up on the same night and at the same time that their one special famous person dies. If you remove the restriction to just the one specific famous person you've met, and include your own friends and family, this number multiplies enormously, by the hundreds. We call this the law of large numbers. In the same way that casinos will always make money even giving out many jackpots, we require no supernatural explanation even with so many people waking up at the exact same moment as their one particular famous person dies.

So, apologies to you David, but your experience is not unusual.

The Splinted Finger

Our next mystery comes from Kevin in Arcata, CA:

One day in fifth grade, I was sitting there bored as usual, and had nothing better to do so I looked at my hands. I looked at my middle finger on my right hand, and I thought "My dad". And it wasn't because I wanted to flip him off or anything; I don't know why, but I'm thinking of my dad and looking at my finger. When I got home that day, I went into the kitchen and there was my dad. That finger on his right hand was in a splint. He had sprained it. That's all I know.

Of course this may have no relevance to your experience, but what you've just described has all the characteristics of the classic case of déjà vu, which has been studied a lot and we now have a pretty decent handle on what's going on.

When a moment of déjà vu is triggered — for example, when you came in and saw your dad with the splint — brain scans have shown that the decision-making centers of your brain are activated. The theory is that these moments are attention-grabbing because a tiny seizure or synaptic misfiring happens when the brain is attempting to correlate what it sees with relevant memories, resulting in a perceptual double-take, and force-feeding you a reconstructed memory.

Innocuous and insignificant events like looking at your hand or thinking of your dad happen countless times a day to all of us, so we rarely form specific memories of them happening. In many of the cases studied, that moment of seeing the finger and thinking of Dad turns out to be a distorted memory formed after the fact — possibly even completely false — which is 100% indistinguishable to you from an actual memory, and it makes no difference how certain you are that it happened. In fact, often researchers find that the memories we are most certain of turn out to be the least reliable.

Now, obviously, there's no way to say that this is what happened in your case, so I'm not saying that. But without compelling evidence that this is not what happened, I'm afraid a skeptical memory researcher would not find your story to be especially compelling.

The Popular Aliens

Here's a story from listener John:

I saw a UFO on May 24th, 1966 in Hayward, Wisconsin. At a quarter of ten at night I was near my little fishing boat on the lake, and I got that feeling we all get where something is watching you. I looked up and saw a flying saucer above the treetops. It was silver and white with red lights near the center, and it made no sound. The lights were blinking, illuminating everything around me like a flashbulb camera. It wasn't swamp gas, I've seen that before. The object slowly rose up out of the trees and then accelerated into the stars and out of sight in a matter of seconds. I rushed in to tell my mother what I'd seen, and the news was on. There were sights of similar things all over Minnesota, Wisconsin, the midwest. Later that year on November 18, 1966, a military plane mysteriously crashed nearby. Is that what I saw, experimental aircraft, or just maybe was it little green aliens on a joyride through space?

The first thing I did when I heard this was turn to the lists of mass UFO reports, and I didn't find anything from May 1966 in Wisconsin. I did find, however, that the month before, there was a popularly reported news item in which a pair of Ohio police officers pursued the planet Venus across two states. It's possible your mother was referring to that case because it had just been the talk of the town, or that memories conflated the two over the decades.

You do bring up a pair of other points I'd like to address. First, your mention of swamp gas. Although UFOlogist J. Allen Hynek proposed this as an explanation for some UFO sightings, it was never an acceptable one. Under no naturally-occurring conditions can swamp gas (basically methane) spontaneously ignite; and when swamp gas is burned in a lab, it flashes with a sudden green pop. It cannot, as Hynek suggested, form a glowing orb that produces a sustained light drifting through the sky. So I'm curious to know more about what you mean when you've seen it.

Second, I'd like to address your proposed explanation of a military aircraft. Although this is one of the first solutions many people reach for when they hear of any strange-looking aircraft, it's just as bad as the swamp gas. From the entire 20th-century history of experimental military aircraft — all of which are long since declassified, well known to the public, and now sitting in museums — not a single successful example differs substantially from a conventional aircraft's configuration and performance characteristics. But if you insist on going on to claim (without evidence) that there must have been a super-secret design consistent with a flying saucer that was so successful it remains classified today, then you're really just committing the logical fallacy of a special pleading: your claim can't be disproven because it requires special knowledge not available to investigators. But even if this was true — which it's not — super secret military aircraft are tested in secret at places like the National Classified Test Facility. They are never, ever presented to the public by flying them in plain view outside of controlled airspace. In summary, a "secret military aircraft" is among the worst possible explanations for most UFO reports, as they share no common characteristics.

What's missing from all of these stories, of course, is the actual explanation for what might have happened. In many cases, it's lost to memory and to history, and will likely never be known. Nevertheless the exercise does have a valid purpose: it keeps our critical analysis skills limber, and prepares us to more readily — and effectively — question the next weird thing.


By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.

 

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Your Weirdest Thing, Vol. 1." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 23 Jul 2019. Web. 8 Dec 2019. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4685>

 

References & Further Reading

Hamzelou, J. "Mystery of déjà vu explained – it’s how we check our memories." New Scientist. New Scientist Ltd., 16 Aug. 2016. Web. 17 Jul. 2019. <https://www.newscientist.com/article/2101089-mystery-of-deja-vu-explained-its-how-we-check-our-memories/>

Hand, D. The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

Loève, M. Probability Theory. Verlag: Springer, 1977.

Radford, B. Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits. Albuquerque: Rhombus Publishing Company, 2017.

Staff. "The Parajournal: Famous 86-mile UFO chase in 1966 still defies Air Force ‘explanation’." The Times. Gatehouse Media LLC, 18 Oct. 2018. Web. 17 Jul. 2019. <https://www.timesonline.com/news/20181018/parajournal-famous-86-mile-ufo-chase-in-1966-still-defies-air-force-explanation>

Swaminathan, N. "Think You've Previously Read About This? Click This to Find Out Why." Scientific American. Springer Nature America, Inc., 8 Jun. 2007. Web. 17 Jul. 2019. <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/braon-on-deja-vu/>

 

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