Yet Another Long Ghost Hunting Inspired Post

Wow.  I sat down just to write a short blog entry and ended up going crazy.  In brief, this started out as a post about ghost hunting and self-deception and then somewhere along the way got out of control.  But I wrote it, and I think it’s interesting, and along being an award-winning, internationally renowned novelologist & board game afficianado, I’m a big skeptic, which is somewhat odd for a human being in general and a fantasy novelist in particular.

Bottom Line:  I wasted way too much time writing this to just let it go.  So maybe if you’re really bored, you can read it.  Or not.  It’s your call.

I should be writing.  I’m behind in my latest manuscript, and I’d like to get it done soon.  But it’s late.  I’m tired.  And so in an effort to fool my brain into thinking I’m productive, I’m going to write a blog entry instead and then go to bed.

As any regular reader of these posts knows, I’m a skeptic.  In particular, I think ghosts and the paranormal are complete bunk.  Nonsense.  Balderdash.  Foofurall.  You get the idea.

Still, I find myself watching “reality” ghost hunting shows in whatever form they appear.  There’s the pseudoscientific approach of shows like Ghost Hunters & Ghost Lab.  There’s the supernatural evil approach of shows like Paranormal State & Extreme Paranormal.  There’s the scaredy cat, run from spooky noises style of Most Haunted & Ghost Adventures.  The style may differ a bit, but the message is always the same.  Ghosts are real, and these folks have proof.

Sort of.  It all depends on what you consider “proof”.  If a weird sound caught on garbled audio recordings or a shadow you can’t readily identify qualify as “proof”, then they’ve got you covered.  If you want bleeding walls, geniune apparitions, or even a single levitation or bent spoon, then you’re outta luck.

So let’s just assume for a second that there are no such things as ghosts and that the paranormal is just a figment of our collective imagination.  I know.  It’s a stretch, a leap of faith.  So many people believe in ghosts, have had unexplained encounters, have experienced the paranormal on a personal basis.  They can’t all be fooling themselves.  They can’t all be mistaken, can they?

But what if they are?  What if the spooky feeling we get in a darkened room is just a trick of our paranoid, reptillian brain?  What if cold spots are just cold spots?  What if EVP is just our fevered intellect trying to make sense of confusing sensory experience?  And what if every scary “true life” ghost story you’ve ever heard, seen, or read is either a lie or a mistake?

That, to me, is scarier than any ghost or goblin.

My theory on human behavior (which I assume is hardly original and has probably been thought up ages ago by people far smarter than me) is that most of us are incapable of accepting the possibilty of self-deception.  Not just in ourselves, but in everyone.  Especially anyone we trust or who seems trustworthy.  We believe people can lie.  We know people can lie.  Because we lie.  All of us.  All the time.  Most of these are harmless, and that’s no big deal.  But we do know that people can lie and do so regularly.

But the idea that someone might think they’re telling the truth and just be wrong is different.  It’s not something we like to think about.  On a primal level, I think it’s because we have to trust our senses because, for the most part, they keep us on track.  It’s my sense of sight that lets me see the words I write right now, and my fingers feel the keys as I type.  I don’t usually walk into walls.  I know if my milk has gone bad after a taste.  And while I have a lousy sense of smell, if something catches on fire, I’ll usually smell the smoke.  Without our senses, we’re just a lump of fat squished in a stumbling, bumbling cage of meat.

But let’s talk about something deeper than just a trust of our senses.  What we’re really worried about is trusting our judgment.  Because without judgment, how can we really trust anything.  A failing of judgment is what separates fears from phobias.  If you get put off by spiders, you’re normal.  If you huddle in the corner and shriek at the mere sight of one, then you’re not.  If you believe that Jesus loves you and going to church is good for you, you’re normal.  If you think Jesus loves you and wants you to kill French Canadians, you’re not.

We do understand crazy people because there are enough examples.  Extreme, bizarre, and unconventional behavior distinguishes itself in the looney category.  It’s weird, sometimes unsettling, but since it’s clearly looney, it’s no big deal.  If you’re best friend came to you and said he was King of Atlantis and was preparing to wage war on the USA with his magic spatula, you’d probably back away slowly.

But what if your friend told you they saw a ghost?  Not so easy, is it?  Because even if your friend is mistaken, they’re not really acting crazy.  Until they start blowing themselves up or drinking poison or wrestling bears for kicks.  Then they cross a clear line.  It says, “This person is unstable, confused, and dangerous”.  And it’s easy to identify.

But when I watch the ghost hunting shows, I find myself thinking more and more that these people are just a little looney.  They have convinced themselves of something that isn’t there.  Perhaps it’s because they place too much faith in their senses and the senses of others.

Rarely in these shows does the possibilty of self-deception ever come up.  The usual course of investigation is to ask yourself if someone or something you know caused the phenomena (I use the term loosely).  Then you ask if someone is faking it.  But hardly ever is the question asked, “Are we misinterpreting this data?”

Watch a ghost hunting show.  Really.  Do it.  Just once.  Even if you don’t believe in ghosts (and even if you do).  And notice how rarely the participants ever suggest this possibility.

Because to believe that is against our natures.  More importantly, to believe that is to question our judgment at its core.  If ghosts are not real and merely a shared self-deception of most of the terran species, even otherwise perfectly sane and functional human beings, then all bets are off when you think about it.

Most everyone on these ghost hunting shows seems normal.  They are normal.  In most everyday situations, they function fine.  The Ghost Hunters are plumbers with families and homes and ordinary lives outside of their ghost hunting activities.  The demon fighters of Paranormal State seem like nice, congenial kids.  The Ghost Adventures dudes are goofballs, but they aren’t dangerous goofballs.  And if they weren’t lucky enough to get paid to run around empty buildings, jumping at shadows, I’m sure they could be productive members of society.  Well, not willing to bet on it, but let’s just assume they could hold a job and manage not to walk into traffic.  The people who believe in ghosts, tarot, astrology, psychic powers, and holistic medicine are a varied lot, and in most situations, they are indistinguishable from people such as myself (aka The Skeptics).

But what if they’re wrong?  What if in this one area, they’re mistaken?

And just to play my own devil’s advocate, what if I’m wrong?  What if astrology works?  What if germ theory is incorrect?  What if evolution is just a big wrong track?

I don’t believe this to be true, but this belief is only as sound as my judgment.  And the one thing my judgment can never really judge is itself.  Whoa.  I think I just went zen there.

My point (and I do have one finally if you stuck with this long enough) is that a healthy questioning of our own perceptions is important, even necessary to be a functional person.  We must never take our assumptions for granted, always be ready to discard old ideas, no matter how sacred.

If you think about it, this is a constant process throughout our history.  The religions of today are not the religions of yesterday.  The science of old has been replaced with more up to date knowledge.  Theories of government, biology, human behavior, astronomy, etc., etc., etc. have all evolved.  This is undeniable, even if you don’t believe in evolution.  And this is a good thing, and the world is a better place (overall) for it.

Skepticism is important.  Skepticism works.  But it works best when we’re willing to admit that we have to even be skeptical of ourselves.  Unless you take it too far, I suppose and refuse to take anything for granted.  In which case, you’re a looney.  Or living in the matrix, although for that to make any sense your body would have to produce enough energy to power a giant robot and that would violate the laws of thermodynamics.  Personally, I find that harder to believe than ghosts.

But that’s just me.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,


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  1. Posted December 23, 2009 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    (I think we’ve had this conversation before)

    Not believing in astrology isn’t the same thing as believing in ghosts. You aren’t basing your “belief” on faith or a desire; there’s science to back it up. People have used the scientific method to prove germ theory and evolution. No one’s proven there’s anything to astrology. Plus it’s stupid (seriously, chunks of rocks and gas rotating around our sun light years away has something to do with your mood? That’s as dumb as saying you’d have bad luck from not sending on chain letters or breaking a mirror).

    Not believing in something that can only be believed because you want to isn’t the same as accepting laws and theories scientists have put real work into formulating.

  2. A. Lee Martinez
    Posted December 23, 2009 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    I agree with you. But I’m playing devil’s advocate here. Also, let’s not forget that many discarded scientific theories were accepted as fact among learned scholars at some point.

    Of course I believe in germ theory, relativity, evolution, and astronomy. And I believe all these things are far more provable than ghosts, astrology, etc. But I still feel that science relies on skepticism, and I must be willing to discard these beliefs if compelling enough evidence showed itself. Such evidence doesn’t exist at this stage, and probably never will. But I have to at least be ready to accept it if it does suddenly show up.

    There is a difference between the scientific method and gut feelings. But the problem is that many people don’t know that difference. The modern ghost hunter uses things like EVP and EMFs to find “ghosts” because it looks and feels scientific on the outside. Astrologists just “know” it works because of swapped stories. And there are still germ theory deniers, many who appear to be perfectly rational human beings in most ways.

    The point is that most of these people believe these ideas are rational and proven. They think they’re logical and reasonable. And if someone can do that about astrology or EVP, then why can’t we do it about anything and everything?

    Skepticism doesn’t have to mean you don’t trust anything. If you break your arm, you go to a doctor. If you get on an airplane, you know that it is going to fly and get you where you’re going (via some pretty damn amazing science). And you trust your cell phone will work because it continues to work.

    The real difference between science and every crackpot theory you’ve ever heard of is that science admits it might be wrong. Whereas pseudoscience knows it’s right. So when I question (even only in theory) a commonly accepted truth of science, I’m just being a good scientific individual. Whereas if I just believe that ghosts are made up of electromagnetic fields, I’m not.

  3. Posted January 1, 2010 at 1:47 am | Permalink

    Not really going to bat for the guys from Ghost Hunters, but they’ve often admitted (maybe not as much as they should) that there is no damning proof that ghosts exist. They tend to tell the folks at the end of the show that there is always the chance that it may be nothing at all. They show the most skepticism (no matter how fleeting it may be) out of all the shows out there. Okay, I admit it, I’m sticking up for them, but only because I like their show over all the other morons and crackpots trying to put up a show. As my wife just pointed out, they also go into situations trying to disprove the claims first, before doing anything else.

    With that out of the way, I agree with the whole idea of skepticism in science. If there were no skeptics in science, the earth would be flat and the sun would move around it. Thank goodness for skepticism. In the case of ghost hunters, until you’ve actually caught a ghost and subjected it to rigorous testing, there is no way to tell if your Kmeter is detecting a ghost or just bleeping to it’s own soundtrack.

    Thanks for an enlightening read.

  4. GeekWhit
    Posted January 3, 2010 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    I think people are always looking for some solution that is outside of their control to explain things they don’t understand. This is why we have religion, and why it has changed so much over the course of humanity. As we began to understand, say, the workings of the solar system and the sun, we no longer needed stories about gods pulling the sun into the sky every morning.

    And really, how is reading tarot cards or following astrology to try to solve problems or predict the future any different from praying to a deity for help or guidance? If we judge people who believe in ghosts to be loony, at least in that particular area of their personality (which I have no problem with), then I think we should similarly judge those who believe that a god listens to them and directly answers their prayers.

    It’s easier to attribute a weird feeling or unusual occurrence to something that is “other” than it is to evaluate and analyze ourselves and our surroundings. If I just say, “This place must be haunted – that’s why I feel weird here,” then I don’t have to THINK about it anymore. I get to go about my life and operate under the assumption that these strange occurrences are completely outside of my control. It frees me of a lot of responsibility and those pesky little things called analysis and thought.

  5. Posted January 30, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

    “Science” is a process if obtaining information and subjecting that to reasoned and critical thinking.

    Tools are often used that helping provide and even interpret data used to present scientific ‘facts’.

    Technology is one of the greatest methods of advancing science as prior to a given technology, the information wasn’t able to be seen or observed to contribute to a scientific discussion until that point.

    Unlike you who refer to yourself as a skeptic on the genuineness of ghosts, I take a skeptical approach from the other side, up until now, science has not conclusively proven that ghosts do not exist. On the other hand, I deplore those people who ‘fake’ evidence as it hurts the entire process and makes the plausibility and serious pursuit of that type of information more difficult.

    How long until science advances to the point that it has the tools to measure those phenomena and factors that show they are there, we just haven’t had the technology to measure them till that point? How long did it take the world to measure radioactivity?

    Just because we cannot see it, does not mean it isn’t there.

    B ig Bear

  6. A. Lee Martinez
    Posted January 31, 2010 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    Your point is accurate, T. To a point.

    However, to say that science hasn’t advanced to the point that we can detect or measure ghosts seems like a bit of a copout. Instead, paranormal phenomena is constantly redefined into something indefinable. You can always suggest that we don’t have the tools to find the supernatural, but then why do we even waste time trying to find it?

    Take the various types of psychic phenomena. None of these have been proven to any conclusive degree. You might suggest that this doesn’t mean that psychic powers don’t exist. But it certainly is an overwhelming amount of evidence against it. All it would take to demonstrate telekinesis would be for one person to demonstrate it reliably. A psychic that can predict the future with even a moderate degree of success would go a long way.

    Instead, we’re supposed to accept even the flimsiest “evidence” while ignore the mountains of expected non-evidence.

    I’m not suggesting that there aren’t phenomena we can’t measure and have yet to discover. I’m just suggesting that if we can’t measure it, maybe we should stop jumping to conclusions.

    Before microscopes, we didn’t know about germs. We had all manner of theories about how disease was spread. All of them were wrong. So why do we expect it to be any different than ghosts or psychic powers?

    If there is indeed such a thing as the paranormal, then our attempts to understand it at this point are most likely as accurate and sensible as those who believed that medicine came down to the four humors. The humors theory, while well intentioned, was completely wrong.

    Also, at one point, disease was thought to be the work of evil spirits. The supernatural explanation was incorrect. Just as I’m sure the bulk of bad feelings, EVP, and cold spots are not proof of the supernatural.

    To turn it on its head, I have no proof that gravity isn’t the work of invisible leprechauns who keep everything from floating away. I can even suggest that we simply don’t have the tools to measure or detect these invisible leprechauns. There’s absolutely no way to prove me wrong. But just because you can’t prove me wrong, that doesn’t make me right, and to posit wildly to explain something doesn’t mean it’s accurate. Or even particularly well thought out. After all, we really don’t know how gravity works yet. So my invisible leprechaun theory is as valid as anything else anyone’s come up with.

    And all ghostly phenomena is far less mysterious than gravity.

    As for my major point, none of the many ghost hunting reality shows seem especially scientific. All of them make huge leaps of faith. All of them have startlingly low expectations when it comes to their evidence. And all of them are quick to label as paranormal even the smallest anomaly. This isn’t scientific. This isn’t even being open-minded. It’s just building upon a mountain of assumptions.

    Or, to put it another way, just because we cannot see something, that doesn’t mean it’s there and not seen.

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