Sunday, December 02, 2007

Responding to skepticism: 1.

Dikkii left a lot of questions in the comments to 'The Ghostly Finger of Pain'. I'd typed a response but it's over 2000 words long - so I thought I'd better break it up and post it here. Might be easier to read. I make no guarantee that it'll make any more sense.

I think Dikkii is the first skeptic to come here and debate. Which is good. Science thrives on debate - it keeps us from getting complacent. Every theory, every subject in science should be continually questioned or it will stagnate. If I get a question I can't answer, then I'm motivated to go and look for that answer. No questions means no progress.

Part 1:

Doesn't necessarily follow. Science currently assumes that strings don't exist, but there is still a lot of work going on in string theory. And when enough evidence is compiled, science will change it's mind.Science does this all the time. And it probably would do this with ghosts as well, except that we can't even get to square 1 yet. String theory is well past this point.

Science assumes that ghosts don’t exist. That’s already in place, to the point where most will simply dismiss the entire subject. That’s okay, I’m not remotely interested in studying rock layers in the side of a mountain, but others make it their life’s work. There are many branches of science and we don't all get along.

I don’t start out by assuming a haunting is real either. My first approach to any alleged haunting is to look for alternative explanations. Sometimes these are easy – a tapping can be mice, pipes, a branch against a wooden outer wall, a loose slate. There are many possible explanations for any of the effects reported, and it only earns the ‘paranormal’ label when no such explanation can be found. That’s what’s often called a ‘null hypothesis’ – in any experiment or investigation, you start with the premise it’s nothing special.

Once in a while though, there’s something inexplicable. Once in a while you see or hear something that does not have an explanation. Perhaps, later, the place in question might be found to have an underground stream beneath it, which can cause a cold spot or a little subsidence that leads to creaks and groans. Still, there remain those few unexplained events. There is an accumulation of evidence, but evidence is not proof.

We're actually well past square 1. That's recognising that there is a phenomenon, but not knowing for sure what it is. We collect evidence until we have bits that fit together. That should be done quietly, without fanfare, but sadly any report of any kind of paranormal activity is newspaper-fodder. Once the media has it, it gets embellished. People faced with TV cameras tend to add a bit of spice to their tales, and the objectivity is lost. Somewhere in those stories is a tiny bit of real evidence, much of the time, but you have to peel away layers of crap to find it.

I know, many refuse to recognise that there even is a phenomenon to study. That's their choice. It shouldn't be mistaken for scientific integrity because it's not. It's simply a natural human reaction. Not long ago, many respectable scientists refused to believe there were any other planets orbiting any other stars. Not long ago, tales of the giant squid were dismissed as the ramblings of drunk sailors. All entirely reasonable assumptions at the time. After all, how can a forty-foot squid go undetected by science, which can spot an amoeba? How can we fail to see something the size of Jupiter? So the assumption by scientists that there are no ghosts is reasonable. They've never experienced anything to suggest otherwise, and scientists are human, and there are only so many hours in the day, and nobody can study everything...

I've never seen a flying saucer, or met an alien, and I don't know anyone who has. On that basis it would be reasonable for me to conclude that the whole UFO field is nonsense. But I don't. I don't hang around with the UFO crowd because those I've met seem a little unhinged. That doesn't mean they all are. Now we know there are other planets, the case for the possibility of alien life is a little stronger. It's still only a possibility. Most of the planets so far detected are unlikely to support any kind of life--at least, not any kind we could interact with--but the existence of those planets means there could be others. So I don't dismiss the subject, but I don't spend time studying it either.

I already know the response to this line of argument - 'just because science was wrong about planets and giant squid, doesn't mean it's wrong about ghosts'. I agree. I don't expect anyone to 'believe' in anything I say. I don't want belief. I'm not setting myself up as a religion here, I'm studying a phenomenon. One I and many others have experienced. If you haven't had that experience then you won't 'believe' me. And you should not.

The onus is on me to prove it. That's how science works. Until I can prove it, all I can do is present theories and let others find the holes in them. Then I can work to plug the holes. When they're all plugged, I'll have proof.

Part 2 in a little while. I used to be a lecturer, you know. Does it show?


Dikkii said...

Romulus, that was a good post. Bravo.

You did make a couple of claims that I don't think should remain unchallenged, though

"Still, there remain those few unexplained events."

Seeing that you're uninterested in Randi's prize, could you let me know where they are? I may be skeptical, but I still think that ghosts would be pretty cool if they existed, and besides, I can think of nearly half a dozen things that I could do with Randi's money.

"Not long ago, tales of the giant squid were dismissed as the ramblings of drunk sailors."

So were krakens, dragons, a myriad of other sea-monsters, falling off the edge of the earth etc. Little concerned that you're about to come out with the Galileo gambit, here...

I already know the response to this line of argument - 'just because science was wrong about planets and giant squid, doesn't mean it's wrong about ghosts'. I agree.

Phew. Galileo gambit avoided. Still, I bet the temptation must've been strong.

We're actually well past square 1. That's recognising that there is a phenomenon, but not knowing for sure what it is.

I'll have to respectfully agree to disagree on this one. We have a phenomenon (or phenomena).

Only after studying this or each of these in turn can we say that they're linked in some way. Or not.

That's square one in my book.

Our next step is to define the (common) problem that needs to be solved - ad hoc'ing a ghost on to this is awfully premature at this point.

There's nothing wrong with speculating about the existence of ghosts, but we should be defining them as the best possible explanation for a particular phenomenon rather than shoehorning the phenomenon to fit the desired outcome (ghost).

But I give your post 3 1/2 stars. This is way better than some of the creduloids blogging out there.

Romulus Crowe said...

No temptation on the Galileo gambit - it illustrates only that scientists are capable of being wrong, not that they are wrong in any particular instance. Scientists are human, and have as many 'oops' moments as anyone else. They just tend to be bigger ones.

I currently operate under the premise that ghosts are human because I've seen a few. They look human (no sheets with holes in), they sound human (no 'woooo') and most of them are idiots. Sounds like human to me. It's a premise though, and that's all.

Tom Sheepandgoats is a Jehovah's Witness. He does not deny the existence of spirits, but does deny that they could be human. That's his belief and he's entitled to it. Perhaps he's right. I can't say he's not.

But I need a working premise in order to proceed. In order to test a theory, the theory has to exist. On testing, the theory might be found to be completely wrong. It's a starting point.

A lot of hauntings, even convincing ones, are not hauntings. There are no ghosts, just some kind of 'recording' (still working on how it could happen) of a past event. There's no more a spirit present in these events than there are elves inside the TV.

A ghost, presumed (theory) to be a discarnate human, can interact with others. Recordings can't. They're just a projection. A non-human spirit (Tom's theory) could conceivably pretend to be human.

Where to see one? Well, this isn't a routine thing. The buggers don't show up on cue. There are places where you're more likely to see one, but no guarantees. You'd need to spend some time, a lot of it wasted, to get a good sighting. If you don't believe in the subject in the first place you're not likely to do that.

I could give you some places in the UK where sightings are frequent, but I'd suggest you ask around locally first. You're on the other side of the planet, after all.

Beware of hotel ghosts. Ghosts are good for business and are often over-hyped. Someone once saw something, someone once felt something, and hey presto. Get it in the newspapers and you'll have a steady stream of hopeful ghosthunters at your door. Some places even have employees tapping on walls and pipes to keep the income going.

I get infuriated at such things because it just leads everyone to assume that it's all bunk. Those stories make the press. The scientific approach doesn't because most of the time it's very, very dull. Most investigations produce nothing at all, and that leads to people clutching at straws. Orbs are a prime example. They are dust, that's all, but they are held up as 'evidence' to keep up morale, I suppose.

Orbs are easily debunked and have been, over and over. Still those wretched photos appear. All they do is bring the subject into disrepute.

I think there are even people who still believe in those 'winged rods' which have been definitely proved to be insects in flight. An artefact of shutter speed.

We do have a lot of credulous nuts in this field. You're not likely to hear about the non-nuts so much.

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