Let's Talk About Ghosts, Part II  

Posted by Tony Hays in , , , ,

A few weeks ago, I spent some time talking about the phenomenon of ghosts, spirits, whatever you choose to call them. My father lumped them all together under the name, "Casper." As I stated then, I'm open-minded on the issue. As technology has advanced, so have the efforts to "pin" down ghosts. Photography was the first tool to be used, and cameras have produced some of the most thought-provoking images. Consider the famous shot below of the "Brown Lady" of Raynham Hall, taken in 1936.

Skeptics argue that it was "the result of mundane causes such as camera vibration, afternoon light from the window above the stairs catching the lens of the camera, and double exposure" (http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/hoax/photo_database/image/the_brown_lady_of_raynham/ ). They may be right. But WHICH of those possible causes resulted in this photo. I'm sorry, but if you're going to demand that presenters of such photos or other data, you have an equal burden of showing why it is NOT evidence of the paranormal. You can't just toss out a global, "it could be."

But back to ghost photos.

The photo below is also a famous one. It purports to be of a WWI airplane squadron. Two days before the shot was taken, according to the story, a mechanic, Freddy Jackson, was killed. Sources say that Freddy couldn't bear to miss the squadron photo and peaked in from the grave. Check the inset.

True or a hoax? You tell me. But that certainly isn't dust and the afternoon light. And it would be a strange double exposure that impacted only that tiny fraction of the photograph. Critics spend most of their time discrediting the source of the photograph, a man named Goddard who, it would seem, was somewhat on the loony side. But, hey! Jack did indeed cry "Wolf!" a lot. And at least one time, there really was a wolf.

And then, there's the baby on the grave. Allegedly, when this photo was taken, there was nothing and no one on top of the grave. Only when the film was developed did the baby appear. And, again allegedly, there was a baby buried very, very near this grave.

I do not know that this is a fake. It looks much more like a double exposure than the first two. But who can say.

The Illogic of Skeptics  

Posted by Tony Hays

One of the things that I have done over the last twenty years is to teach basic writing at universities and community colleges. Hand-in-hand with that goes the task of introducing students to critical thinking and the research process. I've always hyped the virtues of being skeptical, of not taking things at face value, of looking at evidence and drawing your own conclusions. But then over this past weekend, I happened to surf onto a couple of the more prominent websites run by skeptics, and I realized that skeptics break faith with the critical thinking they claim to personify, and in a big way.

A basic tenet of critical thinking and the research process is to eliminate, as much as is possible, any research bias. When you enter into a project with a bias, you consciously or subconsciously seek out evidence that will support your position. Let's say you've always been intrigued by the legends of Robin Hood and you decide to write about that. If you already believe that Robin Hood existed, and you don't check that belief at the door, you are going to discount, disregard or downplay any evidence that strengthens the proposition that he was but myth.

Here's the thing. Skeptics approach their investigations automatically disbelieving. They demand to be presented with scientific, sustainable evidence before they will concede defeat. And they never concede defeat, or at least a cursory journey through their websites and magazines did not find such an instance. Besides having entered into the project with a pre-existing bias, they have another handicap – as avowed skeptics they have a vested interest in never being convinced that Robin Hood actually existed. How can they be a credible skeptic if they allow themselves to be convinced of anything. Thus, they never seem to have enough evidence to push them over that precipice, and they cloak their stubborn, biased brand of skepticism as critical thinking.

What they are not, in essence, are skeptics. Rather, they classify more closely as contrarians, always taking the opposite viewpoint, the negative side of any question. So, for these researchers, Lee Harvey Oswald will always be the lone assassin of JFK. Robin Hood will never be more than a myth dreamt up centuries ago. UFOs will never exist. King Arthur will never be more than a figment of Geoffrey of Monmouth's imagination. Ghosts and the paranormal do not exist.

We're humans, and we are susceptible to all the flaws and foibles that humans are heir to (to paraphrase Shakespeare – but wait a minute! He didn't exist either!) It is nearly impossible to eliminate all bias or prejudice from your research efforts. But it is a goal that we should never stop pursuing.

I don't have any problem with folks who try to argue that their point is a valid one, as long as they use facts and evidence to support their position and they acknowledge counter arguments. But don't cloak your bias as critical thinking when you start out violating a major tenet of the research process.

Okay, I'll climb down off my soapbox.