Is it rational to believe in ghosts and the paranormal? What is the right balance of skepticism and openness to have on a topic like this? In this weeks episode of the Thunk Tank Podcast, we cracked open some craft beers as usual,got silly,and tried to get to the bottom of the whole ghost phenomenon. Continue reading below for the full details of what we discussed. You’ll also want to listen to the episode to find out some of the less commonly asked questions about ghosts (do they eat? poop? do they get horny?…).

-Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast

As we were sitting at a bar spitballing ideas for future podcast episodes, the topic of “Ghosts” caught my attention right away. Similar to the topic of conspiracy theories, the world of the paranormal cuts right to the core of how to think correctly. The word “correctly” might seem condescending or snobbish, so let’s say that my use of this word is meant as a synonym for scientific literacy. Some might think that science literacy is simply a reflection of how much science you know or can recite; that is certainly an important aspect to being scientifically literate, but it is definitely not the most important one. The most important aspect can be summed up well with this question: how do you interpret information that comes your way? Said in a slightly different way: what level of inquiry do you bring to information that comes your way?

“Humans are pattern-seeking story-telling animals, and we are quite adept at telling stories about patterns, whether they exist or not.” -Michael Shermer

Even without officially being a scientist who is using the scientific method in a laboratory setting, your own personal interpretation of reality can be sharpened up once you adopt a strong sense of scientific literacy/skepticism. Science literacy will give you a tool kit that you can use to properly inquire about the world around you. It helps to eliminate the biases and inconsistencies that plague our ape brains. Also like the topic of conspiracy theories, the topic of ghosts is heavily emotional for some people. Our brains desperately want to find connections and juicy explanations for mysterious phenomena, even if a simpler and more logical explanation would suffice. But at the same time, a truly good scientist will always leave room for some agnosticism so that they will be able to change their minds when faced with proper evidence. As such, navigating the world of the paranormal provides the perfect test case for evaluating the power of the scientific tool kit.

  • Ghost Hunting and Magicians

There is an unusual but strong relationship between the world of magicians and the skeptical community. The skills of a magician are of course not in actually using magic, but in learning the various ways to manipulate the human brain. Everything from slight of hand to making things disappear involve knowing how to distract our brains from seeing what is really going on. Our perceptions, which evolved to survive on the African plain, are far from perfect and can be easily fooled. Knowing this fault of our brain, it is much more logical to assume that magicians do not actually have magic. Although it is rare, even magicians themselves can be fooled by certain tricks. Check out this example from the Penn and Teller show “Fool Us”.

“The only secret of magic is that I’m willing to work harder on it than you think it’s worth.” -Penn Jillette

Penn and Teller are famous magicians, but they are also outspoken skeptics who are very active in the community. They don’t believe in making “fools” of their audience by tricking them and they do not claim to have any magical abilities. Instead they try to keep the relationship with their audience honest and remind them that even though it may have seemed magical, there is a rational explanation behind magic: magicians have precisely practiced routines designed at fooling the human brain. This approach to magic teaches people the power of skepticism, especially when it comes to our own minds. As Penn Jillette says in his Big Think video here, we must be extra skeptical when thinking about things that we want to be true.

“I am not an irretrievable skeptic. I am not hopelessly prejudiced. I am perfectly willing to believe, and my mind is wide open; but I have, as yet, to be convinced. I am perfectly willing, but the evidence must be sane and conclusive.” -Harry Houdini

Perhaps the most famous person that fits this magician/skeptic persona was the escape artist Harry Houdini. Houdini was a famous magician who became particularly interested in spiritualism and communication with the dead. He had a genuine curiosity into the idea of talking to the dead, and I think he represents a great balance of skepticism and openness. I think this space of balance, between believing and disbeliving, between knowing and not knowing, and ultimately between chaos and order, is the space a skeptic should be trying to swim in. This space can also be shown in the difference between the word skeptic and the word cynic. So although Houdini really wanted to believe, he had a career in fooling people and knew how easy it was. It seemed especially dishonest and unethical to convince people they were talking to dead relatives if in actuality they were not.

During the 1920s, he would send his assistant into séances undercover to try and expose fraudulent mediums. He found many frauds, one of which was the wife of famous writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As noted in this article, it seems as though Doyle was not as rational and investigative as his creation Sherlock Holmes. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Doyle believed in mediums, including his wife. Unfortunately Houdini showed Doyle’s wife to be a fraud as well. After she supposedly made contact with Houdini’s dead mother, Houdini revealed that his mother only spoke to him in German, and only called him by his real name, Erik.

It is also worth mentioning a current day ghost hunter who is following the tradition of Houdini. This is not one of the cheap ghost hunters on TV who uses fancy looking but misleading scientific instruments to claim they are seeing ghosts (ie pseudoscience not science). This man, named Joe Nickell, is a genuine ghost hunter and the senior research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (who publishes the journal Skeptical Inquirer). Although he hasn’t found any real ghosts, he has found many explanations for ghosts. These include carbon monoxide poisoning, mold poisoning, and electronics that emit infrasound. The infrasound is particularly interesting; it is sound below the threshold of human hearing, but it’s frequencies can cause the material of eye balls to vibrate resulting in shadows that flash through peoples vision (see resonant frequencies).

“When you say, ‘I don’t know,’ you cannot then draw a conclusion. That’s faulty logic.”— Joe Nickell

I liked getting to know Nickell’s work (check out his very recent blog post on demons here) because he seemed like he brought genuine curiosity to the task of ghost hunting. He warns of a concept known as skeptical burnout. This is when the sense of fun curiosity and openness is lost from a skeptic, and this is where he would say a skeptic becomes a cynic. But as the quote above warns, most ghost stories follow the logical fallacy of an argument from ignorance (Latin: argumentum ad ignorantiam). For ghost hunters, it means they found some mysterious phenomenon, and because they could not explain it rationally, they assert that it must be a ghost. They fill in the gap of ignorance with the conclusion they were seeking to reach.

“I had one proprietor of a struggling bed and breakfast tell me, ‘People want a ghost. I have to pay my bills. I’ll give them a ghost’.” -Joe Nickell

In order to honour the tradition of Houdini, in a very tongue in cheek way, Nickell conducts the annual Houdini séance each Halloween at the Centre for Inquiry.  You can hear these on the podcast Point of Inquiry.

  • Ghosts vs Santa and the Tooth Fairy

I don’t know of any adults who still hold onto the idea of Santa or the tooth fairy, yet almost one-third of Americans say that they believe in ghosts or spirits of some kind. There is no one singular version of what the paranormal would be, and there seems to be a lot of ghost hunting type evidence out there to support it…so why not believe in something? The main difference between ghosts and the tooth fairy is that there aren’t TV shows and movies that embed ideas of the tooth fairy into our culture. So to be fair it may seem like there is more reason to believe in ghosts and the afterlife. It might appear as though the ghost hunters are being scientific with their fancy instruments in those dark basements, but the evidence does not actually hold up to scientific scrutiny (hence the name pseudoscience). It may be fun to watch ghost shows and let our imaginations run wild, but at the end of the day there really is no more evidence for ghosts than for the tooth fairy.

“How can we find spiritual meaning in a scientific worldview? Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one’s place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond oneself. . . . Does scientific explanation of the world diminish its spiritual beauty? I think not. Science and spirituality are complementary, not conflicting; additive, not detractive. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality. Science does this in spades.”

-Michael Shermer

So why do people seem to innately find ghost stories intriguing? My best guess would be that it intersects with the most deeply mysterious and troubling aspect of being a human: death. Despite the many advances of science, it is still difficult for it to provide a truly comforting perspective on death. To be fair, science has definitely helped provide a view of human life that is more zoomed out and less self centered. In this sense we can see ourselves not as separate from nature but as part of its cycle; we temporarily stave off entropy throughout our life, and when our bodies give out entropy takes over and the energy contents of our body disperse back into nature. I personally find that pretty spiritual and fulfilling, and there are moments that I am totally content with that impermanent view of life (like when I watched this Veritasium video late one night). But there are also other moments where the fear of death can overpower my mostly rational and scientific mind. Although I may still be able to admit intellectually that death is real and final in these moments, emotionally I put it in a category of “shit to deal with later on”.

So I think acknowledging this difficulty is important if one wants to approach the topic of ghosts and the afterlife in a compassionate way. Although it may seem like a fun hobby or story telling adventure for people, I think that underneath this layer they are covering up the fear of death that sits deep in all of our minds. In this sense it is filling the same role that religion does for many people. This does not excuse the shotty science and muddy thinking of ghost believers, but it will help you to have better conversations with those who believe. And even though I do not personally believe in ghosts, I make sure to always keep at least some agnosticism on the issue.

And lastly, if you’re bored with ghosts, consider that Harry Houdini died in 1926 on Halloween. This can give you a nice juicy conspiracy theory for the next test of your scientific tool kit.

Thanks for reading!

Cheers 🍻 –Luke from Thunk Tank Podcast