Skip

Science of scams
May 16, 2014 8:36 AM   Subscribe


 
People are going to believe it even without the elaborate set-up. I heard people tell me they have ghosts in their house because they have not replaced the o-rings in their leaky faucets or have poor insulation and they have drafts.

It's like, a ghost has that power and it is going to be harmlessly platonic when it can get away with anything? Still, I have fun writing about hoaxes and cons...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 8:51 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


This is great. I love shit like this just as I love watching 'magic', which is why I wish Penn & Teller were the same great P&T they were 25 years ago and not the libertarian hacks they've morphed into today.
posted by item at 8:53 AM on May 16 [9 favorites]


I remember reading an interview with a magician once who said that one of the secrets of magic is taking advantage of the audience's unwillingness to believe that the magician has spent a tremendous amount of time engineering a very complicated sequence of events, when a simpler (magical) explanation is at hand. They choose Occam's razor every time, even if the simpler explanation is entirely implausible.

These videos are good demonstrations of the danger of Occam's razor. Take the one in which only the middle brick breaks. Here are two possible explanations: (1) The guy has some kind of special martial arts power that allows him to break only the middle brick; or (2) the middle brick was carefully prepared ahead of time, and the stack is carefully and deceptively set up and carefully shot in such a way as to hide that setup. (1) is the 'simpler' explanation, but (2) is in fact the more likely one.
posted by googly at 8:54 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


They choose Occam's razor every time, even if the simpler explanation is entirely implausible.

Except it's not the simpler explanation: the magical explanation assumes things from a vastly advanced realm have come all this way to mess with the minds of a less-powerful and evolved group of beings.

A mundane person setting up an optical illusion *is* the simpler explanation, but it is the less special and glamorous one and hence gets rejected...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 8:59 AM on May 16 [13 favorites]


They keep using the word "scam." A scam defrauds people of money. Are people paying money to see someone spin a straw on a bottle cap?
posted by Sys Rq at 9:05 AM on May 16


Now I have "ghost on film" stuck in my head to the tune of Duran Duran's 'Girls on FIlm.'

...or do I? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha
posted by univac at 9:06 AM on May 16 [19 favorites]


Occam's Razor tells us not to needlessly multiply hypotheses. But we do, in fact, need to go beyond "it's magic" because magic is not known to exist and fails to explain anything.

Occam's Razor doesn't say "only simple explanations can be correct"; it tells us that of two well-reasoned, well-documented explanations we should prefer the simpler. It never asks us to abandon a well-reasoned and well-documented explanation in favor of a purely speculative one because the speculative one sounds "simple."
posted by yoink at 9:15 AM on May 16 [20 favorites]


British people standing inside a rotating 3D cube.. Science or Scam??????
posted by Liquidwolf at 9:15 AM on May 16 [13 favorites]


People have an odd way of thinking about what is "simple". One big assumption often seems "simpler" than hundreds of small ones. Hence the situation googly described.

AlexandraKitty, I don't think people are necessarily looking for a special or glamorous description; I think they just get bored with details. "You mean the magician did this, then this, then that, and then .... Can I just call it 'magic' and be done?"
posted by benito.strauss at 9:15 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


"They keep using the word "scam." A scam defrauds people of money. Are people paying money to see someone spin a straw on a bottle cap?"
People are certainly paying in the hopes of learning how themselves, but at the deeper ends of the woo pool these tricks and ones like them are used to separate true believers from a lot more than just their money. Just go to any small liberal arts college full of impressionable and vulnerable young students and you'll find these fuckers.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:18 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


Speaking of Occam's Razor, I have a very close friend whom I love very much despite his tendencies to believe very strange and implausible things.

During one conversation/argument/shitshow, he said to me, "look, I know you're an Occam's Razor kind of guy, but I just don't believe in that."

In other words, if faced wtih two competing hypotheses, he will actively choose the craziest, most unlikely one. And he does, so he's consistent, I'll give him that.
posted by univac at 9:19 AM on May 16 [15 favorites]


Yeah, the ontological commitment involved in accepting magic is huge and tips Occam securely in favour of almost any other explanation.
posted by Segundus at 9:21 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


In other words, if faced wtih two competing hypotheses, he will actively choose the craziest, most unlikely one.

I call that Mom's Razor.
posted by Room 641-A at 9:25 AM on May 16 [31 favorites]


"They keep using the word "scam." A scam defrauds people of money. Are people paying money to see someone spin a straw on a bottle cap?"

Not exactly, but in general, yes. Where I live where most people no longer believe in things like the evil eye, curses, blessings, or have cows that can dry up unexpectedly, not so much except for a few bar bets. Belief in the supernatural has largely given way to understanding that are no wizards, witches, or demons causing harm to others. This has not always been the case, and in much of the world these beliefs still persist. For these people, who already believe in the supernatural, it is not so great a leap from "this person can do magic" to "if I give him/her money she can heal/harm/make magic potions/make me lucky." And as much as it depresses me, I know that within a half-hour's drive there are at least 3 storefront "psychics" working full-time, including one right across from a casino -- and as far as I'm concerned, anyone claiming to be a psychic, palm reader, fortune teller, etc, is a scam artist bilking the superstitious, even if they're not overtly scamming them by the traditional "cursed money" or other schemes.
posted by Blackanvil at 9:27 AM on May 16 [4 favorites]


This reminds me of the "snowball that wouldn't melt when put to flame" nonsense. You know, the fake snow that blanketed Atlanta. Chemtrails! Government conspiracies!

"Simple" answers of Occam's razor are not simple because magic and spirits, but in the succinctness of actual problem-solving. Including ghosts in an equation add a significant number of assumptions, thus making such solutions the more complex options.

In the case of the brick-breaker, how is it simpler to be a bad-ass martial artist? Such skill would theoretically take years to learn and master, whereas fancy camera work and editing can be done in a few hours.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:29 AM on May 16


Read the comments and see how effective this really is. People desire belief in magic for reasons other than an explanatory chain of cause and effect, and even if you show them how it's done in a single instance their desire for a magical world will trump any evidence you might show them to the contrary.

Cool videos though, it's always enjoyable to see how magic tricks are performed.
posted by codacorolla at 9:31 AM on May 16


Brickbreaking is such a dick move by instructors.

Certainly deception is a time honored component of martial prowess. But the guy with the storefront dojo pretending he can extend chi through bricks, knock people down from 20 feet away, etc. isn't Oda Nobunaga trying to keep himself and his men from getting killed, it's just ego. Or at best, trying to con his way to get students.

Plenty of other ways to do that as well. Bake the bricks (or boards). Difference of materials, etc.

It's irritating particularly since there are genuine methods behind the b.s. For example Kyokushin did historically train by hitting, and occasionally breaking, hard stuff. The idea being you'd get microfractures which would toughen your bones.
But more than that, they'd train to hit a mixture of hard and not so hard stuff, which taught them, more importantly, to respect that while their bones were tougher than average, they weren't unbreakable which taught them to target better and to not break a knuckle on someone's skull.

Which was a common occurance in full contact.

Also, lots made about Mas Oyama killing bulls, etc. because of the incredible power of his style. Whether he killed them or not (I wasn't there) you can kill certain kinds of cattle by striking them at a certain point on the forehead between the base of the horns.

Remember "No Country for Old Men"? The captive bolt pistol does the same thing a sledgehammer does, but with far less pressure needed because of its precision.
And there are videos of Mas delivering blows to the back of a bulls head near the ears where there is a separation between the big heavy skull and the spine.

Just technique. No magic to it. (I mean you'd think someone would ask: why cattle, specifically, why not knock out an elk or something) No technique for hand stunning elk. Work in a slaughterhouse, you learn how to hit bulls though.

It's such a pain to wade through the mystic b.s. "Chi" I've spoken of before. But when I was a kid I heard about "motion through moments" as though it was some sort of magical time stopping power. It's just focused attention and awareness.
Most people's minds are so clouded you do seem to be moving at superspeed if you're aware of what's going to occur just by paying close attention. Hell, you can even manufacture it. Most particularly if everyone else is angry or scared, etc. (one of the reasons samurai teaching was to harp on one's own death and dying by myriad processes, desensitization to danger so you think clearly and are not influenced by the massive adrenal hit).

And yet, people make this scam crap. That's the real mystery. Why someone would crap in their own drinking water just so someone else drinks it too. I mean, they're creating this atmosphere of deception. What, you're never going to get scammed though? Good luck finding an auto mechanic there Mr. Mysterious.

I talked to someone about Ouija boards a while back. They were trying to convince me this mystical thing happened. And I said yeah, y'know, the ideomotor effect is a fascinating thing and you can actually mess people up, fake them out, etc. and it looks a bit like the pretense people call Chi (a'la the no touch George Dillman knock out) but is the same sort of deal.
A real effect, but it's the mind disguising its operation and... no, no, it was a ghost, they said, using the power of the Ouja board.

The Oujia board made by Parker Brothers they sell at Target?

Yeah.

Now I get the self-deception involved in wanting to believe someone you care abouts ghost is trying to send you a message. But you'd think the logic would kick in when you consider how this, supposedly powerful supernatural object, is mass produced and sold cheaply at department stores.
You'd think it'd ruin the mystique.

Plenty of weird enough scientifically based stuff. Like Graphene or Gallium or Nitinol.
And it's not like you can pick up 10 gallons of perfluorocarbon at Wal-Mart.
Even given Ouja boards were at all conduits to some supernatural realm, you'd figure there'd be some regulation on selling stuff that can contact the dead.
(Not that the U.S. government hasn't been suckered)
posted by Smedleyman at 9:34 AM on May 16 [17 favorites]


Occam's razor is so inherently based on individual perspective that it's almost useless in the realm of pure logic, which is what nerds constantly try to use it for. Both sides would have to agree on the premises for it to work - but the sides don't agree, and simply restating "I'm right because I'm right" isn't very effective.

Real science is turtles-all-the-way-down and is complicated as fuck to the extent that only someone trained in a particular field has the capacity for determining which explanation, in that particular field, is truly simpler.

You can't force someone to understand 5 years worth of graduate research over the course of a single argument. Most of the nerd arguers don't have that understanding themselves - instead, they are just arguing based on what they read in a cracked.com article which assured the reader that "science says X."

Occams razor is only useful when you want to assure yourself that you are right. Otherwise, it's not very useful.
posted by rebent at 9:41 AM on May 16 [13 favorites]


I don't believe in magic / the supernatural / etc., but I also have no interest in reading about or watching a bunch of humorless killjoys debunking things all willy-nilly.

For me, the idea a world with both science and magic is more interesting to contemplate than one with science alone.

In other words, if faced wtih two competing hypotheses, he will actively choose the craziest, most unlikely one...

Yeah, I'm with that guy. It's just more fun that way.
posted by dersins at 9:43 AM on May 16


Debunking the ghost on film thing is pretty obvious and easy. What's the scientific explanation for the ghost phenomenon when people actually do see something?
posted by Liquidwolf at 9:47 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


It's like, a ghost has that power and it is going to be harmlessly platonic when it can get away with anything?

Oh, sure! I mean, I could throw bricks into every window i see, but i don't, because, well, it would just be a dick move. If I had phenomenal ectokinetic power, I imagine I'd probably just leave the toilet seat up or chase a cute cat around every once in a while.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:48 AM on May 16 [6 favorites]


I'll defend my use of Occam's razor in the following manner. Occam's razor can be defined as the statement that, 'among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but—in the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better.'

The principle of parsimony in explanation merely talks about the number of assumptions, not whether they are 'big' or 'small,' which is ultimately a relatively subjective judgment. Consider Penn and Teller's famous "Blast Off" demonstration. We can explain the trick either through one simple assumption: that Teller survived being cut into separate pieces. Or we can explain it by a complicated chain of assumptions: The boxes are specially prepared with false bottoms; the entire stage is prepared with false holes and trap doors; Teller has the speed and agility to slip from box to box by wriggling under the stage; and Penn and Teller have practiced this enough times to have the timing down perfectly.

I agree that the assumption that Teller is defying the laws of biology is 'big' in the sense that it is farfetched, but it is also simple in the sense that your brain does not have to work very hard to use it to explain the trick. But the assumption that P&T did all that careful preparation and practice is equally 'big' in the sense that you have to assume a long chain of events for it to be the correct explanation.

Think of it this way: if you believe in a universe that contains magic, telekinesis, esp, chi, and so forth, then you live in one in which seemingly impossible phenomena have extremely simple explanations that require few (if any) assumptions. Everyone else - the killjoys exposing the complicated but mundane trickery involved in these kinds of illusions - seems to be bending over backwards and piling up farfetched assumptions to prove their case.
posted by googly at 9:49 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]


If I had phenomenal ectokinetic power, I imagine I'd probably just leave the toilet seat up or chase a cute cat around every once in a while.

An entire world full of helpful ghosts putting the housekeys back on the hook and making sure all the hangers in the closet are turned the same way.
posted by griphus at 9:56 AM on May 16 [15 favorites]


rebent: Occams razor is only useful when you want to assure yourself that you are right. Otherwise, it's not very useful.

It's not useful when conducting experiements, it's pretty useful when you need to make a decision on the fly.
posted by spaltavian at 10:05 AM on May 16


Science (specifically radio broadcasting) was used to bring back the voices of the dead over here.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:06 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


(BP, I'm so glad you linked to Radio Spiritworld. One of my favorite satirical radio bits ever. Popper and Serafinowicz at their best.)
posted by mykescipark at 10:08 AM on May 16


> Over the past few months this hoax footage has been posted all over the internet in an attempt to find out if people
> would either accept it as genuine or question it in an attempt to discover the real truth.

Is it revealed in any of these UToob vids why they think that someone who doesn't make a big deal about calling out "fake" actually believes they've seen magic in action or have received messages from the Beyond or whatever? My Magic 8 Ball tells me that for every one (1) true believer, each paired with one (1) literal-minded know-all at the other end for whom the satisfaction of calling out "fake" is worth the trouble of the deed, there are 17.7 million (I have a very precise Magic 8 Ball) people who went "OK that was amusing, where do you want to eat?" Which involves no ontological commitment to magic whatever.

You know all those pix of cute kitties with funny comments attributed to them? I hate to be That Guy but I have to tell you those cats did not make those comments! And yet how often see even a single person calling out a single lolcat pic as fake? What a truly vast number of uncritical suckers there must be out there, right?
posted by jfuller at 10:13 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]


The Oujia board made by Parker Brothers they sell at Target?

Marketing, selling, and profiting from things is pretty much standard operating procedure for diabolical forces.

I'd assume that's true for any extant supernatural forces as well.

Also, the Target logo looks like the mark of the lidless eye.
posted by weston at 10:15 AM on May 16 [5 favorites]


Where I live where most people no longer believe in things like the evil eye, curses, blessings, or have cows that can dry up unexpectedly, not so much except for a few bar bets.

A book called Heaven Is For Real, wherein a child describes what the actual heaven he actually went to is like, is a New York Times best seller and being made into a movie. Every once in a while a new poll comes out confirming that most of America believes in angels. People are as superstitious as they ever were, just about slightly different things.

There's harmless folks who will tell you to pray to God, or who will put a pyramid on your head to channel your energy into the ether, and there's folks that will tell you either of these things will definitely cure cancer if you just give them some more money.

I was raised in a family where religion was nonsense, but auras and spirits and the evil eye were very real. The stuff I see as aspects of religion in contemporary society are really not very different at all. And I'm not saying that in a RELIGION IS FAKE TOO sort of way, because true believers are true believers, and whether that true belief is in the healing power of Christ or the healing power of Quartz, it can be used for both the betterment and detriment of people.
posted by griphus at 10:17 AM on May 16 [5 favorites]


"For me, the idea a world with both science and magic is more interesting to contemplate than one with science alone."
This is always a really dispiriting sentiment for me to come across because it demonstrates so clearly how much I and my colleagues have failed to adequately explain what is so fucking awe filled about the power of scientific process. The things displayed in these videos are just cheap tricks compared to our ability to look back in time and watch the very first moments of creation, add letters to the language of life, forge elements the universe may have never seen before, mix and match the the useful features of life's building blocks into crops to make them better, create a permanent presence in the heavens rapidly circling around us to serenade us with Bowie's songs, build weapons out of the power of the sun so existentially horrifying and powerful that they have forced us to choose between an end to the escalation of war and the total eternal annihilation of everything we are and love, build a box colder than anything the universe has ever seen before, cure bacterial disease by allying with the yet more powerful forces that cause disease in bacteria, or defeat viruses by ripping out their weak spots and displaying that part of their artfully mutilated corpses to the immune systems of our children so that they can be educated in advance. Virology and Immunology did what faith healer, Quartz crystal, or confidence man could do when it ended Smallpox with hard won arcane knowledge and the human will to do good. These are things that absolutely should produce a trembling awe that penetrates much deeper than anything a magician could hope to provide.

Every so often it hits me how what I can do with my lab bench makes me basically a fucking wizard with the ability to manipulate the foundations of life, even if I generally only use that power to break bacterial critters in specific ways so as to learn more about what the thing I broke does, and having been so hooked on the good stuff I can't imagine being satisfied by the vague spookiness of a weird draft or inexplicably spinning top or the same pale white girl with long hair or a hack trying to convince me that the dead only say what I think that I want to hear. How spiritually dead must one have to be to live in such compelling times and still think that shit is cool?
posted by Blasdelb at 10:40 AM on May 16 [61 favorites]


I agree with everyone else about people choosing to "believe" in magic when the alternative mundane explanation is sufficiently complicated.

What worries me is that it's not just magicians taking advantage of cognitive bias to provide entertainment; it's one of the principle tools of advertisers, politicians, and trial lawyers as well. When a scandal/pitch/policy/charge can be described/asserted using one sentence/slogan/soundbite, but requires several paragraphs to refute/oppose/debunk/defend? Unfortunately people are predisposed to choose the short, heavily repeated statement over the alternative, and top communications professionals are all too aware of this and are using it to manipulate us every day.
posted by ceribus peribus at 10:52 AM on May 16 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: An entire world full of helpful ghosts.
posted by mikurski at 10:56 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


A book called Heaven Is For Real, wherein a child describes what the actual heaven he actually went to is like, is a New York Times best seller and being made into a movie.

Been made. And it's grossed $75 million through last weekend.
posted by me3dia at 11:13 AM on May 16


How spiritually dead must one have to be to live in such compelling times and still think that shit is cool?

We can't all be as badical as Scientists I guess.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:18 AM on May 16 [8 favorites]


What's the scientific explanation for the ghost phenomenon when people actually do see something?

Cataracts, alcohol, stress, suggestibility (individual and mass), and a myriad other possibilities are pretty well documented science. "Dead thing wants to put the hinks up you", not so much.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:25 AM on May 16


It seems plausible to me; science has been documenting people putting the hinks up other people for centuries. And people have been dying pretty frequently, too. Put two and two together.
posted by Greg Nog at 11:28 AM on May 16 [11 favorites]


I don't know, I kind of like when, instead of just making fun of people who believe in something weird, science tries to figure out what might be going on.

I can't seem to find anything online, that may be lack of google fu (or lack of sleep atm) but my recollection is that, historically, there was a doctor who had a remarkable track record of sending patients for a syphilis test before any of the known symptoms were there. His patients routinely got an earlier than normal diagnosis. So they took two other doctors and stuck them in the room with this guy to try to figure out what he was seeing that he could not put his finger on well enough to tell you what it was but could recognize well enough to send these folks for further testing. This was how the eye flutter was discovered as an earlier symptom of syphilis.

Sort of similar (in my mind): Patton decided to push forward in WWII because he saw cart tracks and inferred the Germans were running low on fuel. He was a general. He could go "Cart tracks! I shall push forward hard!" without having to argue it with anyone, prove his inference was correct, etc. He had the power to act on what he suspected and it had a big impact on the outcome of the war.

But a lot of people can't do that. Sometimes, (like the above doctor) they can draw a conclusion but can't quite say why (other times, it is worse than that). Like Patton, he had sufficient authority to act on his conclusions and this helped provide evidence that he wasn't simply a loon, which helped spur further investigation and that led to new useful info.

But that is often not how it goes. I recall reading an anecdote about an elderly lady who kept complaining to relatives that she had "worms" in her head. After she died, the autopsy revealed a brain tumor (that, I guess, was similar in shape or something to worms?). But she was not taken seriously by anyone. Her observation (and complaints) was not expressed in an acceptable manner and was, thus, dismissed out of hand as irrelevant feedback. Until it (apparently) killed her.
posted by Michele in California at 11:29 AM on May 16 [4 favorites]


if i was a haint i would just touch butts a lot and also hide people's car keys and play with their cats
posted by elizardbits at 11:30 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]


so basically almost no difference from my life now
posted by elizardbits at 11:30 AM on May 16 [13 favorites]


I believe in one ghost, at least.... The Holy Ghost! [laughter, applause, freeze frame, credits]
posted by shakespeherian at 11:33 AM on May 16 [5 favorites]


If you're talking about Casper there is nothing holy about that neotenous monstrosity
posted by Greg Nog at 11:35 AM on May 16 [9 favorites]


as with scooby-doo, that is just an old white man under a sheet with an agenda
posted by elizardbits at 11:35 AM on May 16 [7 favorites]


If I was a ghost I would definitely do that thing where you walk around with your head under your arms.
posted by marienbad at 11:35 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


What's the scientific explanation for the ghost phenomenon when people actually do see something?

Cataracts, alcohol, stress, suggestibility (individual and mass), and a myriad other possibilities are pretty well documented science. "Dead thing wants to put the hinks up you", not so much.


Or some other phenomenon that science has yet to understand.
posted by Liquidwolf at 11:40 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


Or some other phenomenon that science has yet to understand.

Sure, yep, but I have yet to hear a haunting/visitation account that sounds likely to be that, though that's arguably a failure of imagination on my part.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:47 AM on May 16


Well if it doesn't fit in the other categories you listed and it's not actually dead people then it seems like it's something that has yet to be measured by Science. An uncommon hallucination or experience in altered perception maybe caused by magnetism or who knows what. Dismissing it as a result of stress or being drunk when it clearly is not in many cases, is a failure to pursue the phenomenon and try to understand it.
posted by Liquidwolf at 11:57 AM on May 16 [1 favorite]


I'm not big on superstition, which is lucky because there's possibly an ancient curse in my distant family history and some recent events that would probably give a more superstitious type the heebie-jeebies.

And a big part of why I'm not superstitious as an adult is because at so many points growing up, I found it impossible to ignore how obviously most of the "magical" or "supernatural" experiences people around me were having were experiences those people so clearly desperately wanted to have and would believe were significant on the flimsiest of pretexts.

Messing around with Ouija boards and sneaking into old abandoned houses and graveyards as a kid, there was always this barely concealed desperation to see something that couldn't be explained among my peers. At first I felt the allure too, but overtime, I couldn't get past how desperate it always felt in the end. I never understood the desperation. From my point of view, most of the seemingly mundane stuff in life doesn't really have satisfactory or complete explanations yet, and there are plenty of endlessly fascinating mysteries hidden right there in plain sight all around us.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:03 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


Ghosts as a single phenomenon probably don't have an omnibus explanation. What is likely happening is that there are many, many phenomenon that occur leading to similar results (the experience of an un-earthly humanoid presence) and because our cultural logic has a category of "ghost" they all get lumped in there.
posted by codacorolla at 12:09 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


I think Neil Tyson said it best: if you want the currently unexplained to be magical, then you're accepting that "magic" is an ever-shrinking frontier, as science continues to figure things out.

So many people take "I can't explain that" and infer no one can explain it. And, even in cases when no one can (at the present time), the assumption that this will always be the case is incredibly flawed — as history will easily illustrate.
posted by Dark Messiah at 12:18 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


Also, as Blaseldb noted, the universe — as understood through the lens of science — is way more interesting and awe inspiring than "a wizard / ghost / whatever did it."
posted by Dark Messiah at 12:19 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


as with scooby-doo, that is just an old white man under a sheet with an agenda

It's been well established that Casper is just Richie Rich trying to scam you.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:24 PM on May 16


as with scooby-doo, that is just an old white man under a sheet with an agenda

Not All Ghosts
posted by shakespeherian at 12:26 PM on May 16 [11 favorites]


the universe — as understood through the lens of science — is way more interesting and awe inspiring than "a wizard / ghost / whatever did it."

it's cool if you believe this, but in my opinion, nah. Facts are way less beautiful than fiction. You can have all my myths but you can't make me think that makes the world more fun. And that goes for Neal DeGrasse Tyson too. Your Cosmos is boring and doesn't have any flying pyramids.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:26 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


Ghosts as a single phenomenon probably don't have an omnibus explanation. What is likely happening is that there are many, many phenomenon that occur leading to similar results (the experience of an un-earthly humanoid presence) and because our cultural logic has a category of "ghost" they all get lumped in there.

And in fact, stage magicians often take advantage of a similar principle, doing what appears to be the same thing in several different ways, and taking actions that "disprove" whichever method they aren't using at the time. People trying to pin the trick on a single explanation will invariably fail because there isn't a single explanation that accounts for all of the cases. So "levitation" is what they have to fall back to, because "wires" and "mirrors" have been demonstrated as not the case by the magician - when in fact it was mirrors the first time, when he showed that it wasn't wires, and wires the second time, when he showed it wasn't mirrors.
posted by NMcCoy at 12:27 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]


Some things that seem to beg for explanation, too, really don't need explaining. My story, for example: I spent 10 years creatively obsessing over the "Faust" myth. My wife and I released a concept album named "Faust" with our band Tangemeenie and I spent the next 10 years on-and-off working on trying to tell the story of the concept behind the album. One night while taking a break from writing what had now evolved into a full-blown novel, I was casually searching genealogy forums (a habit I picked up from my grandmother before she died, as I've discussed here before) and made the shocking discovery that the missing family link my grandmother had been looking for turned out to connect me directly to the "Faust" family name, a connection I'd been completely unaware of (at least, consciously) before I made the discovery, more than a decade after becoming creatively obsessed with telling my own version of the "Faust" story.

My take away after the initial shock of discovery and residual supernatural panic subsided? The universe and its natural laws can create beautiful stories and dazzling connections among things that are amazing enough to keep me happy completely in the absence of supernatural interpretations or explanations.
posted by saulgoodman at 12:30 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


There is a SHITLOAD of misinformation about Occam's Razor being replicated in this thread, which leads to completely wrong statements like
Occam's razor is so inherently based on individual perspective that it's almost useless in the realm of pure logic
and
They choose Occam's razor every time, even if the simpler explanation is entirely implausible
and
Occams razor is only useful when you want to assure yourself that you are right. Otherwise, it's not very useful.
and
It's not useful when conducting experiements, it's pretty useful when you need to make a decision on the fly.
(God, that last statement is so wrong it wraps around itself and outwrongs its own self on the flyby.)

Yoink and googly* are among the few who are using the actual definition of Occam's Razor:
It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but—in the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better. (This is simply a longer quote of googly's link.) The actual quote is "entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem" (entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity).

"Simple" isn't what it's about - that's a dumbed-down explanation of it, for people who don't like too many words in their definitions. But "simple" is not the point.

Which of these requires fewer assumptions?
"Someone planned an optical illusion or video manipulation to fool us."
"There's magic, and this is totally proof of magic!"

One of them is known by everyone on earth (except Room 641-A's mom) to happen regularly. The only assumption required is that this very common event happened in this particular case, too.

The other runs counter to modern understandings of physics, math, and reality, and if true, will require rewriting literally millions of textbooks on math, physics, chemistry, social studies - basically every field except art and (some) religion.

* Well-named.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:32 PM on May 16 [9 favorites]


A liked quite a few things about the videos, not the least of which is the science explanations were done by a woman of color! Also, now I have more "kabbalistic" party tricks. (I once bowled with an unathletic and legally blind female rabbi who nonetheless won almost every set. She claimed it was her kabbalistic powers guiding the ball to the pins. Turns out she had grown up bowling every rainy weekend at the very alley we were in.)
posted by Dreidl at 12:38 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]


Your Cosmos is boring and doesn't have any flying pyramids.

Ugh I really hate when people make gleefully unscientific and intellectually lazy assertions like this. There's no such thing as "flying pyramids," and there never has. Everything we know about ancient Egyptian engineering and our contemporary grasp of physics has completely disproved the idea that pyramids could "fly."

A pyramid's basic shape funnels energy upward from the earth and downward from the heavens, with one cancelling the other out at the center of the structure. Nothing about that effect can make a pyramid lift off the ground or "hover" or "fly" or any such thing. Rather the energy stasis field created cements the pyramid in local spacetime. What looks like like movement on behalf of the pyramid is simply the standard rotational motion of the Earth about its axis, and its orbit around the sun. The pyramid stays still: everything else moves.

Of course, the ancient Egyptians put energy dampers on the pyramids to keep them from flying away (or, worse, into) the planet at 1000 MPH every time the Pharaoh needed to utilize pyramid power. There was one contained in the Queen's chamber in the Great Pyramid of Giza, but I think everyone knows what happened to that artifact.

The Sphinx though? That fucker totally flies.
posted by griphus at 12:38 PM on May 16 [22 favorites]


it's cool if you believe this, but in my opinion, nah. Facts are way less beautiful than fiction. You can have all my myths but you can't make me think that makes the world more fun. And that goes for Neal DeGrasse Tyson too. Your Cosmos is boring and doesn't have any flying pyramids.

I hear what you're saying and I agree to some extent. But I don't think it has to be only one way or the other. It seems to me that the more science discovers the broader the horizons of possibilities become. So maybe those flying pyramids are out there- why not?
"The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine." -J. B. S. Haldane
posted by Liquidwolf at 12:40 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


Beeteedubs, hallucinations are very common.
posted by P.o.B. at 12:52 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


it's cool if you believe this, but in my opinion, nah. Facts are way less beautiful than fiction.

As long as we're correctly distinguishing between fact and fiction, I can't find fault with this.

I enjoy all sorts of fiction, I just get unhinged when it's used in place of facts.
posted by Dark Messiah at 1:00 PM on May 16 [9 favorites]


I must admit I thought it was kind of funny they couldn't pull off a convincing middle brick break without using unnecessary cheats. In fact, breaking a middle brick is easier without spacers to maximize compression between the top and bottom bricks. If you hit it right it breaks for the same reason that middle crackers break when top ones don't after you drop them. It's not magic, but apparently they don't have the physics of it down either.
posted by mobunited at 1:04 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


If I had phenomenal ectokinetic power, I imagine I'd probably just leave the toilet seat up or chase a cute cat around every once in a while.

My impression from your Twitter is that you pretty much do the latter anyway.
posted by maryr at 1:07 PM on May 16


Also, we had a toilet ghost growing up. It would occasionally, while the entire household was seated at dinner, flush the toilet. Very thoughtful, really.
posted by maryr at 1:08 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]


Maybe it was the ghost of dinners past.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:09 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]


Being a ghost would be pretty tiresome, what with constantly walking in on people masturbating.

"I know they can't see me, but the unflinching eye contact is jarring." #AetherWorldProblems
posted by Dark Messiah at 1:57 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


This is going to be unpopular here, but I am more open than most to the theories of various "supernatural" phenomena because the quest of science has not ended yet. We understand nature more and more, bit by bit, and this knowledge of science shapes our worldview.

Think about it this way--almost everyone lives in a Newtonian world of physics, the world that we can understand. But we are really living in an Einsteinian/quantum world, where the physics is often counter intuitive and flat-out impossible to imagine. Like a kind of nesting, or Venn diagram. The Newton world is the inner circle completely surrounded by the Einstein circle. So my question is, what's outside the Einstein circle?

In time, we may ditch the Einstein/quantum paradigm for something more. But it's more than we can handle now. It seems logical to me that there may be phenomena that we can't observe well at our current level of technology.
posted by zardoz at 1:59 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


Being a ghost would be pretty tiresome, what with constantly walking in on people masturbating.

Okay, this is just silly. Science has never proven masturbation exists. It is, if anything, merely light reflecting off of oddly-moving clouds that tend to congregate around the groin region.
posted by Greg Nog at 2:06 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]



In time, we may ditch the Einstein/quantum paradigm for something more. But it's more than we can handle now. It seems logical to me that there may be phenomena that we can't observe well at our current level of technology.


That's exactly what I was saying above.
posted by Liquidwolf at 2:08 PM on May 16


But we are really living in an Einsteinian/quantum world

Unfortunately, I lack of the vocabulary to articulate why this is incorrect. We, humans, do not directly interact with the laws of quantum mechanics.
posted by Dark Messiah at 2:09 PM on May 16


"It seems logical to me that there may be phenomena that we can't observe well at our current level of technology."

I fully agree.

... except I am also of the opinion that since I'm not Head Scientist in Charge of Observation (or to be less flip, "since I'm not directly involved in any branch of the sciences that may possibly help reveal said phenomena") I'm pretty uninterested in speculating on them. I don't care about ghost stories, claims of telepathy, extraterrestrial contact, etc. until such time as they can be even remotely proven to exist.

The day that I can get a huge batch of Actual Scientists to say, "Look, here's our peer-reviewed paper on Entrance to the Spirit World" then I'm going to so be all. about. visiting the Spirit World. I'll be first in line, maybe even if it involves blood sacrifice.

all of which is fine, I guess ... except for the fact that the "we don't know what we don't know!" line tends to lead people to take pictures in dusty rooms and start talking about Spirit Orbs and refusing to listen to rational discussion about what might actually be happening. Drives me NUTS. I know we don't know what we don't know, but that doesn't excuse willful ignorance.

I think I'd be more frequently outraged if it weren't for James Randi and his willingness to throw actual money at anyone who can conclusively prove their strange powers. Watching people walk circles around their excuses for being unable to perform their telekinetic tricks on command just because a camera is watching gives me great pleasure.
posted by komara at 2:13 PM on May 16 [6 favorites]


I guess I likely misunderstood the comment I replied to. I am now assuming it was meant to mean "we live in a world where quantum mechanics, as weird and non-intuitive as they are, exist." If so, pardon me.
posted by Dark Messiah at 2:15 PM on May 16


I don't care about ghost stories, claims of telepathy, extraterrestrial contact, etc. until such time as they can be even remotely proven to exist.

Well I don't know what sort of evidence you require but Russell Targ accumulated a vast amount of what could be called evidence for the phenomenon of Remote Viewing while working on the CIA's Remote Viewing program . The successful results were far beyond chance, enough for the CIA to keep pouring money into it. But it doesn't fit the current model for measurable science so it's dismissed out of hand. I'm not talking about specious stuff here I'm talking about experiments that were conducted under scientific standards.

(now let me put on some armor before people start hurling bricks at me for bringing this up)
posted by Liquidwolf at 2:27 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


"The successful results were far beyond chance"

Then someone should take that method over to James Randi and make a quick million. I'm left to wonder why they haven't.
posted by komara at 2:31 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


what's outside the Einstein circle

Haints, surely.
posted by elizardbits at 2:35 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]



Then someone should take that method over to James Randi and make a quick million. I'm left to wonder why they haven't.


Because James Randi is full of shit. He wouldn't shell out that money for anything. He's just playing an ideological game. I'm sure Russell Targ wouldn't be interested in engaging with that.
posted by Liquidwolf at 2:36 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


"Watching people walk circles around their excuses for being unable to perform their telekinetic tricks on command just because a camera is watching gives me great pleasure."
posted by komara at 2:37 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]


...except for the fact that the "we don't know what we don't know!" line tends to lead people to take pictures in dusty rooms and start talking about Spirit Orbs and refusing to listen to rational discussion about what might actually be happening. Drives me NUTS. I know we don't know what we don't know, but that doesn't excuse willful ignorance.

Right. And that is likely the majority of folks who are True Believers. But that stubbornness can work on the flip side of the coin, when those claiming to be skeptical are actually just debunking evidence reflexively. For example lines like "it's just swamp gas" or "it's just ball lightning" have become jokes themselves because of their knee-jerk overuse.

Science needs input and observation, so when that input is denied, progress stops.
posted by zardoz at 2:39 PM on May 16


"when those claiming to be skeptical are actually just debunking evidence reflexively"

When the burden of proof is on the claimant and time and again there's no proof presented then it's easy to get a little dismissive.

People have been crying wolf (or "Ghost!") about the unexplained since ... well, since there were people. We've transitioned from shamans to scientists and are no closer to explaining what people think they have seen or even proving that it's happened.

Just because I'm happy to instantly dismiss any ghost story that doesn't come with photographic evidence from three directions + two impartial observers and a bunch of other data besides doesn't mean that there aren't people out there still desperately trying to observe phenomena, operating in good faith and with strict scientific methods.

Me automatically disbelieving a ghost story isn't stopping progress.
posted by komara at 2:49 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


"We can't all be as badical as Scientists I guess."
Bullshit.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:54 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


I blame ghosts on fairies just fucking with people. Same thing with alien abduction, demon possession, psychic phenomena, and angels. It's all just the damn fae playing pranks and making us think there's lots of supernatural stuff instead of one thing.
posted by The World's End at 3:14 PM on May 16


I don't see any courses there explaining the science behind having one presenter look at something about 6 yards back and to the left of the camera, while having the other presenter make direct eye contact with it. Looks like science fails! I now believe in crystal energy, channeling, and trans-dimensional skunk apes.
posted by Panjandrum at 3:15 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


Seeing, funny thing.

A computer made mostly of fat trying to reconstruct a 3D world based on the noisy data from a 2D array of a quarter billion 1-bit photo detectors. So many "assumptions" are made by the visual cortex, assumptions informed by millions of years of evolution on this world and the few decades of the individuals experience, before you are even aware that you are seeing that you can literally not trust your eyes.

If one can see a human body in a few lines drawn by Picasso, I am not surprised people can see ghost everywhere.
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 3:21 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]


Because James Randi is full of shit. He wouldn't shell out that money for anything. He's just playing an ideological game. I'm sure Russell Targ wouldn't be interested in engaging with that.

I'm reminded of a Tim Minchin bit, here: "Do you know what they call alternative medicine that's been proved to work? Medicine."

Poked around about Russell Targ, and I found that he offers training in ESP. There's - get this - an app for it.

So... where's our budding psychic population? Where's Xavier's Mansion? Where's PsiCorps?

The thing about legitimate advances in our understanding of the universe is that while one lone wolf with a good idea can shake the foundations of the Earth... well, after that? Those ideas are spread, refined by new people and monetized. Progress happens because other people want in on the action and bring their own spin to it.

I don't see any such thing, there.

I'm also not sure what's up with the James Randi hate - a real psychic with any sense of civic responsibility would be just as interested in debunking scam artists as someone who doesn't believe in the supernatural. I mean, I'm pretty sure we can all agree, be we atheist, theist, unicorn, vampire or spoon bender that defrauding people is bad, right?

Also:
Me automatically disbelieving a ghost story isn't stopping progress.

This, so much this. People have been looking for ghosts since prehistory. Pretty sure nobody's going to stop just because a lot of us think it's pointless. If there's anything to be found, it'll turn up sooner or later. And, again, be spread, refined upon and monetized.
posted by mordax at 3:26 PM on May 16 [6 favorites]


Bullshit.

Does that mean you're NOT special?
posted by shakespeherian at 3:31 PM on May 16


The concept of Chi in martial arts is a useful one as long as it is not taken literally outside the context of practice and application. There is of course no actual magic sauce flowing through us... rather it's probably better to think of controlling and directing chi as a way to describe the conscious experience of achieving something closer to maximum efficiency of action through improving alignment of the body as well as targeted relaxation of mind and muscles. Most of us are fighting ourselves a lot more than we know when sparring or doing katas. When we try to project force we use all muscles including the ones opposing the move we're executing rather than just the ones actually involved in the move. This can be due to lack of experience but also due to fear of impact and general lack of confidence in a successful outcome, even if not conscious. It is sometimes said that one of the most difficult things to do in martial arts is to teach beginners to actually hit something as hard as they can.

Similarly as you learn to stop straining your own muscles and leverage body mechanics as well as the movement of an opponent instead you can easily have the experience of controlling and directing Chi-like power as it would seem that you're achieving great effect without leveraging much in terms of raw muscle based strength. But again, this requires getting over your own fears and learning to optimize the use of your own body. When attacked someone who is untrained will likely respond by stiffening up and tensing a lot of muscles which makes it hard and strenuous to move and turns you into an unstable semi-rigid object easily manipulated by your opponent.

Now the problem is that it's quite hard to overcome these responses and retrain yourself to relax and control your movements instead. This is where the concept of Chi becomes very useful. You can leverage your ability to believe in something as a powerful psychological tool. If you believe for Chi to be real and available to you for use then you have less to worry about and your can put some of your subconscious fears to rest. The net result is that you're more likely to relax and less likely to get into your own way. I don't know why our minds work this way but utilizing our capacity to believe things can affect our state of mind and in turn the state of our bodies in useful ways.

The problem is when you go beyond the psychological power of faith as a tool to manage your mind and start ascribing tangible reality to the objects of your faith. That's a trap to avoid. (Though sometimes that trap is itself used as a teaching tool particularly in Chan/Zen Buddhism.)

All that said... in our particular training we spend a lot of time conditioning our bodies with a lot of real stuff including rocks, trees, metal, etc. We generally interact with natural items rather than fabricated ones. A wooden post will never fight back as hard as a live tree... there is nothing quite like that subtle bounce of a tree returning the favor of getting hit hard. (side note: tree trunks thicker than about a foot are generally too stiff and react just like a well anchored wooden post, meaning not at all). We also have things broken on us. There is really two kinds of this type of practice.

One is set up to be harmless once you think about it. The purpose here is to deal with fear. Knowing that smashing concrete on your head with a hammer is actually not very dangerous is one thing. Actually learning to let go of your fear about exposing your head to a hammer blow is a very different thing altogether. We are afraid of a lot of things we need not be afraid of. This is one way of teaching that lesson. Pretending there is some sort of magic going on is of course irresponsible. But explaining what's going on before allowing the experience to occur may reduce the impact of the lesson. Better to enter into the experience with real fear and emerge from it with some understanding of how fear affects us.

The other is not set up to be harmless but is about conditioning. Smedlyman mentioned microfractures etc. I have had sticks broken on me and broken sticks on others. Real continuous sticks made from single branches, not glued together stuff from Home Depot. Some with grain twisted enough to prevent breakage on the first strike. Yeah, when a stick does break most of the energy is used up in the fracturing but when it doesn't break, well... severe bruising is something I'm quite familiar with at this point. But it's about slowly strengthening bone, learning to handle pain and training your mind to retain control where others would succumb to the adrenalin rush, as has been pointed out before.

The conditioning is certainly efficient. It's been somewhat costly for me actually. Never allow me to assemble your furniture. A number of times "tapping" pieces together while distracted has resulted in the need to purchase replacement parts.

In conclusion/TLDR:
1. Chi is, of course, not real but the effects of believing in Chi can be significant.
2. Sometimes breaking things isn't about breaking things but either for showing off (fake/bad) or for teaching a lesson about fear (mental fakeout/good)
3. Sometimes breaking things is about actually breaking things and not fake at all. But also dangerous. Do not try at home.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 3:45 PM on May 16 [11 favorites]


Just because I'm happy to instantly dismiss any ghost story that doesn't come with photographic evidence from three directions + two impartial observers and a bunch of other data besides doesn't mean that there aren't people out there still desperately trying to observe phenomena, operating in good faith and with strict scientific methods.

Me automatically disbelieving a ghost story isn't stopping progress.


I agree with all of that. But regarding my earlier comment, regarding the Newtonian world vs the Einsteinian world (and whatever is beyond that), what if ghosts actually exist. A perfectly explainable scientific phenomenon, but one that our means of observing them is currently insufficient. In other words, maybe we don't have the tech to properly observe ghosts. But little blips and bleeps here and there, which are easily dismissed, but perhaps are something real and measurable, if imperfectly. It's an incomplete measurement, and therefore debunked without further investigation.

A rough analogy would be the existence of gorillas, which was basically the first cryptid: a mythical monster allegedly existing in the forests of Africa. For hundreds of years there was anecdotal evidence, but skeptics just scoffed: where is the proof? And it was dropped. Of course, in hindsight we look back and say that it was only a matter of time, but to the debunker, then, the non-existence of gorillas was the clearly correct reality, when the opposite was the case. It wasn't until the mid 19th century that an explorer brought back some skulls to be studied. Until then, though, a kind of limbo existed. Just maybe we're in the midst of the same kind of limbo in regards to any number of phenomena we lump together as "supernatural."
posted by zardoz at 4:06 PM on May 16


For hundreds of years there was anecdotal evidence, but skeptics just scoffed: where is the proof?

The problem with this analogy is that proof was actually found, and tested. We're no closer to proving the existence of ghosts than before, despite incredible breakthroughs in measuring and detecting things beyond our primitive senses.

It is impossible to prove a negative, such as "ghosts do not exist." That said, the default judgment is, lacking any meaningful proof, they do not. When someone brings tangible proof to the table, then the discussion can begin.

Is there a chance ghosts exists? Sure, just not enough of a chance that I'm going to lose sleep over not entertaining far-fetched stories without sufficient evidence to support their assertion.

We found evidence of gorillas, including the animals themselves. Sasquatch remains undiscovered; I have no problem discounting claims that it (they?) exist given our current understanding.
posted by Dark Messiah at 4:21 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]


More to the point: I would rather live in a world where serious efforts were required to prove gorillas exist, rather than a world where assuming they exist was sufficient.

Debunking, if done in earnest, keeps us all honest. It's important.
posted by Dark Messiah at 4:29 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]



Poked around about Russell Targ, and I found that he offers training in ESP. There's - get this - an app for it.


Yep. Its just a free app, sort of a fun guessing game thing.


So... where's our budding psychic population? Where's Xavier's Mansion? Where's PsiCorps?


Those are Hollywood movies. They're not real. None if it has anything to do with the real research. Straw man argument there.

I'm not trying to convince anyone of anything. I'm healthily skeptical of things too, but I'm not closed to possible evidence just because of the subject matter.
posted by Liquidwolf at 4:38 PM on May 16


Dark Messiah, I agree with you. The problem I have is that many people who call themselves "skeptics" are not actually skeptical. They are more like anti-believers. In other words, they tend to not say "We lack sufficient evidence to prove whether or not Bigfoot exists." Instead, they say "Bigfoot DOES NOT EXIST (and, oh, by the way, you are a moron for thinking he might)".

And I am trying to use the least controversial example I can think of because, presumably, if Bigfoot exists then it is likely just another shy animal, kind of like mountain gorillas. So hopefully that is not all super woo and thus hopefully not reason to start a shitshow.
posted by Michele in California at 4:40 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


The problem I have is that many people who call themselves "skeptics" are not actually skeptical. They are more like anti-believers.

On that, I agree. But that's a different problem altogether. If one cannot entertain the notion that they could be wrong, they're not a skeptic, they're just another take on the same problem. (Or, in less kind terms, an obstinate ass, as I tweeted today.)
posted by Dark Messiah at 4:47 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


Not to blame the victim, but there appears to be a large group of people who are just waiting for the right supernatural solution to their problems. So when the next smooth presenter comes along with an explanation for what ails them, they just jump on board. I know some smart, well-educated folks who believe in a wide variety of scammy nonsense, most of which isn't even supernatural. The supernatural stuff just lays the groundwork - if you're able to believe in ghostly explanations, you might be uncritical enough to buy Large Group Awareness Training, or this week's alternative medicine fad. (I'm not totally against AM, but much of it is less than honest, imo.)

The Heaven is Real movie mentioned above is a good example. There are lots of people around with vaguely Christian upbringings who haven't been bothered to go to church for a long time; I bet there are quite a few who will say, "There's a movie about a kid who went to heaven? Well, that proves it." It's the kind of - maybe accidental - religious propaganda that makes people more susceptible to a range of nonsense explanations.

I'm sympathetic to the view that we should at least keep the door open to the widest possible range of explanations, but that has to be balanced by a good education system that provides a solid grounding in critical thinking, regardless of socio-economic status. Otherwise, Idiocracy.
posted by sneebler at 5:39 PM on May 16


what if ghosts actually exist

Then who cares, and why?
posted by Sys Rq at 6:23 PM on May 16


It would explain why my socks vanish.

Tiny naked ghosts get cold, too.
posted by winna at 6:52 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


what if ghosts actually exist

Then who cares, and why?


Maybe we can harness ghosts for power. Or sell them consumer electronics. Or hire them as spies.

If ghosts were real, it could profound effects on our entire economic system!
posted by aubilenon at 8:03 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


Russell Targ accumulated a vast amount of what could be called evidence for the phenomenon of Remote Viewing

"Evidence" which was debunked fairly quickly.

To quote the most easily found of sources (Russell Targ's Wikipedia page):
"The psychologists David Marks and Richard Kammann attempted to replicate Targ and Puthoff’s remote viewing experiments. In a series of thirty-five studies, they were unable to replicate the results so they investigated the procedure of the original experiments. Marks and Kammann discovered that the notes given to the judges in Targ and Puthoff's experiments contained clues as to which order they were carried out, such as referring to yesterday's two targets, or they had the date of the session written at the top of the page. They concluded that these clues were the reason for the experiment's high hit rates.[25][26]

Terence Hines has written:
"Examination of the few actual transcripts published by Targ and Puthoff show that just such clues were present. To find out if the unpublished transcripts contained cues, Marks and Kammann wrote to Targ and Puthoff requesting copies. It is almost unheard of for a scientist to refuse to provide his data for independent examination when asked, but Targ and Puthoff consistently refused to allow Marks and Kammann to see copies of the transcripts. Marks and Kammann were, however, able to obtain copies of the transcripts from the judge who used them. The transcripts were found to contain a wealth of cues.[27]"

It was revealed that subjects were able to match the transcripts to the correct locations using only the cues provided. When these cues were eliminated the results fell to a chance level.[28][29] Marks was able to achieve 100 percent accuracy without visiting any of the sites himself but by using cues.[n 1]"
posted by soundguy99 at 9:06 PM on May 16 [8 favorites]


it's cool if you believe this, but in my opinion, nah. Facts are way less beautiful than fiction. You can have all my myths but you can't make me think that makes the world more fun. And that goes for Neal DeGrasse Tyson too. Your Cosmos is boring and doesn't have any flying pyramids.

No?
posted by jamjam at 9:35 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


what if ghosts actually exist

Then who cares, and why?


Huh? If there were scientific proof of ghosts, it would be the biggest story since forever. "Who cares?" makes no sense to me...could you elaborate on this indifference of yours?
posted by zardoz at 9:40 PM on May 16


what if ghosts actually exist

Then who cares, and why?

Maybe we can harness ghosts for power. Or sell them consumer electronics. Or hire them as spies.

If ghosts were real, it could profound effects on our entire economic system!

The franchise rights alone could make us rich beyond our wildest dreams!
posted by Brainy at 3:50 AM on May 17


Huh? If there were scientific proof of ghosts, it would be the biggest story since forever. "Who cares?" makes no sense to me...could you elaborate on this indifference of yours?

If ghosts were found to exist (which, I assure you, they absolutely do not at all), it would mean ghosts have always existed, and their existence throughout eternity has had no effect on anything whatsoever. The existence of ghosts could hardly matter less.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:23 AM on May 17 [4 favorites]


Counterpoint: Hamlet
posted by shakespeherian at 7:37 AM on May 17 [2 favorites]


I'm sure Russell Targ wouldn't be interested in engaging with that.

He has time to fret this much over his wikipedia page, he has time for JREF.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:55 AM on May 17


Not to blame the victim, but there appears to be a large group of people who are just waiting for the right supernatural solution to their problems.

See, I think part of why this happens is because the overwhelming majority of "science-y"/"skeptical" people paint people into an impossible corner where either you are normal and don't have weird experiences, or you are just a nutter. And if you are having weird experiences and don't have a good (scientific) explanation for them, being told you are merely nuts and this thing that is happening it not really happening, you just hallucinated it, is not a constructive experience. It does not give you a path forward on how to relate in a healthy fashion to this weird thing that keeps happening even though you honest to god wish it wouldn't.

Years ago, on an email list for parents of gifted kids, someone asked in all seriousness about "woo" experiences with gifted kids. She did not mean "supernatural." She was not talking about ghosts. She was talking about "I have this really bright kid and sometimes they do something and I have no real explanation for it and it just makes me go Woo!" There was an extremely constructive discussion on that list at that time providing some good insight into how a bright kid might do some things that weird out the parents without having to call it "Indigo child,' "Old Soul" and other mystical whatever. (I actually believe in reincarnation and such, so I am trying super hard to not say something dismissive and insulting like "mystical nonsense" but a lot of it does feel to me like nonsense. This is just a hard topic to address in a constructive fashion. So I am struggling here.)

Anyway, it was a good discussion and some folks wanted to start a list specifically for discussing more of that and I agreed to be a co-founder and moderator. Unfortunately, the minute we left the larger group, the people who signed up for the new list were all the folks who Wanted To Believe. Discussion on list rapidly devolved into the kind of thing I hate, which you are critiquing above, of actively looking for confirmation that this was psychic (or whatever) and not looking for other ways someone might "know" this information when it was not baldly stated (ie inference, clues, context, etc a la this comment).

So I have a lot of sympathy for the folks who decide "it's werewolves and vampires and a family curse" because validation that something happened is generally less crazy-making than being told "Nope, you had no such experience. Never happened. Duh. Only an idiot or lunatic would believe you had that experience." And it seems nearly impossible to get the woo folks and the science-y folks together on even footing and have a really meaty, unbiased discussion using serious critical thinking. That seems to be a super rare occurrence. Most of the time, you can either get some validation from the "weirdos" that something happened or you can be just shit on by the anti-believers who think they are more scientific than they really are. Basically.
posted by Michele in California at 10:39 AM on May 17 [5 favorites]


(now let me put on some armor before people start hurling bricks at me for bringing this up)

Is pity made out of bricks?
posted by obiwanwasabi at 9:06 PM on May 17 [1 favorite]


If ghosts were found to exist (which, I assure you, they absolutely do not at all), it would mean ghosts have always existed, and their existence throughout eternity has had no effect on anything whatsoever. The existence of ghosts could hardly matter less.

But their existence would change any number of things. For one, the skeptics/debunkers would actually have to eat their words, and that's a lot of humble pie. And beyond that, it would be a scientific discovery, a new realm of reality that opens up. Of course, it's a counterfactual, so there's no actual saying what results it would be. I don't believe in ghosts, either, FWIW, but the fact that you are so strangely reactionary about this says a lot more about your mindset than anything else.
posted by zardoz at 1:06 AM on May 18 [1 favorite]


this says a lot more about your mindset than anything else

I am perfectly alright with whatever not believing in ghosts says about my mindset.
posted by Sys Rq at 6:38 AM on May 18 [3 favorites]


I really like Derren Brown, and of course he's involved with this since it's completely up his alley.

As for the rest of it... well, thinking kindly of the idea of Santa is fun around Christmas, but if you're seriously arguing that he exists, you're not being whimsical, you're just wrong. For me, that's the same approach to the rest of these phenomena - fun to indulge in a little, but seriously believing in them involves being factually incorrect to a disappointing degree.
posted by gadge emeritus at 9:10 AM on May 18


I believe in people who believe in ghosts. Isn't that enough?
posted by aubilenon at 11:06 PM on May 18


The problem I have is that many people who call themselves "skeptics" are not actually skeptical. They are more like anti-believers.

Sure, but how much supernatural nonsense has to be debunked before I'm allowed to stop having an open mind about it? Since the dawn of human history we've tried to come up for explanations for mysterious phenomena, because we're curious animals with a thin veneer of logic over the top of our instincts. Great! And because of that drive to explain things, we've invented telescopes and spectrometers and fMRIs and all sorts of instruments for looking at the world around us in ways that our human senses don't pick up easily. We haven't cured cancer or developed flying cars yet, but we've done pretty well with germ theory and magnetism and I reckon the Large Hadron Collider is going to reveal something interesting someday.

And yet not once has a tiny bit of this massive investigation into the universe revealed anything like a god, a fairy, a ghost or a psychic sense. We've discovered a simply stupendous amount of things we couldn't possibly have imagined, a large but not enormous amount of deliberate fraud, and a fascinating bunch of information about how the brain deceives itself; but no magical beings.

Meanwhile, ghost hunters and psychic detectives are still working on the same problems they've been looking at for thousands of years. No progress, no minor discoveries that hint at a larger phenomena, no promising results that cry out for the development of new instruments so we can look more closely at a previously un-researchable area. Before penicillin was developed, people realised that washing their hands worked well at reducing the spread of some diseases. Where are the equivalent discoveries in the area of the supernatural?

So you'll have to excuse me but I'm gonna stop looking for them. If anyone comes up with a mysterious phenomenon which cannot be explained by wishful thinking or outright deception, then I'll jump back in the game. But until then, there's too many actual real things that need to be explained before we waste any more of our precious time and limited resources on the fairies that *might* be at the bottom of the garden. You want to write fiction about them? A song, paint a picture? Great! I'll probably love it and contribute to your Kickstarter fund. But it's a sterile area of research and has been for thousands of years.
posted by harriet vane at 1:24 AM on May 19 [1 favorite]


Sys Rq: If ghosts were found to exist (which, I assure you, they absolutely do not at all), it would mean ghosts have always existed, and their existence throughout eternity has had no effect on anything whatsoever. The existence of ghosts could hardly matter less.

Neon has always existed (for all practical purposes). Its existence throughout eternity before its discovery had essentially had no effect on human lives. Its discovery was important, and mattered.

Ergo, you are wrong.

Unlike argon, not one shred of reproducible, objective evidence has ever been recorded in all of human history about ghosts. Ergo, there is no reason to assume they exist any more than there is reason to assume that pink, invisible unicorns dance all around us, pooping unseeable, untouchable gold.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:13 AM on May 19


Sure, but how much supernatural nonsense has to be debunked before I'm allowed to stop having an open mind about it?

You are not required to keep an open mind about anything at all. I was not talking about devoting research to the topic. I was replying earlier to comments about how some folks embrace the BS explanations. If someone is having weird experiences and does not have a constructive means to relate to them, they will generally take the closest thing they can get, no matter how much it sucks. Few people will keep pushing for better explanations given a lack of good answers and, even if they do, they may just not be able to come up with anything better on their own.

No, we do not have validated recordings of anything of this sort or other "objective proof." Yet, people continue to have odd experiences and continue to struggle with explaining them. Treating such individuals with contempt and dismissing their experiences as completely unreal is not likely to convince them that "nothing happened." Nor are you required to do anything effective to convince them of anything. But, by the same token, they aren't going to suddenly start agreeing with you. Just like you have reasons why you believe what you believe, they have reasons why they believe what they believe.

I am not talking research here. I am talking treating people with a certain degree of respect, even if you disagree with them and don't have a better explanation.
posted by Michele in California at 1:11 PM on May 19 [2 favorites]


But there *are* better explanations. There are whole areas of psychology which explain how people perceive things which they explain as ghosts or astral travel or alien abduction. I'd never mock someone for telling about an experience they can't explain, because how can we learn anything if we can't talk about things we don't understand (not just the paranormal but in every area of life); but if they're not willing to consider a non-supernatural explanation at all, then who's being close-minded and who's open to new ideas?

Mind you, it doesn't help that psychological research hasn't really been explained well to laypeople in any kind of pop-science way. Richard Wiseman is the only one I know of who does a great job at explaining 'mysterious' phenomenon for people who believe in the supernatural, especially in his book Paranormality which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the cause of these perceptions of the supernatural.
posted by harriet vane at 7:51 PM on May 25


But there *are* better explanations. There are whole areas of psychology which explain how people perceive things which they explain as ghosts or astral travel or alien abduction.

There are historical events which have not been adequately explained away using psychology or whatever "modern" explanation you would like to use to dismiss them. Your very sweeping statement that there ARE better explanations puts you in the camp of anti-believer. I have pretty consistently looked for better, more grounded explanations for any weird experiences I have had. In fact, I have found better, more science-y explanations for some of them, which has been good for my mental health. But I still have not found better explanations for some small subset of my experiences. And, no, I don't think it works to simply dismiss that small subset as "You just aren't educated enough yet."

We have an entire religion based on the idea that there have been some historical events that are an 11 on the woo scale of 1 to 10. It is called Christianity. I am not Christian and haven't spent much time in church but, as I understand it, to be a real Christian you have to accept that 1) Jesus is the only begotten son of God 2) He died on the cross for our sins and 3) He was subsequently resurrected.

I knew someone who felt they were science-y and thus superior to folks who believed woo things. They liked going to church a few times a year and they liked some of the messages that Christianity puts forth but, being all science-y, they came up with all kinds of "scientific" explanations for all of the "so-called" miracles in the bible. I felt it was pretty eye-roll worthy and, one day, I was repeating this clap-trap to my husband, who grew up in a very religious family that attended church like 2 or 3 times a week. He had read the bible cover to cover at least three times and knew a great deal more about Christianity than I did, though when he began asking questions at about age 12 and not getting satisfactory answers, he became very embittered and left the church. I think he wanted to believe but it just did not make sense to him.

When I got to this friend's explanation that "Jesus didn't actually die on the cross. He learned meditation during the three years he was in the East and he put himself into a deep meditative state and only appeared dead. Then he woke up after being taken off the cross." my very sardonic ex husband cocked his eyebrow at me. I said "What?" and he said "That works up until the point where they stuck a spear in him."

So we have millions people who believe this story for which there is no video tape, no audio tape or other modern recordings and for which "scientific" explanations attempting to explain away the resurrection have to very seriously disregard the facts we have been given in order to dismiss it as not really having happened. (I thought the "meditative state" explanation was not bad until my ex raised his eyebrow at me and gave me that one liner. Then, yeah, that totally does not work.)

Those millions of people are not uniformly uneducated idiots or certifiably insane. The bible they believe in is filled with woo things like dream interpretation and people hearing the voice of god from a burning bush. The church still occasionally declares people saints, so this is still a living religion, not merely "something people did 2000 years ago and we like the teachings that grew out of it." But if you are not Christian and you find value in things like dream interpretation and believe that some of the things we experience have a spiritual origin or other "not science-y" explanation, an awful lot of people will dismiss that as "you just aren't educated enough" or some other excuse to say "You are wrong. The things you have experienced didn't really happen that way."

And I find that to be fundamentally disrespectful. Though I realize my taking offense at it is unlikely to change any minds. But that street runs both ways: Being offensive and disrespectful also won't change my mind.
posted by Michele in California at 9:55 AM on May 27


« Older We Exist   |   He’s just too big for you /... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post