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How do you know it’s a ghost?

by Brian Dunning, May 06 2010

As a guest on a recent radio program, I took calls from people who’d had some ghostly experience. It’s not true that such callers are always trying to challenge the evil skeptic: “I saw my grandfather’s ghost at the foot of my bed, explain that, Mr. Skeptic!” In this case, most of the callers (I think) were genuinely hoping for some insight. Although I certainly couldn’t speculate about what their experiences might have been, I was at least able to avoid making some common mistakes that often cost skeptics their credibility.

First, you’re not going to convince a ghost believer by saying “We have no evidence that ghosts exist, nor is there any plausible hypothesis by which they might exist.” No ghost believer in history has ever heard that, said “Aaahh,” smacked themselves in the forehead, turned over a new leaf, and gone forth with a new perspective on reality. Logically, you have just as much evidence that ghosts don’t exist as they have that ghosts do exist. So it’s a weak argument. Thus, no good can come from starting off by contradicting their belief. The only thing it accomplishes is to establish an antagonistic tone.

Presumably, if they’re comfortable with a belief in ghosts, they’re also comfortable with a belief in other types of supernatural beings. Most people are religious, so this opens up the door of plausibility to angels and demons. Most people have some belief in psychic powers at some level, so this permits the introduction of mind projections, telepathy, and so on.

We always want to look for common ground, rather than for points of conflict. One thing that nearly everyone can agree upon is that none of the above phenomenon have any scientifically established known properties. There is no accepted, established body temperature for demons. There is no firm set of proven behaviors for a ghost. We cannot capture an astrally traveling being, perform a blood test, and prove that it’s an astral traveler. No supernatural being has a single known, accepted, concrete property. Most believers probably have their own general idea of what a ghost might look like and do, but everyone will acknowledge that different witnesses report different experiences.

So when someone expresses their belief that something they saw was a ghost, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask how they were able to rule out other possibilities. If you saw the apparition of your grandfather standing at the foot of your bed, how were you able to identify it as your grandfather’s ghost, rather than a demon trying to trick you? A psychic somewhere putting that vision into your head? Vibrational energy from your grandfather persisting around some of his belongings? A projection from your own subconsciousness? An angel of a yet-to-be-born person, using some image from your mind as a way to manifest itself? We don’t know what properties any of these things might have, thus there’s no way you can logically compare the details of your experience to them to determine what it was you saw. The spirit of your grandfather might be the most emotionally comforting option, but it might be important to find out if a demon is trying to trick you; so the mind should be open to that possibility too.

The more intelligent someone is, the more likely they may be to intellectually realize that there are other possibilities. A person who acknowledges that they do not know the cause of their experience is closer to the truth than a person who insists upon one specific, unsupportable conclusion.

Of course, this same logic applies to those who see something in the sky and identify it as an alien spacecraft. Consider the other possibilities: A vehicle from an unknown population of beings who live at the bottom of the ocean, or a craft from a subterranean race. Those are two possibilities that don’t require the assumption of the problems of interstellar travel having been solved. Perhaps the Earth even has its own race of beings who live in the sky, possessing all kinds of unfathomable aeronautical secrets. What would be the properties of one of their vehicles, and what would be the properties of an extraterrestrial spacecraft? How were you able to match up your observation to one, and to exclude the other? You can’t, since neither has any known properties; and so the only right answer is “I don’t know what it was.”

Notably, at no time have I advocated telling the person that they’re wrong, or that they misinterpreted what they saw, or that they imagined anything. Maybe that’s what happened, but I wouldn’t have any way to know that. I expect that in nearly every honestly reported case, the person did see something, even if was something mundane that for some reason manifested itself in a spectacular way. I find that introducing the suggestion that they were wrong or imagined something simply causes antagonism, and rarely leads to enlightenment.

One need not abandon one’s belief in ghosts or UFOs to take an important step on the journey to critical thinking. If a person can acknowledge, for the first time, that “I don’t know, therefore I know” fails the test of logic, they’ve improved their ability to interpret our world. Imagining what they’ll learn next is an exciting prospect indeed.

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54 Responses to “How do you know it’s a ghost?”

  1. MadScientist says:

    I’m not so sure about planting other ideas like “how do you know it wasn’t a demon…” I used to do exactly that sort of thing to religious folks over 20 years ago just for my own perverse amusement even though I thought I was being rather cruel playing them like that. While some would realize I was screwing with them, others seemed to take everything I said as affirmation of their weird belief systems and sometimes traded one silly notion for an equally silly but perhaps more sinister notion. So I gave up screwing with people’s head (it’s frightening how easy it is) and decided to just tell them they have silly ideas and why.

  2. JD says:

    “Logically, you have just as much evidence that ghosts don’t exist as they have that ghosts do exist.”

    Do you actually know anything about logic? You can’t argue that, it’s called appeal to ignorance, it’s a logical fallacy.

    • Methos says:

      Speaking of establishing an antagonistic tone…

    • Vance Shaw says:

      “You can’t argue that, it’s called appeal to ignorance, it’s a logical fallacy.”

      A fallacy is only a fallacy if there is a conclusion based on premise. Stating that there are equal amounts of evidence (nil) for either of one of two conclusions is merely an observation and thus, while it may be mistaken, can’t be a fallacy.

  3. R.V. says:

    EXCELLENT!! I find it extremely rare that skeptics invoke agnosticism towards such experiences. My most common experience is that skeptics themselves are only critical of everyone else’s assumptions except their own. If we all, (by all I mean including the materialists AND the immaterialists) can simply come to the conclusion that we DO NOT KNOW what some of these phenomenon are, or what they MUST be according to our own belief systems.

    You sir, are a skeptic that I can relate to. The word of the skeptic is not atheism, the word of the skeptic is pure agnosticism! keep up the good work, and let’s all work on being skeptical in such light :)

  4. Max says:

    “The spirit of your grandfather might be the most emotionally comforting option, but it might be important to find out if a demon is trying to trick you; so the mind should be open to that possibility too.”

    Great, now they’re going to freak out that grandpa’s ghost might be a demon, and run to an exorcist.

    “One thing that nearly everyone can agree upon is that none of the above phenomenon have any scientifically established known properties.”

    Sure they do. Demons fear the sign of the cross, shadow people appear in the corner of your eye, vampires can’t stand sunlight and garlic, it’s a fact :-)

    • Mike says:

      “vampires can’t stand sunlight” — this comes from the silent film Nosferatu (I believe it was made in 1922). Before then there is no record in the myth of vampires fearing sunlight (although the sound of a cock-crow was supposedly fearful). In a lot of the Victorian literature, it is even common for vampires to keep odd hours, such as being awake from noon to midnight (Carmilla), or simply stay active during daylight hours (Dracula).

      Besides, everyone knows they really sparkle like a Frisco drag-queen in the sunlight. It’s the paparazzi they fear.

      *****************The Intermission (What a Show)*****************

      To the Author:

      Mr. Dunning, I find it ironic that you go to great lengths to convince people that an unusual experience could easily have a number of other equally unprovable explanations, but you don’t for a moment consider that the experience could be exactly what the person believes it to be. This is despite the fact that, as you admit, you have just as little evidence that they didn’t see a ghost as they have to claim they did… namely a lot of speculation (and you honestly recognize this, don’t get me wrong. You even say that it’s not your place to speculate on exactly what did happen).

      What gives you away, though, is that the one possibility that you refuse to entertain is the one they present to you, because your goal here isn’t really to treat the belief of the would-be medium as an honest experience, but rather to pander to it while trying to attack the core belief in the most passive aggressive way possible. You’re trying to be Socrates, but you end up coming off as Sarah Palin.

      Look, I know I sound snarky. I know I’m probably taking some cheap shots, but it’s not because I mean disrespect (if you can believe that, which I don’t blame you if you can’t). It’s because I think you’re missing something fundamental about your suggestion to “play along with the loonies,” so to speak. You’re being dishonest in an attempt not to alienate someone you want to enlighten. The reason is arrogant, and the method unethical.

      I understand where you’re coming from, and I agree with you that simply telling people that they’re hallucinating or misinterpreting an experience isn’t going to get them to listen to you. But you have to consider that not everyone who claims to see a ghost, UFO or the face of Jesus in a corn-flake is necessarily a liar, a sensationalist or an idiot. The problem isn’t pushing people into an automatic “No” response, it’s treating them like morons that turns them away from a reasonable discussion.

      If you offend someone by telling them what you believe to be the truth, they’ll probably respect you more, deep down, than if you try to “play along” like you would with a five year old’s tall tale.

      It’s vitally important that people remember that they don’t perceive everything that happens around them, and for this reason they need to keep their mind open about the possibly mundane explanations for supposedly supernatural experiences. But that’s a two-way street. Scientists and skeptics (skepticism being a philosophy, not a science) need to recognize that they don’t really know everything… and that yes, some of our most basic assumptions will be proved wrong by future, more sophisticated science. That’s the essence of skepticism, recognizing and defining the limits of your own knowledge. But the point is to surpass that limit, not to codify the entirety of existence within it’s boundaries.

      So there’s nothing wrong with saying “It could have been an hallucination” — that’s an honest and plausible explanation. As a scientific minded individual, however, it’s necessary for you to acknowledge that you don’t know, either. Acting as though you do is the height of dishonesty, and just as poor intellectually as professing with absolute conviction that granpappy’s apparition came to you in the middle of the night to steal your bedsheets.

      In short, if you treat people with dignity, that’s usually enough to get them to at least consider your point of view. I think that was the point of your blogpost, but your advice on how to go about it pretty much amounts to humoring them.

      • Michael M says:

        Mike,

        What you say would sound like the unbiased and fair point of view, were it not for the fact that all the possible explanations for such events are not evenly weighted. Hallucinations, misinterpretations and plain old stupidity are things that are documented quite thoroughly. Ghosts, Demons, and Vampires have not one shred of credible evidence to support them. What you say is true; for these specific cases for which we have no other evidence other than an anecdote, we cannot prove to any degree of certainty what happened. It does not necessarily follow then that all possible explanations are equal. By your logic, we would have to be completely and equally open to other unlikely scenarios as well such as talking invisible goats, or an intelligent mass of gnats, but I doubt you would lend those explanations the same leeway as something other-worldly.

        Science is open-minded to such explanations (and I would gather Brian is too), but not without sufficient reason. His point seems to be not that he has the answer, but rather in light of any obtainable answer to prompt the person to think more critically about their own experience.

    • Majority of One says:

      Yes. Vampires. I sometimes think that 2000 years from now, future people are going to read our “fictional” vampire stories like we read Greek “mythology” and think we believed that stuff. Maybe the Greeks really were entertaining themselves with their stories of gods and only the crazy and really super ignorant ones really believed it all as true. Who knows??

      • tmac57 says:

        If all of the internet sites are archived for future civilizations to read,they will know for SURE that some of us were ignorant and crazy. Present company excepted,of course ;-)

  5. Jim Shaver says:

    Brian, I understand that your reluctance to tell a believer of something paranormal what you believe to be the truth — that he is wrong — comes from a practical and experienced perspective. Granted, people generally do not respond well to that approach at argument. You say it’s a weak argument, that there is no good evidence and no plausible scientific hypothesis, but I disagree. Scientifically, that’s a strong argument. However, we know that scientific arguments, strong or otherwise, are mostly lost on people with entrenched beliefs.

    I agree with MadScientist that by suggesting other common paranormal beliefs as alternative hypotheses, you run the risk of encouraging magical beliefs within a susceptible person. I wonder if there’s a better way to trigger skeptical thought in the believer, without implying that other equally (poorly) supported hypotheses represent valid ways of looking at the world. For example, you could compare a person’s belief with another magical explanation offered by someone else, and ask how one can rule out the other person’s hypothesis. Ironically, a good skeptic would be wise to be well-read on the world’s vastly numerous religions and other magical belief systems, for this purpose.

    Of course, the trouble is always in the details. You may end up just giving a person with poor critical thinking skills a chance to go off on his own and use those poor skills to rationalize away the other proposed, non-scientific hypotheses, thereby seemingly strengthening his own, preferred hypothesis.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      Embarassment and shame usually works. Find a clever way to make them feel really stupid about what they believe, and maybe they will snap out of it.

      • Max says:

        Emphasis on “clever”. Just saying “Your beliefs are really stupid” is interpreted as “You’re stupid,” and nobody wants to admit that they’re stupid.

  6. SirElephant says:

    I used to do much the same thing as MadScientist explains, plus a slightly different approach. I would ask them “how do you know?” or “who told you that?” and try to work them backwards to “my Mom” or whatever, and at some point try to get them to question whether that person might have been misinformed, why they chose to believe that person unquestioningly, did they ever consider trying to validate what they were told, etc. etc. “If *I* told you the moon was made of green cheese, would you believe me? Why, or why not? Why or why not, when you DID unquestioningly believe so-and-so when they told you such-and-such?” Etc. etc. etc. I eventually discovered that no matter what I said, they either couldn’t answer or gave nonsensical answers that preserved their original beliefs/delusions. So I quit talking with people about these sorts of topics at all. Life is now happier.

  7. Michael M says:

    Personally, I think Brian makes a great point. How does the saying go, “You can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into?” Speaking as a former believer, I can tell you that the only way I would have changed my mind was the way I did; by slowly questioning my beliefs. That’s all Brian is suggesting, inspire them to question their own beliefs. The first question I asked myself that led me away from my beliefs was “Why is Christianity right and Islam wrong?” When you ask such an important question and are unable to answer it, you start to question other things more closely and sooner or later you relize the belief itself is untenable. The point is that critical thinking requires the person to do the thinking, we cannot do it for them. Brian’s simply starting them on the path with something familiar. I think that the danger is minimal to the person considering that Brian’s example is using different beliefs that the person likely already has.

    • WScott says:

      The point is that critical thinking requires the person to do the thinking, we cannot do it for them.

      Well put!

  8. G says:

    “Hoow do you knoo she is a ghost?” “Well, she’s got a wart!”

  9. Great post, Brian. I’ve been meaning to write something similar, inspired by Jeff Wagg’s frequent quip, “When something goes bump in the night, how do you know it’s a ghost and not an alien?”

    Your post and Wagg’s line shine a light on two important points:

    1) One of the most widely-shared goals of the skeptical project is to encourage people to ask questions. I argue that solving mysteries and sharing a body of findings are also central components, but encouraging rigorous inquiry is a doozy.

    2) Critical inquiry and the search for evidence would be just as important in an X-Files universe — probably more important. As you suggest, genuine demons, alien abductors, afterlives, or similar factors would be important matters to nail down. For that reason, paranormalists might be better off viewing skeptics as allies rather than adversaries. Serious-minded paranormal proponents should want to confront issues like, “Assuming that X exists, there must be some errors and false positives in the data. How do we weed that stuff out?” (Consider the improvements in rigor that skeptical peer review brought to parapsychology.)

    That “we’re all after the truth here” business is a lot to ask from paranormal advocates. It’s counter-intuitive, and it flies in the face of many proponents’ direct experience with hostile skeptics. It’s an argument that can only be made when the skeptical culture prizes civil discourse and patient inquiry.

  10. JustAGuy says:

    If you want to see some really freaky shit, travel to India and ask around about where you can find a “Djinni”.

    It will take a lot of time before you find someone who isn’t just telling you rumors and points you to some really… freaky… shit.

    • The Stupdendous Fred Gherkin says:

      Man, I tried that once. This Raj gave me some dope reef. This reminds me of a cartoon I used to watch when I was younger, Invader Zim. This kid who goes to school with an alien gets paired up with a “proper” paranormal investigator, who promptly takes him to investigate crop circles and a Count Chocula stand-in whom he believes to be an actual vampire.

  11. JustAGuy says:

    Or I guess you don’t have to travel that far. There are lists upon lists of famous haunted places in the United States. Start with those.

  12. I find this a very interesting approach.

    On the pro side, the approach is to try to cause the claimant to realize that they don’t have any proof for their conclusion of what they have observed. They are claiming to have seen a ghost, alien UFO, or whatever, but they are jumping to a conclusion based on their own bias- belief in ghosts, alien visitation, or whatever, and it could have just as likely been a demon, an Atlantian out on a joy ride, or whatever. If you can get them to acknowledge that they have no support for their conclusion of what they have seen, perhaps that could be the first step to a more skeptical approach for them.

    On the con side, the approach implies you accept their observation (and their recall of it) itself on face value, and they might infer that you are accepting that some sort of paranormal event occurred, even if you do not accept their conclusion as to what exact paranormal event it was.

    Sometimes the bias is a specific belief in something like ghosts, and sometimes it is just a general belief in the paranormal. What do you do if someone says, “I don’t know if that was my dead grandmother, a demon, or a trans-dimensional being, but that was definitely something paranormal/out of this world!”?

    Some religious group left a pamphlet on my door once warning that psychics can not talk to the dead, not because the psychics are frauds, but because the bible says the dead do not talk to us and therefore psychics are being deceived by demons masquerading as our deceased loved ones. I still have the pamphlet; I keep meaning to get around to doing a blog post on it- maybe I will once this season of Fringe ends and I have nothing left do my weekly posts on.

  13. Max says:

    “If you saw the apparition of your grandfather standing at the foot of your bed, how were you able to identify it as your grandfather’s ghost, rather than a demon trying to trick you? A psychic somewhere putting that vision into your head? Vibrational energy from your grandfather persisting around some of his belongings? A projection from your own subconsciousness? An angel of a yet-to-be-born person, using some image from your mind as a way to manifest itself?”

    Occam’s razor ;-)

  14. let’s plant a seed:

    why do government have a power to print money while other people can not?

    No need to answer, just think about it.

    • tmac57 says:

      Uh, have you got a computer and an ink jet printer? Just sayin’.
      ( To the U.S. Secret Service,Treasury Dept.,FBI,etc.:
      The above statement was presented in an ironic manner in attempt to lighten up and deflect a potential non-sequitur from derailing the intent and comment flow of a blog posting, and in no way was intended as an endorsement,of or instruction to, in any manner, illegally reproduce, or fraudulently misrepresent, any instrument, as legal U.S. tender, under false pretenses, and in no way, represents the opinion of myself,this blog,the Skepticblog community, or the internet,forever and ever amen.)

    • MadScientist says:

      It’s simple: the government has a bigger stick than you.

  15. WScott says:

    Thus, no good can come from starting off by contradicting their belief. The only thing it accomplishes is to establish an antagonistic tone.

    The antagonistic approach has its place, but I agree that it’s not usually very effective at getting people to actually reconsider their views.

    Logically, you have just as much evidence that ghosts don’t exist as they have that ghosts do exist. So it’s a weak argument.

    True. But we *do* have evidence that people can hallucinate, misinterpret what they see, be mistaken, or just plain make shit up. So to take your tactic a step further, what about saying something like: “Well, there’s plenty of evidence that our eyes & brains can sometimes play tricks on us. Would you agree with me that not everyone who thinks they’ve seen a ghost has actually seen one? At least some of them must be mistaken, or hallucinating, or whatever, right? So even if ghosts *do* exist, how can you be sure you weren’t mistaken? And how can I be sure?”

  16. ZenMonkey says:

    If someone approaches you with a challenge to debunk the vision of their dead grandfather, then I believe it’s no-holds-barred on trying to help them see it another way. (Not confrontationally, but yes, bringing up the other possibilities and so forth.)

    However, when my friend told a long and deeply felt story about seeing the ghost of his dead relative, I said nothing except something like “That must have been a very powerful experience.” I believe that he believed it happened, and his sharing with me was part of his grieving process. I just can’t put on my skepticop badge in that situation. If he had asked me “Do you think it really happened?” I would have had some other things to (gently) say, though.

  17. CW says:

    What I liked about this blog post is that Brian isn’t telling people to argue with them (trade one paranormal belief with another), but give them other possibilities. The only problem is that the true-believer will rely on confirmation basis which is hard to refute. That is, if someone says the phenomenon in the sky was a UFO alien E.T., and you ask how do you know it’s not some advanced terrestrial species, then the believer will reply “because everyone else has seen UFOs, so it’s most likely alien ETs”

  18. Dr. Dim says:

    Excellent point, Brian. And the comments have very good points to offer as well. I will try to incorporate all of these suggestions when I’m faced with believers.

    George Hrab has suggested that a good response when a believer voices an outlandish idea. It was to simple ask, “Really?” I think that approach also has merit.

  19. Dr. Dim says:

    Sorry about the poor grammar. Always proofread before posting. I must remember that.

  20. BillMassey says:

    I have responded to “grampa’s ghost” people by asking the following open ended question, and instructing they not answer, just let the question roll around in their head:

    I have no doubt you saw something, but if what you saw was a real ghost, it would upend or seriously damage everything we have learned about how matter and energy work, how biological systems function, etc. etc. And one of those things that science has taught us is that our brains are very easily tricked. So I ask you (and don’t answer!), which is more likely: that you saw something that defies and destroys centuries of collective worldwide knowledge and learning, or that your brain temporarily fell victim to a little trickery?

    (they usually do answer, a little defensively, but then let the whole subject drop, so I like to think they’re mulling it over)

    • Jim Shaver says:

      Or maybe they’re mulling over whether to take you off their Christmas card list, heathen. (Respectfully, of course.)

  21. Retired Prof says:

    Sometimes if people are just sharing experiences and not actively arguing that the supernatural is real, I tell a personal anecdote.

    Hunting deer with a muzzleloader, I was moseying along a woods road so I could walk silently by staying out of the noisy dry leaves. I heard something walking in the leaves alongside and strained to catch a glimpse of it, but couldn’t see anything. Then I realized the noise was close by, and that nothing walking along that close could have escaped my notice. I focused my attention on the spot where the footsteps seemed to be, and actually saw the leaves shifting, apparently under the feet of an invisible creature.

    The hairs went up on the back of my neck. I had never seen an invisible creature before, and I couldn’t decide how to act around it. It is very difficult to judge the intentions of an invisible creature. And then, if I had determined this one was hostile, it would have been impossible to know where to aim for a killing shot. Besides that, it would have been just about as hard to know where to direct the blows if the single shot failed to neutralize the threat and I had to club it with the empty rifle.

    I noticed that the footsteps were heading toward a patch of bare ground, and watched carefully to see what kind of tracks the creature would produce there. When the “footsteps” reached the end of the stretch of dry leaves, a vole ran out from under them and scurried across the patch of dirt.

    It had actually been rustling the leaves from underneath, and my presuppositions had caused me to jump to the conclusion that their noise and motion must be caused by something pressing down on them.

    • Max says:

      Brian shared his personal experience with hypnopompia in the episode on shadow people.
      http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4175

      That’s effective because it tells people that hallucinations happen to normal, healthy people, and there’s no shame in it.

    • tmac57 says:

      Yesterday,while I was reading Brian’s post, I was sitting at the table in my den, all alone except for my two dogs, and suddenly, I heard what sounded like a door,somewhere in the house slowly opening,with a creaky sound that not only got my attention, but both my dogs went on alert,and started to bark their heads off. I was of course a little alarmed,and thought that someone had entered the house without my knowledge. I jumped up, and I, and the dogs,searched the house for the source of the noise,but found nothing.
      I have no idea what caused the sound, and I am still a bit more vigilant than I would normally be, but my brain tells me that it was probably something that I misinterpreted, since there was no evidence of anything awry. But, I can see where such an event could easily have been interpreted as something supernatural by someone who was already prepared mentally to accept that as a possibility.

    • shawmutt says:

      Haha! So true! I’ve only been hunting a couple years now, but I already have many scary stories. There are so many noises and things popping out when senses are tuned while hunting, especially when in the dark woods!

      Speaking of scary bumps in the night—there was an old windup wall clock at my grandparent’s house, and I loved to tease visitors and tell them ghosts came out when the clock stopped. As part of my “show”, I’d stop the clock. The loud “tick tock” of the clock was replaced by uncomfortable silence. Usually creaks around old settling house were enough to convince people and get the story out—and I had an opportunity to look like a brave ghost hunter living in a haunted house!

      I had a girlfriend over one night, stopped the clock, and told her to wait and listen. From the unseen top of the stairs… *thump*… *thump*… something was coming down the stairs! Both of our eyes got wide, mine wider than hers–did I really piss some ghost off with my stories? We heard more thumps as our ghost slowly walked down the stairs, waiting to see what kind of apparition was here to haunt us.

      An ominous voice said…

      “Meow”. Stupid cat.

      Personal anecdotes are great tools for skeptics, and it seems that skeptics (at least the ones I read on internet forums) often overlook them. A funny story about paranormal debunking goes a long way in our story-telling minds. A comedian or story-teller can spread more critical thinking skills in an evening than a hard-liner skeptic can in a year (no, I don’t have studies to back up that claim ;-))

      So I step away from the computer occasionally, and go on ghost tours, go in the woods by myself on a dark night, and watch creepy movies by myself from time to time. I do things that freak me out–it helps with that whole empathy thing, and helps me be more sincere and tactful when faced with extraordinary claims.

    • Phea says:

      I too like to use a personal experience to show that we often, see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear. Coming back late one night from a fishing trip with a couple friends, we drove past, the Garden of the Gods, (in Colorado Springs). Many people get in trouble every year climbing the rock formations in the Garden, and when I noticed a spotlight shining on one of the formations, I pulled over, believing it was part of a rescue operation.

      We watched the “stranded climbers” for several minutes until one of my friends finally realized that what we were looking at was a formation called, “Kissing Camels” and that it was always lit at night.

      Had that not been realized, I’d be telling the story of the stuck climbers I “saw” to this day.

  22. Tuffgong says:

    I agree with Brian’s intent but the approach is far too apologetic to my tastes. I think there is a better way to help someone in a situation in which they are entrenched in a belief system than being confrontational. However there is a time and place to lash out and deconstruct the “lost cause” because often it’s not him/her you’re trying to convince, it’s the audience that is who you’re trying to enlighten.

    I think a better strategy would be to stand right next to them, all friendly like as friends are want to do, and bring up questions. Ask them what is more likely, why he could have perceived what he did etc. The problem with saying ghosts are unfounded isn’t the conclusion, but that we as skeptics have gone through the intellectual process to find and know that conclusion is true. Merely saying the conclusion is true assumes the person has gone through the same process, when most obviously they have not if they suggest a ghost appeared.

    I guess it would be hard for me to say what I would do because this comments section is not the appropriate venue for that.

  23. Gerald Guild says:

    I agree Brian. I like it. Direct challenges elicit defensiveness and are ultimately polarizing. Once an outsider, you have little chance to interact in a productive way. One has to accept that the believer operates with a different set of facts – a set that is incompatible with yours. This discrepancy invalidates (within the mind of the believer) even the most reasonable thing you have to say. I liken Brian’s approach to paradoxical intervention strategies in psychology – where the therapist prescribes the maladaptive symptom. There are inherent risks, but evidence suggests that there is some merit to such strategies. Plant the seed of doubt within the believer’s fact system – it is more likely to take root there. When one starts challenging silly notions that are intellectually comparable, it must become increasingly difficult to refrain from challenging one’s own notions.

  24. MadScientist says:

    If it goes “wooo! woooo!” does that make it a ghost or John Edward?

  25. GoneWithTheWind says:

    This discussion is not a scientific or even logical one. A “ghost” is impossible under any of the laws of nature as we know them. What it cleary is; is mythology, superstition, imagination of an over active mind. That anyone could actually believe in ghosts worries me far more then “ghosts” do.

    • KL says:

      “A “ghost” is impossible under any of the laws of nature as we know them. ”

      ————-

      Gone with the wind, that’s the flaw in your thinking process already!

      Anyone who studies astronomy will tell you that many, many things in the observable Universe go against “the lawa of nature as we know them…….and yet they exist.

      The truth is we understand a certain ammount of how the Universe works, but we are by some distance from understanding everything.
      If the Understanding of everything was a book of 10,000 ages, we humans of the year 2010 may have just got past page one.

      To say something is “impossible” or doesn’t exist simply because nothing on “Page one” indicates that is possible is a little naive in the extreme.

      There is little doubt that the class of 2510 would look back at the class of 2010 and deem us almost Neanderthal in our understanding of the world.

      Ghost may well exists as a phenomena that will have an explanation on page “50″ of the book of all knowledge, and man might understand what “ghosts” actually are in perhaps the year 3000.

      So just because “ghosts” may not quite fit into our current laws of physics it doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t or don’t exist.
      Indeed the more “logical” statement would be that Ghosts may well exist, but we are some decades or even centuries off from fully understanding what they actually are.

  26. I like this article and I’ll stick with what I always tell people who ask if I believe in ghosts. “Who knows.” To say they do is fine if it’s your “belief” unless you step toward the mistake of alleging “proof and evidence.” To say they don’t moves you into the cynical crowd. It’s best to stick with “At this stage, there is no supportive evidence that defines what a ghost is or if they actually exist.”

    I have no problem with belief. Belief can inspire people to do amazing things. It can also do the opposite. Although, when you tout “proof and evidence,” you voluntarily step into a minefield.

    So when I read the title “HOW DO YOU KNOW IT’S A GHOST?” it brought back memories of a very frustrated Television presenter who asked if I had ever seen a ghost. The answer was simple “What is a ghost?”

  27. Clarkson says:

    Same as any religion. You can’t just propose something exists, and leave it up to everyone else to disprove it. It don’t work that way, cosmo.

  28. Ben Edmond says:

    I can recall some unexplained things happening to me as a kid, but now I question if they were supernatural or created by youthful ignorance.

    Anyhow,here’s a rather provocative and hilarious article my friend wrote about Ghost Hunting:
    http://thingsthatshouldntstillexist.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/01-ghost-hunters/

  29. The Incredible Fred Gherkin says:

    Many of your paragraphs contain an even number of sentences. I like that.

  30. michael says:

    Credulous believers will always enmire themselves in ignorance and excuses, no matter what evidence is presented to them.