Story time is a big deal at the Loxton household. For years, my young son and I have been working through a stack of some of the great adventure novels, just as my dad used to read poetry to me and my brothers. I’m delighted by my son’s edge-of-his-seat immersion in the worlds of hobbits and pirates and talking lions.
On other nights, we lie awake talking about ideas. As Carl Sagan once said, “Kids can understand some pretty deep things.”1 My son has long since discovered the irresistible trick of asking fascinating questions about those deep things right after I turn off the lights. I’m a sucker every time. Recently, our conversation turned to “true” ghost stories related by his young colleagues on the playground.
“You know I investigate strange mystery stories for my job?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he answered, recalling what I had taught him at other times. “I know that no ghost story has ever turned out for sure to be a ghost.”
“Many such cases have been investigated over a very long time. Very, very often they turn out to be mistakes, or tricks, or just made up stories. It seems that ghosts probably do not exist.”
“Or they’re very rare.”
“Yes. But my own opinion is that they do not exist. What do you think?”
He thought about this. “I think they might be real. Not for sure, but we don’t know.”
“That’s true,” I said. “We don’t know for sure. But we have learned that most ghost stories have other explanations.”
We fell silent for a while. Thoughtful. A week or three earlier, a grown up patio party had run quite late into the summer night. As the kids fell asleep on lounge chairs and laps, the conversation among the adults had also turned to ghost stories and tales of the inexplicable. One neighbor related a hair-raising UFO encounter. Another described once tripping but not falling—of feeling that she had, for a moment, floated. She felt she’d benefited for an instant from the aid of a helpful spirit.
My son retold this story now. He felt she might have been correct. Couldn’t this have been a ghost?
“Well,” I said, “I wasn’t there, so it is very hard for me to know what happened in that story. Perhaps she remembered it differently than it happened. Or perhaps it just felt like she was floating. But think about this: Imagine that for a few moments that she did float through the air just like a balloon. Why would you think the floating was caused by a ghost?”
This had not occurred to him.
“Isn’t ‘a ghost did it’ a kind of guess?” I went on. “And if we’re guessing, why guess ‘ghost’? What if it was not a ghost, but a wizard? Perhaps she floated because of a magic spell. Or what about another kind of magical being? Some people say there are invisible helper beings called guardian angels. Or what about fairies, or a genie? Or a god—a super-powerful being able to do “miracles” (the word for magic done by a god)? Or perhaps she was lifted by an alien tractor beam from a flying saucer. Or what about a super-powered human—perhaps someone able to make force fields or turn invisible like Susan Storm in the Fantastic Four? Or someone with the superpower to lift objects with their mind, just by thinking about them?”
He was giggling by this point. But I went on (seriously, for this far out stuff is my professional focus), “It is very important not to mistake a mystery for an explanation—not to jump to conclusions when something mysterious happens. When you have a mystery, you have to investigate to try to learn what really happened. Quite often we can solve what happened. Other times, there’s no way for us to get the evidence we need to ever learn the answer.”
People have a difficult time with that. My son took it in solemnly, but I know it’s a lesson we’ll return to many times. It’s a lesson I have to learn and relearn myself. Uncertainty is unstable; belief is our natural resting state. We find it easy to adopt an explanation—apparently almost any explanation. We find it uncomfortable to stamp things with a question mark and file them “open and unsolved.”
The ease with which we leap to conclusions makes it is extremely easy for us to fool ourselves, as skeptics have warned for a very long time. Here’s how the Reverend Amos Craft put it in his 1881 book Epidemic Delusions: Exposé of the Superstitions and Frauds Which Underlie Some Ancient and Modern Delusions:
The following formula exhibits the common sophistry of superstition: If it is not————— what is it? We do not know. Therefore, it is——————. The name of any favorite fetich [sic] or force is inserted in the blank spaces, according to the desire of the individual who consciously or unconsciously employs the formula. Professor Crookes, F. R. S., looking upon the jugglery of Mr. Home and Mrs. Fay, asks: “If it is not psychic force, what is it?” He answers, “I do not know;” and concludes: “Therefore, it is psychic force.” A spiritualist looking upon the same phenomena reasons in the same manner; but arrives at a different conclusion: “If it is not a spirit, what is it? I do not know; therefore, it is a spirit.” “I do not know,” is a hard saying, even for philosophers. They prefer the utterance: “I do not know; therefore, I know.”2
Guessing is a terrible way to solve mysteries. Again and again, Craft hammered home his warning against the seductive trap, “I do not know; therefore, I know.” Nor, thankfully, is this lost wisdom. It’s a central message of modern scientific skepticism. I’m reminded again of an off the cuff remark that my colleague Jeff Wagg once made on a panel at Dragon*Con’s Skeptrack in Atlanta: “When you hear something go bump in the night, how do you know it’s a ghost and not an alien?” It’s a line I quote often. An awful lot of scientific skepticism is packed down into that little quip. We solve mysteries by investigation, when we can solve them at all.
Sometimes no leads ever emerge, or there is nothing to test, or the circumstances of the case are lost, unknowable, beyond the event horizon of the past. Sometimes a mystery remains a mystery. It’s uncomfortable, but there it is.
So what did really cause my neighbour’s experience of floating through the air? Hell, I don’t know.
- Carl Sagan. Quoted by Boyce Rensberger. “Carl Sagan: Obliged to Explain.” New York Times. p. 182
- Amos Craft. Epidemic Delusions: Exposé of the Superstitions and Frauds Which Underlie Some Ancient and Modern Delusions. (Cincinnati. Walden and Stowe, 1881.) p. 19
I’ll take a moment here to say that I invite and encourage civil discussion, scholarly debate, and open exchanges of ideas on this thread. At the same time, I expect all commenters to keep these useful principles firmly in mind. As on my other posts, I will delete posts that seem to me to be abusive. It’s not that kind of blog.