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“I saw it with my own eyes”

by Donald Prothero, Jun 13 2012

Humans are storytelling animals, and they are easily persuaded by the testimony of other individuals. The telemarketers and advertisers all know that if they get a popular celebrity to endorse their product, it will sell well, even if there are no careful scientific studies or FDA approvals to back up their claims. The endorsement of your next-door neighbor may be good enough to make simple decisions, but in science, anecdotal evidence counts for very little. Yet as Daniel Loxton and I found out during our research for our new book on cryptozoology due out soon, nearly all evidence of Bigfoot, Nessie, Yeti, and other cryptids is no more than anecdotal, “eyewitness” accounts. As Frank Sulloway put it, “Anecdotes do not make a science. Ten anecdotes are no better than one, and a hundred anecdotes are no better than ten.”

Most scientific studies require dozens to hundreds of experiments or cases, and detailed statistical analysis, before we can accept the conclusion that event A probably caused event B. In the case of medicine and drug testing, there is typically a “control” group that doesn’t receive a given treatment, or receives a placebo instead, so that we can rule out the possible effects of the power of suggestion, and also rule out random effects. Only after such rigorous testing which can rule out the biases of the subjects and the observers, random noise, and all other uncontrolled variables, can scientists make the statement that event A probably caused event B. Even then, scientists do not speak in finalistic terms of “cause and effect” but only in probabilistic terms that “event A has a 95% probability to have caused event B.”

The same goes for eyewitness testimony, which may have some value in a court of law, but is regarded as highly suspect in most scientific studies. Thousands of studies have shown that eyewitnesses are easily fooled by distractions such as a weapon, or confused by stress, or otherwise misled into confidently “remembering” things that did not happen. This is vividly demonstrated by a startling video where the viewer is told to count the number of times players dressed in white pass the basketball. If you do it and focus on the counting, you will completely miss a man in a gorilla suit who walks right through the shot, because your attention is focused elsewhere. Continue reading…

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Ghost Box

by Steven Novella, May 14 2012

The subculture of pseudoscientific ghost hunting continues to evolve. Have you heard of a “ghost box?” It seems all you have to do is put the word “ghost” in front of something and it becomes technical jargon for ghost hunters, and also a great example of begging the question. A cold spot in a house is therefore “ghost cold.” An electromagnetic field (EMF) detector becomes a “ghost detector.” And now a radio scanner has been rebranded as a “ghost box.” Of course no one has ever established that any of these phenomena have anything to do with ghosts, so they are putting the cart several miles ahead of the horse.

A more scientific and intellectually honest approach would be to declare such phenomena as anomalous (although I don’t think that they are). Ghost cold would more properly be termed anomalous cold, or a regional cold anomaly, or something like that. One hypothesis for the alleged cold anomaly would be some sort of supernatural entity (call it a ghost) that acts as a heat sink generating cold spots. First, however, researchers should endeavor to find a mundane explanation for the cold. In fact before declaring it an anomaly they should thoroughly rule out any possible explanation. Only when that has been adequately done would they have a tentative anomaly.

It would then be reasonable to generate a hypothesis as to what is causing the anomalous cold, but such hypotheses are only useful if they lead to testable predictions. If the regional cold anomaly phenomenon is the result of “ghosts”, then what might we predict from that and how can we test it? I don’t know of any way to definitively test it, as ghosts are not a well-defined phenomenon, but perhaps there are some preliminary tests that could be done. For example, is there at least a correlation between cold spots and experiences often interpreted as ghosts or hauntings? Perhaps cold spots are just as likely in homes without other such “ghost phenomena.” Such a correlation would not prove the ghost hypothesis, of course, but it would at least be a start, and the lack of correlation would seriously jeopardize the hypothesis.

Ghost hunters, however, skip over all of this scientific methodology and reasoning and simply declare cold spots “ghost cold” and then use them as evidence for ghosts. They are then puzzled when scientists and skeptics don’t accept what they consider to be compelling evidence for ghosts, but what is really compelling evidence for the complete lack of scientific understanding on the part of ghost hunters.

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Science TV “network decay”

by Donald Prothero, Jan 25 2012

It happens with disgusting regularity. You will flip through the various basic cable channels which are nominally “science oriented” (often grouped together on the dial if they feature scientific topics) and come up with nothing but junk, pseudoscience, and worse. “Reality shows” about subjects with little or no science content, tons of paranormal and pseudoscientific shows promoting ghosts, UFOs, Bigfoot, and creationism—all fill the airwaves for channels like Discovery, The  Learning Channel, History Channel, and even the Science Channel and National Geographic Channel. We watch a few minutes of these with complaints to anyone within earshot, then (usually) move on—or occasionally we get sucked in to watch the whole thing, like gawkers at a car crash. The cartoon at the top (from the great website PhdComics) says it all: four channels that used to be largely documentaries on science and history are now dominated  by guns, explosions, dangerous occupations and other “reality” TV. Their shows have  buzz words in the titles like “biggest”, “wildest”, “monsters” or “killers”, and plain old junk fill up most of their air time.

I’ve seen it from both sides. I’ve appeared in prehistoric animal documentaries that have aired on all four channels (and keep re-appearing years after I made them, so I feel like Dorian Gray, with my younger self perpetually preserved in documentary limbo). Almost all these documentaries are made by small independent film outfits that are searching for any sexy topic that they can sell to the major cable networks, so they are under great pressure to come up with something flashy, noisy, scary, and/or mysterious. If I  have any chance to review the script, I try my best to tone down the excessive hyperbole, but they usually ignore me. As I film segments with them, I try to be as dynamic and entertaining as a “talking head” can be, but they are always pushing me to oversimplify and exaggerate to make the spiel more colorful (but less scientifically accurate). And then when I see the final product, most of what I did ends up on the cutting room floor, with only a few seconds left of many hours of filming. Even worse, I’ve put in many  hours on projects that never got picked up at all. Documentary filmmaking is a high-risk, low-reward proposition—you have better odds of making big money in Vegas.

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Demographics of Belief

by Michael Shermer, May 31 2011

The following excerpt is from the Prologue to my new book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics—How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths. The Prologue is entitled “I Want to Believe.” The book synthesizes 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs. LEARN MORE about the book.

According to a 2009 Harris Poll of 2,303 adult Americans, when people are asked to “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not,” the following results were revealing:1

  • 82% believe in God
  • 76% believe in miracles
  • 75% believe in Heaven
  • 73% believe in Jesus is God
    or the Son of God
  • 72% believe in angels
  • 71% believe in survival
    of the soul after death
  • 70% believe in the
    resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • 61% believe in hell
  • 61% believe in
    the virgin birth (of Jesus)
  • 60% believe in the devil
  • 45% believe in Darwin’s
    Theory of Evolution
  • 42% believe in ghosts
  • 40% believe in creationism
  • 32% believe in UFOs
  • 26% believe in astrology
  • 23% believe in witches
  • 20% believe in reincarnation

Wow. More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution. That’s disturbing. And yet, such results should not surprise us as they match similar survey findings for belief in the paranormal conducted over the past several decades.2 And it is not just Americans. The percentages of Canadians and Britons who hold such beliefs are nearly identical to those of Americans.3 For example, a 2006 Readers Digest survey of 1,006 adult Britons reported that 43 percent said that they can read other people’s thoughts or have their thoughts read, more than half said that they have had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred, more than two-thirds said they could feel when someone was looking at them, 26 percent said they had sensed when a loved-one was ill or in trouble, and 62 percent said that they could tell who was calling before they picked up the phone. In addition, a fifth said they had seen a ghost and nearly a third said they believe that Near-Death Experiences are evidence for an afterlife.4
Continue reading…

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The Fish Light

by Brian Dunning, Mar 10 2011

Today I thought I’d share a creepy experience I had as a kid. I’ve always figured it was some type of hypnogogic hallucination, since I know for sure that I had at least one such experience at about the same age. I’ve always privately referred to this experience as the “Fish Light”.

It has to do with a spot of light in the shape of the outline of a fish, so let me start by sparing you all the trouble of quipping that it must have been a Jesus Fish. Very droll and clever. Full marks for the spared effort. Continue reading…

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by Brian Dunning, Oct 14 2010

Rumor has it that Lady Gaga, the favorite musical artist of many of us here at SkepticBlog, travels with her own crew of ghost hunters to protect her from spirits that may be haunting the hotels she visits while on tour.

That's right sports fans, you heard it here first (unless you spend as much time as I do on all the Hollywood celebrity gossip web sites). Word is that Gaga is so worried about ghosts that she spent $60,000 on EMF meters to equip a small team of ghost hunters, evidently modeled after those whom we know and love so well from the telly. Whenever she stays at a hotel, her team first sweeps it with the EMF meters to be sure there are no spooks waiting for an autograph. Continue reading…

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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. Continue reading…

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by Steven Novella, Nov 02 2009

Have you ever had the chills? You know, the frights, spooks, willies, nerves, jitters, heebie-jeebies? Do you get these feelings when you have to enter a dark room alone, or if you find yourself on a lonely street at night?

Even the most hardcore skeptic can still be frightened by dark or scary places. One does not have to believe in ghosts to be a little apprehensive about staying in a large medieval castle alone through the dead of night. Sure, being rational is a distinct advantage, as we  skeptics can reassure ourselves that there is nothing to be afraid of. However, sometimes it seems that our imaginations did not get the memo.

Some fears are innate and primal. We can rise above them – but they are still there. Apparently we are descended from those hominids who had such an innate fear of the dark, who wanted to stick close to their parents at night, or seek the comfort of fire’s light. Those who were fearless and more comfortable hanging out alone near the shadows probably did not fare very well. So fear is always with us, lurking in the more primitive parts of our gray matter.

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Hunting the Ghost Hunters

by Steven Novella, Jun 22 2009

I will be away this week, so I am dusting off some of my oldest skeptical writings and updating them. Below is a piece I wrote 12 years ago on ghost hunters, Ed and Lorraine Warren. The article is still relevant, and I enhanced it with some updated info. I also employed the wayback machine to provide links to old websites that are no longer active. I will be mostly out of touch, and only rarely monitoring the comments, so forgive me if I don’t respond quickly or at all.


Belief in the supernatural seems to be a nearly universal part of the human condition, but the details of specific paranormal belief systems depend on culture and location. In New England we have ghosts – or at least ghost hunters. So it is not surprising that in our younger days as activist skeptics, Perry DeAngelis, Evan Bernstein, my brother, Bob, and I (the investigative team of the New England Skeptical Society) cut our skeptical teeth investigating ghost hunters.

Taking on the New England ghost-busting industry led us inevitably to Ed and Lorraine Warren, the patriarch and matriarch of ghost hunting in New England. Ed and Lorraine hunted ghosts (Ed has since passed) – ghosts, apparitions, demons, possessed people, places and things. They did so for decades, and claim to have looked at nearly 4000 cases. They were made famous by books and movies, and as luck would have it lived only a couple towns over in Monroe Connecticut.

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The Mysterious Green Room Incident

by Ryan Johnson, Mar 17 2009

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

As part of the continuing adventures of the Cast and Crew of The Skeptologists, I would like to share with you a bit of rough-edited never-before seen footage. This was shot during the Pilot of The Skeptologists and for reasons you will soon understand, it was never included in the final version of the pilot. I found the event interesting and it solidified my thoughts about how people interpret events based on their own predispositions.

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