Paranormal
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Suggestions for debunkers

I think we can all agree that remaining calm and logically thinking through any paranormal-seeming occurance we might experience is probably a very good idea. Sometimes we don't do this in the heat of the moment and it's only later, after we've told our story to others, that this critical thinking is applied, questions are asked, and possible alternative explanations are suggested.

Sometimes, though, people offer explanations that don't really explain anything, as if they're just trying to get us to buy off in their idea that our experience wasn't paranormal at all just so we'll drop the subject. We've probably all had our parents do this when we were young.

People would be a lot more effective if they'd take the time to explain rather than being in such a hurry to merely explain away.

Let's look at some of the common non-explanations that we read and hear.

It's only the house settling (when we say we hear tapping or footsteps when no one is there). Do a Google search for "house settling" and read some of the advice-to-homeowners articles. If I thought someone heard noises indicative of my house settling I'd be worried as heck! What a house settling really means is that a portion of its foundation is sinking. Among the symptoms of this are unlevel floors, doors that become hard to open or close, and cracks in the sheetrock or plaster on walls. It usually happens to newer homes but can also happen to old ones, especially when a long dry spell dries out the deeper soil. It's more common with pillar and post foundations over crawlspaces than with homes built over concrete basements, and in places with sandy or loamy soil rather than clay or hardpan. Repairs can mean having to raise the entire house on jacks then rebuild the foundation to make it level again, which is expensive.

(When I was a kid the grownups would explain night noises as "the house settling" and I never knew what it really meant. It was just one of those grownup phrases, like "It'll stunt your growth". So a few weeks ago I did that Google search, and boy!)

Footsteps usually sound like exactly what they are and are unmistakeable but it's possible that tapping or scratching sounds or an occasional loud BANG! [i]might[/i] be caused by parts of the house (boards in the walls, for example) contracting as they cool off or expanding as they get warmer. That's just basic physics that's probably covered in your science class in middle school. Everything does that: rock, wood, metal. But that isn't the house setttling. People's explanations would be easier to believe if they have their facts and terminology straight.

You just imagined it.Come on! Kids and many adults have an active imagination, but after we reach the age of puberty or so (barring develepmental disabilities or emotional/mental issues) we can pretty much tell the difference between internally imagining something and externally experiencing it.

If I see a car go past, signalling, turning and braking but with no driver I might be [i]mistaken[/i] about what I think I saw vs. what I really saw but I certainly didn't [i]imagine[/i] the whole thing (like inventing a story as a creative writing project). You can offer me alternative explanations (maybe the glare on the window hid the driver from veiw. Maybe the driver is real short. Maybe some little kid's driving it.) but don't just say it was just my imagination.

It was just a dream. Well, that could be so in certain cases. If I wake up and see my dead Aunt Martha standing at the foot of my bed I might just be [i]dreaming that I woke up[/i] and saw her. Sometimes a dream is very vivid and realistic.

If I just laid down and pulled the blankets up then feel someone sit on the bed next to me and stroke my hair, then no, I'm not dreaming it. I haven't even had a chance to fall asleep yet, OK? And if I'm outside mowing the lawn when I see that driverless car go by I'm not dreaming then either. Nor is it just a dream if I see Aunt Martha every night at the same time and so does anyone else that sleeps in that room. The explanation has to explain what I've experienced. You can't try and alter my experience so it fits your explanation.

I'm just making it up to gain attention, publicity or money. I think that it's better to assume that anyone reporting a paranormal or unusual experience is telling the truth [i]as they believe it to be[/i]. It's up to you, if you're investigating my story, to prove that I'm telling tall tales by finding some evidence of fraud. Otherwise this is the argumentum ad hominem fallacy, shifting the subject to the person rather than discussing my argument or story, and explaining nothing. Your personal disbelief in ghosts does not constitute evidence of lying or hoaxing on my part if I claim to have seen one.

Besides, most people are reluctant to come forward with these kinds of experiences for fear of being scorned or laughed at. (That's why there are so many ghost experiences being posted on the 'net- anononymity. No one has to see their face or know their real name. My boss or neighbor won't think I'm nuts for seeing ghosts, plus I can unburden myself about what I've seen. )

It's just mass hysteria (when more than one person reports experiencing the same thing). Here's a case of real mass hysteria: At a school, after lunch, a student said he felt ill. Another student heard about it and she, too, felt queasy and weak. Then several more students reported sick with the same symptoms as the rumor of tainted food spread. The school was closed for the rest of the day and samples of the food were sent to a lab. The results were that there was nothing wrong with it. Most or all of the students' symptoms were psychosomatic.

Several people sitting in a room and all suddenly seeing a person walk past them and right through a closed door is [i]not[/i] mass hysteria. That isn't how it works. Several people hearing that a cemetery is haunted, deciding one night to go check it out, pumping themselves all up by retelling each other local legends about the place during the drive, getting there and seeing how creepy it looks, seeing or hearing something (an animal in nearby brush, say), panicking and running for dear life: now, that might be mass hysteria at work.

I'm not remembering correctly. Peoples' memories are notoriously faulty and innacurate (the suggestion being that I saw something in a film or read about it once and falsely "remembered" it as being my own real experience, or that I'm subconsciously adding embellishments.)

Inaccuracy of memory is very true for mundane things like what I ate for dinner last Friday, but unusual circumstances such as seeing a ghost usually make an extremely strong impression, as do things such as being in a firefight during a war. Many of these stories go "It happened 25 years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday. I'll never forget it."

People that keep a journal or diary, a blog, or who submit their story to someone else's website can often tell you the same story in detail, years later, without looking at the original written story and the "then and now" versions match.

The brain contains a filing system. Such things as the colors of all the cars that we see while coming home for the day probably don't get filed at all. What we had for dinner one night last week probably gets temporarily shoved in a vault somewhere just in case it's needed later, and it would take time and effort to recall it. After a few weeks it gets thrown away. An important dinnertime conversation with family gets filed close by where it can be gotten to easily, and after several months gets moved to the vault. Something really unusual like a ghost sighting gets its own special place and every detail is saved. That's how our memory works.

Claiming that my memory of a weird, profound experience is faulty based on my what-I-wore-on-April-15th type of memory is a falsehood. This "explanation" is akin to the "anecdotal evidence is no evidence" argument of debunkers, if by anecdotal evidence they mean a firsthand eyewitness account. Those accounts are certainly counted as evidence, and strong evidence, in courts of law.

Witnesses of a stabbing's stories may disagree with each other in details: perpetrator's height, weight, race, clothing description. They all agree on the unusual and shocking part, that they saw someone stab a guy. Witnesses of an apparition may disagree on details too, but they all saw the ghost. Their memories are all true to that extent.

You were hallucinating- it was all in your mind. The burden of proof is on anyone who makes this claim to show evidence of my fever, mental illness or drug abuse that would cause me to see and hear things that weren't there. Otherwise this is just another argumentum ad hominem fallacy to draw attention away from my story.

If hallucinations were really a likely explanation for ghost-ish experiences, consider that if a true ghost story website gets 100,000 hits in a year and 100 people submit real-sounding stories during that year, that means (assuming that this sample is accurate for the general population, not just those who visit ghost story websites) that 1 out of every 100 people have a hallucination every year! Not very likely- hallucinatory people just aren't that common. I doubt if 1 out of 100 [i]ghost story readers only[/i] have a hallucination, ever. And the odds that ill or drugged people are going to specifically hallucinate a ghost sighting out of all of the infinate possibilities of things that they might "see", and then share it with others, are very low indeed.

Most of these "it was only thus-and-so, go back to sleep" explanations are condescending and just serve to convince me that you don't believe what I'm saying or aren't really even listening. People would do a lot better job if they heard me out when I tell them I saw something, made logical and [i]reasonable[/i] suggestions for what may have caused it, and actually looked into the matter a bit themselves. Parents would be teaching their children to think critically and consider different sides of things, not to jump to conclusions and not to just brush people off. Kids would feel respected and cared for, and will probably more apt to confide in their parents in the future. Debunkers would probably be listened to more if they treated people with more respect, and so feel they're making progress in checking the "rising tide of irrationality". Ghost researchers might have fewer inadvertently-false reports to deal with so would get better results on their remaining investigations and have more time available for research and documentation, or else would at least be busily gathering data on what ghosts are not. Experiencers of what they thought were paranormal events would have the answers they seek and assurance that they're not going crazy. Everybody would win.
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Like you, I too am a skeptic. I've has experiences with "ghosts" that I can't find mundane causes for or explain by any means other than the hypothesis that we survive in some form after our physical death and still find means to communicate with the living. I would gladly be proven wrong if someone could show me an alternate, scientific explanation for these things that made sense. Yet whenever I experience something new, or am told of someone else's experiences, the first thing I do is try to think of logical, humdrum causes that would explain it. Take a look at my posts and comments here, and you'll see that that's true. Like my reply to Specimin_9 above, for example.

Occam's Razor tells me that of several different hypotheses that fit the evidence, the simplest is probably the correct one. So far I've only seen explanations from debunkers saying it's hallucination/a hoax/the wind/reflections of car lights/the house settling/a dream/a faulty memory/ad infinitum. No one explanation of theirs fits all of everyone's varied experiences so multiple, differing ones are required. The explanation that ghosts or spirits or whatever you want to call them actually exist is the simplest and fits most or all of people's eyewitness experiences, so I use that as a working hypothesis for now until I can find a better one. At the end of the day, though, I'd rather [i]know[/i] than just believe or suspect.

The idea of ultrasound, subsonics and electromagnetism, from natural causes such as tectonic faults, causing minor temporal lobe epilepsy sounds promising and I'm eagerly following developments there. That still doesn't explain how several people can all witness the same thing such as a "ghost" interacting with them in some way, unless perhaps there's an intelligence that's manipulating these sound/energy sources to make our brains "see and hear" what it wants us to. (That's just wild speculation on my part.) If scientists could ever show me just how external electromagnetism stimulates a particular part of the brain and produces the same things that people experience which they call "hauntings" then I'd accept that as a likelier hypothesis than survival of the spirit (which, I agree, sounds more like religion than nature or science. But perhaps religion has a basis in fact?) So far they've been able to induce feelings of "a presence" and in some cases an actual apparition using labaratory equipment on volunteers. They've invented the story of a death in a location and through social engineering and getting people to believe the story managed to actually cause haunting-like phenomena to occur, as though they'd manufactured a ghost using the collective power of people's minds. They haven't been able to reproduce Aunt Martha appearing in my bedroom to say goodbye at the exact moment that she died in a hospital across the country, though.

Paranormal researchers are searching for evidence to support the spirit hypothesis, a few scientists are researching the electromagnetism and temporal lobe hypothesis, while most scientists and debunkers are simply repeating the mantra "there's no such thing as ghosts" and leaving it at that. Since so few scientists are willing to do their jobs amateurs have had to pick up the slack, like amateur archeologists did in the 1800s. If they do so sloppily or incorrectly it's up to scientists or skeptics to try to correct them rather than just ridiculing them, in my opinion.

Science is a process of studying the unknown to try to learn about it, not a vast storehouse of knowledge in which anything it doesn't already know is "crap" or nonexistant. By that logic, germs wouldn't have existed prior to their discovery, and since it's impossible to discover something that doesn't exist they would never have been discovered, hence they still don't eist. Go leave a tuna sandwich sitting out at room temperature for three days, eat it, then tell me that germs don't exist.

Much of what mainstream physicists are studying today (string theory, multiple universes, antimatter, black holes) would have been laughed at by science just 20 or 30 years ago. Perhaps someday we'll understand what causes people to see "ghosts" and what causes the ghosts to seem to act as they do. I'm looking forward to that, whatever the explanation turns out to be.

Regarding selective memory, did you read my post? The things that police officers go back and change in their reports are details, not the gist of the crime. They don't go and change a shooting into a car accident. Using that argument is comparing apples to oranges. And I never asked anyone to believe that teenagres were chased by zombies. That's a straw man argument, putting words into my mouth that I didn't say. What I said was, if a rational person says they heard footsteps and subsequent investigation on their part showed that no one else was there to make those footsteps, we should believe that they believe that they experienced what they say they did and act accordingly rather than just insulting them out of hand. I don't have to believe as another person does in order to respect their beliefs. To act otherwise leads to intolerance and bigotry.

Likewise, your reference to the Ghost Hunters show and the steam heating, where you say I'm asking you to believe the people on the show when they think the banging is paranormal in origin- another straw man. If you'd actually read my post rather than just reacting emotionally you'd see that I am suggesting the very opposite. Believing that everything is paranormal or believing that nothing is are both just adhering to dogma. I'm asking for open-minded skepticism coupled with respect.

And at no time did I suggest that this pooh-pooh debunking occured here. Most of my references are actually about things that parents tell their children to try to calm their night fears, and I offer suggestions on how they might do so more effectively. Others are based on articles that I've read on the Skeptical Inquirere website, and again, I offer the skeptical community suggestions on how they might be more effective without angering people. Nowhere in my post did I ask anyone to believe in ghosts nor did I present evidence in support of that hypothesis. What I did do was to list a bunch of "don'ts" when you're talking to people who claim to have had an experience of the possibly-ghostly sort.

I recently (yesterday, in fact) read a report of a ghost investigation cunducted by a member of CISCOP. He treated the family that experienced what they thought was a haunting with dignity and respect. He attempted to prove that what they claimed happened did indeed happen- and failed. He was able to find logical explanations for their EVPs, cold spots, the man's bed shaking at night and so on. He sat down with them and discussed his findings, calmed their fears and was most helpful to that family. Most debunkers would have said "horse pucky" as soon as the family contacted them an not even bothered to investigate. Of course, being CISCOP, they left me with their unspoken but implied conclusion that this investigation's results are true for all hauntings.

I was on my high school debate team in my senior year and I learned not to simply call the opposition's arguments "crap" and "nonsense". I learned to address these arguments with evidence that refuted them. Failing to do so would cause me to lose the debate. May I see your evidence that anything I've said is "crap" or "nonsense"? Can you specifically refute any of my points without resorting to logical fallacies or loaded terminology? (I believe that Moonburn recently posted a sticky that defined many of these.)

In any case, if you were to hear and feel an explosion you'd probably want a logical explanation for it rather than being told that you just imagined it, as though you're a small child that "saw" a monster under his bed, right?