One of the major problems with skepticism is that many times it’s used as a blunt object. Smashing someone over their head with facts rarely if ever changes their mind, and can even make them dig in even more.
Sometimes, most times, a more subtle approach is warranted. That’s why I was so tickled to get an email from my sister (hi Marci!) about a page on an advice website called Manage My Life. The page in question is called Cures for a Haunted House, and starts off this way:
Fall is here, the leaves are changing, the nights are growing long, and something is happening inside your home. Your neck prickles in certain rooms. Doors open by themselves. Strange noises come from inside the walls. Visions of plummeting property values dance through your head as you wonder: is my house haunted?
It then lists several tongue-in-cheek signs of a "haunting", like creaky noises, cold spots, and so on… and tells you what the usual causes are (thermal compression and expansion of wood, drafts, critters in the walls, and so on). So they not only use an interest in paranormal to give you good advice, they sneak in some pretty solid skeptical thinking in there as well!
Pretty cool. I really wish more people selling advice did this, instead of exactly the reverse.
If you’re looking for some spooky listening for your Halloween, then aim your ectoplasmic resonator at astronomer Neil Tyson’s Star Talk radio show, because last night he hunted ghosts… or at least, talked to some folks who know about ghosts. He chats with author Mary Roach, skeptic ghost investigator Joe Nickell, and… me!
Yeah, I’m not really an expert on ghosts — still being alive and all — but I’ve seen a few ghost movies in my time, so we chat about those, and why I don’t personally think dead people are floating around, knocking on walls and hoping some "ghost hunter" will notice us and anxiously whisper, "Did you hear that?"
My interview is broken up into several segments; the first starts around 11:30, the second at 24:50, the third at 36:15, and the fourth at 41:00. But of course you should listen to the whole show; it’s pretty entertaining!
I’ll note we did this interview through Skype, and my voice is a little warbly. Or was I just communicating from the other side??!!
OK, yeah, it was just warbly. But you were scared there for a second, weren’t you?
OK, yeah, no you weren’t. Damn. Being a skeptic on Halloween is hard.
Image credit: me! If you’re curious, that’s my pal Jennifer Ouellette and me from TAM 9, chatting with the disembodied head of Neil. Having him floating around like that was distracting.
Calamities of Nature is a webcomic that frequently has skeptical and scientifiic themes. A recent one deals with ghosts and the soul, and it hits on a message I’ve said many times: there’s no such thing as the supernatural. Either something is natural — that is, part of the Universe — or else it doesn’t exist.
If you posit some thing that has no perceivable or measurable effect, then it may as well not exist. And as soon as you claim it does have an effect — it can be seen, heard, recorded, felt — then it must be in some way testable, and therefore subject to science. You can’t claim ghosts are supernatural, beyond the realm of science, but also claim they show up on a freaking thermal camera!
Well, you can claim that, but you’d be wrong. So there you go.
[NOTE: In a funny coincidence, after I drafted this post but before I published it, my fellow Hive Overmind blogger Sean Carroll posted a link to this same cartoon using almost exactly the same post title! COINCIDENCE? Well, yeah, actually. Great minds and all that. I'll add we chose different panels of the comic to post though.]
As you might expect, I am not a big fan of ghost hunting shows. Stopping every ten seconds and dramatically whispering "Did you hear that?" is not exactly the best way to run a scientific investigation.
So I’m pleased to see satires and such of those programs, and I think the web comic Dork Tower does it pretty well here.
Man, there’ve been a lot of good sciencey skeptical web comics lately. Keep ‘em coming, folks. It’s one of the best ways to spread the word.