The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for the ‘ghosts & paranormal’ Category

The Dark Side of Ghost-Hunting

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 30, 2013

I’ve posted many times before about so-called ghost hunters and ghost hunting, and much of the time it has been in either good fun (by spoofing them) or a bit more serious in challenging them to be more rigorous in their methodology.  However, in this post I want to point out the danger(s) involved in ghost hunting; as is so often illustrated on the What’s The Harm? website, when people buy into pseudoscientific and non-critical thinking, it can have profoundly negative effects.

Case in point: recently some moronic ghost hunters in New Orleans decided that in order to get the spirits supposedly inhabiting an old mansion from the 1850s to “come out and play” that they needed to set fire to the place.  The result: it completely burned to the ground…

Ghost Hunters Burn Down Historic Mansion

… The mansion, built in the 1850s, had survived through many incarnations, operating as a boarding house, a hotel and even an illegal gambling house. Though the mansion had been shuttered in recent years, its owner, the Arlene and Joseph Meraux Charitable Foundation, had plans to renovate the building. …

… The fire at LeBeau broke out at about 2 a.m. local time Friday, Nov. 21, and the building was almost completely destroyed by the time firefighters arrived. The ghost hunters had been trying to produce a reaction from the spirits they assumed resided there, by doing what TV ghost hunters call “provocation,” essentially making loud noises, yelling taunts at the ghosts and banging on walls. Frustrated that their efforts failed to yield any spirits, the group decided to light a fire. Whether this was intended to smoke the spirits out or simply burn the place down, the resulting flames soon reduced the mansion to ashes and four brick chimneys.

While many ghost hunters engage in harmless (and fruitless) fun, as this case shows, there can be a dark, dangerous side to the pursuit. In the wake of popular ghost-hunting TV shows, police across the country have seen a surge in people being arrested, injured and even killed while looking for ghosts.

In 2006, a woman was critically wounded looking for ghosts in a private house near a cemetery; she and a friend were trespassing, and the house owner mistook them for vandals and shot them. In 2010, a North Carolina man died while ghost hunting with a group of friends, hoping to see the ghost of a train that crashed years earlier. The ghost train did not appear — but a real train came around a bend and killed one man who couldn’t get out of the way in time. … [emphasis added]

Note the backwards thinking here: the ghost hunters in question were so hell-bent on “proving” the existence of the ghosts supposedly haunting this mansion that, when all else failed, they actually burnt the damn place down!  It is revealing that the thought that perhaps there were no ghosts/spirits in the place at all seems to have never occurred to them, so strong was their confirmation bias in favor of all evidence pointing towards the existence of the ghosts/spirits…

facepalm

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Classic Skeptical Scene from “Ghostbusters”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 31, 2013

One of the things I like to do on Halloween, besides handing out candy to trick-or-treaters, is watch scary and spooky themed movies.  I recently re-watched one of the great ones from the 1980s: Ghostbusters.  Did you ever notice that the character of Peter Venkman is actually kind of a skeptic?  This fact is outlined in the following hilarious scene from the opening of the movie, where Venkman essentially calls out his colleagues for engaging in an argument from ignorance in his typical deadpan way as they search for a ghost

**Dialogue from 0:19 – 0:38**

Ray Stantz: “Look!”

Egon Spengler: “This is hot, Ray.”

Ray: “Symmetrical book stacking, just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947.”

Peter Venkman: “You’re right, no human being would stack books like this.”

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, humor | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Karen Stollznow’s TAM Talk: What an Excellent Day for a Talk about Exorcism

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 30, 2013

In the spirit of both Halloween and skepticism, I wanted to pass along to you this very well done talk on demonic possession and exorcism from Karen Stollznow.  Enjoy!  :)

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Purveyor of Fake “Bomb Detectors” Found Guilty of Fraud

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 25, 2013

Wow, sometimes the good guys win one. In case you didn’t know, there has been a long-running skeptical campaign against a pseudoscientific fraudster, James McCormick, who sold bomb dowsing kits to the Iraqi military. Yes, you read that correctly, dowsing kits – as in “water witching”! And no, dowsing doesn’t work. And yes, it resulted in a lot of people getting killed, because these things didn’t do squat to detect bombs. And yes, it pleases me greatly to see this criminal finally receive justice…

James McCormick guilty of selling fake bomb detectors

James McCormick arrives at the Old Bailey
McCormick’s fake bomb detectors were used at Iraqi checkpoints staffed by the British military

A millionaire businessman who sold fake bomb detectors to countries including Iraq and Georgia, knowing they did not work, has been convicted of fraud.

James McCormick, 56, of Langport, Somerset, is said to have made £50m from sales and sold more than 6,000 in Iraq, the Old Bailey heard.

Police said the devices, modelled on a novelty golf ball finder, are still in use at some checkpoints.

One Iraqi bomb victim described him to the BBC as a “morally bankrupt” man.

During Tuesday’s hearing at the Old Bailey in London, the court was told McCormick’s detectors, which cost up to $40,000 (£27,000) each, were completely ineffectual and lacked any grounding in science.

Richard Whittam QC, for the prosecution, said: “The devices did not work and he knew they did not work.”

McCormick’s claims

McCormick had claimed the devices could bypass “all forms of concealment”, detecting drugs and people along with explosives, the court heard.

He claimed they would work under water and from the air, and would track an object up to 1km (3280ft) below the ground.

The bomb detectors came with cards which were “programmed” to detect a wide array of substances, from ivory to $100 banknotes.

Other substances could be detected, it was claimed, if put in a jar with a sticker which would absorb its “vapours” and was then stuck on a card that would be read by the machine.

In reality, McCormick’s device was based on $20 (£13) golf ball finders which he had purchased from the US and which had no working electronics.

Police said McCormick showed a complete disregard for the safety of those who used and relied upon the device for their own security and protection. …

Serves this scumbag right.  I hope they throw the book at him, not only for his crimes but also to send a clear message to the other fraudsters and charlatans out there: we’re watching you.  Skepticism matters.

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

EVP Patrol Squad: When Parody is Indistinguishable from Woo

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 3, 2012

I just ran across this parody of the “History” Channel by some folks calling themselves the EVP Patrol Squad.  They are spoofing the various pseudoscientific “experts” that are regularly paraded out on that channel in favor of various ancient alien, paranormal, and ghostly claims.  The funny thing is that if you actually watch some of the stuff on the History Channel, it is so goofy that it almost seems that this is straight from one of their shows – so this is good evidence of Poe’s Law.  Enjoy! :)

I don’t know about you all, but I don’t think that I’ll ever be able to look a sporks the same again.  The horror… THE HORROR!!!

Posted in aliens & UFOs, ghosts & paranormal, humor, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Solving the Mystery Behind “Mystery Houses”

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 28, 2012

Years ago I performed an impromptu investigation of the Montana Vortex, a roadside attraction whose proprieters claim that there is actually some kind of weird adjustment to the laws of physics in order to account for the strange goings on there.  Like many such attractions, the folks who run the Montana Vortex have a “mystery house” where the effect of gravity seems to be lop-sided.  But while this is obviously an illusion, it certainly feels real…

Thanks to a follower of this blog (@denatureSD on Twitter), I saw this recent Science Friday video from YouTube which nicely explains this phenomenon.  Enjoy! :)

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EBay Bans Witchcraft and “Supernatural Sales”?

Posted by mattusmaximus on August 16, 2012

Okay, sometimes you run across a story so outlandish that it just seems too goofy to be true, kind of like those headlines you see in The Onion… then you find out they ARE true and you get whiplash from the double-take.  Case in point, this little gem from the LA Times:

EBay bans supernatural sales of magic spells, potions, hexes

By Tiffany Hsu This post has been updated. See note below.August 16, 2012, 10:58 a.m.
Making a profit on the occult arts? Cultivating a loyal customer base for potions, magic spells and psychic readings? Not on EBay, you’re not.

In its 2012 Fall Seller Update, the online marketplace said it was banning all sales of supernatural goods and services, exiling its witchy and wizardly clientele to the wilds of Craigslist and other Web-based Diagon Alleys.

Among the prohibited items: “advice; spells; curses; hexing; conjuring; magic services; prayers; blessings; Psychic, Tarot, Reiki, and other metaphysical readings & services; magic potions; healing sessions.”

EBay representatives did not immediately respond to questions as to why Harry Potter wannabes were no longer welcome or whether they contributed substantially to EBay transactions.

[Updated, 12:00 p.m. Aug. 16: EBay said in an email that it regularly reviews categories and updates policies based on customer feedback and was “discontinuing a small number of categories within the larger Metaphysical subcategory.”

Spokeswoman Johnna Hoff said that buyers and sellers have complained to EBay that such transactions “often result in issues that can be difficult to resolve.”

“It’s important to note that items that have a tangible value for the item itself and may also be used in metaphysical rites and practices (ie  jewelry, crystals, incense, candles, and books) are allowed in most cases,” Hoff wrote.”]

Beginning Aug. 30, attempts to list such enchantments for sale will be blocked, according to the website. …

Oh dear evil Jebus… you’ve got to be kidding me.  Not “you’ve got to be kidding me” in the sense of “you’ve got to be kidding me that EBay banned witchcraft” but “you’ve got to be kidding me that they even sold witchcraft in the first frakkin’ place!!!”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that EBay woke up and smelled the coffee, so to speak.  But why did they even sell this crap in the first place???

I would also just like to note that, despite showing a semblance of sanity and relation to reality by banning these so-called “supernatural sales”, EBay will still have a subcategory titled “Metaphysical” after August 30.  The mere fact that such a subcategory even exists on EBay just makes me cringe and forces me to seriously question the ethics of those who operate the company.  Selling such nonsense purely for the sake of making a buck just strikes me as wrong; or will the operators of EBay be willing to take “metaphysical money” in place of the real, materialistic cash for these purchases?

Ah well, EBay, this one’s for you:

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, internet | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The Skeptical Teacher to be Interviewed on Darkness Radio – LIVE!

Posted by mattusmaximus on May 14, 2012

I know I’m posting this a little late, but I wanted to let you all know that I’m going to be interviewed tonight (Monday, May 14th) live on Darkness Radio at 11:00pm CDT.  If you recall, I blogged some time ago – almost two years – about a very interesting discussion I had with paranormal investigator Dave Schrader at Convergence 2010 on the topic of “ghost hunting”.  Despite the fact that Dave’s a believer in ghosts and the paranormal and I’m a skeptic, we hit it off and he invited me to be on his show so that I could give my perspective as a skeptic… well, it took awhile, but tonight’s the night! :)

If you can catch the show, please click the Darkness Radio icon below to listen live.  Otherwise, try looking it up on the Darkness Radio archive afterwards.

Darkness Radio 

Posted in ghosts & paranormal | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

More Twisted Thinking from Shroud of Turin Proponents

Posted by mattusmaximus on December 22, 2011

I shouldn’t be surprised to see this particular headline at this time of the year: The Shroud of Turin Wasn’t Faked, Italian Experts Say.  It’s just too easy, I assume, for the media to take a story like this and run with it during the Christmas season.  Going beyond the headline, I’d like to analyze a couple of specifics from the folks who are behind this latest “research” on the Shroud.

First, they claim – falsely – that it would have been impossible to fake the Shroud…

… Experts at Italy’s National Agency for New Technologies, Energy and Sustainable Development have concluded in a report that the famed purported burial cloth of Jesus Christ could not have been faked. … [emphasis added]

Which is an interesting claim, based upon the fact that in 2009 researcher Luigi Garlaschelli published his methods for replicating the Shroud using only techniques which would have been available in the 13th and 14th centuries (dates to which all available evidence points as the time of origin of the Shroud).  Here’s what he came up with…

Replications of the Shroud of Turin — So much for the claim that it cannot be replicated (oops)

But the worst part of the analysis by the Shroud proponents comes from the next part of the ABC article:

… According to the Vatican Insider, a project by La Stampa newspaper that closely follows the Catholic church, the experts’ report says, “The double image (front and back) of a scourged and crucified man, barely visible on the linen cloth of the Shroud of Turin has many physical and chemical characteristics that are so particular that the staining which is identical in all its facets, would be impossible to obtain today in a laboratory … This inability to repeat (and therefore falsify) the image on the Shroud makes it impossible to formulate a reliable hypothesis on how the impression was made.” … [emphasis added]

Note the last line there.  It is essentially one big argument from ignorance – that’s what this entire “scientific” endeavor basically boils down to: we don’t know whether or not the Shroud is real, so therefore it really was the burial cloth of Jesus Christ!

So because you don’t know, you know???

Seriously?  That’s the argument?  Using such sloppy logic I could just as easily argue that the Shroud was created by invisible leprechauns, but somehow I don’t think the Catholic Church would go with that explanation.  And that’s the silly thing about arguments from ignorance: once you use such thinking as an acceptable method of argumentation, just about any kind of crazy idea (without any evidence to support it whatsoever) becomes fair game.

If this is the best the Shroud proponents can do, color me unimpressed.

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, religion | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Physics Proves the Existence of Ghosts?

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 24, 2011

I’ve blogged here before about “professional” ghost-hunters and their woo.  And in many cases I have taken such “professionals” to task for not really following any kind of decent, consistent protocols (such as knowing how their instrumentation works, duh) but instead favoring stories that seem to be a combination of the Blair-Witch Project and various kinds of techno-babble.  But now I just have to mention a couple of things about how many ghost-hunters just seem to get basic physics (pardon the pun) dead wrong.

My skeptical colleague Ben Radford recently wrote an article for LiveScience.com on this very point…

Do Einstein’s Laws Prove Ghosts Exist?

… Despite years of efforts by ghost hunters on TV and in real life, we still do not have good proof that ghosts are real. Many ghost hunters believe that strong support for the existence of ghosts can be found in modern physics. Specifically, that Albert Einstein, one of the greatest scientific minds of all time, offered a scientific basis for the reality of ghosts. …

Now hold on a minute.  As we’ve seen before, it is not uncommon for pseudoscientists and cranks of all kinds to try glomming onto Einstein’s coat-tails as one of the most well-known and respected scientists of the 20th century as a way of trying to gain traction for their ideas.  It is as if they think that by simply invoking Einstein’s name and theories, despite the fact that they have no real understanding of those theories, that it will somehow, magically make them correct.  Of course, this simply displays a fundamental flaw in the thinking of ghost-hunters, because it shows they have no real knowledge of how science (much less physics) works.

Specifically, in this case the ghost-hunters are claiming that Einstein’s theory of relativity “proves” the existence of ghosts:

… For example, ghost researcher John Kachuba, in his book “Ghosthunters” (2007, New Page Books), writes, “Einstein proved that all the energy of the universe is constant and that it can neither be created nor destroyed. … So what happens to that energy when we die? If it cannot be destroyed, it must then, according to Dr. Einstein, be transformed into another form of energy. What is that new energy? … Could we call that new creation a ghost?”

This idea shows up — and is presented as evidence for ghosts — on virtually all ghost-themed websites as well. For example, a group called Tri County Paranormal states, “Albert Einstein said that energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only change from one form to another. When we are alive, we have electrical energy in our bodies. … What happens to the electricity that was in our body, causing our heart to beat and making our breathing possible? There is no easy answer to that.” … [emphasis added]

Actually, the answer is pretty easy, as long as you understand how energy is related to matter as outlined in Einstein’s theory.  It can all be summed up in what is probably the most well-known, but one of the least understood, equations in all of science… Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 26 Comments »

 
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