The Skeptical Teacher

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

Posts Tagged ‘spirits’

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.”

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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 

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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: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 39 Comments »

Halloween: The Perfect Opportunity to Promote Skepticism!

Posted by mattusmaximus on October 27, 2011

My favorite time of the year is almost upon us: Halloween! 😀

I love Halloween not just because of the candy, the costumes, and the decorations (when else can you be a complete freak and it be socially acceptable?) but also because of the wonderful potential for promoting skepticism and critical thinking about various paranormal claims.  Let’s face it: at this time of the year, ghosts, witchcraft, psychics, and various other kinds of woo are on everyone’s minds, so why not take advantage of that fact and use it to inject the skeptical viewpoint on things?  I have found this to be a very effective teaching technique over the years, so that’s why I pass it along to you.

So in the spirit of the season (pardon the pun), allow me to share with you some links to various Halloween-ish skeptical resources that you can use, including a few of my earlier blog posts on the subject…

A Skeptic’s Halloween

Snopes: Halloween Legends

South Park Spoofs “Ghost Hunters”

Halloween Lesson, Part 1: Randi’s “Secrets of the Psychics”

A Historical Halloween & Skepticism Lesson: The 1938 “War of the Worlds” Broadcast by Orson Welles

Halloween Lesson, Part 2: The Haunted Physics Lab

Happy Halloween!!!

Posted in aliens & UFOs, education, ghosts & paranormal, humor, magic tricks, physics denial/woo, psychics, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Discovery Channel’s “The Supernaturalist” is Super Stupid

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 7, 2011

There was a time when I had really high hopes for cable channels like the Discovery Channel – I had hoped that they would be bastions that would promote sound science amidst a sea of sensationalistic cable TV docudrama and crapola (can you tell I don’t watch TV or cable?)  Sadly, the more time that passes, the more and more I shake my head in shame for what has happened to the Discovery Channel.  Case in point: the newest show on this “science” network, “The Supernaturalist”.

The show just launched a few days ago, and the Discovery Channel was promoting it as the Next Big Thing on their network.  Here’s the press release:

Mind-blowing Magic in The Supernaturalist

06/14/2011

MAGICIAN USES HIS OWN SKILLS TO FIND ELUSIVE MAGICAL MONK IN NEW
DISCOVERY SPECIAL ‘THE SUPERNATURALIST

Dan White performs mind-blowing magic: manipulating physical objects, performing surprising card tricks and making items appear from seemingly thin air. All of this, he admits, is merely an illusion. White has a mission: to find REAL magic. In Discovery Channel’s THE SUPERNATURALIST, premiering Wednesday, June 29th at 10PM et/pt, White travels to a remote corner of the planet and finds himself in a place where magic isn’t just tricks. It is believed to be very real… and even dangerous.

Locals in the Himalayan country of Nepal believe there are monks within its borders who use their powers to harm anyone who crosses their path. White relies on his talents as an illusionist to open doors normally closed to outsiders in an attempt to find one of these feared monks and – hopefully – witness his true magic. White’s mission will introduce him to many people, each getting him one step closer to the men in the mountains.

Unfortunately, in Dan White’s quest to “find REAL magic” – and the Discovery Channel’s quest to continue catering to the lowest common denominator (remember their stupid ghost-hunting show?) – it seems that everyone involved has left their basic critical thinking skills at the door.  For example, check out this footage of when Dan White “discovers” the levitating powers of the monk he has sought for so long…

The overly credulous nature of this clip, and how Dan White – the supposed skeptic – plays it up as legitimate (honest!) is downright pathetic.  There are some very basic questions to ask regarding a scenario like this:

1. Why isn’t the filming done in one continuous shot?  Note all the breaks in the clip between the time the monk sits down and when he “levitates”.

2. Why does the monk have to sit where he does, in front of a wall full of curtains that can easily obscure a device which can lift him?

3. Why doesn’t Dan White ask the obvious question as outlined in #2 above, instead of standing there looking like an idiot with his mouth agape?

4. Why doesn’t Dan White, our token “skeptic”, take a moment to simply walk over to the side to make sure there isn’t a mechanical arm or similar contraption connecting the monk to something behind the curtain.  On a related note, why isn’t this camera angle shown?

A simple application of Occam’s Razor is all that is necessary to slice through what is very clearly a bullshit display put together to get ratings.  Folks, this is a big joke, and if anyone takes it seriously the only one’s laughing will be the executives at the Discovery Channel who are guffawing at having one over on gullible viewers.  Fortunately, there is a silver lining: I have been inspired to incorporate this footage and a critical analysis of it into my upcoming talk at The Amaz!ng Meeting 9 in Las Vegas next week – it will make a good lesson for my students 🙂

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, magic tricks, media woo, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 62 Comments »

“The Skeptical Teacher” Makes List of Top Paranormal Skeptic Blogs

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 31, 2011

Time for me to toot my own horn a bit 🙂

Recently, my blog was listed atop the list of Top 25 Paranormal Skeptic Blogs from the PharmacyDegree.net website.  Actually, another reason why I wanted to share this information with you is because the list contains a large number of very useful links to other skeptical blogs.  Here it is…

Top 25 Paranormal Skeptic Blogs

Do you believe? Whether you’ve had a firsthand experience with the paranormal or seldom believe the ghost stories you heard as a kid, these are the blogs to turn to when you want a major myth or paranormal experience debunked. Some paranormal historians have made a career out of this and now blog on the topic to prevent folks from being spooked by events and reports that can be explained with pure logic…

Click here to access the entire list of blogs

Posted in aliens & UFOs, ghosts & paranormal, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Halloween Lesson, Part 2: The Haunted Physics Lab

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 4, 2010

If you recall, last week I posted the first of two skeptical lessons with a Halloween theme to them, and now I share with you the second one: the Haunted Physics Lab. I cannot take credit for this idea, as I borrowed it years ago from my colleagues in the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT). What I did differently is to add a number of skeptically-oriented twists to it, such as why Ouija boards don’t work and why “ghost-hunters” are full of hooey when they claim EMF meters are detecting ghosts.

But don’t take my word for it, take it from an article by a local news outlet that interviewed me and some of my students about the Lab 🙂

Haunted Physics Lab Stirs Lake Forest Students’ Interests

Mix in the spirit of Halloween with some physics concepts and learning occurs.

By Jim Powers | Email the author

Jenna Schmidt considers herself to be a logical person.

So on Halloween, the Lake Forest High School senior walked into physics teacher Matt Lowry’s classroom dressed in a gorilla suit last Friday.

Compared to the rest of the advanced placement physics students in her class, she blended right into the backdrop. For the past six years at the end of October, Lowry has transformed his classroom into a Halloween-themed dedication to the world of physics.

Carrying her gorilla head in one hand, Schmidt took a look around the classroom and noted, “There is a lot going on. Usually it’s just one lab, but this is a lot to get through. It’s a lot of different types of physics topics.”

Lowry created 37 stations, each one devoted to a principal of physics from a Theremin which creates some of the eerily, high-pitched creepy sounds from horror movies to optical illusions to even disproving the aura of an Ouija board. …

I especially like how the article ended:

… Many students have seen an Ouija board before, but it’s hard to tell if it holds the same prominence it once did for slumber parties. Lowry’s station tests the opposing forces of magnetic fields using a magnet and a magnetic board underneath the Ouija board. Remove the Ouija board and the magnet and magnetic board continue to oppose one another.

“The demonstration is specifically set up to not only demonstrate a good physics concept about electro-dynamic induction, but it also shows the Ouija board does nothing,” Lowry said.

Crushing news for the spirit world.

Epic win 😀

Posted in education, physics denial/woo | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Skeptical Teacher to be Interviewed on Darkness Radio

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 25, 2010

**Update: It seems that, due to unforeseen circumstances, the interviewed may have to be postponed.  Stay tuned!

==============================

As a follow up to my earlier post regarding Dave Schrader’s talk on paranormal investigation at Convergence/Skepchicon in Minneapolis, I wanted to let everyone know that Dave will be interviewing me for Darkness Radio in the next few days.  I’m not exactly sure when the interview will be airing (probably within the next week or so), but if you watch this blog I’ll be letting you know.

The nature of the interview will basically be me & Dave talking in general about the paranormal, ghost-hunting, and the role that science & skepticism play (or, as is often the case, don’t play) in such investigations.  Here are some points that I plan to bring up in my discussion with Dave…

1. What is a “ghost”?  Has anyone ever come up with any kind of quantifiable definition for such an entity?

2. What is the proposed mechanism by which ghosts interact with the physical world around us?  How can they be measured?  Why would ghosts interact in this manner with the world?

3. How can we distinguish a potentially legitimate “ghost signal” from other phenomena?

4. Do any ghost hunters conduct double blind experiments?

5. Are the investigations by some believing ghost hunters replicable by skeptics?

6. Is there any way to “catch” a ghost, or its essence (ectoplasm, etc), for study?

7. Why is it that much of ghost hunting seems to be arguments from ignorance (i.e., ghost-of-the-gaps reasoning, I call it)?

I’ll also tell some stories from my own experiences ghost hunting, going all the way back to my high school years, as well as why I’ve come to the conclusions that I’ve never seen any evidence for a ghost or anything supernatural or paranormal during my life.

I anticipate that this will be a fun discussion, and I eagerly look forward to it.  If you have suggestions for topics to discuss and/or questions for me to ask Dave Schrader, please let me know.

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

Convergence/Skepchicon Day 2: Ghost Hunting & Evidence Review

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 3, 2010

On the second day of Convergence/Skepchicon, one event especially caught my eye – a talk titled “The Other Side: Ghost Hunting & Evidence Review” given by Dave Schrader, the host of Paranormal Radio. Almost immediately I was skeptical, as I have analyzed the claims & methods of various ghost hunters before and found them to be quite dubious.  In addition, many of my skeptic colleagues cringed a bit when they heard his name and my mention of his talk.  Thus, in the spirit of learning more for myself I attended his talk and took many notes – in the end, I was both a bit impressed with Dave but also quite disappointed.  Read through my notes, which is a transcription of his talk, and please see my specific comments in italics. Also please make sure to read my closing question to Dave Schrader and his response…

The Other Side: Ghost Hunting & Evidence Review

How to investigate the Paranormal, from setting up a team to reviewing evidence.  Presented by Dave Schrader, host of Paranormal Radio and author of The Other Side: A Teens Guide to Ghost Hunting and the Paranormal.

Dave is walking around handing out info TAPS, ghost hunting, and talking about a local [Minneapolis] show called Ghostbustin’ 911 (lolz).

How many people have ever gone on a ghost hunt before? [a few hands raise, including my own]

I’m going to show you a bizarre, demonic picture from a possible demonic haunting.  The lady of the house claimed she was smelling weird smells like rotting meat or poop along with strange cries.  While there I was taking photos and got a shot of a demonic, and here it is… [shows photo of a little kid in a costume – laughter]

Title: A Common Sense Look at Paranormal Investigating and Evidence Review…

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in ghosts & paranormal, skeptical community | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

 
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