Five things I learned from #ghostnobbergate

You can say what you like about Professor Brian Cox, the guy has style. The discussion of the Infinite Monkey Cage episode on spooks et al. led to his Twitter postings that apparently caused outrage, and the amusing little spat that followed while distracting us from the more pressing issues of lift etiquette (if you are not a reader of PZ Myers, Skepchick blogs or Dawkins that might pass you by, but never mind) has continued on and off on Twitter, and Cox has now tagged it, you guessed it, #ghostnobbergate.

I have hugely enjoyed the discussion. Let’s face it, no one is actually interested in my opinions on the matter; well 15 people have commented on my blog, but almost everyone has been someone I know from the transpersonal or parapsychological community, or an old friend. I can’t really see why, what am I doing wrong? Roy Stenman’s blog Paranormal Review has attracted outraged Cox fans — and Hayley Steven’s get her blog post on this retweeted by Professor Cox? And what do I get? Ignored. 😉 I made specific critiques of what was said on the radio show, but no one has addressed them.

Perhaps it’s my fault for not taking it seriously enough. So here, to prevent this being another long and tedious blog post, here are five things that #ghostnobbergate showed me…

#1 People find it OK to comment on things they know nothing about.

And I agree, sort of.  Everyone is entitled to an opinion. You don’t have to be an expert or have a huge knowledge of the research literature to hold an opinion, or we would all be agnostic on EVERY issue. Richard Wiseman and Bruce Hood certainly bring a lot of knowledge to bear on the issue of paranormal belief, and make an educated case against based on their reading of the evidence. Ince has perhaps wisely remained quiet, but he always struck me as deeply intelligent, and anyway I have discovered from Twitter he has excellent taste in music so I have nothing bad to say of him. 😉  Andy Nyman is doubtless brilliant, but I believe misinformed on some issues. And the hordes of slathering bloggers saying “it’s all crap”?

Well they are entitled to their opinions. However they denigrate mine, which is there is some deeply weird stuff here that really needs a lot more research before we can dismiss it. I have spent rather a long time, and read rather a lot of books and journals on the issue, and I have spent some twenty odd years pursuing original research. There are fundamental questions about the apparitional experience I can not answer, but that is I suspect because I am framing the question incorrectly. But I find the dismissive “it’s all crap” rather funny, because the people concerned are so often making an argument from ignorance.  Hayley Stevens has looked at the evidence, and done a lot of investigations, and has come to a very different conclusion to me — that’s a fair and reasoned position in my eyes. But many of the twitter commentators would not know Gurney, Sidgwick & Myers if it bit them on the kneecaps, Rosenheim from the Evil Dead, think RSPK is something you due to a party invites and assume Houran and Lange is a Swedish sofa manufacturer.

So sure, everyone is entitled to an opinion. One based in ignorance of the subject matter is however not worth much, it’s just in the literal sense prejudice – pre-judging an issue.

#2 Many “skeptics” are not  remotely sceptical and many “rationalists” are not rational.

In fact emotive responses have dominated a lot of the stuff I have seen.  Prof Cox offered a rational critique when he apparently said ghosts violate the Laws of Thermodynamics – and if your theory does that, it’s dead. I’m not sure which Law was referred to as I have not seen Cox’s original comment. I seen to recall the Third Law is a statistical law? Anyhow, yep, that would be a rational argument. But it requires us to say what a ghost is, and he has not defined that for us yet? I’ll return to these problems further down.

Now I find few sceptics on this matter wh0 actually seem to doubt things, and question stuff. If they did they might actually bother to become informed about what has been written on the issue – say by reading the Apparitional Experience Primer and the Poltergeist Experience Primer.  Of course campermon and the sceptics of RationalSkepticism forum have looked at the evidence closely, and I enjoy debating them, as with some of the JREF (James Randi Educational Foundation forum) members, but most of the Twitter stuff appears fairly ignorant with a few notable exceptions, like the chap or chapess who invoked Feyrabend and the limits of Popperian falsification!) Instead they have bought in to a dominant  paradigm, and not even looked at the research on the issue.

To make a snap judgment on an issue like this, where we do not know what Cox means when he employs that notoriously slippery word “ghost”, seems profoundly irrational, and many people make a classic thinking error – an appeal to authority. That only works if the authority knows what they are talking about, and there is a consensus, or overwhelming agreement. If I said I rejected the Standard Model, people would think I was bat shit crazy, and if I said I rejected it because Sylvia Browne or Deepak Chopra disagreed I hope you would refer me for psychiatric evaluation.  These people are not physicists, and hell I would not actually take their opinions on my area seriously either.  But a lot of purported rationalists and sceptics are praising Cox despite his apparent lack of knowledge of the subject.

#3 I don’t know what a “ghost” is, or what it means

I study apparitional experiences and poltergeist cases — what parapsychologists call spontaneous cases. But as Andrew Oakley pointed out, the word ghost is horribly open to interpretation. In fact everyone in the field faces this problem. So what I study is experiences that people refer to as “ghosts” — and that can mean all kinds of things. I use a definition based on phenomenology: regardless of whether it was swamp gas reflecting off wires and the Planet Venus, or the shade of Great Aunt Nora, I call it a ghost if that’s was the percipient, the witness, calls it.  and yes most “ghost” experiences have a truly straightforward set of explanations that cover them — hallucination, misperception, edge of sleep experiences, illness, wishful thinking, fraud (though that was pretty rare in my experience) and so forth.

I don’t know what Professor Cox means by “ghosts”. Without a definition their is no way I can meaningfully comment on his assertion belief in ghosts is silly. He has not defined his terms. I have before written extensively on the reasons one might doubt that all “ghosts” fall in to these categories — I describe my reasons here.  But unless we know what he means by a “ghost” I can’t see any reason to be bothered by Cox’s opinion.

#4 Thermodynamics excludes ghosts

As I said, I don’t know where Prof. Cox said this. If he did, I’m baffled but I would actually like to see a brief explanation of his reasoning. The closest I can think of to this claim is Milton A Rothman’s version of it, which was that Thermodynamics excludes ESP, extrasensory perception. You can read about that in A Physicist’s Guide to Scepticism (Rothman, 1988).  The reason Rothman makes the claim is simple; early parapsychological research in to ESP appeared to show that ESP was independent of distance and possibly time, so a card guessing experiment across the Atlantic would be as successful as one that took place from my room to my neighbours.  This argument seemed fatal to ideas like Sinclair’s mental radio, and in fact if a physical process is involved is in fact going to violate Thermodynamics; so Rothman argued. But parapsychologists no longer are sure things work like this, and that ESP is actually entirely independent, and many of the assumptions that older psi  researchers held have been questioned, so Rothman’s critique is  arguably irrelevant. If you doubt me on this, take a look at two excellent essays; Paul Stevens ‘Are our assumptions more anomalous than the phenomena?’ and Jezz Fox’s ‘Will we ever know if ESP exists?’  both in ANOMALOUS EXPERIENCES: ESSAYS FROM PARAPSYCHOLOGICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES, edited by Matthew D. Smith. MacFarlane & co Inc. Publishers, Jefferson, North Carolina and London, 2010. But ghosts? I have no idea what Cox bases his claim that ghosts are excluded by Thermodynamics upon. Until I see his definition of ghosts I’m not going to be much wiser, either.

#5 People Ignore Me!

Perhaps wisely, pretty much everyone refuses to be drawn in to a discussion of this. Which is to my mind a bloody shame.  😦 Because actually, I think I might have something interesting to say. The same people who denigrate ghost believers seem to be unaware of the interesting body of ghost research, even fascinating papers by Richard Wiseman like this and this. I spent much of the nineties chasing environmental variables for hauntings, much as Braithwaite and others still do; Braithwaite produces interesting stuff like this . I did a decade on this kind of thing before like Becky I moved on to phenomenological studies of the experiences, in the tradition of Hufford and DJ West.  Yet the majority of the scathing Twitter commentators are never even going to take the subject seriously enough to actually read any of the science, and I think would be shocked (and dismissive) if they knew there was a large peer reviewed literature.  I suspect “cognitive dissonance”, though I’m actually a critic of Festinger too, so maybe I really suspect good old plain ignorance.   But hey, at least I’m enjoying myself! 😉

cj x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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11 Responses to Five things I learned from #ghostnobbergate

  1. I had a three ghost experiences this morning. First I got up and there was an old wooden ghost in the corner of my bedroom; it had 9 drawers and a lovely oak-effect finish. Then there was the ghost in the kitchen that I ate my breakfast off. Then when I got to work, guess what? There was a ghost in front of my chair, with my computer resting on top.

    Other people call these ghosts “tables”, but I have henceforth decided to call these objects “ghosts”.

    • Furthermore I can CONCLUSIVELY prove that my ghosts exist! Not only can I see, touch and smell my ghosts, but this experiment can be repeated with reliable, consistent results, by complete strangers (well, not so strange that I wouldn’t let them in my house or office, but still – independent witnesses).

      I can also interact with my ghosts – open and close their drawers, place objects on top or inside of them with predictable results. I think one of my ghosts even features in the Ikea catalogue, so it has definitely been caught on camera – that’s the kitchen ghost with the fold-out section that allows it to change from a 4-place-setting ghost to a 6-place-setting ghost.

      So, there you go – by sticking with the definition “I call it a ghost if that’s was the percipient, the witness, calls it” then I have completely proven the existence of ghosts in one morning. With SCIENCE and LOGIC! Where do I apply for my grant or grand prize?

      • I notice the refusal to address what you actually said on the responses to Hayley’s post. Every point went unanswered. “Cognitive dissonance”? In this case that’s no more than a fancy way of saying, don’t make me think please. Don’t make me work. I’ve done a lot of work to understand physics, I’m not going to be bothered. 🙂

        FWIW, sterling stuff CJ.

      • LOL, sadly your definition doesn’t include the idea of a good-faith attempt to exclude other explanations, or so it seems to me. My familiarity with the literature isn’t at CJ’s level, but I don’t believe we commonly get people reporting seeing a “ghost”, who also admit that the “ghost” in question was definitely a material object which everyone else would call by another name! This may be where your ‘sightings’ differ from those of others.

  2. Will Stevens says:

    It seems to me that when you say, ‘But unless we know what he means by a “ghost” I can’t see any reason to be bothered by Cox’s opinion’, you’re failing to address the issue. It might even be said (unkindly!) that you’re evading the issue.

    You yourself say: ‘most “ghost” experiences have a truly straightforward set of explanations that cover them — hallucination, misperception, edge of sleep experiences, illness, wishful thinking, fraud (though that was pretty rare in my experience) and so forth’. That’s an admirably clear statement, and it points up the difference between you and Professor Cox: where you say, ‘most “ghost” experiences’, he says ‘all “ghost” experiences’.

    Now, he might be right or wrong about this (and he has certainly gone out on a limb!), but I can’t see any doubt about what he /means/.

    Obviously, what Professor Cox is inviting you to do is to saw off the branch he’s sitting on; he’s inviting you to cite ‘ghost’ experiences which /cannot/ be accounted for in any of the ways which you have listed.

    So, surely, the crucial questions are: Can you do this? Are you interested in attempting to do this?

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Hey Will, good to hear from you!

      Yes of course I’m interested in that, or i would never have agreed to defend a proposition as difficult as “Some Ghost cases may represent discarnate consciousness or the remote operation of a living human consciousness” in the RatSkep debate where you commented extensively and were a very useful addition to the discussion. (In fact I will also refer Andrew to your and HPrice’s useful discussion on what we mean by ghosts on the forum; I mentioned i tin the comments to my previous piece.) Now as I remarked when I took on that debate against the excellent Campermon, I’m not convinced that the proposition is true; indeed there may well be other explanations for the anomalous and bizarre cases I offered, but I think there is a strong evidential case and so I have defended it. My link to was to demosntrate some of the reasons, and to expand on why.

      I’m still not convinced Professor Cox is inviting any kind of technical discussion of the phenomena – if he was that interested he would run out and but a copy of Cornell & Gauld’s book Poltergeists, and have a look at their analysis.

      Still, even if we leave the phenomena loose defined in phenomenological terms, there remains a “ghost experience”. That experience is by it’s nature of interest, because like many human experiences – “alienation”, “friendship”, “seeing a UFO”, etc, etc the experience itself is real to the percipient and causes long term behavioural changes. We can examone the ghost experience at this level — or at the social level, as in how ghost narratives are constructed, as in Robin Woofitt’s Telling Tales of the Unexpected. Or we can examine it at a physical level, as many ghost groups do, investigating purported haunts, like the Max Planck lads at Rosenheim, or Wiseman et al at Hamptom Court and Edinburgh Vaults or Briathwaite at Muncaster Castle.

      The ghost experience can perhaps be likened to the way a psychiatrist looks at depression. They assume there is some cause, and can address it on a number of levels; psychological, phenomenological, physical, but though the underlying causes may be cognitive, organic, psychological or socially constructed the term depression is a useful placeholder for an array of related conditions, with a multiplicity of causation. Depression is notoriously hard to assign physical correlates, so we work on self-report — but that does not make it any less real.

      But yes, I’m fascinated by the ghost and poltergeist cases that seem to suggest that our models are as yet incomplete, and there is a loose correlation between the model and the underlying objective reality. As you know I’m an objective instrumentalist in terms of philosophy of science — — and therefore am constantly attempting to build better, more efficient models. To ignore any phenomena as ‘impossible’ as simply inconsistent with the existing models always jars, but that does not mean that I accept any claim. Far from it; but different ways of looking at and framing the problem, at different levels, can all be of use in constructing better maps?

  3. JG says:

    The argument that any physical law excludes the possibility of the paranormal is not scientific. If there is good evidence for ESP then it implies that there are new scientific laws out there that we have not yet discovered. All current scientific knowledge is provisional, an ever incomplete description of the universe. Science is a human attempt to DESCRIBE the universe and should never be confused with the ACTUAL universe which obeys its own laws, whether we are aware of them or not. Evidence ALWAYS trumps theory. If the evidence disagrees with the theory, it shows the theory is incomplete.

    Regarding being ignored, you shouldn’t worry about it. In a spat between believers and disbelievers reason tends to leave by the window and the whole thing will soon be forgotten. The ‘audience’ is only interested in who said what and how upset their opponent got. It is not reasoned debate so solid evidence is not required.

    Just carry on doing your research safe in the knowledge that what really matters is what the truth. If something is really true it will carry on being true long after all the dust has settled and eventually people will see it because it won’t go away.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Hi JG,

      Thanks for the kind words. Ironically just before I saw your comment i had been replying to Will S on exactly this kind of issue; that we tend to conflate our maps of the territory, our scientific models, which are undoubtedly highly useful and extremely productive (but as you rightly say provisional – doubtless our physics will look primitive in a century or two, despite the amazing success of the Standard Model, because if the history of science shows us one thing it is that revolutions are to be expected!) – anyway we confuse these maps with the territory.

      I find Charles Fort’s books almost unreadable, but one thing I took from Fort was the fact we try and ignore those “damned things”, the facts that imply don’t fit the models, and dismiss those who do scrutinize them as mere “anomaly hunters”. Yet anomaly investigation is a crucial way of expanding our scientific knowledge, and as Fort said of the “Damned facts” — “still they march!”

      I don’t happen to have a “theory of ghosts” — I have explored many ideas over the years, in all kinds of different ways, and still know very little, but I’m going to keep hacking at the experience, trying to see what I can discover. What depresses me though is that actual research of great interest by Wiseman et al is ignored by Cox – sure Wiseman does not believe in ghosts, but if Cox had bothered to read his guests papers he might have noticed that actually Wiseman certainly finds the field worthy of serious scientific attention. 😦

      Oh well, I’ll keep plodding on, and for real spats I always have the forums. 🙂

      cj x

  4. DaveD says:

    I don’t understand Cox’s problem, at least where you are concerned CJ. (His comments clearly include you.)
    As I understand it, you try to disprove any claims about the paranormal, regardless of what you may believe. Isn’t that the epitome of the scientific method?

  5. Simon Clare says:

    The fact is that your years of “serious research” have uncovered nothing that would convince me that there is any substance to claims of an afterlife or ghosts (as in actual physical manifestations of the dead). The onus remains therefore on you to carry on doing the research and finding any good evidence, if you want. I choose not to spend my time reading all of the “high quality literature” on this subject because my life is finite and there is so much real knowledge of actual things that I can spend my time learning instead.

    When you find some excellent proof, I’m sure you’ll let us know, but in the meantime, I am quite happy to form my own judgement on this subject – about which I “know nothing” – and say that, for now, I think belief in an afterlife and in ghosts-of-the-dead is just daft wishful thinking.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Hey Simon!

      Well we don’t actually know that it would not convince you – you could for example go read the Roy/Robertson mediumship studies (good link to sceptical critique on comments on my Paranormality review btw) or the Windbrige stuff, etc, etc. Now you define ghosts as “actual physical manifestations of the dead”; that is a hypothesis to explain the apparitional experience, but far from the only one. I would certainly say that based on my literature review and small scale survey work much more of the data does seem to fit that hypothesis than most parapsychologists have been comfortable accepting since 1894; but that is by the by. Parapsychologists do not set out to prove any hypothesis, and let’s face it pretty much everyone in the research community is bloody uncomfortable with any suggestion that “actual physical manifestations of the dead” are lurking behind the beasties we study. Even Roy?Robertson stop short of that in their PRISM study of mediums, instead saying that the evidence points to some form of “anomalous cognition”.

      So yes, the onus remains on me to show that there is something worth investigating here. And as I think Richard Wiseman or Chris French would agree the answer is yes, even if the answer lie a little closer to home than dead guys returning from the crypt. Have a look at Wiseman’s Paranormality, or his partner Caroline Watt’s excellent with (irwin) Introduction to Parapsychology Sixth Edition for a rapid overview of the field, or for the more transpersonal stuff try Etzel Cardena (ed.) Varieties of the Anomalous Experience. Regardless of the underlying causes ultimate provenance, the experiences are certainly intriguing and worthy of study, and many sceptics like the excellent Ersby, Ray Hyman, Sue Blackmore or the aforementioned folks have done just that, to the immense benefit of the field.

      You are however completely right that life is short. I have as much time as I can squeeze in between eating and sleeping to read academic papers, and do research pretty much however I choose, in theory (OK I have book contracts to meet, but they are generally not pressing in terms of time required). I read New Scientist and Nature to get a quick overview of whats going on, and talk to a rather large collection of researchers from a number of disciplines – I crossed five disciplines myself in my academic career; but I still only read maybe one new paper not from my research areas a day. Today for example I was looking at MOAI’s, because a friend mentioned it, yesterday gene expression and the southern blot, and tomorrow i have a few papers I want to read on Proprioception, and then 13th century ecclesiastical reform in the Latin Kingdom of Thessaloniki. Yet despite this freedom, almost every interesting paper i see I rely on a secondary press release, an article in New Scientist or the informed comments of a friend.

      So like yourself, I rely on others, and can not always stay up to date on the literature. However I do try to read it, as I am sure you would, before I dismiss anyone’s research. It’s perfectly fine to form an opinion, as you have, and i often do, based on common sense and what one actually knows: we all do that all the time, or we would never function. I fully appreciate your point. But if you do ever want to explore the literature in more detail, or hear a summary of the current papers relevant to a particular issue, like the aforementioned “dead guys”, or the case for “life after death” give me a shout.

      I’m not evangelical about my beliefs, because I don’t know what I believe about many of these phenomena. But I certainly will help anyone interested in the search for an informed perspective. 🙂

      Nice to meet you, hope to hear from you again
      cj x

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