"And sometimes he's so nameless"

Five things I learned from #ghostnobbergate

Posted in Debunking myths, Paranormal, Science by Chris Jensen Romer on July 13, 2011

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

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