Bill Nye on Ghosts

bill nye

The folks over at BigThink.com recently shared a video in which Bill Nye answers a question from a woman and her son about ghosts.

‘We have a question on your perspective on ghosts, and what you think happens to your life energy after you die. Is it just pushing daisies?”

It presented a great opportunity for Nye to respond to a question that many people have asked through the centuries.

The answers provided by Nye are less than inspiring though. His first mistake is to treat ghosts and psychics as one subject when this simply isn’t the case. A parapsychologist will study psychic claims but typically not ghosts and haunted houses. A paranormal researcher (like me) will research ghosts and haunted houses but not psychics.

Nye mentions that he is a member of several skeptic societies who have “looked and looked for haunted houses, ghosts in cemeteries or psychics who believe they’re in touch with people who are dead and there’s no credible evidence.”

What I think he means is that skeptical investigators routinely examine the evidence presented by people who claim it provides evidence of such things, and find it to be less than compelling and certainly not up to standard. No skeptical society that I am aware of has ever launched investigations to actively find evidence which would be a venture into the pseudo-scientific.

In the video Nye also talks about Harry Houdini and the code that Houdini promised to deliver after he died should ghosts be real. He seems to be quite confused though as he states:

“You may know that Houdini, the famous magician, said “if anybody can come back from the dead it’s me, man. I’m coming. And he never got in touch with anyone, no-one ever heard from him. yet a secret word between he and his mother that he said, you know, I’ll give you the secret word when he comes back. You know what the secret word is? NOBODY KNOWS! It was secret! He never came back!”

The code word was actually shared between Houdini and his wife, Bess. The word was also published in the authorised Houdini biography written by Harold Kellock titled Houdini, His Life Story.

Those who listen only to Nye’s version will not know the truth and perhaps will miss out on the insight that the Houdini story provides into the human relationship with ghosts.

For a while Bess believed Houdini had communicated from beyond the grave but it is likely that this was her way of coping with her grief following his death. This has been written about in detail by Massimo Polidoro for Skeptical Inquirer and you can read about it here.

This is something we see happening even today. Ghosts are a coping mechanism for many people and research has shown that some people benefit from the belief that a deceased love one is visiting them in ghost form. This is why I found myself growing annoyed with Nye when, at the end of the video, he tells the woman who asked the question that she can outwit her friends who believe in ghosts.

“Your friends who believe in ghosts – you can outwit them. You’re ahead of them because you’ll not waste energy look around looking for ghosts.”

Oh, hun. No. Not believing in ghosts doesn’t make you a superior person. Just watch skeptics talk about politics and you’ll see that non-belief =/= intelligence.

People who believe in ghosts aren’t stupid. They’re often people searching for closure or trying to figure out what they’ve experienced. I should know because I am the result of that line of reasoning. People asking these questions are not wasting their time in doing so.

Although Nye is technically right that research has provided no evidence for the survival of the human “soul”, this isn’t the whole sum of ghosts or even paranormal research.

Some people who believe in ghosts do not believe ghosts to be the human soul. Some people do not believe that haunted houses are haunted by ghosts, some people believe in ghosts but not haunted houses.

Paranormal research is a complex and weird field of study regardless of which direction you approach it from. Even those who’ve been researching this area for decades learn new things all of the time, which is why the research is ongoing. The confidence with which Nye dismissed these ideas suggests that he’s an expert, but his incorrect statements prove otherwise.

It’s behaviour like this that make me think I was right when I recently wrote of how Science Snobs Make Us All Stupid. And you can take my word for it because I’m a member of several skeptical societies – and even on the board for one.

I would have loved for Nye to say “evidence suggests ghosts aren’t real but…”, because we have so much to learn and teach about human perception from the experiences that people report. Explaining the Ideomotor response or Pareidolia effect can blow minds. As skeptics we could do well to remember that just because we have knowledge, not everybody does and it’s this can be used to engage people. Not ill-informed dismissals.

Knowledge is only powerful if you share it.

When My Skepticism Offends…

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When I write and talk about paranormal subjects I often find myself prefacing what I have to say with non-committal language such as “so-called”, “alleged”, “self-proclaimed” and similar so that people won’t accuse me of dismissing or accepting claims a priori.

Anyone who investigates, researchers or reports on paranormal subjects from a rational or skeptical position will often find themselves in a no-win situation with accusations of being too accepting or too skeptical at the same time.

Yesterday I had a light bulb moment in which I realised that it didn’t matter if I preface what I say with such wording because people will become offended regardless which is comes to the ideas they believe being questioned.

I saw a Facebook post that made the claim about how ghosts are just troubled dead people and I pointing out how I found it funny that ghost hunters often act as though they’re doing the dead a favour. Superhero complex or what?

In response I was asked where my respect was for this persons right to believe what they choose. It was pointed out to me that one day I would die – would it be funny then?

Well… possibly?

It has become really clear to me over the years that people who hold irrational beliefs don’t always know the difference between having a right to believe what they wish, and having the right to not have those ideas questioned or ridiculed. The later isn’t a right anyone has, no matter how violently they may try to claim otherwise.

I respect your right to believe what you choose to and I recognise the importance that belief in paranormal ideas can play in the lives of people, but I don’t have to hold any respect for the ideas themselves. I don’t find the perpetuation of myths a respectful thing, and I do not respect those who use and promote pseudoscience as science. Especially when there are bad consequences.

Ideas can be criticised and if you happen to believe in bad ideas and don’t want them to be criticised then you’re in for a bad time.

Telling people they’re being disrespectful when they question your claims sounds a lot like trying to wriggle out of having to back up the claims you are making with evidence and that’s just sly and questionable. What kind of researcher are you, exactly?

You can believe what you wish but you sure don’t have a privilege to see your beliefs go unchallenged no matter how much you dislike it. I become hugely suspicious of anyone who says that a person shouldn’t be criticising ideas because it is disrespectful. It reminds me a lot of secular students on university campuses who are censored for fear of offending religious students. Replace the religious students with people who believe in ghosts and it’s pretty much the same situation and the same sense of entitlement.

Fact is though that if your ideas are bullshit, your beliefs are based on bullshit, and you spread that bullshit then it’s bullshit and bullshit doesn’t deserve any sort of respect.

Investigating Britain’s Sexiest Ghost

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The day I arrived in Torquay was the sunniest we’d had yet in 2016. People lined the sea front in their holiday clothes and ate chips and ice-cream. The breeze from the sea ruffled through, providing an occasional release from the unrelenting heat, spinning rainbow pinwheels and tumbling seagulls around the sky as it went.

A man with a sweeping brush drew complex patterns into the sand, moving in a way that suggested this was a form of meditation for him. Elsewhere children ran around just because they could, sticks at the ready to poke in the sand. Boys with kayaks fought the waves, a photographer carefully stalked a group of sandpipers up and down the shore. It was charming just as the British seaside always is but I didn’t have time to stop and enjoy it. I was on a mission to investigate Britain’s sexiest ghost, and ghosts wait for no man.

sexiest ghost Torquay
The ghost

That ghosts are even real is a subject of much debate but Torquay museum insist they’ve got one, and not just any old ghost at that. Theirs is the sexiest one. Part of me is alarmed that you can still be objectified once you’re dead but that’s a different conversation for another day.

Last October their ghost made the headlines when it left fingerprints inside a glass case which houses a mummy. It hasn’t been established just how a ghost could leave fingerprints on glass without having physical hands but let’s humour this idea for a moment.

Just prior to the fingerprints being discovered it is claimed ‘the female ghost was seen creeping between the artefacts. She was wearing old clothing showing off all her assets as she emerged from the floor and cast her eyes down towards a light.’

In July 2015 the ghost was photographed in the Old Devon Farmhouse exhibition, leaning forwards slightly and showing off her cleavage. There has been speculation online about the cause of what is seen in the photo. Some people believe it to be staged, others suggest it is the reflection of someone in a window pane among other theories.

I was contacted by US paranormal researcher Benjamin Radford who wanted to know if I (as a British paranormal investigator) had heard anything through the grapevine about this particular case. The grapevine is a valued asset to paranormal researchers and it’s usually through word of mouth that tip offs come that help solve cases. After a long discussion I agreed to visit Torquay to have a look at the room and to take detailed photographs so that a cause might be established once and for all.

Ghost photos that are genuinely interesting are rare; they generally tend to be bad hoaxes, random blurs mistaken for something, photographic errors, or nothing at all. There was certainly something in this photo which made it stand out in my mind. There are times when an investigator can work out what is happening without an on-site visit, but more often than not actually being on location is beneficial and eye-opening. The answer can slap you right in the face when you thought you’d need hours of sleuthing. You might meet the “ghost” in person and be able to kill your afternoon in the pub instead (this has happened.)

Upon arriving at the museum and venturing onto the top floor where The Old Devon Farmhouse exhibit lives one thing became apparent straight away. The ghost was not caused by a reflection as many had suggested. I found all of the reflective surfaces in the room and took photos of the fireplaces through them from different angles to try and replicate what is seen in the original photo but it wasn’t possible.

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The things I do…

As I inspected the area I saw that there were small benches next to one of the fireplaces that were in the right position for the ghost to have been seated on at the time. Therefore it is my conclusion that Britain’s sexiest ghost  was actually a living person sitting in the dark next to one of the fireplaces. It almost looks as though her face is lit by the screen of an electronic item such as a camera or phone.

The small benches in question
The small benches in question

After my inspection of the exhibit I found staff members and volunteers on the ground floor and inquired with them about the ghost. They explained that many people took part in ghost hunt events in the museum and had strange experiences. One of the women I spoke to explained that a whole shelf of books had flown off of the shelf in the gift shop one afternoon as she spoke with customers. That was the one original activity that any of them could recall – everything else was related to these ghost hunting events.

This is problematic because people taking part in a ghost hunting event have primed themselves to interpret things that they experience as most likely to be paranormal. When a haunting is largely based on the experiences of people who have paid to have a paranormal experience it isn’t a very reliable or interesting case and eye-witness testimony is not useful evidence or data.

I inspected the mummy case while at the museum. Remember, this mummy made headlines in October 2015 when ghostly fingerprints appeared on it during a ghost event.

Photo 98
Can you see the fingerprints?

The only problem is that there were fingerprints and greasy hand marks all over the case when I visited. The case is quite low down so that children can see the mummy properly so there’s absolutely nothing to suggest, to me, that fingerprints appearing on this display are out of the ordinary.

Photo 101

To establish that the fingerprints were not inside the case originally, or that they had simply not been noticed before would be an incredible feat. But even if we know for sure that this was true there is nothing to suggest that fingerprints appearing inside a case were caused by a ghost. There are a number of perfectly ordinary scenarios that could result in prints appearing inside the case when they weren’t there before.

I believe that these ghost-related headlines and events are all inspired by falling visitor numbers and are an attempt to to get people through the door and to drive revenue. It’s a shame because this sort of ghost tourism is quite uninspired when there are such interesting exhibits one could use to engage the public with but I think we shouldn’t be too quick to judge. 

It has been reported that ‘council figures show the [visitor] numbers dropped in 2013/14 from 25,957 to 18,743′ and the same report detailed how in 2015/16 the museum faced a 42% budget cut from the local authority. The Austerity that the Conservative government have imposed upon the United Kingdom is slowly strangling art and cultural organisations throughout the country. Museum manager, Phillip Collins said the funding cuts could ‘kill Torquay Museum before we are able to put ourselves on a secure financial footing for the future.’ 

That museums face this challenge is heartbreaking. Please visit your local museum, and not just because Britain’s Sexiest Ghost might be lurking in the shadows. Pervert.


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Weekly Summary: Rationalia, Netflix and Superheroes

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In 2002 a bird bent a piece of wiring to use as a tool and people lost their minds, but NewScientist report that this may not have been a one-off, unique case of complex problem solving as the behaviour has been observed elsewhere too.

It seems that the best way to deal with the stress life throws at you is to literally say “f*ck it”

fuck it
The kind of inspirational quote I can support

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has presented further argument on the his case for Rationalia but Kelsey Atherton shows why his arguments are flawed over on PopSci. It’s almost as though Tyson has forgotten that humans are, well… human.

NASA have just shared 1,000 new photos of Mars. SpaceX are about to start testing the engines that will take them to Mars, and Deep Space Industries claim they’ll launch the first private space mission in 2020.

Elsewhere a Swedish church plans to drone-drop a tonne of bibles into ISIS occupied territory. They insist it isn’t aggressive, demonstrating possibly the worlds biggest case of a lack of self awareness. Utter, utter fail.

It turns out that Netflix and similar services are literally changing the way we watch shows, and Cillian Murphy contemplates where the eff all of these superhero movies keep coming from. Can we have some original sci-fi up in here please?

Lastly, if you have a spare hour and are a bit of a nerd (hi) check out this neat collection of interesting maps of Europe.

Feature image credit: NASA / JPL / University of Arizona

Science Snobs Make Us All Stupid

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There has been a lot of discussion lately of Neil deGrasse Tyson and his ideas that the solution to all the problems of society could lie in the formation of a land ruled only by evidence based policy and law. Rationalia, he calls it.

A world ruled by evidence based policy sounds good on the surface but Popsci has a great breakdown of Tyson’s arguments and explains why it’s actually a bad idea. They do this using evidence, ironically. Awkward…

It isn’t the first time Tyson has come under criticism for the ideas he shares on social media. Earlier this year he tweeted ‘If there were ever a species for whom sex hurt, it surely went extinct years ago.’

Yeah, no. That’s not true.

It reminds me of James Randi and his ill-informed comments about climate change, but at least Randi had the decency to admit that he had made incorrect comments. (But let’s not get started on social darwinism…)

Most shockingly (for me at least) are the ill-informed, anti-philosophical stances held by people like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye and Lawrence Krauss.  Something which Massimo Pigliucci has addressed time and time again.

How can Tyson speak of a nation governed by science being better for people when he fails to recognise that humans are complex creatures that can’t be programmed like robots?

Morality is concerned with what we ought, or ought not, to do. The empirical sciences, on the other hand, appear capable, in isolation, only of establishing what is the case. – Stephen Law, Scientisim, the limits of science, and religion

Know your audience. But more importantly know yourself and the limits of your knowledge. It’s awkward to see people who should champion curiosity about the universe lack it so much.

I’m no scientist or science advocate but if I were, I’d hold myself to as high a standard as possible knowing that the difference between a fact and an opinion is crucial when informing the public on a matter.

I don’t believe in ghosts, psychics, god or a number of other supernatural things (that isn’t to say I don’t have irrational beliefs) but I have come to respect the complexity of belief. Through engaging with those who hold those beliefs I’ve come to see that it isn’t just an idea one holds to be true; belief can be a way of life, a foundation upon which you base decisions about what is good and evil, right or wrong.

You can disagree with the ideas with which someone forms their moral codes but it doesn’t mean that them doing so doesn’t count.

The clinical nature of Scientism makes my skin crawl. Partly because many who adopt such a line of thinking fail to think for themselves. Yet mainly because people who take such a position insist that others should learn how to think critically while failing to practice what they preach.

When you apply critical thinking skills to an idea you should also apply that same skepticism to what you’re doing and thinking. That doesn’t seem to happen very much.

So is it any wonder that people don’t want to engage in scientific discourse when the people who should be leading the way in this engagement and so patronising and boring? If all you do is voice your disgust at the stupidity of other humans you shouldn’t be surprised if they reject you.

Science should be exciting! It’s a way to solve mysteries and learn things! But it often seems that the very people who should be making people care about science just spend their time dispelling misconceptions that people just don’t have.

Inaccuracies in sci-fi films don’t matter, Neil! Get over it!

We are guilty of this, I think. To a point at least. Many who dismiss people who believe in ghosts tend to simplify what it is the people they dismiss believe in. However, a lot of people who believe in ghosts don’t think they’re dead people returned. Do you know how many people who believe in PSI abilities are more interested in consciousness and the brain? They don’t just believe in Uri sodding Geller.

If you’re not careful, if you don’t turn skepticism inwards as much- no, more -than you cast it outwards into the world you run the huge risk of isolating your cause or argument. Science snobs might feel clever but they’re just making us all stupid.