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.

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.

You’re Not As Profound As You Think You Are

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I swear that if I see that video one more time of that dude talking about airplanes rusting on the ground and Martin Luther King not having a dream but the dream having him I am going to fucking scream.

For those who do not know what I’m talking about – the video is called ‘Everybody dies, but not everybody lives’ and it’s from American rapper Price EA who has a whole series of so-called motivational and inspirational videos and is better than everyone else.

Here is the video in question:

“What’s wrong, Hayley?” you might ask. “That’s pretty inspirational and true and-” shut the fuck up, dear reader. This is not inspirational – it is bossy and presumptive and actually pretty fucking rude.

Is it the sea and death by drowning?
Are those things the sea and death by drowning?

I want people to stop telling me how to live my life as though they have their shit completely sorted out and together.

Literally. Stop. Preaching. At. Me.

I don’t know about you (and I wouldn’t presume to either) but inspirational quotes and speeches that tell me what to do really wind me up.

‘We only regret the chances we didn’t take’ 

I’ve watched Disney’s The Lion King several times and there’s a lyric that says “There’s more to see than can ever be seen, More to do than can ever be done …” and it’s true. We are going to die having not done things that we wish we had but that doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It’s just the circle of life, and it moves us all, Through despair and hope, Through-

-what I’m trying to say is that life shouldn’t be a list of accomplishments. Things you should do before you’re 30, 40, 50… fuck that. Existence isn’t about being like everyone else – we don’t all have the same dreams and if you don’t do what everyone else is doing that isn’t a failure. If you’re not happy that isn’t a failure. If you’re not a good christian or a moral atheist that isn’t a failure. Do you see the pattern emerging here?

Fuck off, hipster scum
Fuck off, hipster scum

Other people don’t get to hold the threat of feeling like a failure on your deathbed over you to “motivate” you into improving your life.

Nobody has their shit more together than anyone else. This is all a big lie. We’re all worried that we’re not reaching our potential but the fact is that none of us really know what our potential is supposed to be. We just do what we do and hope that it’s enough.

In the age of social media it’s easy to present ourselves as people who have our shit together. Look at my perfect fucking life, look at the smiles, at these wild flowers I carelessly threw into a glass jar because I’m so grounded with my place in the universe. But these personas we present aren’t really us. They’re the best versions of ourselves that we present to other people who then think “oh shit, I need to try harder.”

Everyone is a sheep but you, right?
What if I want to be bran flakes though?

Our Instagram feeds are our electric sheep. We’re all trying to keep up with the Smiths next door who themselves aren’t even who they appear to be while punishing ourselves by not being the people we present to the world.

I personally think life is about finding what you like and just doing it. Some days I want to travel and experience new things, other days I just want to sit and watch daytime television, or watch DVDs of my favourite movies while drinking whisky. Sometimes I just want to sit down and play Minecraft or read a book.

On occasion I’ve done the things I want to do and have felt this doubt that I should be doing more creeping into the back of my head and it pisses me off that other people have made me feel that way with their pseudo-inspirational lectures when they have no fucking right.

It also really irks me when celebrities tell us “be who you are, do what you want to do” as though they aren’t putting on a front themselves. As though their celebrity status makes them an authority. As though their fame wasn’t brought about by a chance encounter thousands of others failed to have.

And don’t get me started on companies who invade our space with their instructions which we’re supposed to be warmed by: “just do it”. No. No I will not.

I was an ugly baby, though.
I was an ugly baby, though.

I’ve grown up with advertisers telling me that we’re all beautiful and to not worry about beauty standards but there’s an irony in there somewhere because we’re not all beautiful and that’s okay because you don’t have to be beautiful. If a company tells you that you’re pretty while simultaneously trying to sell you something to disguise your naturally occurring appearance they don’t think you’re pretty.

Fuck them.

And fuck the people who tell me how to live without being asked for their opinion because this shit is not inspiring, it’s not empowering, it’s not lovely – it’s patronising and false and harmful.

Look – just do what the fuck you want, and if that means doing nothing, then so fucking be it.