Recently a man sat through the talk I gave in which I spoke about being a non-believer who researches ghost phenomena, and in the break between the end of the talk and the Question & Answer session that was to follow he approached me and asked ‘how do you deal with the reaction from the people who say this isn’t real?’. I was confused, ‘say what isn’t real?’. He looked confused in return and said ‘people who say ghosts aren’t real and don’t think they exist…’
There was a slight silence while I tried to process what he was asking and then I simply said ‘well, I’m one of them. Didn’t you hear me speaking?‘ He had, he just hadn’t thought it was possible that a non-believer would care about paranormal topics even though I had spent an hour explaining how I do exactly that. You should have seen his face when I briefly mentioned that I was also atheist. There was just this pure disbelief in his eyes – ‘how can you be atheist about a god yet open minded about ghosts?’ he asked, ‘show me good evidence that either exists and I’ll start believing’. I think it clicked.
My belief in ghosts replaced my belief in god when I realised I was atheist during my late school years. What was heaven became an afterlife as I wasn’t quite ready to accept that this is the extent of my existence. Even Mario has more than just one go at life. I’ve since come to terms with this being it and am quite content with just this, but I wasn’t back then.
I can never really sum up perfectly how I first got involved in ghost research because I don’t think even I truly know why. It just happened. I started by frequenting online ghost hunting websites and watching Most Haunted, then when the show was hit by a scandal I started ghost hunting for myself. I guess it seemed like a good place to find the answers I was looking for and I did find them in the end but they just weren’t the answers I had expected to find. After many pointless hours spent looking for ghosts which, in my mind, would prove there was more to life that just a prolonged and gradually more and more wrinkly death I came to accept that there wasn’t, but on the flip side there didn’t need to be.
I started to refer to myself as a sceptic and non-believer in 2007 (though the two positions aren’t always mutual, of course). It wasn’t a light bulb moment, and it wasn’t a long painful process (and yet it wasn’t painless either). I didn’t jump out of a bathtub and shout ‘Eureka!’. It was a bit like a balloon deflating – quite disappointing. ‘Oh…’. I can see wonder in the world around me and I appreciate life and existence, but walking through walls, spying on people, and chatting to my dead Nan was quite appealing too, actually.
I can’t remember exactly when I began doubting the things I thought were true but I do remember that I became aware of things like the pareidolia effect, the ideomotor effect, logical fallacies, confirmation bias and the file drawer effect, and I saw them in action during the ghost hunts I was a part of and it progressed from there. Sitting through a table tipping session and scrutinising your ghost hunting colleagues to see who is causing the table to move through involuntary muscular movement just isn’t the same.
I’m still involved in paranormal research because I think the weird experiences that people report on a regular basis deserve our attention even if we think we know the answers already. Paranormal research is interesting, fun, and there’s loads of potential for new ideas and information. People have weird experiences – by researching or investigating those experiences I am not saying they are paranormal and I’m not being irrational either. I’m just curious and have always been a little bit fascinated with the paranormal since I was a child.
People have said I’m too lenient as a sceptic because I don’t dismiss ghost hunters, believers, or parapsychology out of hand, and I talk about haunted houses and ghosts as though it’s possible they are real. However, these subjects are complex and to dismiss them a priori is irrational. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to be actively involved in paranormal research, and if you think you do then you need to broaden your understanding of paranormal research or your understanding of how one goes about being open minded.
If ghosts aren’t your thing then that’s perfectly fine, but they’re my thing and that’s also okay. Ghosts don’t have to be woo.
In the short decade that I have been doing this stuff I have learned that it is never that simple and that these cases are always more complex than they seem. Dealing with those who experience ghosts is a minefield, and even those who have been researching ghost stuff for decades have to focus really hard so they don’t step on a mine and cause a small explosion of unethical behaviour or biased research.
As technology improves and multiplies so do the ways in which people can fake ghost photos and videos, but so too do the ways in which people can misinterpret normal everyday things as something a bit spooky. A fly sitting on a CCTV camera lens suddenly becomes a ghost floating across a pub, face recognition on a digital camera attempting to recognise a face that isn’t there suddenly becomes an invisible person only detected by the camera…
To be a decent ghost researcher you need to have the patience to deal with the same old stuff again and again, without rolling your eyes and not bothering to treat each case as a new case. You have to remember that not everyone has encountered previous cases where a rational explanation was found, like you have. It’s difficult (especially when you’re as impatient as I am), but it is worth it. It’s worth it because people have weird experiences and they deserve to be listened to. Not only because there may be something new to discover through studying their experience, but because you might just be able to work out what’s really going on, and in my experience that’s what people want to know.
When I would conduct numerous ghost hunts each month the people we would come into contact with who had experienced something weird were just so pleased to have someone acknowledge that experience without passing judgement.
Today I use scientific scepticism to assess claims made by other people about all sorts of things and I like to see evidence that backs up claims being made by people. If this is peer reviewed and replicated evidence then even better. Over the years I have developed an understanding of logical fallacies and often see these throughout the reasoning process in paranormal communities and I think that scepticism is a healthy approach to take to paranormal research. However, I don’t think it is enough to demand ‘evidence or STFU’ from those who are confused by an experience which is why I am still an active researcher and investigator.
Many insist that as a sceptic I am closed minded, but this isn’t true. Scepticism does not equate non-belief in something and it is possible to be a believer and to be sceptical. In fact, it’s healthy to be sceptical of the things you believe as well as the things you do not. Some people who say they are sceptics are naysayers who are closed minded, but someone who applies scepticism properly isn’t closed minded, and is actually willing to change their mind.
In the early period of identifying as a sceptic I often wrote dismissively of people and their ideas and came across as closed minded, but I’ve gotten over that since. I am wary of organised scepticism because there often seems to be an agenda of some sort involved, and often people claiming to be sceptics who dismiss paranormal research out of hand make it seem that sceptics are closed minded. This isn’t the case.
It’s not as complex as it may first seem, and I know I’m not the only non-believer who actively researchers ghost phenomena using scientific scepticism. I’m not really that unusual at all. I hope that this post has shed some light on what I “do” to those who aren’t sure, and if you were directed to this post by me it’s probably because you asked me a question I get asked a lot. I hope you found your answer here.