I stopped believing in ghosts in 2007 and for the first few months I decided that the best use of my time was to explain to others how the things they thought were true were wrong. It bordered on me being almost offended that people could believe such silly things until I realised that I had believed in those things too and it had been really easy.
For a while now I have equally admired and loathed the fields of paranormal research for the complex systems that they are and for the way in which they have changed rapidly as the world around us has changes while, at the same time, not changing very much at all in some aspects. In doing so I have realised that over the years my approach to my paranormal research has become humanistic in nature which isn’t all that surprising considering I identify as a humanist, but of all the places that these values would manifest themselves ghost research seems the less obvious place. That is… until you start looking a bit closer at ghost research and the variety of people who come with it.
Paranormal researcher, CJ Romer, once described his main method of research as a Cup of Tea method where the well-being of the person or people that a case of potentially anomalous phenomena centres around comes before the research into the phenomena itself. “As an academic one of the first things you are taught is that you don’t do research with the recently bereaved and unfortunately one of the groups you’re most likely to be approached by is someone who has suffered a recently bereavement … Do you look at the phenomena, do you offer anything more than a cup of tea and sympathy– my preferred approach -and break off contact as quickly and gently as you could?”
Important questions. Ensuring your research is ethical should be a priority – this is something I interviewed CJ Romer about previously on this blog. Once you start considering the ethics of your research into anomalous phenomena and once you start focussing on the people more than chasing the ghosts I think you acknowledge the complexity of being human and belief and your approach becomes humanist in nature.
In the skeptic movement the “Don’t Be A Dick” talk by Phil Plait at The Amazing Meeting in 2010 (video above) felt like a pivotal moment at which those who didn’t care about how they engaged with believers and those that did care often found themselves in debates about their approach to skeptic activism or outreach. I have written extensively on this blog about how I care about how I communicate with people regarding what they believe in and why. Belief is often a complex thing and to attack someone simply because they believe in something you think is irrational isn’t productive or rational. Time and time again we see psychics being exposed as tricksters only for their fans to group around them because of the cognitive dissonance they’re experiencing.
Over at Scientia Salon Massimo Pigliucci, in a piece titled Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements wrote that he’d ‘rather have a productive conversation with an intelligent Christian than a frustrating one with an obtuse atheist’ and it’s a sentiment I know all too well. I cannot tolerate those who dismiss paranormal claims and eye-witnesses a priori because they are convinced they know what is right and think that is rational when it is anything but. The whole piece by Pigliucci is an interesting evaluation of the freethinking movements that so many people become a part of and then find themselves uncomfortable with and I would recommend that you consider reading it in full.
Similarly, over on his blog Ashley Pryce has written a post called Dealing with those that believe and talks about how, as a public speaker, he encounters people in his audiences at skeptical events who aren’t necessarily skeptics. This post by Pryce was finally written by him after many failed attempts after a discussion we had on a Facebook post finally prompted him to finish it. In this social media exchange I had shared how ‘I sometimes find it difficult to do my talks because there are people in the audience who desperately need to believe and it makes me feel so guilty.’ Unsurprisingly I’m not the only one who deals with this issue and feels this guilt.
Some would say to simply dismiss the claims to psychics, tell them all psychics are frauds and ghosts aren’t real so grow up. I do not think that is the right approach, in fact I think it is so much the wrong approach I would consider those that make it to be more damaging to rational discourse than those who insist that ghosts are real. – Ashley Pryce
When speaking for Skeptics in the Pub groups you deliver your presentation which is then followed by a break. The audience are invited to then return for a Q&A session and it is normally here that I encounter those who want or need to believe in an afterlife and I have become quite talented at answering questions in a way that wouldn’t be considered unethical by CJ Romer’s Cup of Tea standards because I acknowledge that some people need to believe in ghosts and an afterlife in order to grieve and find closure. To stand in front of them as an “expert” and blow their hopes out of the water would be easy but it is not at all appealing.
A few years ago a lady approached me after a talk to tell me that she had lost a baby and she sometimes thought that she saw a child out of the corner of her eye when at home. “What do you think it could be?” she asked me. As soon as she had approached I’d known that something of this nature was coming because it happens regularly with all sorts of people who want my honest opinion but probably don’t. You can sometimes see the battle. To this lady I replied “there could be a perfectly ordinary explanation but it would be unfair of me to speculate about what you’re seeing as I’ve not been present. But if you think it is the ghost of your baby and that thought brings you comfort then there’s nothing wrong with that.”
She cried and I think she was a little shocked that I hadn’t tried to explain it away. She hadn’t asked the question during the Question and Answer session because she was scared the skeptics in the audience would have laughed at her.
If my time as a ghost research has taught me anything it is that some people will believe what they need to believe regardless of your rational ideas and some people just need you to acknowledge that they’ve had a strange experience. I think that this approach that echoes humanist values is the most productive approach and it is certainly the more rewarding for all involved.