“There’s no such thing as ghosts”, “There’s no such thing as lake monsters”, “There’s no such thing as fairies.
The burden of proof is something that people get acquainted with pretty early on when they become aware of the skeptical evaluation of claims. People making claims are required to back those claims up with evidence, rather than expecting their audience to accept the claims at face value. “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” said Carl Sagan, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence” added Christopher Hitchens.
However, it becomes problematic when upon reading these quotes from these great thinkers people become content with dismissing ideas as nonsense and putting them to bed forever without properly looking at them.
This is illogical behaviour that so many self identifying skeptics demonstrate towards paranormal subjects, and it is worrying because they have reached a conclusion without reviewing that which they are dismissing and that isn’t the way any rational person should approach a claim.
I know of no mechanism through which a person can survive after death, but I don’t tell people ‘that’s silly, there’s no such thing as ghosts’ when they tell me they’ve seen one. This is for a number of reasons.
1) There isn’t a testable definition for what a ghost is. Only culturally influenced definitions. To dismiss the idea that they’ve seen a ghost is to assume I know what a ghost is.
2) People who report seeing ghosts may not have seen the spirit of a deceased person (one of the more popular definitions for what ghosts are), but their experience was likely to be real and behind that experience lays an answer.
3) I personally much prefer to attempt to be proactive and try to find that answer than not even bothering.
I understand and respect that ghosts and monsters aren’t everybody’s cup of tea, I just wish that others would understand that those of us of a skeptical nature that spend time assessing such claims and reports aren’t wasting time. This year when I spoke as part of a panel on cryptids and monsters at QEDcon some people in the blogosphere referred to the panel and other paranormal talks as “filler talks“, missing the fact that the skeptical research is rooted in the exploration of paranormal claims and reports of years gone by. The reason that research into ghosts and monsters is still very relevant is that the belief of ghosts and monsters is still very real. Not because people are stupid, but because people experience things on a regular basis that they have no experience or knowledge of.
I often describe paranormal cases that I research as jigsaw puzzles with pieces missing. You can look at the incomplete picture and hazard a guess as to what it probably is – but if you sieve through the information that comes with the case you start to find the missing pieces of the puzzle, and more often than not you can put the missing pieces in place and see the bigger picture.
That’s when you can start supplying people with answers rather than just a dismissive shrug of the shoulders. A good example of this would be the Bownessie experience that Windermere hotelier Thomas Noblett reported many years ago. As he swam across from the Langdale Chase hotel jetty to the shore near Wray Castle on the other side of the lake something large and unidentified swam past him and created a wave that smacked into him.
Many people dismissed this incident straight away and said it was more likely that Noblett was making the story up to gain attention. I think I was probably one of them. I changed my mind though when I actually met Thomas earlier this year and he recounted his story to me and Joe Nickell as we stood with him on the shore of the lake. I believe his experience was real, but that doesn’t mean I think it was of paranormal origin… and I don’t think Thomas thinks that either.
We spent a lot of time on the shore of the lake that day going through all sorts of ideas as to what might have moved behind him as he swam across, and although we can never be sure what it was, it did demonstrate to me that Thomas was genuinely curious about what he had experienced yet, so many people had dismissed his experience straight off because it seemed implausable that a lake monster could have been the cause. That had been where their interest and curiosity ended.
Over the course of the following days Thomas was able to provide us with leads that would eventually lead to me being able to completely rule out one local myth that suggested the local aquarium had released two Wels Catfish into the lake that had grown in size and were responsible for Bownessie sightings because I traced those two cat fish to a local golf course where they now live in a giant pond. That’s a jigsaw piece slotted into place that wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t spoken to Thomas Noblett and had continued to contently dismiss his experience because “there’s no such thing as lake monsters”.
Dismissing something as nonsense isn’t always the most productive line of reasoning available, sometimes pointing out the obvious – that there’s no evidence that paranormal entities or creatures exist – doesn’t provide you with a good conclusion. It just provides you with a convenient one that isn’t as insightful or helpful as you might think.
I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t comment upon the experiences of others without first becoming a paranormal researcher and investing a lot of time into uncovering facts and hidden information involved in the case, I guess I’m just saying that don’t dismiss others when they do choose to conduct in-depth research as ‘wasting time’ or ‘providing filler talks’ when they’re asked to speak at conferences.
Not only are you then dismissing the potentially real experience of people who are looking for an answer, you’re also dismissing the work of those people trying to find one, and of those who have been finding the answers to spooky questions for hundreds of years.
If we all dismissed the work of those people trying to answer the unknown, the world would be much more ignorant than it is now. Think about it.