Bill Nye on Ghosts

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 abilify offer 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.

About Hayley Stevens 442 Articles
Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

9 Comments on Bill Nye on Ghosts

  1. “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.”

    That is the only sentence I would take issue with in your well thought out article. As I believe Mr. Nye is trying to reference the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, which would, of course, include Joe Nickell. Mr. Nickell shares your views entirely from what I have heard and read from him and is certainly a qualified and experienced field researcher. I have had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Nickell for the Mythicist Milwaukee Show podcast, and I incorrectly called CSI the “Center for Skeptical Inquiry” so I have some sympathy for Bill here although he mangles the name much more.

    The Houdini fumble is far worse and further evidence that our own imperfect memories can be our worst enemies at times. I do not completely disagree with his view on ghosts and related paranormal studies, he mentions the word evidence multiple times and seems clear that he would change his position if he had any reason to do so. I would find his opinion harder to understand if he merely offered it without any context, but this was a question directed at him specifically and he answered.

    There is an argument to be had with him that we are better off not knowing what the bump in the night could have been, or that knowledge cannot be gained by examining any and all evidence with a scientifically skeptical mind. That point, you convey perfectly.

    • I disagree that we’re “better off not knowing what the bump in the night could have been”. That is not what I was suggesting.

      I am also aware of the research that Joe Nickell does as I have briefly worked with him. I am still correct to state that he (or the org he works for) does not actively look for evidence. That would be biased investigative work. Joe and others like him examine claims to find the truth.

    • I should have been more careful with my phrasing. I meant that an argument can certainly be made against Bill Nye saying we are better off not investigating strange noises in the night, which you have done quite well.

      I also seem to have misread your intent by quoting your sentence earlier. I welcome the correction and believe I now understand what you meant.

  2. Hayley, I recommend looking at the data and methodologies of the Windbridge Institute regarding their inquiry into mediumship. There is good material supporting the survival of the self after death, in addition to Jim Tucker’s work with past life research, and Robert Snow’s documented experiences. These might not have the glamor of a Scooby Doo haunting, nor is the culprit Old Man Trump looking to scare away speculators, but it’s fascinating to say the least.

    • I’m familiar with Julie Beischel and the Windbridge Institute and I find her work to be… questionable. It’s as though she is playing at science. As for Tucker and even Ian Stevenson… all I see are collections of anecdotes which might seem interesting but prove very little.

      I hope you’re not suggesting that as a researcher I only care for the glamour of a “scooby-doo” haunting and don’t know the field beyond these cases? That isn’t true at all.

  3. “As for Tucker and even Ian Stevenson… all I see are collections of anecdotes which might seem interesting but prove very little”.

    Sighs . .they don’t have to prove anything. What matters is the hypothesis which most satisfactorily accommodates all the evidence. And that is the reincarnation hypothesis. What other hypothesis do you regard as being more plausible?

    Any rejoinder that reincarnation is an “extraordinary claim” would have to be justified.

    As for this Bill Nye guy, is he the same guy who made the asinine comments regarding philosophy a few months back? I don’t think people should bother listening to this clueless nincompoop.

    • They’re claiming that these anecdotes are evidence of reincarnation. Such a claim- whether directly from them, or from people such as yourselves -requires evidence. Without providing evidence you are making a leap of logic. Anecdotes are compelling, but they’re not evidence. You might think that reincarnation is not an “extraordinary claim” but I would politely suggest you might be a bit biased.

      I think that if you’re taking the word of children as evidence of something you are way too trusting of such a source. Children have imaginations and the way in which their minds develops means that they process information differently than adults. They often cannot tell the difference between reality and fiction, which is why so many kids get scared when you tell them fictional stories about ghosts, monsters and gods.

      Bill Nye was wrong about these comments and he also has some odd opinions about philosophy but I personally think that he is a smart guy who does a lot of good work for science communication and for helping to engage people in STEM subjects which is great.

  4. Bill Nye is still a believer in global warming so his comments on other topics should be read knowing he has that kind of mind-set.

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