by Jay Johansen | Apr 18, 2022
Every now and then I hear some story of ghosts or psychic phenomena. And most of the time, I don't know what to make of them.
Let me say up front, I'm not one of those people who sniff and say, "Well *I* believe in science. The supernatural is a lot of silly superstitition. I'm not going to listen to any of this supposed evidence." People who say such things think they are being "scientific". Actually they are being exactly the opposite of scientific. What such statements come down to is saying, "I have a dogma that the supernatural is impossible, based purely on my whims of what I find it pleasant to believe. I refuse to look at the evidence. Because I just decided that the supernatural is impossible, therefore any supposed evidence for the supernatural just must be mistakes or lies, so looking at the evidence would be a waste of time." Real science would be to look at any evidence offered objectively.
But that said, what are we to make of ghost stories?
At the one extreme, perhaps it is the absolute truth. We have eyewitness testimony. It would be unscientific and irresponsible to dismiss eyewitness testimony just because it conflicts with our preconceived ideas.
At the other extreme, it could be complete fiction. The speaker might have just made it up to amuse himself or get attention. Especially if the person is appearing on television or getting some other spotlight.
But even assuming we at least willing to hear the person out ... How accurate is their telling of the story? Are they exagerrating? Adding "facts" to make the story more interesting?
For example, I saw a collection of such "amazing stories" once that included several accounts of children reporting talking with a dead relative. In all of them, the writer said that the child gave an accurate description of the dead relative, even though they died before the child was born. But not one of the stories related the actual description. Which makes me wonder. Did the child say, "Grandpa was 5 foot 10, 183 pounds, with a mole on his left thumb, a scar over his right eye, and a tatoo of an anchor and the words "USS Brighton Beach" on his forearm"? Or was it more like, "He was an old man with gray hair"? The kind of description that could fit millions of people. Or even if the child did give a meaningful description, just because the person died before they were born doesn't mean they never saw a picture. Photography has been around for a while now.
Sometimes you can see gaping holes in the story if you just think about what they really said they observed versus their conclusions. I saw a documentary once about UFO sightings by astronauts. They said that the crew of one of the Apollo missions saw an unidentified object out the window. NASA ground control told them it was a Russian weather satellite. But, the narrator declared, that particular satellite wouldn't have been at that location at that time. Therefore, what they saw couldn't have been that satellite. Therefore, what they saw must have been an alien spaceship.
Need I point out that that's quite a leap? Even if we accept the claim that this particular satellite would not have been visible, they never even discussed the possibility that it could have been some other satellite. Or some random piece of space debris. Or a reflection off the window. Or any of thousands of other possibilities. They went straight from "not this one particular satellite" to "must be an alien space ship".
I often wonder if the person telling the story isn't exagerrating key points. You don't have to suppose that they're deliberately lying, just that something struck them as strange and they're overstating just how strange it was. Have you ever told a story about some mundane event and found yourself exagerrating the important points? Like you describe an argument you had and in the telling it goes from "she raised her voice somewhat" to "she was screaming at me"? It's easy to go from "I lost it" to "it mysteriously disappeared".
Many ghost stories rely on claims like "there was no one else there". Do you really know that for a fact? How do you know? Was there a guard on the door checking everyone who entered and left? Lots of stories of "unexplainable" phenomenon might have a completely mundane explanation. I've seen quite a few photos where a "mysterous figure" appears in the background. How do you know there wasn't some stranger wandering through the park that day, who didn't know or care that he showed up in the background of your photo? Seen 100 feet away through the fog he looks like he's wearing 19th century clothes. Okay. People wear lots of different kinds of clothes these days, the idea that someone's coat sort of kind of looks like a coat you saw in a movie set 100 years ago doesn't really prove much. Maybe he just likes the style.
A few years back there was a lot of excitement about a photo taken 100 years ago where a man is visible holding an object that some said looked like a cell phone. And so he must have been a time traveller. Except the story makes no sense. Why would a time traveller bring a cell phone back to 1920? There were no cell towers then. It wouldn't work. It would be useless. The picture was no way clear enough to truly identify it as a cell phone. It was just a dark-colored, rectangular object of about the size of a cell phone. It could have been almost anything.
People have a natural tendency to look for patterns and meaning. This can be a useful practice when there really is a pattern. Many scientific discoveries are all about a scientist noticing a pattern in seemingly random events. But sometimes we see patterns in things that really are random. Sometimes we strain to find meaning in things that have no meaning. I've often heard some random noise and briefly thought it was someone talking, before I realized, no, it's just the wind blowing through the trees or whatever. It's very easy for someone to hear a random, meaningless noise and think it was someone calling their name.
So ... what to make of such stories? The person might be telling the absolute truth and something amazing really did happen to them. They could be flat out lying and making it all up. And there are a whole range of possibilities in the middle. They might be deliberately exagerrating to make the story more interesting. They might be unintentionally exagerrating as they re-tell the story, and they come to believe the exagerrated version themselves. It's quite frustrating.
© 2022 by Jay Johansen
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