Ghosts and the scope of skepticism

With Andy Russell, I seem to have gotten in a little hot water with Hayley Stevens over a rather ill thought out and throwaway comment I made in my QEDcon review:

(ghosts don’t exist, move on)

Hayley, if you are reading this I’d like to apologise for the above comment. I know that you do some sterling work in investigating ghosts, and it’s important to dispel myths regarding them, stop people from being exploited and reassure them that they aren’t being haunted.

I’m from a science background, so naturally I’m going to be drawn to the scientific aspects of skepticism. I find it very difficult to even consider the existence of ghosts because the mere notion of anything like a human being in ‘spirit form’ being able to communicate with our ‘realm’, to be ludicrous. People have been wishfully looking for ghosts for such a long time now, and any reported ghost sighting is usually easily explained by rational investigation. That’s why, when it comes to looking for ghosts, I stupidly dismissed it with “ghosts don’t exist, move on”.

However, I’m well aware that some people DO believe in ghosts, but the study of ghosts themselves and the study of the psychology of people who believe in them are two very different things. It is important to try and teach people the scientific method so they don’t become scared by something that doesn’t exist (you could say the same thing about religion).

It’s my own personal view that within the broad church of skepticism (and it is a very broad church, that’s why I love it) the issue of ghost believers, although interesting,  is way down the pecking order when it comes to targets of skepticism. Alt med (homeopathy in particular) gets attention because the NHS wastes millions on it, and it’s use in place of conventional medicine can cause people to die. Creationism is a target because it’s accepted by millions of people and it hinders scientific progress and the public understanding of science. The antivax brigade gets attention because they kill people. In contrast, I don’t see ghost belief to be anywhere near as serious. Put it this way, if ghosts were available on the NHS I’d be furious.

I agree with Kash Farooq‘s take on this, but I’d like to take this opportunity to show how it isn’t easy to dismiss certain issues:

  • “homeopathy doesn’t work, move on” – Like I said earlier, the NHS wastes millions on it and people can die if it’s used in place of regular medicine
  • Betelgeuse will not explode and kill us all in 2012, move on” – Never mind the 2012 conspiracy theorist crap, we might get to see a STAR FUCKING EXPLODE!!!
  • “there are no such things as subluxations, move on” – Chiropractors. Simon Singh. Need I say more?

Anyway, I’d like to conclude byapologising again for my silly comment, no hard feelings Hayley?


  1. Hello,

    As you know from twitter, I agree with Hayley and disagree with you. I think the roots of the skeptical mouvement are the claims of the paranormal, form David Hume (in his chapter about miracles in the “Inquiry about human understanding”) to the foundation of CSICOP (now CSI), passing by Harry Houdini.

    Many people do believe in the paranormal, and in ghost. The idea at the very foundation of the skeptical mouvement is that by explaining away superstitions, we teach critical thinking to people, and then after that they can apply it to other subjects (including religion).

    Why the paranormal (in the broad sense, including UFOs and cryptids)? Because everybody is interested in monsters. Not everybody is interrested in how homeopathy dosen’t work. If a teenager has an interest in ghosts, we take that as an opportunity to teach him the scientific method. Most teenagers have a deep interest in the paranormal, and very few in alt med.

    Like Daniel Loxton, I think that “classic” skepticism is very important. We shouldn’t forget our roots.

    And I do think your dismissiveness of haunting cases (what you call “ghosts”) is not very skeptical in nature at all.


    • Tom

      Hi, first of all thanks for taking the time to comment here/ Twitter can only go so far with the 140 character limit!

      Yes ghosts can be a very good way to teach people about critical thinking. I’m happy that things that people are interested in are being used to get people into skepticism.

      I don’t think I’m being anti-skeptical by dismissing the existence of ghosts. I do that because if ghosts did exist that would completely invalidate what we know about science. No evidence for the existence of ghosts has ever come to light and they are theoretically ridiculous. To me asking “do ghosts exist?” is like asking “could a bacteria travel backwards through time?” or “does 2 + 2 = 5?”.

      So I say investigate hauntings by all means. Find out what really goes bump in the night and put peoples minds at rest. I can see that ghosts may be interesting in terms of history and drama etc. But, they are scientifically impossible, so much so that from a scientific standpoint they aren’t worth considering. As Tim Minchin says, if you open your mind too much your brain will fall out.

  2. Adam C.

    I disagree. The simple fact is, with severa hit TV shows promulgating both horrible invstigative techniques and encouraging alack of skepticism on the topic, advocates for reason and sensible investigation like Hayley are all the more important. It’s obvious homeopathy cannot work, arguably moreso than paranormal. I’d also argue that the paranormal may well, on aggregate, hurt moe people tha the relatively harmless alt med types. Homeopathy can hurt people, but homeopaths aren’t prime-time celebrities, with their own shows, glamourizing lack of skepticism overtly,. Indeed, as the 10 23 campaign has said over and over, most ordinary people think or thought homeopathy was herbal medicine.

    Paranormal TV, mediums, and related are far more upfront in encouraging irrational thinking and poor ideas about science and evidence. That makes them an important skeptical target, that needs passionate advocates for reason and proper thinking like Hayley to challenge.

    Homeopathy needs defeated, but it’s a relatively easy target in many ways. Paranormal belief is far more insidiously wraped into our culture.

    Skepticism needs breadth. We’re fighting a war on many fronts, and trying to attack those whose passion, background, and knowledge uniquely suits them to being powerful warriors on one specific front is hugely counterproductive. Hayley is one of the best advocates we have in that field, and has the potential to reach people none of us ever could. Do not belittle that.

  3. “To me asking “do ghosts exist?” is like asking “could a bacteria travel backwards through time?” or “does 2 + 2 = 5?”.”

    All AWESOME questions 🙂

    First we would have to define the word ‘ghost’ to have any chance of a meaningful conversation. This would be very difficult as many skeptics and non-believers have learnt when engaging in similar discussions about things like ‘God’. Are we open to the idea that there’s new and interesting undiscovered things in the world? Of course. But, I don’t think we can define ‘ghost’ to give it any meaning – we seem to use it as a word to describe camera flare!

    Bacteria through time? Why not 😛

    2+2=5? Can I have high values of two?

  4. I can tell you my grandmothers house was haunted.

    We are not crazy. From a young child we HATED the hallway – it just had a bad feeling.

    Then when i was older we found out that possibly someone was hung there – A ghost was seen being hung, with a rope around its neck.

    Then the plaster in that spot kept falling down, even after it was fixed it would come down.

    We have seen things move, seen shadows, felt things, seen things, things that are impossible.

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