Re: SYSK – How Ghosts Work

I listen to many different podcasts, and one of them is Stuff You Should Know, hosted by two guys: Josh and Chuck. They cover all sorts of topics, from history to science to pop culture, in an informal and friendly tone.

Sometimes, though, they cover a controversial topic and attract some feedback. Usually they’re on the reasonable side of things, but one area that they often shirk are the skeptical angles of topics like “alternative” medicine (acupuncture, for example) and, in this case, ghosts. They give less time to criticisms of these topics and treat objections less sympathetically than normal. I understand their position of wanting to be welcoming and non-confrontational. But giving certain topics even the resemblance of a credible platform can be problematic.

I wrote them an email about acupuncture when that episode aired over a year ago. I was calm, rational, and kind, and one of the hosts responded with a thanks in that regard. Here’s a copy of my email to them concerning their recent episode on ghosts. I give enough context in the email to get the gist of what they were saying.

Hey guys. I’m listening to the Ghosts episode and, as per usual on topics concerning the supernatural or pseudoscience, I always want to send y’all a message about it.

You didn’t poo poo the skeptical angle too much, until the end. Then I got disappointed. Y’all brought up some things and asked several questions, though, that I feel I can respond to:

“What’s the value in debunking this?” “It’s not hurting anybody.”

Chuck’s example of the weird light in his picture seems innocuous. And doubting what Emily says [about how the light is her grandfather] might seem like a jerk move. But we’ve all had situations where we express caution or doubt about something in the interest of someone’s safety, happiness, or wellbeing. All I’m basically putting forward is that the supernatural or paranormal isn’t some protected topic.

Belief in those things affects people in reality. Back when “May 21, 2011” was the date of the end times, for example, some people believed it so seriously that they sold all their possessions! Believing in small things like ghosts existing, or not flexing those critical thinking skills, can also lead one closer to harmful action. I met someone who took horoscopes so seriously that she planned her day around what they said, for example. Surely being controlled by such a whimsical force isn’t the best way to live. In the podcast you mentioned psychics or mediums that take people’s money to “contact the dead”. Whether the psychics believe it or not, they are scamming people out of quite a bit of money to give them some temporary comfort in a lie!

I don’t believe the supernatural and paranormal exist because no reliable studies or evidence have been produced to show that they do. And it’s not time to believe things until they’ve been proven. You mentioned Randi, who offers one million dollars to anyone who will bring their supernatural powers to the test:

To date no one has succeeded. Yet consider how remarkably simple it would be for a medium to do exactly what he or she purports to do every day for a job just with someone keeping score. I find that extremely telling of how confident these people really are in their abilities.

He and I and all skeptics I know are perfectly happy to learn of new evidence that proves any of these claims, I should mention!

Quantum physics

Josh also tosses up quantum particles as a possible, neat explanation as to what ghosts are made of. Sadly, quantum physics is quite possibly the single most abused science when it comes to explaining nonsense. Many misleading cure-all treatments or medicines skip the rigorous peer-review process and jump to a fuzzy pseudo-technical justification with quantum physics. Explanations for anything from aliens to the paranormal evoke the allure and mystery of this publicly grossly misunderstood science.

Paranormal investigators

If paranormal investigators are anything like the TV shows I’ve seen about hunting ghosts, their technique is very poor. It’s actually a bit shameful that so many television networks fund these shows. They look at some random noise on a screen and pull out a pattern to prove their motivated reasoning. They put words to some sound because otherwise it’s just gibberish. They’re approaching a spooky house wanting to find a ghost, so they’re mentally prepared to assign anything they find to that conclusion. This is the opposite of how science should work.

“Poo pooing out of hand anything science can’t explain shows a lack of critical thinking and imagination.”

Strongly disagree. Josh’s [Actually, I think it was Chuck’s] reference to Brian Dunning was good. By not accepting the easy, yet improbable answer, we are left to discover it ourselves and investigate without biasing a conclusion. Saying, “It’s a ghost” is much easier than saying, “I don’t know, let’s find out”.

And trust me, I’m perfectly imaginative. I just don’t try to say that what I think up is real without good reason! I can appreciate movies with ghosts or worlds with magic, zombies, or gods just like the rest of ’em.

Overall, I hope this is taken as a larger appeal to the idea that skepticism isn’t a negative thing. A healthy doubt of claims until they have been proven, compared to gullibility, is a positive behavior to exhibit. Most people are properly skeptical of all sorts of things in daily life, from the claims of advertisements to rumors from friends. I just want to get rid of that image that a skeptic has a permanent frown or scowl on.

If you read through all this, I sincerely appreciate it. Enjoying the show as usual.

Making these sentiments public seems like a natural thing to do if I want to raise awareness about the mistakes that I feel are made in popular media and from people I respect. Chuck and Josh produce quality work and have a wide audience and impact, but everyone fumbles a bit. And if no one points it out, nothing changes. Thanks for reading, yourself!

2 thoughts on “Re: SYSK – How Ghosts Work

  1. Joe

    I just listened to this myself for a bit of Halloween fun and I, too, was very disappointed. These two are usually rational and though I’ve not listened to the alternative medicine podcasts (probably won’t now to avoid further bad moods) I usually do think they’re fairly reasonable. The worst thing I think they said was that debunking these claims is “mean-spirited.” How is it mean-spirited? How is it mean-spirited to spread knowledge? Accurate, provable, demonstrable knowledge?

    Someone told a story on another internet show I like to watch about her father. When she was a child she had her first bicycle. She had training wheels, of course. One day the training wheels came off and she was very upset. Her father convinced her to climb on the bike and start riding. He said he’d hold the bike steady and she could ride it straight up when she was ready. So she started and peddled for a minute and looked back only to realize her father was not holding on and she was riding on her own. That day she learned she could handle riding a bicycle on her own without training wheels and without her father’s hand guiding her. Her father hadn’t taken anything away from her. By removing the training wheels he taught her she could handle this on her own and instilled a new confidence in her, something every parent should do.

    Saying that debunking claims that are able to be debunked (bunk) is like removing training wheels. You may be scared at first but then you realize you don’t need to rely on these things to live your life. You can be perfectly happy and live a perfectly good life without believing things that are nonsense.

    On the other end is the harm that comes with not doing that. People peddling false hope are conning people. You may not think it hurts them but they’re being sold lies. Whether it brings some temporary sense of fulfillment or not is irrelevant. These people are trading on a lie and taking advantage of people who don’t know any better. That’s wrong. When you don’t care about whether or not the things you believe are true it leads to poor decision-making and ultimately can lead to several harmful outcomes. What if someone sees one medium who says one thing and another who says something totally different? Now the person is confused and has no idea who is telling the truth, if anyone. That can cause distress that could easily have been disappointed if they had simply been prepared to go through the grieving process to accept their loved one’s death.

    And that’s another thing that’s being taken away by these people. Closure. They’re keeping the wounds open. If that does not sound harmful to you I suggest you take a good long look in the mirror and re-examine your sense of decency. Why do that to someone? THAT is mean-spirited. It’s the opposite of helping. It IS hurting people. Make no mistake, it is.

    1. Joe

      *…could easily have been avoided, not disappointed. I guess I was thinking it could cause stress and disappointment and my brain got ahead of my fingers. Hate when that happens. Anyway, that’s what I meant. Sorry about any confusion that may have caused.


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