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: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_Million_Dollar_Paranormal_Challenge
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!
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.
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!