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steveb | 22:37 Sun 18th Aug 2013 | Science
166 Answers
I would never normally consider posting a question about ghosts in this section but I think I'll get the best answer here.

I do not believe in any supernatural phenomena, however I was speaking to some members of a family we have known for years and was very surprised to find that 3 adult members of this family did. They claimed that each of them had independently seen the ghost of an old man in their bathroom, and various other seemingly paranormal events, objects moving, noises etc.

I didn't know what to say to them, I completely do not believe in these type of events yet I consider these people to be completely honest, sane and genine.

Noises and other minor events can generally be explained by logical means, but can anyone offer an explanation for actually seeing ghosts, particularly people seeing the same ghost?

Any suggestions would be greatly received, it's almost enough to make me question my own beliefs.


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People can be wrong, the eye in particular is untrustworthy, let alone the brain. Various studies have demonstrated, anyway, that we can be fooled, seeing things that are not there and not seeing things that are. Moreover there is no way for these people to know that they have seen exactly the same "ghost", and it's likely that there was a certain amount of...
23:23 Sun 18th Aug 2013
Lol. Nowhere near! :-)
I used to have friends who lived in an old country house. It had a resident ghost which they called 'the grey lady'. Usually it was evidenced by footsteps which could be heard walking down the first floor corridor (about 20 metres long)after midnight. It may have just been coincidence that the hot water pipes ran along this corridor under the floor boards and they contracted when everybody had gone to bed and nobody was using the hot water.
It is quite a leap of credulity to attribute creaking pipes to a supernatural presence but I guess that if you are supernatural you can do just about anything.
Even a large number of witnesses doesn't necessarily make a story any more credible. There are various crowd-related phenomena to be accounted for first: for example, the tendency of people to be less likely to panic when no-one else is, and vice versa. Similarly, if for whatever reason five people notice something and a sixth does not, then that sixth person may well be persuaded, or persuade himself, that he did see it just to fit in with the others.

Equally, if one person can make a mistake or misinterpret what they are seeing, then so can the person next to him, and so on. The probability that the effect is imagined would presumably decrease as the number of witnesses increases, but really that depends on how independent each person is when they report what they heard later. If x number of people were given the opportunity to see the same event, and then isolated immediately afterwards, cross-examined, and their stories could be exactly reconciled with each other with no major discrepancies, then you have a case. In most extraordinary stories this doesn't happen, and there are either contradictions to the point that the story is untrustworthy, or there is mass agreement because people had a chance to talk to each other and reach some agreement on what happened. Very rarely, several people can even manage to make up the same lie independently (this has happened in my experience -- I was one of the liars, my brother was the other, and we managed to "get away with it" by independently telling the same lie).

Even if you manage to clear all of these hurdles, and establish beyond reasonable doubt that the event happened, that still leaves one more major obstacle to clear, which essentially boils down to: are your witnesses capable of interpreting what they saw correctly? Many people, for one reason or another, are not. The most common reason is a basic misunderstanding of the laws of probability and statistics. Numbers in general seem to scare many people, which is sad, but it also means that a lot of people aren't able (or perhaps aren't willing to try, I don't know which) to interpret them correctly. This tends to lead to people first exaggerating the odds against some event and then inferring that if the event happens it must be intentional, or inevitable, or divine intervention, or something along those lines. This is related to the "Gambler's fallacy", and can explain people's faith in certain medical treatments that are known, overall, not to work beyond would would be expected by random chance (and also why so many smokers trot out the line "my such-and-such smoked like a chimney and never came to any harm...").

Secondly, people may not know exactly what to look for, or may not be knowledgeable enough to explain what they can see. This applies to everyone, to some extent or other, in different ways and in different circumstances, and boils down to the fact that just because one man could not explain what he saw does not mean that no-one would have been able to. A different person, with more knowledge of possible causes, may interpret exactly the same events in a completely different way. As an example, people are aware that drafts can make doors slam, but you don't need to feel the draft for a door to slam. Indeed, all you need is an open window somewhere (it doesn't even need to be open all that much, either), and then small pressure changes can lead to a door slamming incredibly violently. Not everyone will know of this, though. At least some reports of doors slamming, and other similar disturbances can be put down to this trivial explanation that never occurred to the witnesses. Of course many other ghost/ poltergeist stories are more complicated than that, but the principle holds that there could be a reasonable physical explanation that never occurred to the storyteller. Lack of data then means that this explanation can never be proven, and so the story sticks around.

Run out of characters now...

A more concrete example would be those "helicopter hieroglyphs" that were brought up in another thread:

I'm not an Egyptologist myself, and neither are most people, so when I first saw this picture I was surprised to see the plane-like images, as indeed pretty much everyone would be. But there is a valid explanation: effectively, a number of standard Hieroglyphs have overlapped (due to erosion and also a second message being written over the first) to make an image that looks to modern eyes for all the world like planes. Again, lack of data means that this explanation can never be proven to everyone's satisfaction, so the story will stay around for some time yet, but it does illustrate the point that something can be real but easily misinterpreted (for this specific case, see also here, where a number of egyptologists debunk the story: ).

In summary, then, I think that there is a very good reason to believe that most, if not all, weird experiences, and the fact that intelligent people believe in them, are due to some combination of the following:

-- cognitive biases ;
-- brain and senses playing tricks on people ;
-- false memories, or memories changed after the fact, so as to agree with another person's account of the same event ;
-- misinterpretation of what was seen, either due to the above or due to not being aware of physical explanations.

Only once all of these can be reliably and firmly dismissed, can the "weird" be accepted as in fact normal and a sign of the "new". To date, for many of the phenomena discussed in this thread and elsewhere on AB, no such reliable evidence exists, and while it cannot be ruled out entirely (i.e. with 100% confidence) there is no reason to expect that it will in future (at least 99.99995% confidence in most cases, and once someone gets round to doing a full meta-analysis of all studies into psi phenomena, probably even more certain than that).
// Of course many other ghost/ poltergeist stories are more complicated than that,//

.... and many are far simpler. In your efforts to debunk that of which you know absolutely nothing, you do tend to complicate matters - and your link follows that pattern. It's old hat and could never be considered a credible study. You should know that. As for 'experts', I'm convinced you didn't understand a word I said on that other thread - or didn't want to. That's fine - I'm happy to leave it at that - and this is not the place to regenerate that discussion anyway.
"the fact that intelligent people believe in them, are due to some combination of the following"

I also think humans want or need to feel and believe in an ethereal connection so will pander to the idea that something spirtual is happneing to them/around them. An inherent desire for the mythical mystical.
I don't attach any of this to the 'spiritual' - I don't believe that anything is supernatural - so that's that theory, at least in my case, scuppered.
many years ago, i kept being kept awake by 'someone' shouting out... i kept hearing a voice in my room, suddenly shouting my name and random words, right by my ears ... i was feeling a bit freaked out ... until i discovered that the medication i was on had been known to produce minor aural hallucinations.
i think they were analgesics...?

had i not researched, id never have known that.

i have had a couple of weird experiences ... the main one was when 4 of us all saw the same thing, whilst wide awake and outdoors.

despite that i still cannot say i 100% believe, as i am aware that my experiences could possibly be explained away - the 4 person one is hard, but at a push it could have been the light from a car, or even a real person etc

it is not the existence of ghosts i have a problem with - i would actually like to believe - it is the people who make the claims - the refusal to accept that there may be a rational explanation for it.
and as soon as a story starts with "I was asleep when I was awoken
by ..." - then that's it for me ... it is not worth listening any further as whatever they say was most likely a dream.

i have read too many books and seen too many TV shows featuring people telling feeble stories, seemingly believing that merely feeling spooked and having the hairs on their neck stand up etc is proper evidence.
There's usually a rational explanation and that must be sought first a foremost. However, it sometimes transpires that there isn't a rational explanation.
There's usually a rational explanation and that must be sought first a foremost. However, it sometimes transpires that there isn't a rational explanation.
18:53 Tue 20th Aug 2013

In which case any 'explanation' offered is neither rational nor an explanation. To say that something is/was a ghost is to admit that one doesn't know what it is/was because there is no rational explanation for the existence of ghosts as the term is typically used. Ghosts are like (if not) UFOs, waiting for a rational explanation at which point they vaporise into the mist of the unknown from which they emanated, to be replaced by a knowledge of what they really are.

Ghosts are UPAs, unidentified (or misidentified), typically anthropomorphised, perceptual anomalies, despite any apparent similarity to that which they suggest within the mind of the perceiver until such time as they can be ascertained to be what they actually are.
I don't know "absolutely nothing", and you really ought to stop pursuing that argument, because it's a non-argument, and just another one of your "ad hominem" attacks. One of these days you might bother to address some of my points without just throwing them out of the window. I live in hope...

Jim, I've read your arguments. There is nothing to address. You claim to know all the reasons that odd things happen - which, despite the lengthy diatribes, amounts to no more than the rest of us know - but you cannot speak from the opposite point of view because you have no experience - hence you know nothing about it. And that is not an ad hominem attack - it's simply saying it like it is. It's incredibly arrogant of you to pontificate with what, for some strange reason, you appear to consider to be some authority, because I can assure you that every one of these experiences is not as a result of the reasons you give, and if you think they are then you're missing something.

Mibs, // To say that something is/was a ghost is to admit that one doesn't know what it is/was because there is no rational explanation for the existence of ghosts as the term is typically used. Ghosts are like (if not) UFOs, waiting for a rational explanation at which point they vaporise into the mist of the unknown from which they emanated, to be replaced by a knowledge of what they really are.//

Precisely - and once science is smart enough firstly to stop assuming that everyone is deluded, and secondly to figure it out, that's exactly what will happen. Puff!
Can we go with 'UPAs' then? 'Ghosts' are just too dang . . . spooky :o/
Your assurances, with respect, mean little if they aren't backed up by more than words. And they aren't backed up by any more than that.

I don't "claim to know", exactly -- technically, you should say that I'm merely offering a list of explanations that have to be demonstrated to be false before the converse has any weight. Since no-one has demonstrated that they are false -- you "assure" me that they are not, but on what is that assurance based? A remarkably self-confident assertion that your brain was not playing tricks on you, for example, but I wonder where you got that information from? Your brain, I'd expect.

Scientists, meanwhile, don't really "assume" that everyone is deluded, either. Firstly, I've never called these people deluded, and secondly the reasons I have presented have their origins in extensive research into how the human brain works. The result of this research is that it is clear that, without extreme care, we cannot reliably trust our brains and therefore ourselves to observe everything accurately and interpret what we see accurately. That is not an assumption, nor some mocking accusation of "delusion". Everyone is subject to these flaws. And until you, or anyone else, can show that these flaws have been painstakingly accounted for, any claim of something so remarkable as "ghosts" - whatever it is you mean by that -- must be treated with scepticism.

In the meantime, you are making a lot of assumptions yourself. This assumption that I have no experience, for instance. On what do you base that? What I say here, presumably,, since that is all you have to go on -- but what reason have you to believe that I have told you all of my life experiences so far? So there's that assumption thrown out of the window. A great deal of strange things have happened, if not always to me directly then to many other people I know personally, so I am drawing on a lot more experience than you give me credit for.

Then there's this remark: "your diatribes... amount to no more than the rest of us know". I've tried to avoid tackling this sort of comment for a while since it makes me sound horribly arrogant, but given that I have had a full University course in Physics up to Masters level, and am embarking on a PhD, it shouldn't exactly come as a shock that when it comes to matters scientific I either know, or am able to understand, more than most others who haven't had such training. In some of the topics we've debated we probably are on a level playing field. In others, we are definitely not level, and as long as you can claim (either in so many words, or just by hinting as much) superior knowledge or learning in some fields then so can I. And this -- Physics in particular, and Science and how it works as a whole -- is one of them.

There is something to address. If there were not, such matters as dowsing, or archaeological aliens, or ghosts, or all other paranormal phenomena, would already have been accepted. But, of course, they haven't. All of these and many other topics have been studied extensively and thus far ruled out. And there is no sign or reason to expect that this will change in the future. You will have to do a lot better than merely "assure" me otherwise. So, again, any chance of something better than ad hominem?
Just a further point. After all this, if some study comes along that shows such phenomena to be inexplicable, then by the standards I've laid out I'd have to accept, as would other scientists, that our view of the world was wrong. In short, my position is falsifiable. So... is yours?
Jim, the explanations you offer are not great scientific revelations - they are no more than those that any sensible person would consider before anything else - but in some instances they don't work. As in practically every other discussion where you and I have disagreed, not once have you asked me to explain why I think as I do. In short, you have no idea what I'm talking about, but nevertheless you dismiss all across several topics because you think your basic qualification in one area entitles you to do that. It doesn't. Unlike you, I don't feel compelled to 'prove' myself by posting my CV here - my posts stand on their own merits - but all I will say is that you presume to know the answer before considering the question - and that is not conducive to the progression of knowledge.

Look up 'ad hominem'.
I saw a Horizon or Discovery documentary where, in an experiment, a group of young volunteers were taken on a guided walk through an area of desert scrub in New Mexico. At one point, the guide draws there attention to a scattering of what looks like wreckage but, as a precaution does not allow his charges to approach the debris too closely and hustles them to move on after giving them barely 20 seconds to take in the scene fully. The guide even uses words to the effect of "the less said about this, hte better", to discourage them from conferring with each other during the remainder of the walk.

They return to base and each is then independently debriefed and asked what they saw while on the walk and whether they encountered anything unusual.

The range of responses varies widely from "I didn't see much" to very eleborate descriptions of the 'crash site'.

Afterwards, they are each shown footage from their helmet-cams, revealing what actually happened, in real time, including one witness who was lagging at the tail of the crocodile, is seen to look in completely the wrong direction, missing the debris field entirely yet has an in-depth description of what they recalled seeing.

If this isn't a textbook case of 'group-think', I don't know what is.

Remember that these were volunteers, taking part in an experiment for extra money while studying at college etc. There was nothing at stake between them on the level of trying to maintain friendship with a group of pals, for instance.

I think both The RI lecture series and QI have had a go at that other classic, of the unexpected walk-on character who snatches and object and runs away, with the audience only later being challenged to pick the offender out from an ID parade.

Anyway, things are not looking good for the infallibility of witness testimony.

We apologise for the oinconvenience but people who relate ghost stories will have to put up with all manner of cross-questioning for some time to come. Ironically, it's people like myself who would like to have the first-hand experience who are the most likely to want to ask questions, to extract every last detail so we will know how to tell the difference when it's our turn.

"you cannot speak from the opposite point of view because you have no experience"

Does that mean that if you don't claim to have seen a ghost you can't have a valid opinion?
Actually, previously I have asked you why, including about that ancient aliens theory, but you didn't provide much information and what you did was, while thought-provoking, hardly conclusive or difficult to provide an explanation for.

It's worth stressing that, when you say: "Unlike you, I don't feel compelled to 'prove' myself by posting my CV here..." you were the first person out of us two to bring up your own science qualifications. Also, I'm not quite sure how you can dismiss a Masters as a "basic" qualification.

Why have I not asked why you think the way you do? That's an interesting question, and let me answer it by making a brief point: this is not the first time I've heard of ghosts, or MMR and Autism, or dowsing, or the "Turin Shroud is real" theory (which may well be true but probably isn't), or virtually anything else that has been discussed between us. In many of these cases my own reading beforehand has been extensive enough for me to both form an opinion and to have a pretty good idea of why other people formed the opposite view. I mentioned it in passing before, but one of the books I read and paid a great deal of attention to as a child was called "Strange Stories, Amazing Facts". I may still have it. It's filled with these sorts of stories, and a few others. So, for a while, I was puzzled greatly by Nostradamus, or ghost paintings, and other such tales. And then went and did some more research on them, and found that a lot of these tales turned out to be based on misunderstandings, or mistranslations, or misinterpretations of what was seen. But the point is that if I don't ask you why you think what you do it's because I already think I have a reasonable idea. Call this arrogant too, if you will, but at least it's both experience (which I have some, not none of), and some idea (rather than none). After all, where else did you find some of these stories if not by reading about them, rather like I have done? And the rest you experienced yourself, or through friends and family. I have all of those, too.

Now, can we move on from my experience or lack of it, or some other false assumption about me, and explain why "there is nothing to address"? This seems extraordinary, to say the least, since my points that "didn't need addressing" included cognitive biases, unreliability of the brain and the senses, and people not always knowing what they need to know in order to interpret what they did see. All three of these it seems to me are pretty reasonable points. Most people, for all you say, aren't able to account for their own unreliability, and often assume that they aren't unreliable. Even if this isn't the case they need to be able to show that they have taken that into account. And human history is littered with examples of people seeing something and either exaggerating it, or not understanding it.

For what it's worth, I also haven't said that I "know" what has happened either. That would indeed be presumptuous. But an earlier post made my position clear:

"Only once all of these can be reliably and firmly dismissed, can the 'weird' be accepted as in fact normal and a sign of the 'new'."

In other words the alternative explanations I offer are not necessarily the truth, but they still need to be shown to be false. And by shown, I mean actively and exhaustively ruled out, rather than just ruled out by assurances. In a sense you are right, none of the reasons I offer are "great scientific revelations". But that's an odd criticism, because that was precisely the point of those explanations. Science is aware of several reasons that are able to explain all such odd events to date.In several cases the lack of data means that these explanations cannot be shown to be the correct ones, but they can't be ruled out either. Only once these explanations can be shown convincingly not to work do you need the new.

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