You have to love skeptics. Really. Like most people who’ve spent many years attaining a doctorate, I’m naturally skeptical about many things. One thing that I only temporarily lost (between about 1991 and ’99, if I recall) was an open mind. That is to say, I discounted many things out of hand because people with doctorates don’t countenance such things. I eventually realized the folly of academic arrogance and went back to considering things by actual evidence. The results were interesting. In order to help with my Ed and Lorraine Warren dilemma, I decided to read The Science of Ghosts by Joe Nickell. It’s hard not to like Nickell. He was a stage magician and eventually earned a doctorate in folklore. He then made a career out of being a paranormal investigator.
He begins his book by claiming to have an open mind about ghosts. Very quickly, however, a skeptical reader with an open mind notices his magician’s tricks. He’s very good at misdirection. While putatively not debunking (but actually debunking) ghostly encounters, he time and again comes to the states of consciousness when individual super-impose images from the unconscious mind onto what they’re seeing: when falling asleep, in the middle of the night, when waking up, when doing routine chores, when concentrating, when working. That about covers over 90 percent of human time. During these periods we’re likely to mistake what’s not really there for what is. It could explain much of the driving I’ve witnessed in New Jersey, if not ghosts. And he also picks straw men (and women) to knock over (pardon the violent metaphor). Accounts by the credulous are his favorites to explain away.
What we really need is a middle ground between credulousness and a skepticism that can’t be convinced even by evidence. Yes, ghost hunters use ridiculous methods for claiming “proof.” Yes, some credible people legitimately see incredible things. Nickell never deviates from his definition of ghosts as a form of energy left by the departed. Nobody knows for sure what ghosts are, of course. If they did there’d be little mystery about them. Although Nickell claims openmindedness, he states at several points that at death brain activity ceases therefore nothing can think, walk, or talk afterward. As any experimentalist knows, the results reflect the way an experiment is set up. If the assumption is that there can’t be ghosts, there won’t be ghosts. To get to the truth of the matter something between credulousness and biased skepticism must be brought to the table to see if it really tips. Skeptics are fun, but an actual conversation might be more fruitful.