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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, October 30, 2015

Scientists Have No Explanation for Ghosts

While on the “Real Clear Science” web site (www.realclearscience.com) this week I saw a link to an article entitled “Six Scientific Explanations for Ghosts” (hosted here on mentalfloss.com). Below is a discussion of why none of these explanations do anything to explain the mystery of apparition sightings or sightings of ghostly figures.

Faulty Explanation #1: Electromagnetic Fields

The first attempted explanation refers to some research by Michael Persinger in which he bombards people's brains with magnetic fields. Persinger reports people have strange mental effects when their brains have been bombarded with magnetic fields, after some weird “God helmet” has been put on their heads. But such research is of no value in explaining sightings of apparitions or sightings of ghosts at haunted houses, by people who are not wearing weird helmets that bombard their brains with magnetic fields. Such research might be relevant if there was a strong tendency for apparition sightings to occur mainly about regions with high magnetic fields, such as houses next to power plants or houses next to power transformers. But there is no such tendency.

Faulty Explanation #2: Infrasound

Infrasound is sound at a level too low for humans to hear. Supposedly if you are bombarded with infrasound, you may feel uncomfortable, and feel some mental distress. But there is no good evidence that infrasound can cause hallucinations, so it's not a suitable hypothesis to explain ghosts. The article cites some claimed evidence trying to link infrasound and a ghost sighting, but the evidence is extremely weak. The evidence (given here)  is merely that a researcher was at a lab he was told was haunted. The researcher saw something strange-looking at the edge of his field of view, and when he focused on that area the “apparition” was gone. Later he found there was some fan that was causing infrasound, and after that fan was fixed, he didn't see any more apparitions. That's hardly good evidence that the fan malfunction was causing a hallucination of a ghost (and the "edge of vision" thing reported isn't really even a full-fledged ghost sighting). Such reasoning is no stronger than this reasoning: “I saw a ghost, but then I switched to a new breakfast cereal, and don't see ghosts anymore – so my old breakfast cereal must have caused the ghost.”

Faulty Explanation #3: Mold

The third goofy explanation offered by the Mental Floss article is mold. The article says, “Preliminary research indicates that some molds can cause symptoms that sound pretty ghostly—like irrational fear and dementia.” But I doubt whether there is a single verified case of anyone seeing a ghost because of breathing in mold. This file (around pages 60 to 85) by the World Health Organization makes a comprehensive and authoritative analysis of the effects of mold. While the study notes lots of respiratory effects, it does nothing to substantiate any psychiatric problems caused by mold. The study's one comment on the topic is this statement: “"The Institute of Medicine (2004) included only a few case reports, with inconsistent findings for neuropsychiatric effects." 

Contrary to the impression you might get from watching certain TV shows that like to show ghost hunters treading around in dusty old abandoned buildings, the great majority of ghost sightings occur in ordinary places (as noted below), making the idea of mold not at all valuable in explaining such sightings.

Faulty Explanation #4: Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Carbon monoxide is a gas that will kill you if you breathe in too much of it. The Mental Floss article suggests that carbon monoxide can cause hallucinations, but its only reference for this is an article written way back in 1921 – an article suggesting that some family had hallucinations which went away after they fixed a faulty furnace. But if it were really true that carbon monoxide poisoning can cause ghost hallucinations, would we would not have many more recent accounts of such a thing? Again, we have reasoning no stronger than this reasoning: “I saw a ghost, but then I switched to a new breakfast cereal, and don't see ghosts anymore – so my old breakfast cereal must have caused the ghost.”

About 400 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning in the US. If it were actually true that carbon monoxide was a major cause of ghost sightings, we would have very many cases of people reporting, “I saw ghosts until I got my furnace fixed,” not merely one such case every century. If it were actually true that carbon monoxide was a major cause of ghost sightings, we would also have lots of reports of sudden, unexplained deaths associated with ghost sightings – since we know that carbon monoxide commonly kills people. But there is no tendency for sudden, unexplained deaths to occur more often when there are ghost sightings.

General Problems With Environmental Attempts to Explain Ghosts as Hallucinations

I may note that all of the preceding explanations are kind of environmental explanations suggesting the idea of some weird conditions in some place where ghosts were seen. But according to the “Spectrum of Specters” study here, 64% of respondents reported perceiving ghosts “during mundane or normal times in their lives,” not during trips to some freaky haunted house where weird conditions might come into play.

According to page 12 of this survey of people who reported seeing ghosts, 70 percent reported seeing ghosts or apparitions who were persons known to the individual who saw the ghost or apparition. But that is not what we would expect from hallucinations. Hallucinations like those reported by drug users or schizophrenics involve random content.

Faulty  Explanation #5: Someone Else Said It Was Real

The fifth explanation given in the Mental Floss article is basically just suggestibility. So if someone goes into a haunted house and says he feels a strange chill, suggestibility might explain why a second and third person also report feeling the strange chill. But this cannot explain very much. The most convincing evidence for apparitions comes from people who reported seeing apparitions, something that typically involves a single person seeing the apparition. We cannot explain individuals seeing apparitions by themselves on any kind of “me, too” theory of social contagion. We also cannot explain cases of multiple witnesses seeing the same apparition under such a theory. If we're in a haunted house, and I say, “I feel a strange chill,” you may well say, “Yes, it is kind of cold in here.” But if we're in a haunted house and I say, “Look, I see Lincoln's ghost,” you will not at all tend to say, “Yes, I see it too,” just because I reported seeing such a thing. Specific visual hallucinations are not contagious.

Faulty Explanation #6: We Want to Believe

The sixth explanation given in the article is simply that people see ghosts because they want to believe in an afterlife. This explanation is not tenable because outside of apparition sightings there is no known tendency for humans to have visual hallucinations that reflect their desires. If there was such a tendency, people might often start seeing a hallucination of a pot of gold or a pile of cash in the middle of their living rooms – but no one ever has any such hallucination. If people had a tendency to hallucinate their desires, we might also expect that men would have hallucinations of sexy, willing women, which would vanish when the men tried to get physical with the sexy apparitions. But no one ever reports having any such hallucinations. Outside of apparition sightings, there is no tendency for humans to have visual hallucinations of things they want to see.

What we see in this Mental Floss article is a common technique of skeptics: what I call the smorgasbord technique. The smorgasbord technique works like this: when you don't have an explanation for something, list a whole variety of weak explanations, and hope that your reader is impressed (because he confuses quantity with quality). We see the smorgasbord technique often when skeptics try to explain UFOs. When faced with some dramatic UFO sighting, a skeptic may say, “There are lots of possible explanations – it may have been Venus, an airplane, a meteor, ball lightning, something being tested by the military, or swamp gas.” A smorgasbord like this may seem impressive, until we individually examine each of these possibilities, and find that none of them is tenable. We should remember: six or seven bad explanations don't add up to a good explanation.

Another reason why none of these explanations work is that none of them can explain photographic evidence of ghostly anomalies. Perhaps the most common evidence are photos of misty-looking anomalies that are variously called ghostly mists, ectoplasmic mists, light forms, or plasma clouds. The phenomenon of unexplained plasma-like clouds photographed at ground level is visually documented at this site, at this site, in the book "The Orb Project" by Miceal Ledwith and Klaus Heinemann, Ph.D, and in the book "Beyond Photography: Encounters with Orbs, Angels and Light-Forms," by  Katie Hall and John Pickering.

 An example of such a thing is below, where we see three consecutive photos I took in quick succession during a single minute on a warm night when the temperature was 66 degrees F. The middle one shows a strange ghostly mist. No smoke was visible, nor could any smoke be smelled (note that the ghostly mist isn't even appearing at ground level). Since we see no sign of smoke in the first or third photo, and I neither saw nor smelled smoke, we cannot explain this as smoke. Since the night was too warm for someone's breath to appear as mist, we cannot explain the photo as the photographer's breath.

ghostly mist

I have also taken the photo below on December 22, 2014, showing a ghostly mist appearing while I was pursing my lips and pinching my nose, on a dry night when the temperature was 40 degrees, and I could not see my breath. There was no smoke or mist that I could see nearby. Why was I taking care to pinch my nose and purse my lips tightly? Because three days earlier I had photographed a similar anomaly in front of the exact same spot. 

If you do a Google search for “ghostly mist,” or look at links above, you will find many similar photos – often taken during dry weather and warm weather, ruling out the “photographer's breath” explanation.  Mya Gleny's page here offers a dazzling collection of such photos.  

Scientists cannot claim to have an explanation for ghosts until they can explain photos such as these and also the very frequent reports of visual apparitions of ghosts.  Currently they do not have a good explanation for either.