The Science of Ghosts and Things That Go Bump In the Night

Joe Nickell is one of my favorite investigative reporters if not debunkers, though I find him too polite and charitable toward flim-flam artists and the obviously deluded. “The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead” by Joe Nickell (Prometheus Books, Amherst, NY 2012) follows his well-worn trail producing works that document the scrutiny of dubious phenomena.

Among his other books of a similar nature are:

* Tracking the Man Beasts: Sasquatch, Vampires, Zombies and More.

* Real or Fake? Studies in Authentication.

* Adventures in Paranormal Investigation.

* Psychic Sleuths.

* Looking for a Miracle and

* Secrets of the Supernatural.

The Science of Ghosts: Searching for Spirits of the Dead explores a wide range of questions most readers probably don’t pause to ask. A few examples should suffice:


* Are ghosts real?

* Are there truly haunted places?

* How can we know?

One problem with such questions in terms of book sales might be that most people probably don’t ask such questions, that is, they don’t allow for such possibilities. Nor do they ask themselves, “Can pigs fly? Do trolls live under bridges? Does the Blessed Virgin appear in cookies or on storefront windows?

Sure, some people believe these things but does 99 percent of it warrant scientific inquiry? I don’t think so. Nor do I think that an mind need necessarily entails an absence of reason or common sense to deter wasted pursuits, that is, spending time disproving things for which there never has been the slightest evidence. On the other hand, if Mr. Nickell’s methodical, “fair and balanced” scrutiny leads some who believe in foolishness to read this book, then the book will serve a worthy purpose. 

Yes, throughout history and continuing today, many people do pretend they can make contact, channel and otherwise talk with spirits of the dead. As Michael Shermer and others have noted, lots of people can talk to the dead, in fact, anyone can do it. The trick is to get the dead to respond. There is no evidence for ghosts, man beasts, paranormal powers, haunted places or virgins blessed or otherwise that magically self-represent on windows (or on cookies, tacos, etc.). Yet, many poorly uneducated, vulnerable, pious and superstitious people embrace such matters and others equally farfetched. We don’t need Mr. Nickell’s first-rate investigative reports to feel justified in dismissing such jejune foolishness, though he makes reading about such things interesting. It is quite enough to read this book in order to discover in detail how a skilled skeptic objectively examines claims for the unlikely.

In The Science of Ghosts, the author looks for evidence of ghosts and other such matters and assesses what evidence there is (i.e., none) - including eyewitness accounts, “mediumistic productions” (e.g., spirit photographs), ghost-buster detection equipment and so on. He also explains why so many people have such interests in the first place.

The book is organized in four parts, each containing a dozen chapters, give or take a chapter. (There is also an interesting afterword, an extensive appendix, notes, references and an index - Nickell is a scholarly ghost buster.) A sampling of key points emphasized (there are hundreds) and specific phenomena explained include the following:

* Some folks have a 'predisposition' to 'want to believe' in the non-physical, as we know from the continued popularity of religions. Some of this must be due to a need to carry on after death, though I can’t see how being a ghost, witch or vampire forever (barring having a stake driven through your heart) is much of an improvement on hell itself.

* A scientific look at famous (infamous?) spoofs, frauds, pseudoscience claims, folk legends, delusional epics and related case histories - these reward even the skeptics like myself who are not disposed to give so much as the time of day to the whole ghost-related arena. Accounts of human folly are sufficient reasons to spend time with this book, even for those who do not think the whole business deserves the labors of so distinguished an investigator as Joe Nickell. 

* Why Occam was on to something in insisting upon the simplest explanation as the most viable of options to explain nearly everything, though of course simplicity does not always afford the best explanation possible.

* An overview of the role of ghosts et. al. in history and popular culture - there is much entertainment value in all this, especially for movie goers who enjoyed not only 'Ghost Busters' but also 'Ghost' (with Patrick Swayze) and TV dramas (e.g., 'Ghost Hunters') about such apparitions.

* A recognition that a better understanding of the human brain can inform how humans process information and thus believe. Nickell provides ample clues based on modern science and our 'center' of consciousness and interactions with drugs, sensory input and changing bodily functions.

*  The nature of investigative techniques for assessing paranormal claims is shown in the context of  cultural and psychological influences - and the limits of reason and critical thinking are better understood as a result. Readers of this book, while not likely to suffer greater affection for those who follow ghost lore too seriously may, like myself, come away with a little more compassion for them. Placed in their circumstances (having had their DNA, culture, education and so on), any one of us might or surely would be just as taken by illusions and poppycock.

Well, the spirits are telling me this is enough - I don’t want to give much more away else I might spoil the plot, reveal the ending or extend a sense that there’s no need to read the book. If the topic excites you, I do recommend it.

Be well, enjoy life today and try not to frighten anybody - the world is scary enough as it is.