SGU Episode 17

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SGU Episode 17
26th October 2005
SGU 16 SGU 17
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
P: Perry DeAngelis
JN: Joe Nickell
Bart Kosko
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She blinded me with science lyrics

Interview with Joe Nickell ()

S: Hello and welcome to the Skeptics guide to the Universe. This is your host, Steven Novella, president of the New England Skeptical Society. Today is October 26th, 2005. And with me again Tonight are perry deangelis

P: Hello

S: Bob Novella

B: Hello

S: And Evan Bernstein

E: Salutations

S: This week we have a very special guest with us, Joe Nickell. Joe Welcome to the Skeptics Guide

JN: Hi.

S: Joe is a paranormal investigator. One of the, I think the only full time professional paranormal investigator that I know of. He's the author of the investigative files, which is a column in the skeptical inquirer. He is a senior research fellow for the comittee for the scientific investigation of the paranormal, or what we call CSICOP for short, and an associate dean for the Center for Inquirery Institute. Just his background, Joe has worked professionally as a stage musician, a private investigator, a journalist, a document analyzer and a university instructor. And you've authored or co-authored, I believe it's over twenty books now, including some of my favorites; Inquest on the Shroud of Turin and Secrets of the Supernatural, Looking for a Miracle, Missing Pieces I think is my single favorite book of yours. And your latest book that's just coming out is Secret of the Sideshows. So, uh...

JN: It is out at Barnes and Noble stores everywhere

S: And I think I found it on

JN: Mm-hm

S: And you can check out Joe's website: Who maintains that website for you Joe?

JN: Tim Venga, who's a friend and happens to be the librarian at CSICOP, so, uh...

S: Its a pretty site.

JN: He does it on his own time...

S: So, this being October 26th, halloween is just around the corner, and this is the time of year when any skeptics who have done any ghost investigation or articles get called by all of the reporters and papers looking to do their fluff piece on halloween for the season, so you must be inundated around this time of year.

JN: Well, there are two types of articles, one type is as you suggest, just a fluff piece that usually has some ghost club people going into a haunted house with ghost hunting equipment that isn't made to hunt ghosts with and...

S: Right.

JN: The use of which they're incompetent to use. The other type of piece is of course is the piece which usually interviews me or some other skeptic and provides some actual balance. I'm not so bothered by people doing a halloween news story if they actually use it to teach some science and to teach why the ghost club approach of going in with electromagnetic detection devices and cameras and so forth with an agenda to sort of find proof of ghosts, which is simply a wrong-headed methodology and is...

S: Right.

JN: not only doomed but it just fosters pseudoscience and occultism as opposed to a more scientific or investigatory approach where you go to a haunted house and say, well what's being claimed here? And when you find that out, then you try to explain it.

S: Right.

P: Those types of investigations are extremely rare. I've...youve...

S: The scientific kind are rare.

P: Right, the scientific kind. Usually its this sensationalistic, lets find some ghosts, like there's a new show on the sci-fi channel: "Ghost Hunters", have you had a chance to check that out?

JN: I'm afraid so.

P: Well they make an attempt to make it look scientific. I've only seen a couple of them, but I've never seen anything that was compelling. I wonder if they've actually ever...have they ever found anything on that show that is some sort of anomaly that they couldn't explain?

JN: Well, I don't know. I don't watch that show regularly. I have my own work to do and they're approach is dubious and their methodolgy is questionable. As I say, what one needs to do is find out what is being claimed and actually investigate. Unfortunately, people doing tv shows oftentimes end up staging effects or using engaging in mystery mongering, using questionable techniques and there agenda is quite from scientific investigator who wants to explain rather than simply to entertain at whatever cost. So, I'm not happy with any of the so-called ghost hunters. They seem to me that they're not really investigating, but providing entertainment.

S: I think the reason why we get interested in this, again, what I tell reporters who interview me about it around this time of year; its not that I really care so much if people believe in ghosts, or the ghost phenomenon itself, its that there are so many people claiming to be doing scientific investigations and they're really giving the public a very distorted view of what that is because theyre not doing scientific investigations and it is interesting you know, what it is that they are doing and why it isn't science is an oppurtunity, I think, to teach the public why it isn't science for example as you say, they're not hypothesis testing. They don't actually have a hypothesis about what the phenomenon may be, and set about testing it in some way.

B: They're more like anomoly hunters

S: Right, exactly.

JN: That's right, and that, anomoly hunting is really predicated on a logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance because what they're doing, they're going in ususally with cameras and they take some pictures and they hope to find orbs or ectoplasmic strands or some other glitch

S: Right.

JN: Glitches that wouldn't be explained as reflections off of particles of dust or camera straps...what have you, and by showing these anomalies, they're implying that this is ghost energy or something supernatural, but it's no such thing, its not proof of anything, and when you claim to have been...when you are drawing a conclusion from a lack of knowledge, then you're engaging in a logical fallacy...

S: That's right

JN: thats what so much of the paranormal is

S: We have our top or faviorite top 20 logical fallacies on the podcast website, and the argument from ignorance is certainly there. That is a very very common one but the ghost hunters, although they make the argument from ignorance, they don't even quite get there because they miss a step that comes before that because they engage in anomaly hunting, but they're not even finding real anomalies. As you said they're finding things that can be explained with more mundane explanations, like the orbs of light or boxes of light on film have photographic explanations. They're not even true anomalies. So they have these false anomalies, then they make the argument from ignorance to say they can't explain this, which is wrong, therefore its a ghost, but the factual premise is wrong and the logic is fallacious.

JN: They're also occasionally suspicions for example a lamp that moved on one show was thought to have been pulled by its chord, and there was a minor scandal over that. I don't know what the true facts are, but it certainly raises the question that if sombody's filming some alleged event, if they're not playing fair...

S: Right.

JN: then we're at the mercy of that, and again I've personally known over the past 30 years, I've known a lot of cameramen who have worked for the pop tv shows and many of them admitted to at times kind of helping things along a little bit with a paranormal boosting effect, or making something look a little more mysterious or staging something because they would shrug it off oh its just entertainment...

S: That's right.

JN: ...but to the people watching this its not just entertainment. People watching it think these shows are honest and true.

S: Well, they're sort of told in the guise of news or information sometimes they're so called docu dramas. They deliberately blur the line. We had Dr. Sparks on a couple weeks ago where we talk a lot about this, about how the format of a television show has more to do with how believable it is than the content. So, if you have an information or documentary format, but its filled with utter nonsense, people are still going to believe it, it will effect their beliefs...

JN: Absolutely.

S: ...based upon the format.

JN: Maybe my, a look at my first ghost case would show how I approach things. In 1972 at mckenzie house in toronto, there were a number of phenomena reported including footsteps on the stairs late at night which the caretaker and his wife would hear when they were going to bed, there was no one else in the house, the house was locked. There were other sounds and phenomena reported including strange photos. One night the caregakers wife woke up and saw a ghostly figure standing by her bed. Now when I went there, I immediately looked at those different claims, i didnt go in with an agenda to take infrarend imaging devices and electromagnetic devices and other radio shack equipment and see if i could get some kind of glitch or anomaly and then foist that off as a ghost. What I did was specefically take those piece so f evidence or those claims and see if i could explain them, and it turned out that next door to mckenzie house was a parallel iron starecaise and it was against an adgascent wall to mckenzie house so these two staircases were about 40 inches apart and there was a late night cleanup croew next door and also a caretaker and his family who used that stair so obviously the most likely explanation was that people were hearing the footsteps on the stair just beyond and in fact a tour guide had tipped me to this. She had actually heard footsteps on the stairs once during the day and rushesd over to the staircase and got her ear against the wall and heard that there were people next door. So that was office had some evidence that was the simpler explanation and the best explanation all things considered, and as to the ghost at the bedside, of course thats a very common phenomenon called a waking dream. People going to sleep or waking up slip into a state between being fully awake, fully asleep in which they tend to see things like ghosts or angels or aliens very common type of experience, very powerful to the person it happens to...

B: Hypnogogia

JN: ...but when we hear those descriptions that they were in bied and saw something at the bed we can again have an hypothesis tht thats most likely a common waking dream. So thats the way i approach these investigations, to try to explain, not to debunk or to scoff, simply to explain it and if its properly explained, then i think any needed debunking will take care of itself

S: That's right

B: Um, hypnogogia I think is such a powerful phenomenon, I think it can explain so many of these ghsotly reportings. This is a simple little test that i want people try, anyone that might be listening to this, or even you guys. When you go to sleep at night, just as you're dozing off, just think your name in your head and invariably at least when i try this, it somehow inducins, not a waking dream, it induces...

S: Its like a feedback loop

B: ...right. I mean like, I can actually hear my name being spoken aloud like someone was in the room saying it to me and it happens almost every time i try it and I think its a related audible manifestation of, its not visual, but its really powerful. I mean, I had a waking dream just a few months ago, one of the most potent ones ive ever had...

S: Oh really?

B: ...where it was difficult to breathe and I heard this wierd buzzing in the room and I was actually paralyzed which id never experience before, and it was, and while its happening, I was saying to myself wowo, im finally really experiencing this. I can see how people would be completely

S: Right

JN: Sure

B: ..completely amazed by it if you didn't know what it was and...

JN: The sleep paralysis of course is a result of your body is still asleep and so you can't move your body and ...

S: Well, there's a nucleus in your brainstem that paralyzes you from the neck down so that you don't sleepwalk or act out your dreams

B: Well not rea

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