Ghost Stories, Spider Man and Debunking

Ghost Stories, Spider Man and Debunking October 23, 2018

“I shiver with fear/Whenever I hear/Things that debunk in the night.”

The weather hereabouts has turned colder, the trees are losing their leaves, and it’s getting to be late October. If anything is scarier than mid-term elections, it’s the coming of Halloween: gruesome costumes, ominous music, and ghost stories. Oh, and debunkers.

It’s easier to escape from the clutches of an axe murderer or zombie, it seems, than to avoid articles like 5 Famous ‘Paranormal’ Phenomena (Easily Debunked By Science) by the oh-so-scientific folks at Cracked Magazine, Ghosts definitely don’t exist because otherwise the Large Hadron Collider would have found them, claims Brian Cox, courtesy of the Independent, and 6 Scientific Explanations for Ghosts in mentalfloss.com.

I submit that if we respected science, we’d think twice about using it for these squabbles. More on that later.

Hadst Thou But Been Sae Wise

In a recent discussion about the paranormal over at A Tippling Philosopher, the always thoughtful PartialMitch opined that paranormal explanations aren’t conclusions people arrive at through rational assessment of evidence. They’re just stories people who already believe in the paranormal use to validate their prejudice. They expect to see ghosts, so whatever they experience they interpret as paranormal:

We are a storytelling species. We need narratives; we need teleological nonsense. We need to find meaning, we need to find patterns, we need to make sense of things. And when we find a good story, an interesting story, a story that makes sense-according these narratives-then by God we run with it. Just human nature.

I don’t dispute that at all. However, I think PartialMitch is right to be inclusive in this analysis. We are indeed storytellers, we just prefer our own stories. In debunking, we’re just reinforcing our idea of a predictable, material universe. We think we’re being rational, but we’re just as emotional as the paranormal enthusiast seeking cheap thrills in ghost lore. We feel safer when we tell ourselves stories about how orderly and comprehensible reality is.

In most cases, we’re not taking part in any sort of scientific study when we approach these strange anecdotes. We’re just listening to them in order to contradict them and characterize the teller as a credulous crackpot. We consider it good to keep an open mind, but not so open that we can’t patronize people who think differently.

Us vs. Them

Carl Sagan is rightly cited as an example of a classic skeptic, but even he had qualms about the presumption of the debunker:

The chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is its polarization: Us vs. Them — the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, to hell with you. This is nonconstructive. It does not get our message across. It condemns us to permanent minority status.
― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

I recall when folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand used to appear on David Letterman’s old NBC late night show to plug his books on urban legends. He had no shortage of funny tales to recount, from his collections The Choking Doberman and The Vanishing Hitchhiker, but he was no debunker. He always made it clear that stories honed by oral transmission tell us a lot about the anxieties and self-image of the communities in which they resonated. The literal truth of the tales is beside the point.

And Things Get Silly

You may have already seen the promo Neil deGrasse Tyson filmed last month for Stephen Colbert’s show, in which he decides to “tackle” Spider-Man. Yes, he’s debunking the comic book’s plot point about the origin of Peter Parker’s Spider-powers:

I would have thought it funny if Tyson were making fun of a clueless debunker who didn’t realize Spider-Man is only a cartoon character. But no, he explicitly states that he can make the distinction between fact and fiction:

Of course it’s fiction, so I don’t have a problem with fiction, but if you think you are going to do this experiment, and try to make that happen to you, I’ve got news for you: it’s not gonna work.

As Massimo Pigliucci points out, this just is not news to anyone on this planet.

Neil, apparently you do have a problem with fiction. I still remember that on my podcast, years ago, you complained about the aliens in Avatar, because the females had breasts, which are – obviously – a mammalian trait. Really? That’s what bothered you in that movie? Never heard of suspending disbelief and just enjoy a nice story?

Also, who on earth is going to be tempted to repeat in real life the “experiment” that generated Spider-Man? And even if an enterprising and badly informed kid wanted to, where would he get a radioactive spider?

The more serious issue here is: why did [Tyson] feel the need to do such a silly thing in the first place?

The Debunking Brain

The answer to that question is in the psychology of debunking itself. The debunker’s mind is made up about the phenomenon beforehand; he or she isn’t giving serious consideration to evidence or testimony, but rather making them fit a preconceived outcome.

I already mentioned the notion that employing science as a mere weapon in an online slapfight doesn’t show much respect for the legacy of empirical inquiry. It’s not scientific to decide that ghosts are real merely on the authority of anecdotal evidence, of course. But neither is it scientific to use the trappings of scientific research to lend legitimacy to one’s position in a rhetorical booger fight. Skepticism should be about more than automatic denial and the attempt to instill conformity of opinion.

Lastly, Pigliucci bemoans the insufferable arrogance of the debunker. Psychologically, there’s something immature about a person with a pathological need to emphasize his or her superiority over others. Subtlety and persuasion are what change minds; sarcasm and ridicule only garner yuks in the echo chamber. If we engage with why people believe the things they do, maybe we’ll come to a more empathetic understanding of the meaning of these stories and myths. If we’re just focused on showing people they’re wrong, maybe all we really want to do is insult and belittle them.

Are you a debunker? Does we simply tell ourselves the stories that comfort us about phenomena? What can change people’s minds about supposedly “inexplicable” events?

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