Recently, I was watching the Biography Channel and saw an ad for a show called Celebrity Ghost Stories. This is a show, where Class A celebrities, like the bald guy who was Carrie’s friend in the show Sex and The City (his actual name is Willie Garson), relieve their terrifying experiences.
More specifically, the show’s tagline describes it succingtly: “Featuring personal, first-person accounts by notable actors, musicians and models, Celebrity Ghost Stories delivers a compelling, surprising and downright chilling look into the world of the paranormal by those who believe they have experienced the other side.”
Putting aside the whole “ghosts” thing for a moment, I take reservation with the statement that there are “notable” actors on the show. I think the show’s writers have the same raised eyebrow. Look at the description for some of the celebrities (I did not make this up):
Marissa J Winokur: best known as TV actress and voiceover talent
Billy Baldwin: best known as Actor, one of the Baldwin brothers
Donna D’Erricco: best known as Playboy playmate and starring in Baywatch
Tracey Gold: best known as Carol Seaver on Growing Pains
Haylie Duff: best known as Singer, actress, sister of Hilary
Eric Balfour: best known for appearances in 24 and Six Feet Under
Back in 2003, I was an extra in the movie, Resident Evil 2. In fact, I had a full second of screen time (I was the Umbrella Corporation trooper scanning people as they tried to leave the city). One time, when I was just a child, I was really scared when I was left alone in my parent’s farm house… OVER NIGHT. Thankfully, I survived, unscathed – pellet gun under my bed, dog lying next to me. He woke up and barked a few times during the night. It was probably a ghost, because it was also a bit chilly that night, which was weird, because it was summer. I should be on Celebrity Ghost Stories.
Sound ridiculous? Well, if you had a budget to edit the story with freaky animations and a killer soundtrack, you could probably make that story pretty scary.
The fact that celebrities are now telling their stories (an obvious appeal to the argument of authority) is even worse. In the voice of Will Ferrell on Saturday Night Live as Alex Trebek, “… and we’ve reached a new low.”
“Having dealt with (and read the reports of “ghost investigations” by) amateur ghost hunting groups from across the country, I have noticed an interesting logical sleight of hand that allows them to frame their investigations as successful even when they fail. Many, of course, take their cues from TV shows like Ghost Hunters and Paranormal State , featuring ordinary folks (plumbers, college students, musicians, housewives, etc.) who have little or no training in science, investigation, logic, or critical thinking. Thus it’s not surprising that their “investigations” invariably fail to find any real proof of ghosts, and have little to do with science or skepticism– no matter how often they refer to themselves as “skeptics.”
Ghost hunters will wander around a reputedly haunted location with cameras, voice recorders, and other gadgets, looking for any “anomaly.” There are three possible outcomes of this sort of pseudoinvestigation: 1) The ghost hunters will effectively debunk a particular phenomenon or claim (such as finding that a “mysterious” cold spot in a room is due to an unseen air conditioning vent); 2) The ghost hunters will not find any evidence of anything unusual at all (no “orbs” in photos, no “cold spots,” no “anomalous” readings or faint ghost voices, etc.); or 3) The ghost hunters will find one or more phenomena that they cannot explain or understand (such as a strange sound, an EVP “voice,” an orb or blur in a photograph, etc.). On the surface, there doesn’t seem to be any problem with this methodology— except that it’s logically and scientifically unsound, and leads to false-positive “evidence” for ghosts.
One of the hallmarks of good scientific methodology is that a claim, proposition, or hypothesis must be falsifiable; that is, there must be some way to determine whether an event occurred or it didn’t, a phenomenon exists or it doesn’t. If I claim that an invisible, undetectable polar bear is living in my garage, that may be true but is not a testable, falsifiable claim, because if an investigator searches for evidence and finds none at all, I can just say, “Of course you couldn’t find evidence for it, the polar bear is undetectable.” Thus it is an untestable, scientifically worthless claim.
Many ghost hunters have managed to frame their “investigations” in exactly the same unscientific, untestable way. In the curious world of ghost hunting, the fact that the teams of ghost hunters cannot explain phenomenon is taken as a sign of their expertise. That is, they will confidently proclaim a location haunted if they could not find an explanation for some (apparently) strange phenomenon or other; they couldn’t figure it out, couldn’t solve the mystery.
The ghost hunters set up an interesting no-lose situation for themselves. If they are able to debunk or find ordinary explanations for ghostly phenomenon, then that shows what excellent investigators they are because they cleverly figured it out. On the other hand, if they can’t figure out an explanation for some phenomenon, then that also demonstrates what fantastic investigators they are, because they claim it is evidence of ghosts! And if they don’t find any evidence of ghosts, that of course does not prove that ghosts don’t exist, it can just be interpreted to mean that there were no ghosts active there at the time the ghost hunters were there; the door is left wide open for later investigations. Follow-up investigations are likely to find some “anomaly” or other (especially given the lax standards of evidence, since all that is needed to create evidence for ghosts is for one person to say, “I don’t really understand this”), thus virtually guaranteeing that many “haunted locations” will be deemed to have some “unexplained” activity, whether ghosts reside there or not.
Imagine if other investigative professions operated the same way, claiming success when they were unable to solve a problem: Police detectives unable to solve crimes would be promoted; doctors unable to correctly diagnose diseases would be congratulated and receive awards; mechanics who couldn’t explain and fix automotive problems would be successful. Usually, inability to accomplish a goal (such as explaining a mystery) is seen as an obvious failure; for ghost hunters, it’s a proud badge of success! If the purpose of investigation is to collect good scientific evidence for ghosts, the ghost hunter groups have completely failed.”
At least I can take solace in the fact that there’s only 32 people who “Like” Celebrity Ghost Stories.