Earlier in the week, I discussed how to talk about ghost on Radio Freethinker. It’s a topic that I’ve thought about for a while and there’s a possibility that my advice might serve other skeptics out there.
I have several family members who believe in ghosts and have their own unique ghostly experiences they like to tell me about. Likewise I’ve encountered a number of friends and acquaintances who believe in ghosts and have told me of their ghostly encounters over the years.
Obviously I’m very skeptical of the existence of ghosts. I have a lot of reasons for being skeptical of ghosts, not the least being the idea that something survives death to linger on as some sort of supernatural entity. I’m currently dissatisfied with the available evidence that life after death is possible. There doesn’t seem to be a mechanism for such a phenomenon and since there is no real agreement on what life after death would be like (i.e. no agreement on the physical limitations or behaviour of such an entity) I’m very skeptical that we could positively assert that we have enough evidence to say ghosts exists.
In fact, given the amount of evidence we have on what does happen after death, how life appears to operate and a whole host of sciences on how our universe works, I would suggest that the weight of evidence we do have strongly points towards ghosts not existing and actually being logically impossible.
Despite my skepticism, I’ve managed to have some pretty civil and enlightening conversations about ghosts with family members and friends. Having such a conversation is not often an easy task, many times such conversations would degrade into arguments with no resolution except someone storming off in a huff. But as a good skeptic, I’ve tried to learn from past mistakes and I think I’ve come up with a pretty good system for having conversations about ghosts with believers that doesn’t put them on the defensive and shut down the conversation, or compromise my integrity as a skeptic into giving tacit approval of their beliefs, or simply serving as intellectual masturbation where both sides retire more affirmed in their own beliefs than before.
What I’ve learned is that my system actually works pretty well when dealing with friends or family (people who we generally don’t want to offend) as well as strangers and people you just met (who you may not care if you offend but that’s just because you haven’t gotten to know them yet)
I should also say, this method works for me, it fits my personality quite well, and I think it’s useful. It may not work in every situation, it might not be the right system for you, this is not a way to cure someone of belief in ghosts but rather to open productive lines of dialogue and hopefully encourage some skeptical thought. It is best used one on one and not in a group conversation.
Before starting off, make sure you’re in the right mindset. Sometimes when ghosts are brought up we skeptics might ask “oh boy, do I really want to get started on this?” Don’t think like this. That’s not the mindset you should have. What would ideally be the best mindset is “Ghosts? Ghosts!” Or something, give the person the benefit of the doubt, maybe they have finally found the definitive piece of evidence that ghosts exist.
Let’s lay out the structure of this conversation in point form:
1. Someone brings up ghosts. You say “tell me more.”
In Christopher DiCarlo’s new book “How to Become a Really Good Pain in the Ass: A Critical Thinker’s Guide to Asking the Right Questions” he discusses the Socratic Method, which is the method of inquiry used by the Greek philosopher Socrates. The way Socrates used it was to feign ignorance of a topic when discussing something. He would ask his debate opponent to “tell him more” or to explain his reasoning. As the discussion went on, Socrates would ask questions that demonstrated the ignorance, inconsistency and contradictions in his opponent’s logic and information.
In order to ask the right questions, some might call them “gotcha questions” we first need to get all the information we can about the situation. The Socratic method is very useful for this – the person we’re discussing things with is asked to elaborate and describe their experiences. By indulging them with requests for information we’re giving them the sense we’re not trying to “convince them they’re wrong” or put them on the defensive. We just want to know.
2. Don’t get skeptical right away.
It’s important to not start out by interrupting your opponent (I’m using that word in the context that you probably have opposite conclusions, not suggesting an adversarial debate) with skeptical questions like “oh you saw a ghost in the middle of the night, you must have been dreaming.” Let them finish their story and listen carefully.
Try to keep in mind that your opponent is telling you about their personal ghost story, it’s probably an important, if not a treasured memory for them.
3. Get the details of the story.
As Ben Radford writes in his book Scientific Paranormal Investigation you need to interview eyewitnesses to get the facts of the case. In order to do this, you should avoid injecting your own opinions or explanations. Let them explain the facts as they saw them. Be polite, be firm and make it clear you are trying to understand them, not mock them.
Make sure you ask things like “what exactly did you see?” If they say “a ghost” ask what kind. Did it have a body, was it transparent? Did it have a head? Was it moving? Did you communicate with it?
What time of day did this happen? What had you been doing?
Have you seen it often? How many times?
4. If there are inconsistencies in their story, ask them about it.
Don’t get cocky and demand they explain something. If you’ve noticed some contradiction in their story, point it out to them. Don’t start pointing out logical fallacies or anything like that. Give them the benefit of the doubt and only call them on things within their own logic.
5. Do not try to explain things like perception and psychological biases to people. Skeptics may know all about why eyewitness accounts aren’t trust worthy and why personal experience is often misleading but the non-skeptic doesn’t.
From their point of view, they experienced something that defies natural explanation and that’s that.
Questioning that will bring up all sorts of defensive barriers and derail your conversation. In addition, don’t use skeptical jargon or scientific terms that someone who doesn’t have a university degree in the sciences would know.
6. Instead, try to shift the conversation to your personal experiences.
“That’s interesting, I had this experience once where I thought I saw a ghost…what I later realized was it was actually…”
If you have any experience investigating paranormal things, or seeing UFOs or any other paranormal event, mention it. Explain it as clearly as you can, but also explain how you solved it. Explain why you were skeptical of it and how you were able to understand it.
For most people, our personal experiences are the benchmark of how we navigate the world telling truth from falsehood. Using your own experiences can be a very effective “in” with people who are convinced of the veracity of their own observations.
7. Encourage them to talk about any such paranormal event that they thought was paranormal but wasn’t. If possible, try to discover what they are skeptical of. If they believe in ghosts that doesn’t mean they also believe in UFOs or Bigfoot, if you can find a common issue to be skeptical of, you can try to get them to apply that skepticism to their own paranormal events.
The reasons they might be skeptical of UFOs could also be valid reasons to be skeptical of their ghostly encounter but because they have so much emotion tied into the ghost story, they may not realize it. Bringing up these new topics might make them reconsider just how sure they are about ghosts or the paranormal.
In general, avoid doing these things (because they’ll ruin the conversation):
Do not use jargony skeptical language – don’t try to sound smart, use appropriate language.
Do not belittle, talk down, mock or demean the person.
Do not offer suggestions on what really happened (despite the fact you may be sure you’ve figured it out, in my experience no one reacts well when you start offering suggestions)
Remember, this strategy won’t turn them into a skeptic overnight. That is not the goal with this. If this plan works, you can have a civil conversation and walk away feeling like you didn’t give polite acceptance to pseudoscience and potentially planted a seed of skepticism that can be cultivated in future conversations. This is an on-going process, be patient and you may find this a useful way to encourage skepticism.