Talking about Ghosts

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.

Avoid the urge to whip out your copy of “Demon Haunted World” or “Why People Believe Weird Things

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.


11 Responses to “Talking about Ghosts”

  1. Patience is the key word. I’m not sure I have enough of that left. I have had discussions with too many people who use special pleading for their specific encounter/treatment and the interactive conversation stops there.

  2. Cameron says:

    I recently had an experience at work where our head of security anxiously showed us a picture, taken by a member of our cleaning staff, of a ghost in the washroom mirror. Of course, everyone but myself was convinced – there are 7 people in my office. Although I tactfully explained to them that there are several problems with the picture (it was very clear, it was conveniently a child on “old-timey” clothes, the photographer wasn’t at all scared (you can see him in the mirror)) they came up with any excuse they could to justify their belief that it truly was a ghost in the mirror. The following day, the head of our security came into the office looking rather forlorn. He admitted that he just found out that it was actually an Iphone app that generates fake ghost pictures.
    As for the lesson I learned from this? It is incredibly difficult – even when armed with plenty of evidence, tons of patience, and using the above noted methodology – to convince a “believer” that ghosts aren’t real. They just want to believe so badly.

  3. Ethan Clow says:

    As Cameron points out, its very difficult to convince a believer of anything that runs counter to what they want to believe. Remember that encouraging someone to be skeptical can be a long and sometimes frustrating process.

    In many cases, its a matter of choosing your battles and taking victories where you can. You might not be able to convince someone but if you can make them a bit more skeptical, that’s a win.

  4. Steve Banks says:

    I do think ghosts are something that we haven’t found the answer for. I watch alot of ghost hunters and other shows that sometimes show evidence that something is not right or out of place. One episode show a conversation that was answered with magnetic tool. Another episode showed a rock thrown then returned 5 min later as per requested on a flat plane floor. I call these things strange and don’t fit common logic.

    I will admit I have had past experiences but I have tried maintaining a skeptical point of view. I will not allow a religious connection to these things which I think keeps it plausible.

    I have been studying and trying to explain the cause of such strange things, sofar I have determined that ions may have a memory and since ions are everywhere. I need to experiment with dry ice in a hunted environment to produce a appration as bombarding it with water ions may cling to the weak ions of the ghost.

    Another experiments may include energy transference using Newton’s cradle in which a ghost may use a force in which to either stop the movement or start the movement as it uses electric ions as force.

    A device that uses AM radio waves to communicate is in use BUT problem is it is possible to pick up other radio signals which may be misinterpreted as ghost speech but from what I have seen of EVP frequency they are extremely low. I think with the right computer program to clean, boost in real time may have far better results.

    I would like to hear from science people as to how plausible these are and by what definition they came to their conclusion.

    If you have tried any of the experiments I would love to hear your results, feel free to email me.

  5. Bill says:

    Demon Haunted World is a fantastic book and a must-have for any skeptic. I’d also recommend James Randi’s “Flim Flam”. It’s a little more in-your-face, but a great read – providing evidence for the successful debunking of many “paranormal” claims.

    • Steve Banks says:

      I took a quick look a one or two chapters of Demon Haunted World and wished you had mentioned some direct chapters as it is long winded.

      I will try to find Flim Flam and read that as well.

      Many paranormal claims tend to be shadows of themselves, breeze or uneven land.

      History dating back beyond Egypt to present, shows a large belief in the paranormal.

      So one would have to assume some sort of truth to it.

      Unfortunately not alot of study is being done on this and at the time of the incident , the right questions haven’t been asked. At that moment science should have been taking place, instead they rush out the door confident that they have found proof or truth.

      To find information on what has been studied is over shadowed by religious groups and those that claim to have direct links to it.

  6. Katy says:

    “they just want to believe so badly”…that in itself is a pretty insulting way to encapsulate the issue.

    For those of us who have actually had some of those “weird” experiences, for you to imply that our belief is completely unfounded is a bit like this…let’s say a skeptic comes to me and says “Oh man…I hit a bird with my car on the way to work”. And I say “No you didn’t”. That person is going to rightfully think I’m a dick. I wasn’t there…I didn’t see the thing hit the window, I didn’t hear the sound of the splat on the windshield, I didn’t turn on the windshield wipers to get the goo off of their window…they did.

    Bear with me for a minute here…does that mean there can’t be another explanation? Of COURSE there could be another explanation. Maybe someone threw a cup of coffee into the street as they drove by and when it hit their windshield they only THOUGHT that it was a bird. Could be. The story then becomes “something happened, we’re just not sure what”.

    My point is that to me it’s completely insane that someone would tell me that when I felt someone grab my arm that one time (for example) didn’t really happen. I experienced it. I KNOW it happened. I have never been diagnosed as having any kind of psychological disorder that predisposes me to having such…I don’t take medications that make people hallucinate…that experience was entirely real. Does it mean a “dead person” grabbed my arm? Well who knows, I certainly don’t. Maybe it was some kind of hallucination that hasn’t been explained yet by modern science. Maybe it was an actual physical sensation that hasn’t yet been identified, labeled and named.

    What I don’t get about skeptics is the insistence that our present scientific knowledge is all that we are allowed to work with. We can’t possible know everything there is to know yet. Thinking such is, in itself, to insult the very process of scientific thinking.

    The questioning of belief does not have to include insult to the observer, or insistence on a flat earth, because it’s all that we currently have an explanation for. Both believers and skeptics fall into this trap all the time. Eventual arrival at the truth requires a keen eye and an open mind.

    • Kim Hebert says:

      You are comparing apples to oranges. You’ve seen both cars and objects capable of interfering with them and there are natural laws and provable circumstances in which the two could interact. You also may reasonably take into account the possibilities that the person is lying or that, given the surprise circumstances, they are simply mistaken in their identification of the object.

      In contrast, there is no evidence that ghosts exist other than questionable personal accounts that can otherwise be rationally explained within known physical laws. You haven’t given sufficient detail about your experience for anyone to determine what possible explanations there are, but it seems that jumping from “mental illness” to “ghosts might exist” are two extreme sides of the same coin. No one is calling you mentally ill. But not being able to explain your experience is not evidence for ghosts/the supernatural.

      Though the phrasing may sound insulting to you, it is not a judgement. It is a simple statement of psychology. We are extremely skilled in fooling ourselves and our brains are extremely skilled at heuristics (finding shortcuts for things that happen to us that we can’t immediately explain) and relying on our limbic system to make snap judgements (usually these judgements are designed to keep us alive, but they also may fool us into perceiving oddness or danger where there is none). The key is to recognize that we can be easily fooled and to think rationally about what just happened so we can come to sensible conclusions.

    • Ethan Clow says:

      “What I don’t get about skeptics is the insistence that our present scientific knowledge is all that we are allowed to work with. We can’t possible know everything there is to know yet. Thinking such is, in itself, to insult the very process of scientific thinking.”

      No one is suggesting that working within a scientific framework means we “know everything.” Do you have a cell phone? A car? What about a microwave? All those things were created by working within a scientific framework. Prior to those inventions we didn’t “know everything” obviously, the fact that new inventions continue to happen demonstrates this.

      But no one is going to invent anything by assuming that a solution to a mystery lays *outside* the realm of science. No one is going to solve any mysteries by assuming that the answer is beyond the reach of science.

      All of which is beyond the point of my post, as Kim mentions, every single one of is prone to errors in perception. Seeing, experiencing, being present for a phenomenon is not a benchmark for proving what really happened. If anything, its a hindrance. You don’t need to be “crazy” or “mentally unhinged” to fall for these perceptional problems because these perception blind spots are *built in* to our biology. In order to make our through them we rely on the scientific method to help us vet our own experiences.


  1. [...] a great article on SkepticNorth by Ethan Clow called ‘Talking about ghosts’ that touches upon how to approach such a discussion and it’s well worth a [...]

  2. [...] a great article on SkepticNorth by Ethan Clow called ‘Talking about ghosts’ that touches upon how to approach such a discussion and it’s well worth a [...]

  • Ethan Clow

    Ethan Clow, born and raised in the Vancouver area, is best known in the skeptical community as Ethan the Freethinking Historian, co-host of Radio Freethinker, a skeptical podcast and radio show on CiTR in Vancouver. And as the former Executive Director of the Centre for Inquiry Vancouver. Ethan graduated with a B.A. in History from UBC in the fall of 2009 and has an active role with skeptical movements in Vancouver and British Columbia. He was an executive member of the UBC Freethinkers, a campus club that promotes skepticism and critical thinking. He still maintains a close relationship with the UBC Freethinkers and helps plan events and organizes skeptical activism as best he can. Currently he works for the Centre for Inquiry as the Executive Director of CFI Vancouver.