Are ghosts “all in the mind”?

Posted on November 28, 2011

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Dateline: 2 November 2011 // Posted by: Aware521
Source: Daily Mail, BBC News, and more.

Story: “Do Ghosts Exist or is it ‘All in the Mind?’”

Summary: In May of 2003, the BBC reported on research by psychologists from the UK who examined the reports of over 600 volunteers at two of the UK’s most haunted locations, in order to test the theory of ghosts. They posited that in a “normal” setting the ghostly experiences would be evenly spaced, contrary to the experiences of others that show an increased presence of ghostly activity in clusters, which are deemed “more haunted.” During their study they found that, despite knowledge of the haunting prior to the visit, the volunteers felt more physical responses to a “presence” in the rooms that were said to be more haunted. They determined that haunting may exist based off of the physical response to environmental cues, but that ghosts themselves do not exist.

In response to this research, Colin Wilson wrote his own article citing anecdotal research that he has collected over the years, purportedly providing visual evidence for the existence of ghosts. He agrees with the scientists of the UK experiment in that the “haunting” is effected by the magnetism of the earth itself, stating that it is easier for paranormal energies to be trapped by ley-lines, which are generally found in great concentration around areas that are claimed to be haunted. He continues to comment on the “gall” of these scientists to reject the existence of ghosts with so much evidence that has been collected scientifically over the years.

Why is this PseudoNews? This material can be deemed scientifically questionable based on the method in which the data was collected during the experiment. Colin Wilson’s article cannot be analyzed as scientific or not because he did not cite any actual research in his article except for the account of certain individuals over time. It could be argued that because his article is based strictly on anecdotal evidence that his position in the existence of ghosts is not scientific in the slightest. Dr. Wiseman’s experiment, followed the steps of the scientific method, but because he used questionnaires and self-report to determine the validity of the individual’s experiences and correlated it with magnetic readings that were taken from each location that the evidence gathered could be effected by confounding factors. While the method of answer used by the questionnaire is sound, it could also be assumed that the questions given to the participants could have effected their answers.

What features of pseudoscience are on show? One problem that could be raised here is the confirmation bias of the participants in the experiment. It was stated by Dr. Wiseman that the group was split evenly between believers and nonbelievers and the data verified that people who considered themselves believers were more likely to report unusual experiences in the specific haunted locations. The experiment also states that 45% of the participants reported at least one unusual occurrence when they were in the location. If the group was split evenly down the middle between believers and nonbelievers it could be posited that this 45% was mostly, if not exclusively, believers of the paranormal and therefore the participants could merely be verifying the idea that ghosts exist.

As for Colin Wilson’s article, it is quite evident that his research is pseudoscientific. He does not give any type of specific measurement for his research because it is all derived from anecdotal evidence. Also, by not attempting to provide actual scientific evidence by experimentation to test his claim, he is successfully avoiding the requirement to express claims in ways that can be falsified.

The moral of the story: It is hard to support or refute the claim of the existence of ghosts when all that is given is anecdotal evidence and self-report. The argument could be made that the entire structure of the opposing arguments could all be due to confirmation bias. Colin Wilson’s argument is most certainly a product of this bias and his argument against Dr. Wiseman’s experiment is completely unfounded because the only evidence he has is personal experience, which can often be tricked by brain processes that we are consciously unaware of. It could be just as simple to state that the argument for the existence of ghosts is a blanket for the population to use in order to avoid the question of whether there is life after death. People would rather believe that there is a possibility of life after death, than look at death as the end of life entirely.

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