I’ve received the following email and was given permission to share it publicly to answer. Minor edits have been made for clarity.
My 13 year old daughter has me interested in TV shows like Ghost Adventures. I’m starting to have a healthy interest in the paranormal. I have always been a complete skeptic. I would say I still am a skeptic, but so many things are hard for me to explain in the field.
Why are there millions of people with their own paranormal stories – UFOs, ghosts sightings, Bigfoot, animal mutilation? Are all these people crazy, mistaken, have bad eyesight?
In Ghost Adventures, the three main hosts of the show seem believable as they investigate. But what seems so very believable are the witnesses. These are very common people, not actors. Their testimonials are truly believable. Are all these witnesses crazy too? They testify with great belief and conviction. Even professional actors could not be so believable.
Please email me back with your vast insight.
Thanks so much for writing to me. It’s flattering that you asked for my opinion on this. You say you are a “skeptic” and by thinking about this topic, you certainly are exhibiting some skeptical traits. But since there were a lot of juicy bits in your comments, let’s unpack them.
Paranormal TV shows have been around a LONG time, almost since TV was born. See my list here. They make for good entertainment and people are really interested in them – many WANT to believe. However, it’s a serious error to think they are anything more than made for TV entertainment. They are heavily edited and even scripted. The processes may be presented superficially as scientific but this is far from doing science. The hosts are being paid to find something interesting and are primed to seek out weird stuff. I don’t rely on ANYTHING I see on TV as remotely real.
However, you bring up a point about credible witnesses that every skeptic should take to heart – people really do believe that something strange may have happened to them. I would never discount their experience. I wasn’t there, I have no say about it. But I can question their conclusion that the event was paranormal. If they are invested in a belief in the paranormal for any reason – religious, personal comfort, sense of importance, or just to get attention and appear on a TV show – they will appear very sincere and genuine in their story. While that may be persuasive, it, by no means, makes it TRUE.
I have never seen sound evidence of the paranormal from TV shows. That’s not how knowledge is established. The purpose of TV is advertising revenue. We can never get the whole story from a TV show, or from an eyewitness account or a story from a trusted friend. There is always critical information missing and we lack the opportunity to recreate or test the situation. There are endless possible alternative explanations, some we can’t even imagine. It’s illogical to say, “I don’t know, therefore, it’s paranormal”. The best one can conclude is “I don’t know”. Period. There just is not enough evidence to draw any conclusion. (Ghosts have never been shown to be spirits of the dead, or demons, or remnant energy, etc., no matter what ghost hunters harp authoritatively about.)
Reserving judgment when the evidence is not there is the hallmark of good skepticism. Proper skepticism means that you understand that observers make mistakes. Their claims should not be taken at face value because they could have bad eyesight, for example, or they could have been frightened and misinterpreted stimuli around them. (“Did you hear that? What the hell was that?”) They WANT to think there are ghosts. Their memories may have subtly changed over time to suit what they wish they experienced. It happens all the time – it’s part of being human. Paranormal investigators find so-called “evidence” everywhere, but it’s their biased interpretation of data, far removed from scientific inquiry. A good skeptic understands that not all “evidence” is equal.
My insight comes from years studying the skeptical process but also listening to witnesses who really believe something strange happened to them. The truth is something strange DID happen. But there is no way for me (or them) to make a sound conclusion about it. Based on shared collective human knowledge of the universe and how it works, I’m not nearly ready to discard well-established physical laws and accept paranormal explanations. I’d advise that you not base your conclusions on the weak and exaggerated claims of TV shows. Never forget – that’s entertainment. It’s not real. Watch it as an example of how easily people fool themselves.
Want to Ask a Skeptic? Write to me: paskeptic(at)gmail.com