My friend Mark sent an article my way today via Facebook. Courtesy of The Hartford Courant (the oldest continually running newspaper in America, for the moment), their ‘Business’ section of the website reports that a local engineer is manufacturing “hand held devices” for “effects associated with paranormal.” That is the “business” side of the story.
The other side of the report is that the engineer was inspired to create these devices due to the death of his 17-year old daughter back in 2004. Since that time, he has seen and heard things which he can only interpret as the spirit of his daughter trying to communicate with family members.
Mark’s first thought about the matter was that of sadness. Mark’s second thought suggested the notion is preposterous. I agree with Mark and his assessment of the priority of these two very different aspects of the article.
George Hrab just gave a fantastic talk at NECSS this past weekend about the subject of the loss of loved ones, and the grief and pain associated with such losses. The Courant article is quite timely in this regard, as I try to borrow George’s wisdom and add those pearls to my own set of thoughts on the matter. One of George’s many points was that people have a tendency not to talk about death and all of its unappealing aspects, arguably the worst of which is the sense of pain felt by the bereaved. We are very clumsy and socially unrehearsed when put in the position of having to interact with people in such a state of mind.
I was able to summarize, if not reinforce the thoughts I had before George’s talk, that there are no easy answers to questions concerning the complexities of the human psyche. This may seem a rather obvious thought upon reading, but we have to continually remind ourselves that humans have a tendency to seek out the easiest of answers from a given set of possibilities. This seems especially true when our emotions are in compromised states. I liken this to our pattern seeking tendencies - where the human brain has a disposition to make order out of, what is otherwise, chaos. We want to find reasons for things which may, in reality, have no reasons at all.
With this in mind, I don’t think we need to analyze why the father is interpreting the sound of a ringing doorbell, or the sight of the television changing channels as something paranormal. In my book, he gets a pass, and should not be the object of criticism or ridicule.
The second, and less important, aspect of the story is the engineering, and hence, the apparent “business” side of the story. Although I could go off on a rant about how The Courant did a poor job of reporting and categorizing this story, I will hold off on that for perhaps another day when I talk about the “rag” status of this newspaper.
Strictly from an engineering position, or more simply a general scientific position, I would like to see the test results for these devices. There is no mention in the article about how it has been proven that any of his devices work. There is no information concerning the mechanisms at action in such devices. It is taken for granted that ghost-detecting devices actually work at detecting anything other than mundane phenomena.
The story was also covered on television this past weekend as an episode of ‘Ghost Adventurers’, which airs on The Travel Channel. One of the quotes in the article from the host of the tv show reads:
“Gary is a very, very talented electrical engineer and he’s helped companies, massive companies, in that aspect in order to do things better.”
This is an argument from authority logical fallacy. Gary might be a talented electrical engineer, but this is not a way of proving that the technology actually works. What really matters are tests, results, unbiased data, and replication. Then we can start to have a serious conversation about the technology being accepted as genuine by the likes of the business section of The Hartford Courant.
Did the writer not think to reach out to organizations skeptical of these claims for an alternate point of view?
Perhaps he did, yet this being a rather uncomfortable subject to try and tackle (especially from a business standpoint), perhaps he made a decision, either consciously or subconsciously, to avoid one of the stickier facets of the story. Lets face it, its hard to ask tough questions – questions that contradict the claims of the claimant, even for the sake of playing devil’s advocate - of a person so grieved.
And this goes back to one of George’s points again: people are generally poor and clumsy communicators when it comes to the things they say to other people when the subject pertains to the death of loved ones.
I could go off further and on different tangents regarding this story, but I’m cutting myself short to help preserve the main point I am trying to drive home, which is this …
Good skeptics work hard at trying to understand the world around us, and in that search for a more complete comprehension of the cosmos, we remain mindful of human nature, inclusive of human culture, and understanding of human imperfections.