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A Grief Reminder

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.


2 comments to A Grief Reminder

  • Re: “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.”

    Speaking only for myself, I couldn’t find it in my heart to give the Courant a “pass” on this. They are indeed a rag, as are any number of other media outlets who report uncritically and unthinkingly about the paranormal.

    As for the Courant, I caught them a few years ago reporting that “the ghost of Abigail Pettibone is known to haunt the upstairs of the locally famous Pettibone’s Tavern” in Simsbury. I complained to their reader representative, who agreed this was an unacceptable way to report that story. But she’s been gone for a while, so it appears no one is left their to provide any direction or correction on such matters.

    The reason why so many media outlets are jumping on “haunting” and “ghost” stories is, IMHO, three-fold: First, their ranks have been severely pared down, meaning only a small number of reporters are trying to provide material to publish. This means they look for, and write about, relatively “easy” stories that they can crank out quickly. Hauntings are easy to write about because there are so many ghost stories out there. (Another, very different, thing they use to create easy stories is what I call “press release journalism,” in which someone send them a press release and the reporter basically regurgitates it as a story. Quick, simple, easy for them … but not good journalism, since nothing is checked out.)

    Second, they know there are lots of readers who eat up this stuff. It grabs eyeballs, and snares hearts (and therefore minds). Galka’s story in particular yanks on people’s heartstrings. More than a story about some guy making ghost-detectors, this is about a grieved father trying to locate his ghostly daughter. The drama in this is inherent, it’s compelling to a lot of folks, so the Courant could hardly resist writing it.

    Third, they further know that the folks to whom stories like this appeal most, are also very sensitive to any skepticism, and are offended by it. If, somewhere in the story, the reporter had pointed out that this device has not been scientifically tested and is therefore not proven to detect ghosts, they will instantly be turned off and irked over it. They may go elsewhere for their news … even if only for that day. The impulse not to offend is very strong. Since, in the US there are many more believers in the paranormal than there are skeptics, the Courant is more worried about offending “true believers” than they are about offending skeptics.

    Pandering to society’s lowest common denominator — which is what the “hauntings as news” motif really is — is not something the media ought to be proud of. They do it nevertheless, and they will continue to do it, even knowing it’s wrong. Skeptics cannot, and should not, give them a “pass” on the matter. It needs to be pointed out whenever it happens. Silence is consent, and I for one do not consent to be treated like an idiot by some lazy reporter who’s desperate to crank out a quick and easy story.

    P.S. Pettibone’s in Simsbury is now Abigail’s, named for its supposed ghost. While it’s not cheap, it is good.

  • DLC

    Is this blog even being contributed to anymore ?

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