Aug 05 2009

Ghost Photo

3837925bThese stories crop up every now and then – someone looking through recent photos notices something odd, perhaps something that was not noticed when the picture was taken. Many people will shrug off such anomalies – weird stuff happens on pictures all the time. However, those with a certain inclination may jump on a paranormal explanation, which most likely means the photo will be presented as evidence for ghosts.

And sometimes the local news will pick up such a story, because they are suckers for that sort of thing.

The latest ghost photo flap deals with this picture (click to enlarge). Look in the upper left hand corner and you will see what appears to be the face of an old woman.

The news story is presenting this as “ghost or hoax” – a silly false dichotomy. Some of the comments to the story are buying this false dichotomy, give the old argument, “why would they lie?” – so therefore, the only other option, is that it must be a ghost.

The other option, of course, is that it is neither. It is far simpler to conclude that there is an innocent but mundane explanation for the photo. The photo itself is not evidence for anything unusual. It is a picture of a little girl with an older woman standing behind her. That’s it. There is nothing about the picture that is interesting or anomalous. I do not think this is pareidolia – the image of the woman is clear and too detailed to be just a suggestive blob. It’s a person.

The only thing that makes this picture an anomaly is the report of the person who took the picture. The teenager, Kasey, says that she and the little girl, Penny, were the only ones home at the time. Perhaps, however, she was mistaken about this fact. Perhaps she simply did not notice the women who wandered into the room when she was focused on taking pictures of Penny.

There is such a thing as attentional blindness, which can be quite dramatic. Yes – people can simply not notice such things. I am sure you have seen pictures of people with items in the background appearing to come out of their heads. When looking at the picture it is obvious, but when the picture was taken the photographer was focused on the subject an not the entire frame of the picture.

There could also be something unusual going on – perhaps there was a picture of a person behind the girl, or it’s a reflection. Perhaps it is a purely photographic artifact.

What I always find interesting is when believers (just read the comments to this story) argue that an alternate explanation is unlikely, but then substitute the explanation that it is a ghost – as if that is not significantly more unlikely. See Occam’s Razor.

What believers are doing is anomaly hunting – the woman in the picture is an anomaly – but only so because of the report of the photographer. Weird stuff happens, and we cannot always explain it. Out of the millions of pictures being snapped every day, it is not surprising that occasionally something truly unlikely happens. We do not need to hypothesize about ghosts to explain this.

It is also interesting how culturally narrow the claim that this is a ghost is. Believers are not just inserting a paranormal explanation into an anomaly – but one specific to their culture. If someone from Saudi Arabia had the same thing happen they might believe that the person in the photo was a genie. This would sound silly to Western ears, but it is no more silly than believing it is a ghost.

In the end there is nothing extraordinary about this photo. This is just another example of the – someone unknown in the background – artifact. This is just one of the things that can happen when the vagaries of photography and human memory conflict.

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