When I was five, living in a house my family had just moved into, I saw a strange man one day standing at the top of the staircase. He stared at me, and didn’t say anything. I calmly walked downstairs to the kitchen and told my dad what I’d seen. He gave me a weird look, but believed me because of my calm demeanour, and ran upstairs. There was no one there.
My dad always reminds me of this story when I tell him how sceptical I am of the supernatural and the paranormal: ghosts and spirits, psychics and spoon benders, out of body experiences and telepathy. The list goes on and on.
The word itself, paranormal, implies that the scientific explanation of the world around us is the ‘normal’ part of the word, while ‘para’ represents the contrary: the ‘beyond’, or whatever you want to call it (the ‘silly,’ if you ask me).
I’ve always been a firm proponent of scientific proof. I guess it goes hand in hand with my religious beliefs. Sceptics can often be closed-minded and cynical in their nature, but I see myself on the other side of the fence: I’ve always had an interest in ghosts and the paranormal, and I am open to the idea that the extraordinary is out there; I just don’t believe in any of it without credible, scientific proof.
James Randi, the world’s most famous debunker, offers a one-million-dollar prize to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event. To date, no one has passed the preliminary tests.
As an ex-magician himself, Randi and other prominent sceptics are well aware of the techniques used by magicians, con artists, fortune tellers, etc. One of them is cold reading, where details are expressed about the subject in a certain way that will allow a practised cold reader to gain all kinds of information on a person. Some of these methods include fishing for clues by asking questions, making general or vague statements that most people interpret as hits, observing facial expressions and body language as they make statements, etc.
A book by two American sociologists, entitled Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, mentions that an increasing amount of Americans believe in the paranormal. According to their research, guess who believes in Bigfoot? Successful, professional people.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is another good example of how a smart, level-headed guy of the highest scruple can fall to the charm of the paranormal. After he turned to spiritualism for solace, following the death of his son in the Great War, he famously put fake pictures of a tiny goblin and elves in a book entitled The Coming of the Fairies, which came out in 1922. Decades later in 1983, the cousins who had taken the pictures confessed the photographs had been faked.
Another example is Ted Serios, who came along in 1960 and claimed to be able to produce pictures inside a Polaroid camera using nothing but his mind and a tube he called his ‘gismo’. His gimmick was quickly exposed by two journalists, who published their findings in Popular Photography and many of Serios’ followers were shattered. The wave of euphoria that takes place following a supposed supernatural demonstration is both highly contagious and, to an extrent, dangerous.
A friend once told me that after her mom’s funeral, she was thinking about her so much that one night, she saw her mother standing in her room, wearing a large fur coat like the one she used to own. Our gullible mind plays more tricks on us than we care to believe.
I know there are certain flaws to my logic. Something can obviously exist, like laws in science, before we discover them. Everest was the highest mountain even before we knew about it. The laws of physics have always existed. What we consider as established science isn’t the dictum of all reality. The most prominent scientists make mistakes, too. They haven’t even figured out the Caramilk secret yet.
And just because something is irrational to me, doesn’t mean it’s irrational to someone else. A lot of rational people believe in ghosts and spirits. Extraordinary phenomena can exist all around us without leaving any physical traces, but don’t we need physical evidence to establish that something exists?
Paul Kurtz, a prominent American sceptic and secular humanist, once said: “There is always the danger that once irrationality grows, it will spill over into other areas. There is no guarantee that a society so infected by unreason will be resistant to even the most virulent programs of dangerous ideological sects.” Perhaps a bit overdramatic, but something to think about nonetheless.
At the end of the day, I have to put my trust in Occam’s razor: when there are two competing explanations for an event, the simpler one is more likely. A sound in the middle of the night?
Probably the rat that lives in one of my walls.