Sexist Sceptics Revisited
Atheists and Guns

Ghosts in the Media

When Randi's Prize was published two years ago the press lady recommended it be timed to coincide with Halloween. To me, having pretensions to seriousness, that seemed a bit cheesy. However on reflection it made sense. It didn't help much in the end, but the principle was sound. Halloween is the one time of year when the chatterati allow themselves to talk about the paranormal without feeling guilty or embarrassed - an excuse for intellectual slumming.

So it's no surprise to see Roger Clarke's A Natural History of Ghosts getting a the sort of coverage I'd love to have had - a big spread on the news pages of the Sunday Times, in addition to a review in the supplement, and a long BBC radio discussion yesterday, among others. But of course to achieve that, Clarke had to make the kind of concession that I would not have been capable of, writing about ghosts in a detached way, as a slight and amusing curiosity. Like other books I've seen - Peter Lamont's on Daniel Home, for instance - it's artfully constructed to entertain readers but without frightening them into thinking that ghosts might be more than some curious hallucinatory episode or cultural belief.

It looked to me, from the reviews and the brief glimpse I got of it in a bookshop, as the familiar ghost story romp - classic cases like Epworth, Borley, etc - described with a light touch, and sometimes with interesting background details that I hadn't seen before. The approach in these sorts of books is the anthropologist's as well as the historian's: respecting anomalous experiences and beliefs, but not seriously engaging with them or with investigators' findings.

The urge to explain takes second place. There are references to JB Rhine, the Star Gate remote viewing, etc - when 'the race to understand ghosts became briefly part of the cold war', as one reviewer nonsensically put it - also to scientific findings, for instance that stimulating the temporal lobe can induce a sense of presence. The Society for Psychical Research gets several mentions, but - as so often - its conclusions are barely discussed, or are thrown out as asides for readers to make what they like of.

So for instance, when Phantasms of the Living comes up it's with the interesting observation that ghost sightings might be as much of the living as of the dead. That would have been an opportunity for some reflections about the shared mental space of the two different states, with reference perhaps to the equally significant reports of experimental apparitional projections. The principal author, Edmund Gurney, and other SPR commentators, recognised the true implications of this. But here all the reader is left with is the impression that the finding counts against these episodes being paranormal - which is not what they thought at all.

An alert reader will spot details that could be enlarged upon but aren't; doors that could be opened but instead are left resolutely shut; abundant opportunities to embark on an interesting and open-ended journey passed up.

Poltergeists episodes are linked with young girls suffering from teen angst, but why? What does this tell us? How could something in someone's head translate into the kind of baffling and violent activity that is so often described? If the available 'normal' explanations don't fully account for the Wesley family's poltergeist experiences at Epworth, as Clarke is willing to concede, then where do we go from there? And what are the implications when the musician Sting reports seeing an apparition of a woman holding a baby in his bedroom, and his wife also sees it?

If Clarke had been willing to go a bit deeper one would start to learn all kinds of interesting things. But that's what the writer absolutely has to avoid: readers must not on any account be seriously challenged. Instead they must be soothed into at least half-believing that clever boffins will one day unravel the mystery. As long as he can do that, he stands a chance of the book getting serious attention.

One avenue that Clarke briefly explored did interest me. His view is that ghosts - and I think he probably means the paranormal generally - is a working class interest. Also paradoxically one for the upper classes - if for no other reason than their ancient castles and stately homes are the kind of places where ghosts are likely to be found. It's the middle classes who are resolutely against it. He says, "Children are taught from a very early age not to see ghosts, since believing in ghosts violates natural law, and there are no sterner guardians of this law than the middle class scientist or university review-writing polymath."

Which is absolutely true and pithily said. I hadn't thought of it in terms of class, but I think he's on to something. The retreat from superstition goes hand in hand with the advancement out of poverty that drove the creation of the middle classes in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. So perhaps we should take account these social and economic factors in the growth and development of secular scepticism.

I've no idea what Clarke really thinks, deep down. But he seems genuinely interested in the subject and given the social constraints his book is perhaps the best anyone with aspirations to be widely read could have done. It's just so curious that as a society we have to go on pretending that the phenomenon has no real significance, and that we won't allow ourselves to speculate about it openly.


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Very nice review. Yes, the observation about class is quite interesting. I too had never thought about that before, and it seems accurate.

"Children are taught from a very early age not to see ghosts, since believing in ghosts violates natural law, and there are no sterner guardians of this law than the middle class scientist or university review-writing polymath."

An astute comment. The social-climbing middle classes are ever sensitive to the latest fashionable trends; these days it's so hip to be an materialist!

The publication of Clarke's book, and the media response to it, does however flag up a major problem concerning anomalous experiences: the "either/or" interpretation of such experiences. Too many writers, both "skeptics" and "believers", together with most of the general public, buy into this. Thus:

- Ghosts are EITHER hallucinations OR spirits of the dead

- NDEs are EITHER hallucinations OR proof of the afterlife

- UFOs are EITHER misidentified aircraft/ celestial objects, OR extraterrestrial spacecraft

- EITHER you are an atheist, OR you believe in the literal truth of the Bible

The media, of course, love to paint all such issues in black and white, and thereby continue to fuel these polarised ideas. Unless more people can start thinking outside the box, a proper understanding of anomalous experience will never be reached.

(It's especially disappointing that the self-professed critical thinkers - the "skeptics" - so rarely engage in critical thinking; they seem, regrettably, to be as bogged down in "either/or" interpretations as everyone else.)

Someone, I can't remember who, said that true nobility is only ever found among the working class and the aristocricy. The rest, the middle classes, are too busy scrambling over each other in pursuit of success. It has always struck me that the same can be said of intellectual integrity.

I agree that the book got away with exposure in the mainstream media simply because it didn't ask serious questions.

I heard an interview with the author on Woman's Hour and they seemed to discuss ghostly experiences as if they were rather quaint stories rather than actual happenings.

It was as if they were discussing superstitions like not walking under ladders etc - not one word about causes.

You would have thought somewhere in the interview the question might have been asked: "Well what are these phenomena which fill your book?"

No chance.

Good points! Class (interesting!), the rampant either/or, the superficiality. As usual, thanks for this.

You know Robert this is perfect timing. I was thinking about the paranormal and class and if there was any correlation. It is hard to tell. I have some working class friends who have more ghost stories than I have time for and I also have working class friends who belong to orthodox faiths, have witnessed alleged ghosts in there home and still "don't believe" in them even though they cannot explain what happened. This topic strains the boggle threshold for those who haven't made serious inquiry into it.

Although I am from the U.S., I have observed in the literature that many of Britain's elite had connections with mediums and it appears a medium has always been used as a confidant with the nobility (example Lillian Bailey)and Churchill famously dabbled with the occult so it appears across the pond these elite have a history of the occult. I am not sure how it is now if someone could enlighten me.

Here in the U.S. the middle class is very mixed about paranormal events. Most are completely ignorant to the actual research and only rely on pop paranormal they see on ghost shows which completely distorts the entire field of parapsychology. Regretfully most people in the U.S. middle class are too busy trying to fight each other off for that elusive piece of cheese in the rat race to ponder such issues. When I try to bring up research with university educated middle class friends and family there is either flat out dismissal, credulity to fullest or changing the topic to celebrity gossip. I would be very interested in a cross cultural study of the paranormal and class by a parapsychologist.

These qigong masters like Dr. Effie P. Chow

They can see ghosts because they HEAL GHOSTS!

I saw this happening at the Level 3 qigong retreat of in 2000.

Qigong master Chunyi Lin was making "yin spirits" out of the top of his head.

I saw all this but I told no one yet in a room of 200 people Chunyi Lin -- without any prompting -- said someone told me they could see these things and so then he explained them.

I read about this in the biography of Buddhist master Thailand monk Phra Achra Mun

pdf link - this is a must-read for the parapsychologist -- levitating described in detail from the perspective of a meditation master.

Chunyi Lin also levitated up nine feet while in full lotus yoga position.

It takes a lot of deep meditation, of course, in a pure setting.

Forgive my pedestrian approach, but what's the point of levitation? And can Randi do it?

Natural law? Well, whos to say that ghosts are not a part of natural law or perhaps theres far more in this world than "natural law". Indeed, the class always follows the latest trend and for the last hundred years or so the trend is materialism and egomaniac intellectuals acting as attack dogs for their worldview turned into a church substitute. And the classes are following the marching orders of the new church.

Great post as always, Robert.

On a related note, I was just checking out the Amazon reviews of Oliver Sacks' book on hallucinations. I wanted to see if any of the reviewers there objected to his explaining away all apparitions as "bereavement hallucinations."

Well, one reviewer did--at least to an extent. And he concluded his comment with this little poem:

I never saw a spirit
Even when I hoped to see one;
But I can tell you, anyhow,
I hope one day to be one!

I would have to disagree slightly about the class issue here. It seems a bit too speculative for my taste. It's a little bit judgmental too. There are all kinds and varieties of people in this world with differing opinions.

The poltergeist explanation relating to teenagers seems to have some kind of correlation but my experience is contrary to this. My partner has poltergeist activity in her flat and it is ongoing and has been for years and we are both 32.

Myers etc studied hallucinations in the sane. The question is, why an hallucination at that particular time in that particular place and not at other times? Ascribing hallucination to people with sane minds suggests strongly that apparitions are real events, which a skeptic would fail to explain away.

Excellent points David R. Also how do you explain shared death bed visions and apparitions seen by medical staff in hospice rooms? To add to your question why are they only seen at that time to the sane, why is it just dead people?

I don't buy the poltergeist phenomenon being strictly the product of teenage emotions. In many cases this could be it but what about the many that dont involve children ? I think men of science are often guilty of trying to compartmentalize evidence and conform it to their own pet theories that makes sense to them and at the same time throw out or dismiss evidence that isnt part of their theory.

I have long thought that there's a class difference in terms of paranormal issues. It's obvious for example on talk shows and also when I talk to people at work. the longer I spend outside academia, and for that matter rationalist circles, the more insular and disconnected that world seems. I think that many people who have odd experiences are actually rather uninterested in the sorts of fights that happen between ideological factions; and I must say that looked at from the outside these fights often seem of peripheral relevance for those who have strange experiences. Often the abstractions that we end up worrying about fail to connect with how to fit these experiences into the broader framework of a life, so individuals often fashion their own meaning. Maybe this is a good thing: I have grown suspicious of trying to force others to swallow one theory or another. Less dictation and more listening is perhaps called for.

@Matt: Hear, hear! 8)

Ps. Great blog, as always, our Robert! 8)

Speaking of ghosts -- this guy claims to channel dead people as spirits to produce paranormal powers.... looks pretty fake to me. Even still -- photographs and even videos don't make the best "evidence." I'd be more interested in testimonials and investigations by others.

Maybe you have the scoop on Scott Milligan.

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