Friday, 14 December 2012

It's a ghost - in theory!

There are many theories floating around concerning how ghosts 'work' and what they really are. I've produced a few myself, none of which I'm proud of! None of these theories ever seem to 'stick', though, and become widely accepted. That's because they have trouble producing testable predictions. Maybe that's because the evidence on which they are based isn't that reliable. For instance, if the sources are newspaper cuttings, books on well-known hauntings or just anecdotes on the web or from friends, you've simply no idea how well the case was investigated, if at all.

Basing a theory on a collection of uninvestigated cases (even if they only make up a minority of the whole sample of accounts) is likely to be a waste of time! What do I mean by an 'investigated' case? It is one where the original witnesses have been carefully interviewed, not too long after the events. It is one where the site of the incident was closely examined by competent investigators. It is one where many different possible natural causes were examined and, if practical, tested. It is one where several different people have contributed their expert knowledge in deciding the most likely cause of the events described. I could go on but I expect you get the idea. A ghost vigil might have taken place but it is rarely illuminating in understanding a case compared to the procedures just mentioned.

By contrast, an uninvestigated case is basically just a nice story. It may well be accurate, as far as it goes, but that may not be anywhere near far enough! Consider the following real-life example: "I could hear someone coming up behind me quickly. As it was daylight and a public space, I wasn't particularly alarmed. But what happened next was definitely unsettling! The person, instead of passing me, vanished into a bush! The young man carried on walking quickly into what I then realised was a large hole in the bush that I'd never noticed before, despite walking past that spot most days! It was clear, from the lack of the sound of breaking twigs, that the hole continued as a sizeable tunnel through the thick, tall undergrowth for some distance. It was clearly a well worn but almost completely concealed path that I'd never noticed before. It is, I think, a shortcut, that avoids a lengthy walk along several streets. It is probably used by several enterprising locals." (from blog here).

Now suppose I'd just happened to turn my head briefly at the moment when the man vanished into the undergrowth. Suddenly, the account could be distinctly ghostly! I would describe being aware of the man and then suddenly he had vanished into thin air. I might have gone to examine the point where he disappeared and discovered the hole in the bush but, in most cases, other witnesses do nothing of the sort. If someone investigated the case they might well discover the hidden path and come up with a probable (and in this case correct) explanation. But left uninvestigated it would remain a mysterious ghostly disappearance. If considered as part of the source material for a ghost theory, it would be seriously misleading.

So anyone devising theories about ghosts really needs to know their sources of evidence well. They should rely on investigated cases from reliable sources. Anything less is likely to produce a mass of conflicting 'evidence' of dubious value leading to some unrealistic theories.

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