Some thoughts on ghosts

I was saving this for tomorrow, but I have big plans for a book I want to review for this site (spoiler: it’s about enneagrams) so I’m moving it up to a New Year’s Eve spectacular post. Huzzah!

When I was a young’un, I was a big believer in ghosts. I suffer from a wide variety of sleeping problems, including hypnagogic hallucinations and sleep paralysis disorder. When I was a kid I used to have recurring hallucinations at night or early in the morning of pressings or mutilated women or family members haunting me, and I was convinced these were real ghosts. This is excusable seeing as how I was in elementary school at the time and also still thought that a fat man in a red suit could visit every child in America in one night. When I was twelve, a doctor explained to me what was going on and that was that.

However, I see the allure of ghosts. If ghosts exist, that is pretty solid evidence for some sort of life after death. It’s perfectly human to be afraid of the end of all consciousness and anyone in their mind is going to spend a lot of time coming to terms with this big, scary idea. It would be wicked awesome if we could be sure that some sort of essence or spirit of ours could possibly go on existing once all the neurons in our brain stopped firing. However, I have serious problems with the whole school of ghostlore, and I think people who believe in them (which is more than a third of Americans) are being highly irrational and simply don’t know enough about science.

First of all, how could a ghost possibly make a sound such as knocking on a wall or disembodied footsteps? What mechanism would be at work here that would allow an incorporeal, immaterial entity to interact with the material world? Isn’t it more likely that these phenomena have material, natural explanations and that incidences of disembodied sounds are simply cases of people misinterpreting natural phenomena and finding meaning where there is none? The same goes for voices. Most of the time it’s probably a non-human sound which the listener misinterprets by recognizing patterns that aren’t really there. Other times it could easily be explained by overactive imaginations or even hallucinations. It’s more likely that some portion of the population is deceiving itself than that the entire mainstream scientific community is wrong about fundamental physics.

Again, how do these spirits interact with the real world? How could an incorporeal being move an object or grab onto a human’s arm? Is it psychokinesis? Is the soul simply the mind? If so, how does the mental interact with the physical? As I recall from my philosophy of mind class, dualism has some major issues…

I know some people claim that ghosts use energy to do their jazz, but by which mechanisms do they channel this energy? In case you flunked physics, energy is a natural phenomenon, and to me it appears that ghosts, if they exist, exist outside of the natural world (hence science being unable to verify their existence). How can a non-natural entity utilize natural mechanisms?

The only explanation for ghosts that I can think of is magic. Simply put, if you believe in ghosts, you believe in magic. I see absolutely no difference between believing that disembodied spirits can interact with the real world and believing that I can kill someone by waving a stick at them and shouting “Avada Kedavra!” If you’re okay with that, go on believing. If you know more about physics than I do and can think of a way in which ghosts can interact with our world, please feel free to leave a comment. However, if anyone reading this thinks they can rationalize belief in spooks and spectres, I think you might want to bring your theories up with James Randi first; he just may have a million dollars for you.

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Some changes to the site

I’ve made some changes to the site. For one, I wrote a two brief primers: one on skepticism and one on atheism/agnosticism. I would appreciate feedback on them, because I wanted to keep them brief but I also want them to be informative enough for anyone who may not be familiar with the subjects. Please let me know what you think.

I’ve also added a few links. I highly recommend Hayley is a Ghost, since that particular blog was essentially what led me to start my own. Hayley and I are similar in that we both used to be true believers who eventually saw the light and decided to help others do so.

That’s all for now; I’m working on a post about ghosties and ghoulies for the new year. See you in 2012!

Butt Candling FTW!

Just found this intriguing take on the New Age practice of ear candling. Not quite sure if this thing is for real. Then again, when I first heard of ear candling, I wasn’t sure if that was real, either.

In case you’re wondering, ear candling is ineffective as an ear wax remover; the vacuum it creates is far too weak to pull anything out of the ear. Besides, a moderate amount of ear wax is good, since it helps fight infections. Who knows about claims of sucking out energy, but I don’t see how it could “cleanse the mind/brain”, since the ear canal doesn’t go all the way through to the brain.

On a lighter note, butt candling sounds like it could be all sorts of kinky fun.

Medical frauds get busted by the FBI

Three men have been arrested for a scam involving the harvesting, sale, and use of stem cells for non-FDA approved uses. A fourth man involved with the quack ring is on the run and a warrant for his arrest is still out.

The three arrested are Francisco Morales of Brownsville, Texas; Alberto Ramon of Del Rio, Texas; and Vincent Dammai of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Lawrence Stowe of Dallas is wanted in the case, but he done got away (for now).

Morales and Stowe both represented themselves as licensed physicians even though they aren’t and each ran his own quacky company (Morales ran the Rio Valley Medical Clinic and Stowe ran the Stowe Foundation and Stowe Biotherapy, Inc., which was shut down after a scathing 60 Minutes report). Stowe’s foundation and company promoted quacky uses of stem cells derived from umbilical cord blood. (The Stowe Foundation also seems to have a soft spot for energy medicine.)

The way the scam worked was as follows: Ramon, a licensed midwife at the Maternity Care Clinic in Del Rio, would collect umbilical cord blood from birth mothers at his practice. He then sold the blood to Global Laboratories of Scottsdale, AZ, who would then send the tissue to Dammai, a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine in Charleston. Dammai would then use university resources to harvest the stem cells from the blood without the university’s knowledge or permission. (I would imagine he won’t be working there much longer.) He would then send it back to Global Laboratories, who would market the stem cells to treat cancer, ALS, MS, and a few other incurable diseases. (In case you’re wondering, stem cells can’t cure these diseases, although they may hold some answers for treating them in the future.)

The accused frauds made a grand total of $1.5 million for treating patients with incurable diseases with snake oil. (I’m actually surprised at how little they made, considering homeopathy has been making hundreds of millions of dollars for years and it’s just as effective and doesn’t have the allure of seeming to be based on real science, like stem cells might to the uneducated.)

I’m not sure if all stem cell scams are the same, but the one I’ve heard of most is that the stem cells are injected directly into the blood and said to just magically go where they’re needed most. From what I’ve read and been told, stem cells don’t work this way. (I’m neither a doctor nor a biologist, so I’m probably not an authority on the subject. I would recommend reading Quackwatch’s article on embryonic stem cells for a real doctor’s take on the field.)

I understand why people with incurable diseases might want to give “alternative” medicine a try: they are suffering and will cling to even the thinnest shred of hope. It’s the same reason people believe in magic and gods and the afterlife: humans need hope. However, when it comes to medicine, I urge the sick to let logic prevail. (In fact, I urge everyone to let logic prevail most of the time.) If a doctor promises a miracle cure that no other doctor you’ve seen has even mentioned, it stands to reason that the miracle medicine man is a quack. There is no logical reason for there to be a huge conspiracy to cover up perfectly viable cures for deadly or debilitating diseases. Claiming such a conspiracy is analogous to claiming that Barack Obama was born in Kenya or that the Apollo 11 moon landing was staged. There is no logical reason to believe any of this shit, and people who do are severely deluded. Listen to logic and don’t waste time or money on snake oil.

[The full story of these frauds can be found here.]

Ghost Hunters: Even worse than Ghost Adventures

I have been studying the popular “reality” series Ghost Hunters and have come to the conclusion that it is even worse than the ludicrously moronic knock-off series, Ghost Adventures. How, you may ask, could anything be worse than a bunch of superstitious testosterone junkies making asses of themselves by acting macho for their imaginary friends on a cable channel no self-respecting person would ever watch? My answer: Ghost Hunters is misleading.

No sane person would ever take Ghost Adventures seriously. Anyone with an IQ above 80 can tell by watching just five minutes of that laugh-a-thon that those dudes are just delusional freaks who are apparently not entirely secure in their sexualities (I’m looking at you, Zak). Ghost Hunters, however, misleads its viewers, as well as the people featured on the show, into believing that they are critical thinkers who attempt for a rational explanation. They do this by making sure to drop the word “debunk” in a supportive light at every possible opportunity. (The fact that they say “debunk” should be a blip on your woo-dar, since most skeptics don’t use that word and consider it derogatory. “Explain” or “demystify” is how I say it.)

I have now seen the first four seasons of this silly little charade and am on episode 6 of the fifth, and I can think of only two episodes where they didn’t explicitly leave open the possibility that the location in question could be haunted. This is ridiculous. They lie to their viewers by claiming to exercise critical thinking skills when any serious analytical reasoner would never jump to the conclusion that a location is haunted without substantial empirical evidence. Not one of these shows presents any sort of replicable evidence; it’s all subjective experience. This is the biggest problem with the “participant-observer” approach to anomalistic research: data are not collected in a scientific manner, they are not replicable, and they are contaminated with subjective validation.

I also take issues with all of these “theories” they advertise. They sound like theories in that if they were validated they would both explain and predict, which are precisely the things that theories are supposed to do. However, what they don’t tell you is that their “theories” make absolutely no sense to anyone who has even a moderate amount of knowledge of physics. The big one goes like this: disembodied spirits of the dead draw energy from their environment to do shit. This makes absolutely no sense in that they seem to not know what energy really is. The ghosts in Ghost Hunters seem to choose either electrical energy or heat energy depending on which is available, but no apparatus for how they channel and then use this energy is proposed. One nut-job tried telling me that ghosts are made of energy, which makes even less sense because it confuses the scientific concept of energy with the New Age concept of vital energy/qi/prana/ki/animal magnetism/subtle energy. The New Age concepts of energy have been tested numerous times, and there is absolutely no scientific evidence that they exist in any way, shape, or form. I urge New Agers to look “energy” up in a dictionary and tell me how ghosts could be made of this jazz without us being able to measure them.

I also get annoyed with how often they refer to their “evidence.” This is clearly meant to mislead the viewing audience into thinking they are searchers for truth who collect data and then weigh it objectively and rationally. Anyone who thinks that dead folks can somehow interact with the real world is clearly not thinking rationally, and our capactiy for rational thought it was makes us so great. Use it, folks! (I won’t get into why believing in spooks and spectres is irrational; I plan on writing a separate post on just that topic in the next few days.)

In conclusion, I would like to propose a new show: real skeptics with real degrees really study allegedly haunted locations and come up with rational, physics-based (or psychology-based, as need be) explanations for all the alleged paranormal activity in these locations. I would watch that shit.

First post from my new Xperia PLAYA

So I just got a new Xperia PLAY and I must say that I’m loving it. Not only does it have all those cool Android apps, but it has the PlayStation Suite to choose from. Plus a built-in controller. Been playing the Sims 3.

It’s amazing how rapidly technology advances. I can’t wait to see what new gadgets we have 20 years from now.

Look for my upcoming post about Ghost Hunters. I plan on getting it up tonight.

The trials and travails of transitioning

So it’s been a weird few days. Since I’m starting hormones soon, I’m trying to quit smoking because estrogen greatly increases the risk of stroke, which is increased even more if you smoke. (This is why it’s not a good idea to smoke on birth control pills.) I am generally a pretty heavy smoker; usually I smoke at least a pack a day, and quite often it’s even more than that. However, I’m down to fewer than 10 cigarettes a day and the cravings are starting to get more manageable. I’ve figured something out: when I feel a craving, if I just write (journal, short story, novel, anything) for a minimum of fifteen minutes the craving passes. It’s great that I’ve discovered this trick, because not only am I smoking less, but I am getting more work done than usual. Making all sorts of progress.

I decided to go through with the name change, but the family is not honoring the request. Oh well, they’ll come around.

Also, last time I went out for a cigarette (about two and a half hours ago) a group of little seven- or eight-year-old boys asked me if I was a boy or a girl. I told them neither and tried to explain the concept of transgender to them, which may or may not have worked. I figure that if I have trouble passing I can always use my visibility to raise awareness for trans issues.

I did, however, have a cold encounter at a gas station yesterday. I went to get a soda and for what I assume was my androgyny the cashier tried to refuse to help me. He didn’t say anything; he just acted like I wasn’t there. I just stood there and refused to go away until finally a line formed behind me and he was forced to help me. He did so in the fewest words possible and without ever making eye contact. What a winner. Seriously, though, that’s been about the worst encounter so far; most people don’t seem to even notice me, so either I’m doing an okay job of passing, or I’m failing miserably, or people really don’t care that much. I’m not sure how to find out which is the case; I’ll have to get to the bottom of this.