Saturday, October 31, 2009

Doggerel #211: "Spooky"

Welcome to a Halloween edition of "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless.

Sometimes, skeptics are easily bored. A great deal of the frustration we experience is born out of that boredom: Whenever someone tells us about some "spooky" occurrence, chances are A) We've already heard about it and know what really happened, if anything at all, B) we've already seen countless tales just like it and know many alternative explanations, or C) we find it entirely unsurprising.

One of the major problems that makes this doggerel is the unreliability of anecdotes: We know that people tend to leave out or overlook important pieces of information. People are fallible and can easily misinterpret what's going on. When we try to make sense of something, it's easy to alter our memories of an event to support the story we come up with in the process. That's why cameras and other, more objective forms of 'memory' are better trusted than eyewitnesses. And even then, reproducible forms of physical evidence rank even higher, since cameras don't necessarily capture the important details, just where they're pointed.

In other cases, we've heard a LOT of various stories with known, simple alternative explanations, and the new one you're telling probably doesn't do anything to eliminate those mundane possibilities. What matters most about evidence is quality, not quantity. Good evidence for the paranormal would falsify the many alternative explanations we use as null hypotheses. We get bored if, for example, your tale is just about you performing the same argument from lack of imagination someone else performed long before you arrived.

A lot of "spooky" tales we hear are about simple probability. The world is a big place. Lots of people do lots of things all the time. It's no surprise to us that some unlikely event happened to you. If it didn't happen to you, it could just as easily happened to someone else. As a skeptic, we're supposed to look at these sorts of things in the context of the world, not just your corner of it.

And finally, there are a lot of misunderstandings about weird events in science. One of the favorites is the double-slit experiment and similar small-scale phenomena. Usually, it's old, unsurprising news for us.

1 comment:

Professor Preposterous said...

This happened to me. When I was a young boy, I was once freaked out really bad when hiking when suddenly the ambient temperature dropped for no apparent reason, and I had often read that this was a sign of ghosts. This being night, I got very freaky about this.

well, coming back the same way the next day, it became immediately obvious why the next day -- that point came very close to a stream. The cold water from the stream was what was absorbing the nearby heat. There was a perfectly natural explanation that I had ignored just because I couldn't immediately see it. Hurr.
I'd be embarrassed that this is normal human behavior, but it's irrational to expect people to abandon their heritage of irrational emotional outbursts. Like I once explained to a man who insisted that animals should be logical, the emotional framework is based on making split second decisions for survival, where the stakes for type I errors are way higher than type II. Unexplained incidents? Fear. Run away. Better to run from a false alarm than to be large animal chow.