Adventures in Ghostbusting and the Question of Metaphysical Chauvinsim

To bring you some smiles on hump day, one of my more whimsical adventures as a college professor: Ghostbusting with some of my students.

(And if you've read this post before do read to the end as I've added some material that might be of interest.)

I've always fantasized about putting the following ad in the Abilene Yellow Pages:

Richard Beck, Ph.D.
Experimental Psychologist and Paranormal Investigator
Do you believe your house is haunted? Had an encounter with a ghost, poltergeist, or apparition?
Then call us at 1.800.I GOT BOO
I could then spend weekends with a group of fellow-volunteers meeting all kinds of interesting people. I mean, how fun would this be?

Two things make me qualified to be a paranormal researcher. First, I have experience. A few years ago, during a summer session, I was lecturing on the difference between science and pseudoscience. While doing the compare and contrast of the two I stated, as an example of pseudoscience, that paranormal research has all the trappings of science (e.g., high-tech equipment) but it really isn't science. This led to a conversation about ghosts. Well, here in Abilene we have a ghost light in Anson, the Anson light, which is found in the small town of Anson just north of Abilene. You drive to Anson, hang a right at the only light in town, hang the next right and then take a right at the graveyard. You go down a dirt road about a mile until you reach a crossroads. At the crossroads you turn around facing the way you came, back toward the graveyard down the road. You then flash your lights and wait...

Soon a ghost light will appear way down the road. It is even said to move around in a willo-the-wisp fashion.

The ghost story I've heard (and there are many versions of this) is as follows:
There was a young boy who got lost in a snowstorm. His mother, in her grief, went out searching the night for him with a lantern. They both never return. The Anson light is the illumination from the mother's lamp still searching the night for her lost son.
It's an interesting story but wildly implausible on meteorological grounds! I've never seen a snow STORM in West Texas.

Regardless, this light is famous in Abilene. Anyway, in this conversation about ghosts with my students they start talking about their experiences out in Anson. Ever the skeptic, I declare that if I, the scientist, would go to Anson I'd solve the mystery in 30 minutes. They take me up on the challenge. So, one night I found myself with four students driving to Anson with the ghostbusting equipment I could find at my house: Two-way radios, binoculars, and a video camera.

Once at the location we actually do see the ghost light off and on for three hours that night. And, failing miserably, we could not determine the source of the light. However, the night was not a total loss. We did make a few findings and did test a few hypotheses:
Beck Paranormal Investigations
Case File #1: Anson Light

Finding #1: Apparently, you can film a ghost light.
When we arrived there was a group of highschool students there (as you can imagine this is a very famous hangout spot). As I pulled out my video camera to film the light a kid from the group says, "You can't film the light. It won't show up on film." Scoffing, I film anyway when the light appears. And, upon returning home, show my wife the video. So, you CAN film a ghost light. (And why not? If photons are activating the rods and cones in my eyes those same photons can affect film and light sensors, right?)

Finding #2: You don't have to flash your lights.
When you go out to Anson you are told you need to flash your lights to summon the ghost light. Well, you don't. We sat there for three hours with the light coming and going and never once flashed our lights.

Finding #3: The light doesn't move.
You are often told that the light moves around. It doesn't. What it does do is fade in and out. Its brightness changes but it doesn't move around.

Finding #4: The light isn't coming from cars passing the graveyard.
The main hypothesis we tested was this. Some people say that the ghost light is car light reflected off the gravestones. That is, as cars are driving past the graveyard it has been supposed that their lights are reflecting off a gravestone deflecting the light 90-degrees up the dirt road where you are sitting at the crossroads.

So, with the two-way radios we sent a team to the dirtroad turn-off leaving another team at the crossroads to watch the light. We were about a mile apart. Well, the light came and went during a span of 60 minutes and it was often there without a car in sight. Conclusion: The ghost light isn't reflected car light from the graveyard.

End Case File
That is the sum of our findings. We never did find out the source of the ghost light. But we did make some headway. I do have a theory about the light, but have yet to go out and test it. Regardless, I think this experience qualifies me as a paranormal researcher.

My second qualification is this: I've published on the paranormal.

More precisely, I've published on beliefs in the paranormal. You can see it here: Beck, R. & Miller, J.P. (2001). The erosion of belief and disbelief: The relationship of belief in the supernatural with belief in the paranormal. Journal of Social Psychology, 141, 277-287.

This is one of my worst publications. I don't really like it. But there it is. I did this study my first year out of my Ph.D. program. I had been doing tons of clinical (i.e., mental health) research and was getting bored by it. So, I wanted to do something really quirky and different. Thus, one day I was in line at the supermarket and looked over at a copy of those fake newspapers that has stories like "My baby is an alien" or "Bigfoot discovered dancing at LA night club." Looking at this paper, I smirked and thought to myself, "Who would believe this stuff?" And then it dawned on me. Believing in God, miracles, angels, prayer, or demons seems pretty incredible as well. Is there a difference in believing in angels versus believing in ESP? Thus the paper was born.

After I published this quirky paper I moved on to more "important" research. But amazingly, this paper has had an interesting history. Every year I still get requests from around the world for copies of it (not many, but one or two). And, to date, the paper has been cited in ten other peer reviewed publications.

Although I think the paper isn't very good, methodologically speaking, I do think the paper was asking an interesting question, which is likely why it has had some shelf life. As I mentioned above, the basic question of the study was this: Is there any difference in believing in ghosts versus believing in God? How about ESP versus angels?

In short, why are some of these beliefs marginalized while others are mainstream?

Here's how the paper starts:

RESEARCHERS HAVE FREQUENTLY USED the terms paranormal and supernatural interchangeably in the empirical literature. However, factor analytic studies (Grimmer & White, 1990; Haraldsson & Houtkooper, 1996; Johnston, de Groot, & Spanos, 1995) of belief in the paranormal have indicated that certain individuals do make distinctions between paranormal phenomena (e.g., extra-sensory perception, or ESP; telekinesis; clairvoyance; precognition; communication with the dead) and the supernatural phenomena typically associated with Christian belief systems (the activity of supernatural agents such as angels or demons, the present-day occurrence of miracles, the causal power of prayer).

The thoughtful reader may object to the foregoing distinction in terminology, noting that the division is ambiguous, at best. And yet, certain populations do make such distinctions. Why people make such discriminations appears to depend on whether they have preexisting religious beliefs (Clarke, 1995). Prior beliefs may influence which phenomena are accepted as credible occurrences and which are treated with skepticism. Indeed, Christians may express disbelief about ESP or telekinesis but believe in guardian angels. We refer to this bias as metaphysical chauvinism, whereby one rejects certain quasi-empirical claims if they are not consistent with one's metaphysical assumptions, despite simultaneously holding beliefs that are equally unverifiable from an empirical point of view.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

3 thoughts on “Adventures in Ghostbusting and the Question of Metaphysical Chauvinsim”

  1. Richard,

    A few years ago I took several personality tests based on Jung's personality profiles. (Myers Briggs etc.) My results always came back as an INFJ, which apparently is the rarest personality type of all the types. (around 1% of the population has this type)

    What struck me as odd was that several psychologists made reference to INFJ's highly intuitive nature and that they often can accurately judge a person's motives, good or evil, even before that person is aware of them. They go on to say that this extreme sensitivity to others may be the basis for the INFJ to experience a wide array of psychic phenomena.

    Now, I'm not saying I believe the psychic part but I was curious what you think about all of this. Do you, as a psychologist put much stock in the Jung personality types? Also, I would be curious if you would share your personality type?


  2. In an effort to keep you awake at night, I want to let you know that I have greatly benefited from your various discussions on moral luck and the related topics, which have turned the tide in my head, so to speak. Thank you

  3. This post reminds me of thoughts I've had recently when hearing the song "Superstitious" by Stevie Wonder. The chorus is: "When you believe in things that you don't understand/Then you suffer./Superstition ain't the way." I have to admit that I believe in things I don't understand: the Trinity; God's Sovereignty despite man's free will; the power or prayer; and more. Does that make me superstitious? By Stevie Wonder's definition, apparently. But I also believe that planes can fly, although I don't understand all the physics of the process. And I believe the medicine I take for high blood pressure is keeping it in check, although I don't understand pharmacology at all. I guess the difference between my spiritual beliefs and the others is that I can see and experience the effects of the things I don't understand (I ride in planes and I test my blood pressure) but I cannot observe the spiritual effects directly.

Leave a Reply