home esoterica Original binnallofamerica.com Audio the United States of Esoterica merchandise contact

Bookmark and Share


Hell If I Know: A Skeptic Encounters the Paranormal, Maybe

There is an oft-repeated claim among believers that in a collision with a paranormal event, skepticism cannot survive. The wake of a brush with the unknown is an epiphanic transformation. If a skeptic were to have such an encounter, their closed-mindedness would wilt away, allowing them to join the community of believers.

However, experience is not the defining characteristic separating the skeptics from believers. There are many skeptics who have survived an encounter with the anomalous with their skepticism otherwise intact. Many skeptics, myself included, became so long after anomalous experiences, the journey for answers leading to skepticism.

The weird and unusual have been frequent in my life. I will not discuss them all here; some are too personal, some involve other people and have not been given permission to give the details. In fact, one of my earliest memories is of something that could be paranormal. And these events did not cease when I became a skeptic. The events have seemed to parallel my interest in esoteric subject matters. I've often wondered which bore which, a sort of paranormal Euthyphro dilemma.

Home from college one summer, I saw someone in my parents' home, someone that should not have been there. The last one to bed, I was heading to my bedroom, shutting off lights behind me. As I passed my sister's bedroom, I witnessed a little girl standing at the foot of her bed, hair in curls, wearing a green dress that would have not looked out of place in the nineteenth- century or early twentieth. It was only a glimpse, seen in the brief second I glanced in the door. But it was vivid enough to give me pause. And it was not the last time I'd see this young lady, though she only seemed to exist in my peripheral vision. The girl in the green dress hasn't paid a visit since that summer.

That is just one of the many strange experiences I've had.

So how do I reconcile being a skeptic seeing what seems to be a ghost? Because I can never be sure what I saw.

Human perception and memory are wondrously and fascinatingly flawed. So flawed, neither can be considered trustworthy. A study released last year (1), suggests that our perceptions are wrong even when paying close attention to detail. According to the Innocence Project, eyewitness testimony is "the single greatest cause of wrongful convictions." Multiple witnesses are just as likely to make the same mistakes of perception as a single witness; an arbitrary amount of witnesses does not suddenly create a phenomenon wherein the witnesses' perceptions become less flawed. In a study of 250 false convictions, Brandon Garrett found that a third involved multiple eye-witnesses fingering the wrong person for a crime. (2)

I cannot be sure I even saw a girl sporting curls and a green-dress. While I'm positive I am remembering events as they happened, it is probable this is not the case. Memory is not a tape-recorder, transcribing events objectively and accurate into our brains. It is subjective, based on our perceptions and emotions at moment of the event. Nor does it become more accurate or objective with time. It is perhaps less so. Studies suggest that it is very easy to create false memories. (3)

As flawed as our perception and memory is, the bulk of paranormal research still relies on eyewitness testimony as opposed to empirical evidence. This is not to say we should dismiss eyewitnesses or treat them as anything less than sincere (unless they prove to be otherwise). Eyewitness testimony should be regarded as a starting point but never should any case, paranormal or criminal, hinge on it.

1) Seeing Isn't Believing http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm
2) Getting It Wrong: Convicting the Innocent http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurispruden ce/features/2011/getting_it_wrong_convicting_the_innocent/h ow_eyewitnesses_can_send_innocents_to_jail.html
3) Creating False Memories http://faculty.washington.edu/eloftus/Articles/sciam.htm

Contact Bruce