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The idea for this post comes via the team at the most excellent Silly Beliefs blogStuff (repository of news & what looks like an awful lot of other stuff) reported about a Massey University research project. The Stuff report kicks off by saying

Spirits are increasingly making their presence felt in New Zealand, spurred on by celebrity ghost whisperers.

Hmmm. I have to say, what first came to mind was the Dr Who episode where the good folks at Torchwood had been fooling around with the space-time continuum, so that cybermen were pushing through from some other dimension, & people were interpreting their partial manifestations as ghosts. (It all turned to tears, even for the Doctor, although he did eventually save the day.) But here I am, getting side-tracked again. Back to the chase!

The Stuff item goes on to say:

Massey University research reveals growing numbers of Kiwis are sensing spirits. In a recent survey, the proportion of respondents who have felt a spiritual force rose from 33 per cent in 1991, to 40 per cent.

So I trotted off to Google Scholar – couldn’t find any published papers that matched the Stuff description, so I must assume that their breathless article was based on a press release. Going by said article, it appears that the researchers were looking at New Zealanders’ beliefs about the existence of ghosts/spirits. Among other things, they seem to have found that around 50% of people are ‘interested in spiritual forces’ (not quite the same thing as ‘sensing’ them), while 25% believe that ‘the dead have supernatural powers.’

Now, that’s about all that can be inferred about the research, so I’m not going to discuss that further here. What I do want to do is look at the way the findings were portrayed by Stuff (& presumably by other media outlets who picked up the story). Listen up, Stuff: a statement by x% of respondents that they believe in a spirit world is NOT THE SAME as spirits actually existing! The researchers seem to have been examining changes in beliefs or belief systems, not accumulating data to test the idea that the object(s) of belief are real. The fact that somone claims to believe in ghosts does not mean that ghosts exist. The great (& unfortunately late) Carl Sagan commented in The demon-haunted world that he could claim that there was an invisible dragon living in his garage. A sceptical response to this claim might be, sorry, can’t see anything. Ah, said Sagan, but what if I said it’s an invisible dragon?

The lead researcher is also quoted as saying

Programmes like Sensing Murder and Ghost Whisperer have popularised psychic experiences that in previous times would have been dismissed as symptoms of psychosis.

The Sensing Murder psychics have almost become spiritual celebrities.

First up, I suspect that it’s only fairly recently that anyone claiming to see ghosts & spirits would have been encouraged to have a quiet chat with a psychiatrist. Go back a few hundred years and someone making these claims might instead have been treated with respect (& in some societies that’s probably still the case).

What’s more, where’s the evidence? Stuff makes the fascinating claim that [s]pirits are increasingly making their presence felt in New Zealand without any real data to support it. Where’s the cold, hard, unequivocal evidence that a ghostly presence has indeed made itself felt? And I don’t mean via self-professed psychics, either. Why would a ghost need to be ‘spurred on’ by ‘celebrity ghost whisperers’ or anybody else, if they really wanted to contact the living? Particularly when as interpreted by said ghost whisperers, they say such inane things… (Not to mention the cost – why would your dearly departed wish to speak with you only after you’ve forked out a reasonable amount of money? For those who think, there might just be something in what psychics claim to be able to do – you might just want to read this article on ‘cold reading’ and other tricks of the trade.)

On the thoughtful, investigative journalism scale, the Stuff item deserves an F.