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My ghost tour experience

May 25, 2012 3 comments

DISCLAIMER: This review is a commentary on the tour from the perspective of a skeptic. If you believe in ghosts, don’t have a strong opinion about them, or are just looking to be entertained, your experience may be different. From a service perspective, the people running the tour did an excellent job and are very nice and helpful. And our friend who is much more accepting of the paranormal than we are definitely enjoyed the tour.

My girlfriend Meg, a friend, and I decided to go on a ghost walk last night. I got a gift certificate as an off-beat birthday gift (which I lost for, like, a year), just to get that out of the way. This is my review of the experience.

Before we begin, I will point out that I do not believe in ghosts. Do I still disbelieve? Read on to find out! I bet the fake suspense is killing you!

Appalachian Ghostwalks® is a tour and ghost hunting organization in northeast Tennessee. They do tours all over the area and in southwest Virginia. We took their Jonesborough, TN tour, which according to the guide, is one of the two most popular tours (along with Abingdon, VA). Jonesborough is the oldest town in Tennessee, established in 1779, so there’s been ample opportunity for stories to accumulate. Jonesborough is also known for Andrew Jackson having served as a judge here. He gets incorporated into the tour, which I will talk about later. The tour lasted about 3 hours (really).

One more note, just so I don’t annoy anyone: we didn’t see any ghosts. We saw nothing ghostly. We didn’t even take pictures of any “orbs,” even though our guide said we would have an opportunity to (this isn’t a criticism of him, really; we probably looked annoyed and bored by the end of the tour).

The tour began at the visitor’s center, where our guide gave a basic introduction to the tour and explained a little about the organization and what they do. Now, I’m not exactly fond of ghost hunters. Their methodologies are typically awful and they attempt to take measurements that have no established link to paranormal phenomena. Our guide made a clear point of saying that they do investigations of buildings with no background knowledge. I got the impression that they thought their methods were very thorough and deliberate. They say a prayer upon entering the building and they use dowsing rods to find ghosts or energy spots or whatever.

The tour starting going off the rails about then. First, he talked about using dowsing. People have attempted to dowse and claim Randi’s prize, but none have been successful. There’s just no reason to think that it works. Our guide claimed that the University of Tennessee teaches forensics students dowsing. I can find no evidence of this online, save for a non-credit outreach course that taught dowsing. That’s not an endorsement; those types of classes are typically offered if there are people to pay for them. He then went on to say that people only use 20% of their brains. This is absolute nonsense and anyone with basic knowledge of, well, the world should know that. The 80% is what results in psychic phenomena, he said. Furthermore, the imaginary friends of children are often ghosts, but since adults tell them they aren’t real, they eventually shut down that part of their brain. I’m surprised he didn’t say schizophrenics are driven mad by ghosts, although I think Meg would have tried to slap him had he done so.

This is sort of the thing we ran into over and over. I obviously have not been with them on their investigations and I can’t say certain things didn’t happen. If their experiences lead them to believe in ghosts, fine, I disagree and we can move on. It’s just that nearly everything else he said about their conclusions was full of obvious nonsense. For example, orbs. Our guide believed orbs were supernatural. Immediately he brought up that people say they’re just dust or water droplets. To disprove this (and he did say disprove), they took photos in a room caked with dust and photos in the rain. Only a few orbs! Really? This is your investigative method? We took pictures of dusty stuff and didn’t get as many as we thought? Meanwhile, orbs aren’t too hard to photograph. Paranormal investigators tend to shy away from them now because they’re pretty obviously not supernatural. Later in the tour, our guide told us that our eyes don’t see certain things, but they show up on pictures because cameras don’t know they’re not there. It just takes a picture. So, yeah, digital artifacts are real, people. His mention of our brains filtering things out, which is actually an interesting trait our ours, was probably the smartest thing he said, inadvertent though it was.

To belabor the point, we stopped at a building with several businesses in it. He noted that one spot had a run where numerous businesses failed after short periods of time. Coincidentally, they had found a property deed, baby shoes, and blue bones in the wall. On a visit to New Orleans, they visited a Voodoo priestess who told them that blue bones are used for curses. This information was used to leap to the conclusion that slaves had put a curse on the building. Once the bones were removed, the next business lasted! Until it went under, too. But it lasted longer! This is the sort of logical leap that makes you question any sort of “investigation” these people are doing. Shortly thereafter, we learned that a little girl was haunting a bathroom. They had expanded it to say she was haunting the nearby creek, too, because a man heard giggling. A bit thin, I think.

The bulk of the tour was wandering around Jonesborough, looking at pre-Civil War buildings and listening to ghost hunter stories. I say ghost hunter stories instead of ghost stories because, as Meg noted, the ghost stories were not the macabre sort where things are actually frightening and interesting. They were the sort where candles blow out or an umbrella stops working. These are the sorts of stories that ghost hunters tell because they’re not obviously legends told for entertainment value. They’re ones they can do some “verification” of (meaning they talked to an eyewitness, maybe). But they make for dull entertainment. As do the numerous stories related from previous tours. Is a woman’s purse strap lifting up and falling a good ghost story? No, it really isn’t. It’s also trivial to do accidentally with a marginally stiff purse strap.

We were also treated to the story of Andrew Jackson and the Bell Witch. When the primary, non-skeptic, historian of that story says Andrew Jackson’s involvement can’t be confirmed and that there’s “considerable” evidence he wasn’t in the area, I don’t think discarding the story is too hard. Not only that, the supposed Andrew Jackson quote about the Bell Witch, the only mention he supposedly made, has no primary source. Again, their investigations are one thing, but their incredible lack of critical thinking everywhere else doesn’t make them sound competent.

The tour ended at a church. We were asked to try an experiment. We were to close our eyes and walk slowly down a brick walkway towards the church archway. Our guide told us to stop if we felt “anything, no matter how small.” He would tell us to stop if we were about to hit anything. I walked and found myself a few steps away and left of the arch. Meg and our friend did the same, but to the right. Our guide told us that “sensitive” people stop before the archway without him saying. Those who are sensitive, but “just not ready,” veer off even though they thought they were going straight. This was the climax to the tour. It’s also explained by the fact that the brick walkway is really uneven, we were walking really slow, our legs were tired, and our eyes were closed. People don’t walk in straight lines under these conditions, “sensitive” or not. Oh, and he told us ghosts are linked to gastro-intestinal issues. Yes, you can blame farts on ghosts. We were ready to go home.

Unsurprisingly, we witnessed nothing supernatural. This is what normally happens when you resolve to think critically about paranormal phenomena. Penicillin doesn’t stop working if you examine it critically, you might note. But stripped of my need to skeptically evaluate ghost claims, was this a good tour? The answer is still no. Our guide, while nice, told every story over-dramatically, with terrible voices that made the stories more ridiculous than they already were. The stories are not particularly scary and while the bits of Jonesborough history we got were sometimes interesting, mixing them in with ghost tales almost cheapens them. Three hours is too long. The stories blur together and the cadence becomes clear: claimed ghostly incident, basic rebuttal of a couple objections, handful of follow-up incidents, minor incident nearby at a later date (often on a tour). How many ghost stories can you hear in a row before the basic rhythm starts to bore you?

In the end, the presentation missed the mark for me coming from a skeptical perspective. It may work better if you’re younger or just looking to walk in the dark and hear about ghosts.

Categories: Skepticism

A point for the vegans

August 4, 2008 Leave a comment

I meant to post about this last week. A study about sausage preferences:

People who scored high on “social authority” – they believed it was important to support people in power – tended to label the “vegetarian” sausage as inferior, even when the vegetarian sausage was actually from a cow. Likewise, people who scored low on “social power values” tended to score the vegan sausage much higher than the beef sausage, even when they were actually eating meat.

So sometimes a sausage isn’t just a sausage. Not all foods are like this, he notes, but still (the only soy replacement product I’ve tried is mozzarella cheese. It was close, but not quite convincing).

Another lesson in why you shouldn’t trust yourself to be objective.

Categories: Skepticism

Credulity is fun

June 19, 2008 1 comment

This is completely insane. A psychic told an “educational assistant” that a student with a name starting with ‘V’ was being abused by young male. That forced the school to inform the authorities, who started investigating the claim. All because of a scam artist and a gullible mark.

The idea that anyone involved in educating children is gullible enough to believe something like this is mind-boggling. There’s a reason ads for psychics say “for entertainment purposes only” – it’s complete bullshit. And of course, the psychic made the vague prediction of a child with a ‘V’ name and picked an unidentified male in his 20s as the accuser. Just in case she wasn’t casting a wide enough net with her smear.

And if the psychic had accused the mother or a teacher? The potential for harm here is enormous. It’s bad enough that they’re being dragged through an investigation as it is, but if the mother or a teacher was the target? Smeared because of a con-artist claiming nonexistent supernatural powers. I’d be pretty pissed.

Categories: Skepticism

Like cures like

February 18, 2008 3 comments

I keep seeing ads for Zicam on TV. Zicam is a homeopathic cold remedy that, unlike most homeopathic remedies, has progressed beyond anti-modern medicine hippiedom and found a marketing department. Homeopathy combines two stupid ideas: the claim that taking a substance that causes symptoms similar to an illness will cure that illness and that such a substance is most effective when diluted to the point where you’ve only ingested a couple of molecules of it.

I guess the moral of the story is that next time you get a headache, hit yourself in the head with a bat. A really tiny one.

Can you tell I’m bored tonight?

Categories: Skepticism

People are weird

February 18, 2008 Leave a comment

Apparently there are weird lights in Texas. Not all that weird, but then there’s this person, who posits that since they appear to be spinning, the Air Force could be experimenting with time travel. Now, you might think that’s a bit of a leap. You’d be wrong. It’s actually several gigantic leaps the landing points of which may not even exist. I prefer my simpler theory, which is that the Air Force has created enormous bits of rainbow colored Kabbalah string and is throwing them in the air in order to protect us from terrorists.

Item 2 is the fact that people actually watch professional wrestling. Apparently Vince McMahon has a midget son who is going to fight him in a steel cage. Every time I see an ad for one of those events I seriously consider becoming one of those Christians who thinks everything on TV is satanic.

Item 3 is that a city council in England paid a psychic to rid a house of poltergeists. She put a “circle of salt” in the house and the ghost left. Apparently ghosts are deathly afraid of getting clogged arteries.

Categories: Silliness, Skepticism

Quick comments

October 6, 2007 4 comments

1. Greatest award ever? The Ig Nobel for linguistics for this year:

Linguistics – A University of Barcelona team for showing that rats are unable to tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and somebody speaking Dutch backwards.

2. James Randi has challenged the reviewer of a pair of $7,250 audio cables to prove he can tell the difference between them and equivalent (and still overpriced) Monster cables. His million is the prize. While Randi is right in principle, it’s a little concerning. The review Randi quotes is absurd, but with the right equipment and really good ears it seems possible to hear a difference between the two cables. Extraordinarily unlikely, in my opinion, but possible in a non-paranormal way. In the end, Randi won’t be taken up for the same reasons the other famous purveyors of pseudo-scientific bullshit won’t: the risk to their livelihood is too great.

3. Downside to being an atheist: I have to deity to blame for the snow here. It’s October, I’m not prepared for this yet.

Categories: Science, Skepticism

*sigh*

May 14, 2007 Leave a comment

They never really go away, do they?

(via Pharyngula)

Categories: Skepticism

Oh, for fuck's sake

April 14, 2007 1 comment

David Lynch, whose movies I enjoy quite a bit, spouts debunked New Age nonsense in the Independent:

Indy: You’re talking about Transcendental Meditation?

Lynch: Yes. Transcendental Meditation is a mental technique—it’s not a religion, it’s not against any religion, it’s not a cult, it’s not a sect. It’s a mental technique and an ancient form of meditation that Maharishi Mahesh Yogi is bringing back now. It’s a mental technique that allows any human being to dive within and experience subtler levels of mind and intellect, and transcend and experience the unbounded, infinite, eternal level of pure bliss consciousness, what modern scientists call the unified field at the base of all matter and the base of all mind.

I was actually trained in TM as a teenager, but I think I was too young to appreciate it. I understand the basic principles, but not some of the concepts you discuss in the book. Like, what are peace factories?

In Transcendental Meditation, you’re experiencing the deepest level of life, and it enlivens that level, and that level is totally positive. It’s like a bright light of positivity, and when you experience it you enliven it and you grow in that. The side effect of growing that unity and that pure consciousness and that bliss, is that negative things start to recede. When negativity recedes you start to enjoy life more and more.
Negativity is hate, anger, fear, depression, sorrow, anxiety, tension, corruption, disease—all these things. When that goes there is huge freedom, huge happiness and a flow of creativity, increased intelligence, energy and power. Beautiful, beautiful things happen just from transcending and visiting “back home” and enlivening that beautiful field. If you can enliven that beautiful field as a group, it has been proven successful at reducing crime, violence, road accidents, trips to the hospital.

Indy: And you say that it takes the square root of 1 percent of the population to create a peace factory?

Lynch: It has been tested 52 times, and independently verified. It’s a group that practices advanced techniques of meditation together, enlivening that field of unity within, and pumping this light out into collective consciousness, influencing collective consciousness with harmony, coherence, dynamic peace. The side effect of that is negativity starts to recede and peace can come to earth.

Um, no. TM has done nothing like that and has not been verified scientifically. It’s a meditation technique with the benefits of such techniques and that’s it.

The interview continues with more New Age babble and a few interesting comments about his movies. Kind of a bust, if you ask me.

(link via Jay)

Categories: Montana, Skepticism

Skeptic on the PEER Grand Canyon claims

January 17, 2007 Leave a comment

A lesson in being skeptical of things that confirm your biases.

What the hell is rolfing?

November 27, 2006 14 comments

I thought it was some combination of roller-blading and golfing, but what do I know? Anyway, I came across it at work and wondered what exactly it was. I sort of knew it was related to New Age-y alternative medicine, but didn’t really know much about it. A brief synopsis:

Rolfing® seems to be a kind of myofascial massage, but Rolfers prefer to call it “movement education.” Whatever you call it, Rolfing involves touching the skin, feeling around for “imbalances” in tissue texture, and separating “fascial layers that adhere and muscles that have been pulled out of position by strain or injury.”* It is also a kind of energy medicine.* Rolfers consider their unique contribution to be “to balance the body in gravity.” Deep massage or other forms of soft tissue manipulation can’t do that, they say.

It looks for all the world like a form of massage. Rolfers apparently don’t really think so, but they don’t seem to do a good job explaining why it isn’t. As would be expected from a form of alternative medicine, there’s plenty of weird and nonsensical gibberish explaining it:

The Rolf Institute of Structural Integration (RISI) has continued Dr. Rolf’s profound inquiry into how to enhance the whole person by organizing the body in gravity.

Rolfing is a holistic technique in that changes in structure can impact the whole person, physically, emotionally, and energetically.

In Rolf Movement Integration, the Rolfer helps clients become aware of their inhibiting movement patterns and teaches them how to change them. In Rolfing structural integration, the Rolfer releases these patterns through manipulation as they manifest in the client’s structure. Rolfing is as concerned with how people experience and use their bodies in their daily lives as with their structural organization in gravity.

I’d like to see anyone to explain how rolfing improves “structural organization in gravity.”

That’s really the problem with the sort of physical therapy-ish alternative practices. To the extent that they do anything, it’s placebo and basic muscle, joint, and skeletal function improvement. Not content with that, a bunch of metaphysical pap and elusory benefits are added to dazzle the consumer into thinking it’s something new and exciting.

Categories: Skepticism
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