Why I Stopped Believing in Ghosts, and Started Believing in Science

“Science is not a thing, it’s a verb. It’s a way of thinking about things.”
– Michael Shermer

Your friend says to you, “I can move things with my mind.” Your first response would probably be to wonder what they ate for breakfast, but your likely response would be, “Show me.”

This is science. Nobody would say, “OK, I believe you. Want to help me move Saturday? It’ll be easier if you can carry boxes with your mind.”

When somebody makes a claim, we want to see him back it up. Without science you would have to take everything anyone says at face value, which could have disappointing consequences when your friend tries to carry your piano down the steps with something other than his arms.

There are many lacking elements of the schooling system, but the biggest is perhaps my opportunity to earn a high school degree without a complete grasp of the importance of the scientific method. Sure, I learned the steps, but nobody ever stopped and said, “If you pay attention to one class this semester, it’s today. This scientific method thing… it’s really frigging important!” Kids often question the applicability of what they learn in school to the real world. The scientific method is Exhibit A.

Footnotes of the Scientific Method

“Kids are never the problem. They are born scientists. The problem is always the adults. They beat the curiosity out of the kids. They out-number kids. They vote. They wield resources. That’s why my public focus is primarily adults.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson

Most people have learned the steps to the scientific method at some point. Define your question, gather info, form a hypothesis, run an experiment, analyze data, draw conclusions based upon the results, publish results, have other people retest your claims. But there are a few other points that people often miss–I certainly did–that lead to many of the beliefs that we form in everyday life.

The most important aspect is something I did not learn until college (and it still did not completely sink in until later), which is that you must assume the null hypothesis. Being that science is about a lack of assumptions this might sound weird, but what this means is that we do not believe there is a connection between X and Y until it has been demonstrated in a test. This is like being ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ in that it is assumed there is no crime until evidence is presented that there has been a crime. The responsibility of providing evidence rests with the person who makes the claim. It is not for others to disprove a claim that has no evidence in the first place.

The consequences of not assuming the null hypothesis leaves us with chaos in that we must accept anything that anyone says. As we will look at later, many people appear to be more willing to accept conclusions despite weak or no evidence in some topics, but not in others. Skeptics and scientists simply demand sufficient evidence before they are willing to believe claims, regardless of the topic.

The next thing to remember is that not all claims are testable, and if a claim cannot be tested it is not science. Consider our telekinetic friend. If he claims that he threw a pencil across his bedroom with his mind when he was alone last night, he has not made a scientific claim. We have no way to test this and therefore do not have any reason to believe him (though we may want to question our decision to continue to be his friend). However, if he claims that he can throw pencils with his mind whenever he wants to, this is a claim that we can test. But we must assume that he cannot do it until he shows us that he can. And even if he can, we will want to do further testing. If he is able to throw pencils on demand, under many difference circumstances, then he will want to contact a guy named James Randi (we will get back to him in a few sections).

Another aspect that testability entails is that the claim must be falsifiable. Psychics sometimes claim that their predictions did not come true because the person in question did not truly believe that they were psychic. This is an awfully convenient claim, as there is no difference between people not believing and the psychic not actually having the abilities they claim they do.

Some people argue that we are living inside a simulation, ala The Matrix. With no way to actually test this most would not consider this a scientific claim. Something that currently lacks the ability to test, but is still in development, is the Multiverse theory, which posits that there are multiple universes. There are a few vague ideas as how we could actually test the theory, at least they are vague as I write this, but there is some mathematical evidence that suggests it is possible. Still, until an experiment is conducted, even the incredibly smart people who work on the math behind the theory would not say there are other universes.

Finally, our findings must be repeatable. Some studies done on a connection between smoking and lung cancer have not found a link between the two. However, these results have not been replicated anywhere near as often as the studies that have linked them. This does not mean that any single study was flawed, but we must be willing to look at all of the studies and consider how much evidence we actually have before making assertions based on it.

Scientists Are Know-it-Alls

“Throughout history every mystery ever solved has turned out to be: Not Magic.” – Tim Minchin

I have seen people claim that scientists act as if they know everything, and refuse to discuss anything that contradicts their beliefs. This could not be further from the truth. As we have seen in the scientific method, it is only useful if we do not know something. The point of science is precisely to learn something new. It is always legitimate to ask what evidence led someone to their conclusions. To say, “I don’t know” is a much more acceptable answer in science than it seems to be in the rest of society. Unfortunately every topic can lead to its own in-depth discussions and findings that might be difficult even for other scientists to understand.

Some of these accusations could stem from a misunderstanding of how something was stated. Findings so far in history have given us a view of the universe and how it works. We therefore make conclusions and proceed forth based on these findings. Simultaneously we admit that there is a great deal that we do not know. Thus every conclusion could be stated, “Based on the current evidence…” This goes back to the inability to prove a negative. It also stems from the way the word “proof” is used. A hypothesis can be confirmed, but nothing can be completely, 100% proven. This being said, many things have gotten to the point where supporting hypotheses have been confirmed over and over and over again. The conservation of energy, evolution, living things being made of cells. These have been tested repeatedly and have prevailed. As far as we know gravity has always existed, but there is always a ridiculously miniscule chance that you will get out of bed tomorrow morning and fall to the celling. Just because something has not been shown to exist does not mean it is impossible, it means that there is no evidence for it. It is a fine line; but just because it could possibly exist, if all the evidence so far says it does not exist, there is no reason to conduct ourselves as if it does.

Another misconception is that there is some type of scientific hierarchy. There are indeed scientists who are well known in the media or public eye, but they are in no way in charge. It is the evidence as found through the scientific method that ultimately should form opinions, regardless of whether it comes from someone who has been around for years or a student. Scientists and skeptics do not—or should not—root for one theory or anther to be true. They merely wish to grow our knowledge of the universe.

by KTR2, CC 3.0
by KTR2, CC 3.0

My Experiences: Leave Mulder Alone!

There was an episode of Larry King Live a few years ago that discussed one of my biggest interests: UFOs. Two of the guests were Stanton Friedman and Michael Shermer. I had watched Friedman on many shows about UFOs and for my money he is the best Ufologist out there. But no matter what they threw at him, this Shermer guy refused to buy into the arguments that aliens from other planets were visiting us. I could not figure out what he wanted. He claimed he was a skeptic, but the others continued to label him a “debunker.”

I also could not figure out what believing that UFOs were extraterrestrial hurt. I had a belief in the paranormal, but I was not climbing to mountaintops to meet the mother ship, so what difference did it make if I thought these were ships from another planet? Shermer was standing in my way of quality entertainment. I didn’t like him.

I came across Shermer a few times after that, he was always saying things like that there is no such thing as ghosts or psychics. I did not have personal experience with these things, but their existence seemed plausible. Just consider how many people believe in such things!

But over the last few years, I have increasingly found it more and more difficult to figure out how anyone could possibly disagree with Michael Shermer. Here’s why:

The Supernatural

“Uri Geller may have psychic powers by means of which he can bend spoons;
if so, he appears to be doing it the hard way.”
– James Randi

Is there something more out there than what we encounter on a day-to-day basis? For years there have been books, movies, and television shows about supernatural and paranormal phenomenon. Ghosts and psychics, UFOs and Aliens, Chupacabras and Bigfoots; maybe not every sighting is real, but given how widespread the claims are surely there is something real behind all of this!

The first thing we should do is define exactly what we are talking about. “Supernatural” literally translates from Latin as ‘above nature’ and the dictionary states that it is “unexplainable by natural law or phenomena.” Paranormal is “of or pertaining to the claimed occurrence of an event or perception without scientific explanation.”

Many would claim that ghosts are supernatural entities, which is why we have yet to find scientific evidence for their existence. It would appear that, by definition, science is powerless to test claims of the supernatural or paranormal. This is odd though when people often claim to believe in ghosts because they have seen or heard them. They tend to ignore that seeing and hearing are observations of the natural world. Any light that can be seen, whether or not it is a ghost, is indeed natural. Why then, would we classify this entity as supernatural?

Regardless, people who claim to possess psychic or telekinetic powers seem convinced that their abilities work just fine in the natural world, even if they are conversing with the supernatural world. In order to test their claims we must first define what their claim is. Next, we put that to the test.

The best example of this is James Randi who has offered $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate they have abilities that cannot be scientifically explained. Some might accuse Randi of making the stakes too high, but Randi and the individual mutually agree upon all test procedures in advance. Since 1964 over one thousand people have come forward claiming that they possess “psychic or mediumistic powers, ESP, dowsing, magnetic humans, astrology, faith healing” abilities and more. To make a long story short, not one has been able to back up their claim.

Usually they just end up looking silly.

Harm of Belief Without Proof

“We should be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brain falls out.”
– Richard Dawkins

Nobody believes every claim that they hear. Society no longer burns witches; not because people have ceased to claim they have supernatural powers, but because there has never been any evidence that the supernatural can affect the natural world that we live in. And therefore many have ceased to take such claims seriously. If you want to continue to believe in a supernatural world I cannot stop you, but realize that you are professing belief in something that is not of the world we live in, nor can it ever be demonstrated within the world we live in. Still despite a lack of evidence, some people are willing to take people who claim to have the ability to talk to the dead or ability to read minds seriously.

Thus we return to my original question: What is the harm in believing in UFOs, even if there is a lack of scientific evidence? The first thing that Michael Shermer said to Larry King on that episode is important. Before investigating anything, we need to clarify what the claim is. To “believe in UFOs” does not really mean anything. UFOs do exist. Videos and photos exist of flying objects that have not been identified; this is not controversial. However, it is a different claim entirely to say that UFOs are piloted by aliens from other planets.

Here is my moment to stop and say if you are going to pay attention to one thing in this article, make sure it is to constantly ask two questions: What is the claim? What evidence exists to support the claim?

I never acted on my interest in UFOs in any way other than watching a bunch of TV shows about them, but this is not the case for many other people who believe in things that have no evidence to support them. I cannot explain this better than James Randi:

The potential harm is very real, and dangerous. Belief in such obvious flummeries as astrology or fortune-telling can appear — quite incorrectly — to give confirmatory results, and that can lead to the victim pursuing more dangerous, expensive, and often health-related scams. Blind belief can be comforting, but it can easily cripple reason and productivity, and stop intellectual progress. We at JREF never try to impose our beliefs or philosophies on others; we only try to inform them, and suggest that there are alternate choices to be made. Examples of personal tragedies resulting from an uncritical embrace of supernatural claims, are plentiful.

I did also believe though, that aliens from other planets piloted some UFOs. I was not assuming the null hypothesis. And though I was not acting on my belief in any major way, but I was shortchanging myself. Everyone uses science to some extent; we insist a certain amount of evidence in order to believe claims. To demand evidence on one topic, but none on another is illogical. It also does not help anything to assume a supernatural answer when a natural one has not been found.

In light of my new views, I am not against studying UFOs whatsoever. To the contrary I am still very interested in the topic, but we must be sure to always assume the null hypothesis. It does appear that the US government is hiding something when it comes to UFOs, but that something could be aliens from other planets or it could be nothing. Are there beings from other planets piloting UFOs? I don’t know, but it is only logical to assume it is nothing until we have proof of something.

We must constantly question our beliefs. People change their minds every day, but it is unpopular in our culture to admit doing so. Switch your opinion and you are labeled a flip-flopper. And why should I believe anything you say if you are just going to change your mind again tomorrow? We need to realize that opinions are only as important as the chain of reasoning used to reach them. If presented with new evidence we need to reanalyze everything we think on the topic. To ignore a new discovery to cling to what you have always believed means that you will remain in the same spot while the rest of the world passes you by.

My intent in writing this was to give the view of someone outside of academia who has come to understand the importance of thinking scientifically, which is perhaps different than the traditional attempts of science education from well-established scientists. I encourage you to seek the views of well-established scientists and people smarter than me to confirm everything I have written.

Further resources

The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truth by Michael Shermer

NOVA: The Fabric of the Cosmos

Stephen Colbert Interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson

James Randi: Homeopathy, quackery and fraud

James Randi on his $1 million challenge

What Has School Done For Me Lately?

When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute. – Simon Sinek

Treat [every employee] as if they are eventually going to be better than you.          James Altucher

I took a college biology class that the professor referred to as, “The biology class for people who are not going into biology.” In other words, “Most of you are probably bored out of your mind here, and I get that, so rather than wasting your time I have adapted the lessons to be more relatable to the real-world.” And well, it worked. Biology is awesome. I did not become a bio-major, far from it, but not a week goes by where I do not think of something that stems from that class.

I look at the world differently than I did before taking that class. That is something that can and should come from learning anything about any subject, but unfortunately rarely is:

Every biology class I had taken before that the teacher might as well have said, “Most of you are probably bored out of your mind here, and I get that because frankly I am too, so open your book up to chapter one and we’ll try to get through this as quickly as possible.” The result of all of those classes as a lot of wasted time. Plus I learned jack. I hate to give biology a bad rap though—that experience was roughly half of my time in high school.

You hear a lot about how schools are cutting art and music classes for the sake of math and science. But the worst part is that nobody ever explains to these kids why they should care about learning what they do not cut (biology, algebra, statistics).

You can put a kid in a classroom and beat algebra into him for seven hours a day, but if he does not understand why he should care about learning algebra in the first place, you should just stop wasting your breath, because his test scores are not going improve anyway. And even if they do, he is not going to remember much of the math in two months from now.

That part above where I said we should be happy to learn anything about anything at any time is completely missing from students in 5th through 12th grade, and probably most college students. Schools remove their curiosity early on. You know when a kid raises his hand and says, “Why should we care about learning all this? How does it relate to the real world?” Not one time was I in a class where a teacher gave a good answer. Usually they ignored the question or stumbled through something nobody remembered five minutes later. Probably because the teacher did not actually know. That is incredibly screwed up. The first lesson of every class ever taught should be called, Lesson 1: Why I Should Give a Shit About What is Taught in This Class.

To students, school is a game to see who can get the highest grades by putting in the least amount of work possible. You can try and convince me that, “No, school is about learning, becoming educated so you can go out into the real world and better society.” The flaw in that argument is that according to the almost 20 years I went to school, it is completely false.

So how do we fix it? Yes, many people will realize eventually that there is value in learning HTML code, regardless of whether or not you ever code a website, but why not explain this value to the students up front? Explain the why.

So even if you are afraid of math and science (a distaste you probably developed in school) you will enjoy and learn something from this video about physics:

Reflecting on my Largest Contribution to Society

There is an episode of The Big Bang Theory in which Penny invites Leonard to watch a college football game with her and her friends. Being the geek he is Leonard knows nothing about football, and spends a scene trying to figure the sport out by watching a game. This scene:

Had I started the project I am about to tell you about a few years ago, Leonard could have gone on YouTube, watched a few videos, gained an understanding of the game, and had a lot more time to make out with Penny. It would have saved Sheldon some time too. Everybody wins. Well, except me, as I never got to make out with Penny.

Anyway…

Last year in March I started a series of YouTube videos with the goal that they would teach a person to play baseball, even if the viewer had no prior knowledge of the sport. While you can find a baseball rulebook online, beginners are more likely to understand a topic when someone well versed in the topic explains it.

The videos were inspired by The Khan Academy, a website devoted to giving anybody anywhere a world-class education, free of charge. Its main tool of instruction is YouTube videos, which have multiple advantages over the way students have been taught in schools for the past century. In one of his talks, the site’s founder Sal Khan says that everyone has their own area of expertise and thus practically anyone could make their own videos on their own area of expertise.

While the important topics like Algebra should probably be left to Khan, I choose baseball and copied his style of making videos using Microsoft Paint with a narration. The low requirements to make a video—a microphone, Paint, a free screen capture program, and an internet connection—allowed me to quickly start churning out videos. While there was some preparation to each one, the videos did not take much longer to produce than their length. And uploading each video did not take more than a few minutes.

Each video is on a single topic—starting with the field’s layout and what the defensive positions are—and are not usually more than ten minutes. I see the videos as one collective lesson designed for a baseball beginner: someone from the other side of the world or a first-time Little League mother. One lesson leads into the next. And were created in much the same order they are intended to be watched. I would not plan more than two or three videos ahead, but continuously used terms that I realized required further explanation in a video of their own.

I did not want to be a rulebook on tape, which led to some videos on topics such as the catcher giving signals, pitch type, and other strategies. I was also able to include explanations of how to calculate statistics like batting average and ERA, and explain why and how they were used. I feel these are largely valuable to someone just learning the game, and not something they can find in the rulebook. One of the advantages of the unlimited space of YouTube is that one cannot go too far in-depth on any topic.

Evolving

I will be the first person to admit that some videos are of weak quality, for a few reasons. The first being the ease of their creation, which in my early excitement led me to choose quantity over quality. Other videos suffer from my lack of outlining the lesson, which led me to stutter throughout. Fortunately I have been able to re-recorded many of these weaker lessons, though a few remain.

Regardless of the weaker videos, the vast majority of feedback has been positive. Many comments have come from people just moving to the United States or saying they had always wanted to learn the game. I once received an email from a gentleman in Brazil asking if I could explain the Infield Fly Rule to him. Few notes have appeared in my inbox that I enjoyed more.

The small amount of criticism is often based around videos in which I would stray too far from the main topic. The video on the Infield Fly Rule is a good example of this. After a controversial play in the most recent MLB playoffs the video was viewed over 6,000 times in the three days following the incident. Because I created the video with the mentality it was intended for people with little to no baseball experience, I start the video with an explanation of how runners must return to their original base after fly balls. If explaining the rule to someone who understood baseball, likely most of the viewers after the incident, this multi-minute review would have been completely unnecessary. I am working on a few solutions to this issue now.

One change came after watching a few other videos explaining baseball statistics. I realized that while they were faster paced, the ease of pausing and re-watching the video (two primary bonuses of videos over live lectures) rendered the pace less meaningful than I had originally thought. Khan’s videos are created with him both drawing the visual portion and recording the narration simultaneously. And I copied that format for the first hundred baseball videos. This style inevitably slows lessons down because people can speak faster than write. This may not be such a bad thing for beginners, but speeding up the lessons may be a bonus for people who have some understanding of the game.

I have since experimented with writing and recording the narration in its entirety, then going back and recording the visuals. While I have not produced more than a handful of the videos with Paint and even PowerPoint in this new style, it will likely be how I create future videos. While they do take longer to create, the process allows greater time to concentrate on each the audio and visual aspect of the video. The creation style is based on the creator, though. I suspect numerous formats can be effective if used by the right person.

The Future

I have realized that this is an endeavor that could, and should, expand beyond baseball. I have recently begun to delve into the rules of football, which have received more of a response than the baseball videos did in their early days. And I am happy to see that it is just as positive. My ultimate goal would be to have a series of videos on every sport that could teach a person with no prior knowledge of the game how to play.

The final question I would like to reflect on here is why: I feel it is important to share how to play these games with others because sports have brought a great deal of joy into my life. I hope to share this joy with others, but they cannot have it unless they understand how to play first! The only other rule I abide by is that the videos will always be free.

While I created a simple blog in conjunction with the videos, I have done very little in the ways of promoting them elsewhere. Simply allowing people to find them on YouTube has led to around 100,000 views in under a year-and-a-half. This is minuscule in comparison to the 212 million views The Khan Academy has had, but hey, I am just the gym teacher.

You can find the complete list of baseball videos here.

THX is Coming

While nothing of the world in George Lucas’s debut film, THX-1138, is immediately recognizable in our own, it turns out that it is all there. Boil today’s society down to its essence and you have the world that THX lives in.

Shopping – When I go to Wal-Mart I see THX play out before my eyes. The people of THX’s world are not really buying anything. They have stores, but the only thing they sell are these worthless cube-things called dendrites which have no purpose and are eventually thrown away (not that the doped-up citizens understand this). The government recycles them, putting them back on the shelf so they can be bought again next week—at least they come in red, white, and blue. How exciting.

This is what I see when I go shopping—lots of things being bought that are not going to matter to their new owners two weeks from now. And yet, people spend hours debating over what to buy. They will even go into debt, just so they can spend money and buy things that will not enhance their lives.

Education – We will have the ability to download lesson plans into our brain within a few decades, so we are far off from literally being there. But it is kind of ironic that kids are shown “learning” when it obviously leads to nothing. You can go to Google or Wikipedia and learn anything, right now. This has decreased the value of memorizing facts and figures.

Knowing a bunch of stuff is not being educated. It is finding connections between different subjects and coming up with unique ideas that is the real prize. And yet, schools have not changed in a century. Students do not see the point of what they are learning. They just want to be done so they can play video games or go to the mall and buy some new shit.

Work – While the outcome is not the greatest thing in the world, many citizens actually seem engaged when they are working. This is the case with THX, who works to build the robotic police officers. He is working alongside numerous others, receiving constant verbal feedback from his bosses, they do actually seem like a team. And though it is a bit macabre, there is a nonchalant announcement to inform THX’s team that they are doing better than the next sector over—based on the fact they have had fewer workers die in explosions.

Many people today go to the ‘ol 9 to 5, hate it, collect paycheck, look forward to 5 o’clock and the weekends. It seems like a horrible way to live, but it is the norm, so nobody flinches when they find themselves becoming another cog in the machine. The sad part is that people may be more engaged in THX’s world.

Religion – “Prevent accidents” is what OMM (the “god” of THX’s world) preaches to the masses, which is exactly who the target of the message is: The masses. The illusion of an individualized message is given when people go talk to OMM in the unichapels, but god’s response is a recording and the people are too drugged or too ignorant (through no fault of their own) to realize it. Everyone says morning prayers, but it is doubtful that they are getting anything out of them.

Television – This is probably my favorite. There are five channels: The Violence Channel (which is a cop monotonously beating a guy with a club), The Boring Guys Talking Network, The Naked Dancing Guy Channel, the Naked Dancing Girl Channel (or NDG and NDG2 as I like to call them). You get the idea.

Turn on your TV, and flip through the channels. Violence, embellished news, sex, mostly mindless garbage. Boil a violent show down to its essence and what do you get: A guy beating another guy with a club.

What does it all have in common? You can watch it for five hours and two days from now it would not matter what you watched one bit, except that it does because you have wasted five hours of your life. This is not to say that there are no shows of value or of substance that will make you think, but it is only about 5% of what is on TV. And very often you can get these shows on-demand online.

THX does comment at one point about a conversation two guys on the “comedy” channel are having. “That was very funny,” he says with no laugh, as if he had just come out of a funeral.

Government – The thing that makes this underground city scary is that there is nothing to overthrow, because there is no man hidden behind the curtain who realizes this world is screwed up in ways it should not be. The people who are arresting lawbreakers are just doing their job. There is no thought given to a reason as to why they are throwing these people in jail or why they are chasing THX down. No thoughts of the big picture, of where this path will ultimately lead society which is, right where it is now. Nothing will ever change.

How do we get there from here? By just doing what we are already doing.

What I Learned in College

I spent a few thousand dollars to go to college for four years and earn a Communications degree. I’ll sum up what I learned for you.

Before you open your mouth, write an email, make a flyer, or post on Facebook STOP and ask yourself these questions:

  • Who am I talking to?
  • What do I want them to know?
  • Why am I telling them this?
  • How can I most effectively get them understand what I’m thinking?

Who am I talking to?

A teacher, a client, my mom. Even about the same topic, that’s three different emails. How well do you know them? If you included humor, would it actually be funny or a waste of time?

What do I want them to know?

What do they already know? When was the last time you discussed it with them? You are either informing, entertaining, persuading, or asking. Know which one (it’s usually only one). If your work together is ongoing, state what the next step should be. Every meeting should end with a concise recap of what has been decided: OK so, you do this, I will do that, we will meet again in a week. Make it as simple as possible.

Why am I telling them this?

What is the big picture here? How does this letter move us closer to the goal? You probably won’t include this info in your letter, but lose sight of your why and you lose your enjoyment of doing those things quickly.

How can I most effectively get them understand what I’m thinking?

Would they understand if I used ten syllable technical terms? Can I make this email shorter or would it compromise the message? Would a telephone call be better than an email?

Every poor speech I have heard, every misunderstood homework assignment, every confusing meeting at work could have been solved if the teacher or speaker would have taken a few moments to clarify in their own mind what they were trying to say. If you are giving a 30 minute speech you should be able to hack it down to a sentence or two of what the central message is. And once you know what that message is, do not allow it to get lost in the other 29 minutes and 30 seconds.

This is what communicating is. You have something in your head, the other person does not have it in their head. There are a million ways for you to give it to them. If you don’t know what it is before you open your mouth, the other guy has no shot in understanding what you are trying to tell them.