Thursday, May 14, 2009

Electronics and the Supernatural, II

Earlier, I wrote a blog entry on electronics and the supernatural. That entry noted that there is a popular perception connecting spirits and the afterlife with electronic devices. The entry focused on the psychological and cultural reasons for such beliefs, but did not address why I could be reasonably certain that any such connection was spurious. In the comments thread, Tony Sidaway criticized my inattention to why such beliefs were silly. I initially dismissed Tony’s criticism. However, having looked at the incoming hits from Google, it is clear that most people reading the entry are searching for an answer to the question “Are ghosts and electronics connected?” Therefore, this entry will attempt to address this question.

How can I be certain that claimed connections between spirits and electronics do not exist? The primary claimed connection is that of EVP, or electronic voice phenomena, in which spirits of the departed or other supernatural entities communicate through altering the static from electronic devices. This claim is not plausible for three reasons. First, the claimed messages can be easily attributed to pareidolia and other psychological biases. Second, there is no plausible mechanism by which the spiritual messages are being transmitted. Third, the data received is not what one would expect to receive if there were spirits capable of communicating with us from the afterlife.

Pareidolia is the phenomenon of perceiving apparent patterns that do not necessarily exist. Classic examples are animals in clouds, the man in the moon, the face on Mars, and the Virgin Mary on burnt grilled cheese. The old-style Rorschach test was based on this behavior. Humans are incredibly good at pattern recognition. We are so good that we often perceive patterns where none exist. Humans see patterns in random dots and hear sounds in random noises. Sometimes these are cute; other times they seem silly. Perceived sounds can easily be explained by pareidolia.

Pareidolia is not the only psychological bias that comes into play when considering the evidence for EVP. Another important bias is confirmation bias, the tendency to remember data points that support a hypothesis while discounting or failing to note data points that do not. In this case, it is likely that people remember the seemingly striking examples of EVP but fail to note the vast majority of static where there are no apparent messages.

The lack of a plausible mechanism for EVP is also a problem. When asked about mechanisms, most proponents are inclined to wave their hands and make vague statements about sprits being somehow connected to or composed of electromagnetic fields. However, even if some vague form of this hypothesis were true, it doesn’t help matters. In particular, there are two fundamental different kinds of electronic devices, digital and analog. The basic underpinnings are very different although both can produce static. This raises a serious issue: there’s no plausible mechanism that would impact both digital and analog signals in the same way. Moreover, the strength of different types of signals varies widely. If the spirits have the ability to substantially alter the static of a strong signal, it is unclear why they cannot send clear signals through less noisy channels. Yet, it seems that no matter how sensitive the equipment used, the remaining signal created by the spirits is always just at the edge of measurability. That’s at best implausible.

Another issue is the messages that are sent. We must ask: If everyone in the afterlife can send messages back to us, why do we not get any messages giving us genuinely new information? For example, many great mathematicians such as Gauss and Erdos are dead. It strains credulity that there would be an afterlife where they could plausibly communicate with us and they would not be communicating further mathematical discoveries. Similar remarks apply to the great physicists such as Einstein and Bohr. Yet, there is no evidence of any such attempts. Why don’t we hear from them?

For all these reasons, one can be confident that even if spirits exist, they have no ability to communicate through electronics.


Matt Heppe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hepius said...

Oh, yeah, Smart Guy? This morning my toaster (an antique passed down from my grandmother) telepathically told me that it (she) was going to burn the hell out of my toast if I didn't turn the dial down.

Well.... it (she) burned my toast to a crisp. Even set off the fire alarm. She was always a little ornery.

Answer that! Proof!

Lautreamont said...

Even if spirits could manipulate electrical signals why wouldn't they just go straight to the signals in the brain of the person they wanted to reach? Plus, if spirits could manipulate anything in a successful fashion, that medium would literally be overrun with activity due the huge amounts of dead people, and certainly wouldn't be bits of fleeting and rare garbled speech.

Stacy S. said...

"...why do we not get any messages giving us genuinely new information?...?"

Because it would cause a catastrophic rip in the time/space continuum - of course! ;-)

Jay said...

I ran across a program last night on A&E that featured some ghost hunters. In typical fashion, they waved around some fancy equipment and declared that the "electromagnetic disturbances" they detected were strongly indicative of a "presence". The amusing part is that at one point there was a window air conditioner, a fan, several walkie-talkies, and a couple of cell phones in the video frame, all of which can induce noise on the radio (as anyone with a GPRS-band cell phone can attest).

There doesn't seem to be a lot of experimental control and rigor going on here...

Joshua said...

Paul, that's an excellent point about the brain.

Stacy, been watching Star Trek have we now?

Stacy S. said...

@Joshua - How could you tell?

Joshua said...

Jay, it shouldn't be surprising that the sort of people who believe this sort of thing are frequently the sort of people who don't know how to do a proper experiment or have any notion of contamination.

Jr said...

"Similar remarks apply to the great physicists such as Einstein and Bohr. "

Silly you. The great physicists do not stay dead, they are reincarnated. Newton is clearly the reborn Galileo Galilei (a la Dalai Lama) and I am confident that further research would identify his later incarnations. I would imagine that Einstein was one of his avatars and probably Maxwell as well. Today his most likely incarnation is Edward Witten.

Joshua said...

Jr, I'm really not sure what to say to that. Einstein, Newton and Maxwell all had radically different personalities.

More seriously, Maxwell and Einstein were alive at the same time. Einstein was born in March of 1789 and Maxwell died in November of 1789. So unless the reincarnation also involves time travel that isn't likely.

Do you have any evidence for thinking that these people are reincarnations other than that they are all competent physicists?

This incidentally interesting because you are apparently trying to defend one tenuous hypothesis (that of EVP) by tacking on an additional extremely tenuous hypothesis.

Anonymous said...

Josh, I think it's a joke. Also, century error? :P

Joshua said...

Harry, that's a good point.

And yes, century error there. November of 1879 and March of 1879 are the correct dates. I guess that makes me look like a bit of an idiot...

So, Jr was your comment meant to be serious or not?

Anonymous said...

Where were you when ScienceApologist was getting torched alive for keeping the EVP article neutral, fending off Martinphi and the EVP truebelievers?

Joshua said...

Anonymous, I did have some small involvement in that matter. I was very busy during most of that dispute with real life concerns. If I had realized how badly the situation was going at the time, I would have tried to take a more active role.

There's actually a fascinating issue that operated in the background of that dispute that I may blog about at some point in the future. Wikipedia's policies are in an odd way more favorable to extreme fringe views than moderately fringe views. In this case for example, so few scientists have even bothered taking EVP seriously that there was a real issue finding sources that properly explained why it was such nonsense. In contrast, more popular fringe beliefs such as homeopathy and intelligent design, have a massive number of sources that explain what is wrong with them.

Anonymous said...

JoshuaZ: True. In my opinion, it's a matter of framing the question.

You say, "In this case for example, so few scientists have even bothered taking EVP seriously that there was a real issue finding sources that properly explained why it was such nonsense."

There are two options: (1) you accept the fringists' claims that EVP is different from regular physics, which means you have to scour the research to try to find rebuttals; or (2) you reject that claim, and instead invoke regular physics, statistics, etc.

The problem with #2 is that people will call it OR. Nevertheless, I believe that, if done thoughtfully, it can be an effective approach.

Jr said...

"Do you have any evidence for thinking that these people are reincarnations other than that they are all competent physicists?"

Well Newton was born shortly after Galileo died, was he not?

And as you yourself indicate Einstein was born near time in time to when Maxwell died. That Einstein was apparently born before Maxwell died is probably just an experimental error that further research will explain.

Also my theory predicts that Newton's avatars will be succesful physicists and I have been right so far, haven't I?

"So, Jr was your comment meant to be serious or not?"

I am shocked by your question. My theory has a much empirical support as string theory, yet you think it is a joke?

Joshua said...

The experimental error comment is amusing.