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.
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