Strange things happen. All the time. And that is where the woo people and I part company; when the believing folks see something unusual, it seems their first reaction is to assume a paranormal explanation, but my own reaction to something out of the ordinary tends to be something like, “What the f…?”
There aren’t an awful lot of things the paranormal people claim to have seen that I, too, have not – in some form or another. The difference, though, is that my own reaction to something I observe but have no immediate explanation for, is to wonder about it, and if I can’t think of and confirm a rational explanation, I put it on hold. Often, the best I can do is to try to work out what is more or less likely in any given situation and just leave it at that.
Think of it this way: if one of my employees turned up late for work and said that it was because of a punctured tyre on his or her car, then I might believe it, just because car tyres really do exist and they sometimes do get punctured. It’s happened to me a number of times, so I can confirm that the proposed scenario is quite possible, even if the employee is telling lies because he or she just overslept.
But what if my employee said they were late because they had been temporarily abducted by aliens from another galaxy and their lateness was due to extended anal probing by grey-coloured humanoids who are creating alien-human hybrids with a view to infiltrating the highest levels of governments across the world in order to facilitate a take-over of Earth? Only die-hard believers in UFOs and alien visitation would entertain such a thought for more than a few milliseconds.
Yes, that’s what I’m getting at. When something odd happens, the choice you have is to think it through, or to jump to a preconceived conclusion. That is what the believers tend to do, especially if there’s something in it for them – publicity, perhaps, or even a cash reward if it increases business, as it often does for places where a good ghost story might increase revenue. There are lots of pubs, for instance, that have a ghost story attached. It’s never bad for business to have a ghost around.
That’s one reason I was interested in yet another ghost story highlighted on the Skeptic’s Boot blog (and I recommend you head over there to read it, and then follow the blog – it’s very good). Long story short: a customer’s glass of lager suddenly exploded, therefore “ghostly explanation,” supported by still pictures from CCTV; and even better, actual video from a different, but similar, event, where you can see the customer’s glass shatter in a very dramatic fashion.
The Skeptic’s Boot offers a reasonable and plausible explanation of what might have actually happened, and I am particularly interested because something very similar happened to me a year or two ago.
What happened to me was as simple as this: I made myself a cup of coffee and started to drink it. I was using the same glass cup I had used for a number of years, and had taken just a few sips from it. The cup was just over half full, but as it sat there beside me on my desk, it suddenly shattered and coffee was all over my desk. The sudden bang as it happened took me by surprise, alright.
Although the Skeptic’s Boot offers a perfectly rational explanation for the exploding glasses (possibly a glass still hot from the pub’s glass washer being stressed when a cold drink was put into it), the same explanation would not easily fit in with my own experience. My own cup is usually washed in warm, not hot, water, and in any case adding a hot liquid to a warm glass shouldn’t really cause a sudden, catastrophic failure of that kind, surely? I had used it hundreds of times, after all.
As you might guess, my own reaction to a personal experience that is odd is, to say the least, to try to find a plausible explanation before I start to invoke paranormal or supernatural answers. In my own example, I can’t give a definitive and confirmable answer as to what happened, but I can make an educated guess. Glass production has to be very precise so that the object created is going to be stable and safe to use. When glass products are made, it is important that the temperature is controlled throughout the process. The glass has to be made at very high temperatures, but more importantly, the objects made have to be cooled very, very slowly, otherwise the glass itself becomes stressed and therefore liable to go wrong, so to speak.
I think my own glass coffee cup was already stressed before I bought it. It worked fine for a number of years before it exploded right beside me, but it’s also possible that sometime recently when it had been handled, it might have been damaged. I know it had been dropped several times without apparent damage, but I think all it would take to make any internal stresses reveal themselves would be just the slightest scratch on the surface – possibly from a fall, or rough handling when it was placed onto the dish rack with other cups, plates and cutlery. But why should anyone propose a paranormal explanation for something that is much more likely to just be “one of those things”?
I tend to become rather exasperated when the believers accuse sceptics of simply making up what are, to them, “implausible excuses” to explain what is obvious to any believer: it’s a ghost, a poltergeist, a malevolent spirit, karma, or [insert preferred woo here].
The way to find out what is actually going on in a strange situation is to try to rule out normal explanations before coming to a paranormal or supernatural conclusion. And if you can’t find the cause of the problem, then you really need to put the thing on the back burner until there is more information available. Often, as in the above cases, no further information might come to light (yet), so all you can do is regard it as a bit of a curiosity. There are many natural ways for strange things to happen, so assuming the paranormal (which has never been proven to be real) is just irrational.
Paranormal activity cannot be considered as a possible cause of any unusual event until such time that someone can demonstrate that the paranormal has any basis in reality. Stressed glass is real, and so it can be put on the list of possible explanations for the above events. Ghosts have never been proven to be real, so they can’t be put on any list of possibilities. And of course, it’s not up to me or anyone else to disprove a paranormal hypothesis; the burden of proof is on anyone who makes such a claim. Giving preference to a paranormal explanation over a natural (even if tentative) explanation, is just bad thinking.