Dear Abby: Skeptical Ghost Buster!

December 21, 2008

Venerable advice columnist Dear Abby can usually be relied upon to dispense "Dr. Phil" lite advice on myraid matters, though in a recent column she showed a nice skeptical streak, suggesting a mundane, rational reason for what a reader clearly believed was a supernatural event:  

  Dear Abby: I have a "pennies from heaven" story you might appreciate. My best friend, "Darrel," was a smoker who collected quarters. His apartment had two distinguishing features - stacks of quarters and the smell of secondhand smoke. Because we were both busy people, we had seen each other only twice in about a year, but maintained a phone and e-mail friendship. I had planned a trip out west to spend time with family and had e-mailed him about it. Unbeknownst to me, Darrel had been very ill, and he died the day I sent the e-mail. I learned about it while I was in transit to my destination. There was nothing I could do. I had no way to get to his funeral and no way to say goodbye.

When we reached our hotel - part of a smoke-free chain - my husband and I opened the door to our room and were greeted by a familiar odor. It smelled just like Darrel’s apartment. And when I walked to the dresser to unpack, two quarters were sitting on top. It was then that my husband and I agreed that Darrel had stopped to say goodbye on his way to heaven.   - Quarters From Heaven

    Dear Quarters:   Please accept my sympathy for the loss of your friend. I’m glad you received some comfort in your time of need. However, it’s entirely possible that the guest who occupied the room before you broke the rules and puffed away in a room that was supposed to be nonsmoking. I hope you notified the front desk so you could be switched to other accommodations, and the room could be thoroughly cleaned and deodorized to prevent someone with a sensitivity to smoke from walking in and experiencing a severe allergic reaction."

  Yay Abby! You tell ‘em, old girl! This letter is a textbook example of how gullible, well-intentioned people can find profound meaning in coincidence. In my investigations I’ve come across dozens of people exactly like this letter writer, who see evidence of the supernatural in the most mundane of things. My favorite was during a ghost investigation in Ontario, one of the "investigators" farted in a cold, dark room.

The psychic ghost hunter was sure it was a spirit trying to communicate with us, but I was pretty sure it was beans or broccoli.



#1 Japhy on Monday December 22, 2008 at 9:26am

Nice story Ben and the letter is an excellent example of people finding fantastical meaning in coincidence and the mundane.

But I will have to question Abby’s intentions and see the skeptical angle as a hopeful reach.  Her life is build on giving advice to people and often she will cite social norms and good etiquette as the basis for her answers.  I think it’s more likely that she held to her nature and just couldn’t let the idea of someone possibly breaking the no smoking rules go by without rebuke, rather than her questioning the writer’s belief in the supernatural.

If she were truly showing a skeptical side, in addition to the possibility of the previous occupant being a rule breaker, she should have addressed the “stack” of 2 quarters as the previous occupant also being an extremely cheap tipper and totally debunk the claim.

#2 nmtucson (Guest) on Tuesday December 23, 2008 at 1:52pm

Abby has surprised me off and on over the years, and this is a good example, although I did wonder along with Japhy that she didn’t also mention the cheap tip left by the clandestine smoker.

The nearly overwhelming impulse of the human brain to “find” meaning leads to all kinds of silliness like this. I have “received” uncountable “messages” from my late husband over the years, usually in the form of one of his favorite phrases popping up at an opportune time, or some his favorite music playing just as I find myself perplexed or lonely. Without the benefit of my skeptical, non-supernatural philosophy, I could have easily read these as comforting contact from his “spirit”. But in my view, it makes more sense to acknowledge the coincidental nature of these events and appreciate what my “noticing” them (or more precisely, fabricating them) might say about my current mental state.

I try to make a point of noting these when they happen in company, especially with believer types, and then follow up with my rational explanation. I find it very effective. I think that by starting with the coincidental “contact”, they find me sympathetic, so that when I follow up with my rational evaluation of what happened, they react much more thoughtfully.

Clearing the clouds one mind at a time…..

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