The Course of Reason

A Night With Chris Moon

October 28, 2011

Last night a group of UNIFI members attended a talk by Chris Moon where he laid out his personal history with the paranormal, and talked about his exploits while “investigating” paranormal phenomena. Stef already did a very good job of describing the basic outline of the talk, so I’ll try not to repeat much of what she said. Moon himself claims to be not only a paranormal investigator, but a psychic medium. For someone peddling pseudoscience and nonsense, he’s admittedly charming, and quite a good speaker.

 

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_ejDJw0ZzmWM/Ss5Q3NPdtvI/AAAAAAAAAFw/3oRR9kmaah0/S1600-R/UNIFI.jpgI made the mistake of not bringing something take notes with, but luckily I remember enough to share a few of the observations I made throughout the night. There are just a few of the reasons I find “paranormal investigation” utterly unconvincing, and occasionally comical.

Chris started the talk with a video presentation, set to intense music, utilizing choppy footage, and flashes of vaguely spooky images on the screen. It’s the type of editing that’s regularly used to make several people standing in the dark talking to themselves interesting (check out commercials for popular Ghost Hunting shows for the same technique). I can’t blame Chris for wanting some flair in his presentation, but it really served to set the mood: what we were seeing was entertainment, designed and packaged purposely to convey that.

Chris also put “Not Fiction.” on the screen several times, making it clear how he views his work. It’s not fiction, it’s real and very serious. That seriousness, however, is undercut by the absurdity of almost every claim that he made when he strayed close to the realm of testable science. He demonstrated a fundimental (and hilarious) misunderstanding of physics by citing the law of conservation of energy as evidence that ghosts/spirits exist. He also cited the loss of weight upon death as evidence that spirit energy has mass and resides within the body, eventually leaving through a “vortex”, which he described at length while looking at a photo of mist in a graveyard. It’s not clear why it was only leaving after being buried if that weight is lost nearly immediately upon death. Of course, this was an effect that was produced by a single person, and is largely considered meaningless.

The presentation also contained examples of photographic and audio “evidence” gathered by Chris and his team. As usual, the audio is garbled and nearly indistinguishable, and the photos are hazy and unclear. Is that effect a lens flair, or a photo of demonic energy? Is that sound ambient noise or perhaps a byproduct of the audio equipment, or is it a spirit voice trying to cross over? I think Occam’s razor applies here, and as far as the “evidence” goes (don’t get me started on the shameful ways that term was abused), it was all pretty vanilla. I should also note that just for completeness, he also claimed that some ghosts speak in short bursts of scratchy noise that is actually compressed audio, and some speak backwards (why?). Yet even with this variance in methods of communication, there was no mention of any non-English ghosts.

Chris’s best material, as expected, came in two forms: anecdotes and emotions. The two most subjective, bias-addled, un-reproducible “evidences” were the best. He told a number of stories throughout the night, ranging from engaging to fantastical. Hardened skeptics being levitated in front of a crowd. Men being lifted and thrown into shelves. Chris awaking with a phantom rope tightening around his neck. Investigators suffering scratches on their body. Naturally, all but the last went undocumented. While any “investigator” will tell you stories like this, it’s rarely caught on camera. And it’s never documented under controlled conditions. Ghosts, it seems, have something in common with God in that sense: a distaste for being “tested”, only appearing to people in ways that scientists cannot properly observe. And that’s granting that it actually happened. As has been established in the legal realm, eye witness testimony is notoriously unreliable. Time and circumstance distort our memories.

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_NEW9asMBG6Q/S7FjuBbJaoI/AAAAAAAAAFw/0asmrF_O69U/s320/ghostdad.jpg

As I said, personal emotional experiences also played a role. The most engaging footage shown throughout the night was reaction shots of people crouched over in a dark room reacting to feelings, sudden heavy emotions, or talking about being touched or communicated with. Or just having an inexplicable feeling of unease, something we are prone to when in conditions where we are expecting it. See: confirmation bias.

When it was time for the ghost hunt after the talk, I (as well as other UNIFI members) tagged along and tried not to fulfill the role of the snickering, belligerent skeptic, but it was genuinely hard not to. Chris broke out his “Frank’s box”, an invention that he purchased from an interesting character that is described on his website. The device itself is essentially a (short wave?) radio that Chris tunes with a knob, and then interprets the fuzzy, indistinguishable output audio as ghostly communications. If you’re startled by the leap from radio to ghosts, you’re not alone. Chris sat in the middle of the crowd and solicited questions from students, which he repeated to the spirits present, and then interpreted the response. I stress “interpreted”, because when he would say something like “He said Robert, did you hear that?” I did not, in fact, hear it. Not once.

In all honesty, what he was doing during the ghost hunt was just a really just lazy cold reading where he would pretend to listen to his magic box, and spit out easy answers that were almost universally accepted by an audience who were ready to hear the dead. We got answers to almost every yes/no question, and unsurprisingly, did not get answers to most questions that were easily falsifiable or too specific. Only first names, almost never last. No pop culture references were answered. Historical questions that could be fact checked were ignored. But “Are you angry” almost always gets a solemn “yes”. Chris might object that it doesn’t work that way, that ghosts will communicate only on their terms, but that just makes the practice even less falsifiable, because there’s always a justification for failure. Silence from the radio is angry ghosts that want us to turn the box off for a minute and then “try again”. That’s how “intense” the experience was, as Moon put it.

All in all, I shouldn’t have to convince even the slightly skeptical reader that the whole thing was nonsense - they already know that. While there were a shocking number of people at the event who were clearly eating this stuff up, I would hope that it’s just the type of person who is attracted to this sort of event, and most people, especially readers of this blog, don’t need to be convinced that grainy shots of a camera flash reflected off of a dust particle are not “evidence” for the paranormal.

What really bothered me about the whole event is that it was held in the first place. Chris seemed like a genuinely nice guy, and I have no problem with him personally, but I do have a problem with this sort of event. This university is an institution of higher learning, and to bring in a speaker who is peddling fairly blatant pseudoscience as fact should not be acceptable. At our Darwin Week event each year, UNIFI seeks to promote critical thinking and advance public understanding of science. Both of those goals are being directly undercut by events like this, and some students may have left the event last night more superstitious than when they came in, and I view that as a problem. It shouldn’t have to be said that there isn’t a shred of credible evidence suggesting that ghosts, spirits, and demons exist. And while talking about them can be good for a laugh, it’s not OK to mislead people about the nature of science, and what science really says about the paranormal, because it’s fairly conclusive.

And this is more than just harmless fun: it harms the general population’s ability to think critically, distinguish between good and bad sources of information, and make sound decisions. It also directly or indirectly enables professional frauds who call themselves psychic mediums to steal money from vulnerable people in exchange for made-up and utterly useless information about their deceased loves ones. Many of the most popular of these mediums have been debunked, but it’s an easy business to get into if you can practice cold reading and live with yourself after scamming people out of their money, so there are plenty of them around.

For those reading this who are skeptical of claims made by paranormal “investigators”, I would encourage you to not be afraid to ask questions and call people out when they make unsubstantiated claims. For anyone reading this who believes, I would strongly encourage you to look into criticisms of paranormal investigation by real scientists, and perhaps do more reading about the scientific process in general. Statistics reliably and routinely show us that Americans do not understand how science works, and so scientific literacy may become one of the major factors that holds back our cultural and technological growth. Let’s work together to keep individuals like Chris Moon, as nice as he is, from being part of the problem.

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Here is my hastily written article about this topic from last year, and here is a commentary on my article (and a response to my article from another student) by a prominent skeptic.

 


This post originally appeared on the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers and Inquirers blog.

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About the Author: Michael Dippold

Michael Dippold's photo
Michael Dippold is a junior at the University of Northern Iowa studying economics. He also serves as the Director of Finance for the University of Northern Iowa Freethinkers & Inquirers, and loves almost everything about the atheist movement.

Comments:

#1 Jessica (Guest) on Sunday October 30, 2011 at 3:42pm

Very interesting read, good points, well-written. I do have a question for you, have you ever encountered someone who firmly believed they were the victim of a haunting? And what do you think that people who believe these are actually experiencing?

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