Monday, November 3, 2008

Mentally Ill?

When I was much younger, I was interested in all things weird. Once, near our town, there were several sightings of a "goat monster." So, for several weeks, the adventure de jour was to go in search of the "goat monster." As we drove to the area where the monster was seen, we started trying to scare our friends. When we got to the area, we became convinced we heard sounds and saw evidence of the monster. It was fun.

Now, to 2008. Not long ago I was flipping through the channels and came across a "marathon" of a show calledHaunting Evidence. Two people, featured on the show, are "forensic paranormal investigators." These people traveled to Colorado and stomped around the house where Jon Benet Ramsey was killed. In another show, they went to Aruba and investigated the death of Natalee Holloway. The segments are always shot at night and these people, the investigators, seem to be on the cusp of overt mental illness. It is interesting, yet sad to watch--like a train wreck.

Bullshit, masquerading as science, is entertaining. But, this is nothing but entertainment--much like Sylvia Brown and John Edwards (the psychic, not the North Carolina shyster). Unfortunately, desperate people will do desperate things in times of grief. And, these people are profiting off the loss of others.

But, I have a few questions:

1. Why does ghost hunting and paranormal crap happen only at night? Well, it goes back to our fear of the darkness. Available light camera shots and muffled speech are part and parcel of the show.

2. Why is it faces are all that are often seen? The identification of faces is an evolutionary remnant. In days of ole, face recognition often meant the difference between life and death. Thus, we humans tend to see faces on the moon, on trees, and in other situations. A whole flock of people came to worship the image of Jesus on a flour tortilla. Could heaven be nothing more than a good burrito?

3. Why are snakes often seen? Seeing snakes is an evolutionary remnant as well. Snakes can kill. Even puppies know to stay away from snakes. Our mind, as a defense, will look for patterns that appear to be a snake (e.g., a piece of rope, a belt on the floor) and we will immediately, and subconsciously, stop in our steps. It is in the primitive brain.

Back to the television show. These two researchers go through great emotional displays as they retrace the last steps of deceased persons and then come up with "scientific" conclusions about the deaths. Much of what they find can be explained by pure chance, coincidence, or just the excitement of the hunt. Their emotional displays and behavior certainly make you wonder about their mental health. How different are they from those who wear tin foil hats or get cryptic messages from their televisions? How different are they from those who let religosity impair their activities of daily living? Certainly, each to their own. But, I was just somewhat saddened to see these people paraded on television when their issues seem to be deeper. Most of us have outgrown the search for monsters and ghosts--but, we need our television and we have to watch an occasional train wreck to see how lucky most of us really are. James Randi has done a great job of debunking these myths and actually has amillion dollar challenge for anybody if they can prove the paranormal. Despite being available for years, the challenge is untouched.

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