Monday, August 9, 2010

The asbestos haunting

A few days ago, I was in a forum where a man was relating experiences of the time he spent living in a house that he believed to be haunted.  He reported extreme examples of things like a loud cackling in the middle of his living room, and even a microwave vanishing when it was thawing meat, while the author was still in the room.  He was obviously very upset recalling the recent events.

In steps the possibly well-meaning skeptic, with a quick explanation.  He assured the man that, perhaps there was a gas leak in his house, or asbestos (really?), or even a radon leak.  Before he's finished with this silly sounding explanation, this skeptical helper seized on the fact that the man had reported doing hallucinogenic mushrooms once, implied that he is a drug addict, and then more than implied that the man's daughter just might grow up to be a crack-whore.  During this last part of the man's explanation, he seemed to completely forget about gas leaks, radon, or even asbestos.

Reading that kind of material (and there is a lot of it out there to read) it's obvious that there's an urgent, almost frantic energy behind it.  It's the feeling of a person who's just gained the responsibility of shooing a wild bat out of the living room, or of someone swatting a mosquito.  Debunking has become too much like whack-a-mole.  A skeptic can say any old thing, call it case closed, and move on.  In the meantime, this obviously upset individual is having his/her experiences blamed on asbestos and drug addiction!

So, how would I debunk this haunted house story?  Well, I wouldn't.  I've never met the man, or his family, I've never seen the house.  I assume that if I did investigate, there would be some interesting revelations.  The man's microwave could have disappeared as a prank, while he wasn't as consistently in the kitchen that evening as he remembered.  The mad cackling he heard could have been coming through the wall, projected from a television's speakers.  These are just guesses, though, and far be it from me to call a guess the truth.  Perhaps there was a drug problem involved (though most hallucinogens rank low on your list of what's addictive) but even if the man said he took heroin every day, I would understand that calling his daughter a future crack-whore helps nobody.

For all of us, not just the skeptics, when we decide to spout our opinions in public, we have to keep the audience in mind.  When you're preaching to the choir, "house haunted by asbestos" might fly, but if there are any fence-riders reading, or any truly open-minded believers, you want to handle yourself like an adult, and plant the seed in their mind that there may be another explanation, rather than just re-affirming what many already believe, that skeptics are assholes.

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