Radio Freethinker

Vancouver's Number 1 Skeptical Podcast and Radio Show

A Saskatchewan Science Centre is Haunted?…Oops, I Mean I don’t Believe in Ghosts

Posted by Ethan Clow on November 4, 2010

It’s kind of funny to watch a media stunt backfire and an organization completely backtrack in an effort to save what little integrity they had left.  Such is the case with the Saskatchewan Science Centre.

The way it should be

October 28th, the Saskatchewan Science Centre FRESH Blog published a poor attempt to cash in on the Halloween season by suggestion the SSC was haunted. The article in question, called Ghost stories from the Science Centre has been the topic some discussion in skeptical circles recently.

The entry is chalk full of excellent demonstrations of critical thinking like this one

“there is a lot of stuff about our world that we don’t know about and don’t understand. So, who knows. Besides, who doesn’t love a good ghost story?”

The piece was a pathetically disguised attempt to draw attention to a lame publicity stunt by the science centre in time for Halloween, accompanied by fake spider webs and plastic skulls that look like they belonged in a Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

The frustrating aspect of this is that a science centre is supposed to instil an understanding of science and critical thinking in the youth. Not bore them with carnival style haunted houses. Many of the commenter’s were echoing that point on the blog post comments.

What I find amazing is how this post exemplifies all the problems with ghost stories (and coming from a Science Centre just makes it worse)

There’s the logical fallacy of Ad ignorantiam. Just because something is not known, doesn’t imply the supernatural. In this case its “science can’t explain everything so therefore ghosts are real!”

In addition to logical fallacies, there’s a huge issue with evidence. Everything the author mentions is either anecdotal (it happened to a friend who told her) It’s actually a great example of what NOT to believe. The tales that are supposed to suggest ghostly encounters sound more like mundane things like overworked employees, kids with active imaginations and faulty electronics.

Then of course there’s the lame justification for why the SSC must be haunted. The article mentions how old the building is.

Saskatchewan Science Centre

“I don’t know much about it, yet, but I do know it was built a long time ago (1914) and it used to be the powerhouse of the city. A big old industrial building? Sounds like the perfect place for a haunting.”

So okay, it’s a bad article and it shouldn’t have been written. Now is it fair to rake them over the coals for it though? Obviously they were just trying to draw people in for Halloween. The answer is yes. We must rake them over the coals because this is a Science Centre, not a Woo-Woo Centre.

Attempting to score attention by spinning ghost stories completely undermines the mission of such a facility. Teaching children science and critical thinking is their top priority. Instilling in them the ability to understand the natural world and not have to rely on superstition and magical thinking to explain the goings on of the world. In this, they have failed.

And there are so many other ways for the science centre to take advantage of the season. Do an exhibit on the science of fear, explain the evolutionary psychology behind fear. Or if you must stick with ghosts, challenge your visitors to decipher the mysteries. Teach them the critical thinking skills needed to navigate such stories and inventions.

That’s what I suggested on Radio Freethinker episode 87. Perhaps they were listening, because no sooner had we raised our hands in complaint, the Science Centre was backtracking.

In a hilariously flip-flopping post called “The Science of Ghosts” the author goes on to say

“I don’t believe in ghosts and never have, and I sure hope you don’t either.”

Really? I think my skepticism in this case is justified given what she wrote the other week. Although she does make a  point of saying

“But, I still enjoy a good ghost story… in an old building with lots of electrical inefficiencies.”

Frankly I suspect they were overwhelmed by the negative response to their dumb joke article and in an effort to overcompensate for their lack of critical thinking they go out of their way to mention some key skeptical points and players.

They link to an article by Richard Wiseman called Ghosts ‘all in the mind’ and suggests that you follow Richard Wiseman on twitter. They also link to a article by Benjamin Radford called The Shady Science of Ghost Hunting which is all about, you guessed it, ghost hunting.

Finally, to utterly crush our doubts on their skeptical cred, they post two TED Talks by Michael Shermer.

Slam dunk folks. But while this is kind of humorous, it’s also pretty sad. The fact that such a place, a science centre could totally mishandle such a basic situation leaves me wondering. It’s a fun vindication for skeptics but the problem never should have arose in the first place. Hopefully this is a lesson well learned by the SSC, do not take the intelligence of your supporters for granted. Stick to the science and leave the woo to the con artists.

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