Dear Madelyn

December 23, 2014


A few days ago I got the following e-mail:

“Hello, my name is Madelyn. I have a school project and the subject is “Are Ghosts Real?”. I had a few questions I wanted to ask a expert. 1. Do you think ghosts are real? If so what evidence do you have to prove that.
2. What type of equipment do you and your team use?
3. What got you interested in paranormal activity?
4. Have you ever seen are talked to a ghost before?
Thank you very much for helping me with this school project. Please respond. Merry Christmas”

I get a handful of e-mails like this every month, as do others at CFI including Barry Karr, librarian Tim Binga, and Paul Fidalgo. (My colleague Joe Nickell long ago established a strict policy of not being available by e-mail, in large part to avoid exactly this sort of unsolicited contact from the public.)

Responding to these queries can be timesome and time-consuming. But, in my opinion and in my experience, it can also be rewarding. Part of my job is public education and outreach, and so I make myself available as much as I can. Obviously I can’t respond to every random phone call or e-mail from anyone in the public who wants me to answer their question, discuss some paranormal experience they had, or investigate a Bigfoot in their back yard.

Madelyn’s e-mail was fairly good. The most annoying and frustrating ones are those where a person will ask some impossibly broad question like “What do you know about ghosts?” or “What are psychic powers” and expect me to substantively reply. If you can’t be bothered to do some research and find one of my books at a library or bookstore, or look online among the thousands of articles and columns I’ve published, then why is it my responsibility to drop what I’m doing and spend half an hour, an hour, or more carefully and courteously answering your questions?

I never know if I’m going to be quoted in some high school or college student’s paper or blog as an authority on the subject, so I can’t be flippant or give short, uninformative answers. I don’t have to respond to these sorts of queries, of course, but if I do I have an obligation to be as accurate and complete as I can under the circumstances. Yes-or-no answers won’t be very helpful–and are likely to be seen as rude and dismissive–but I’ve often written articles (or even entire book chapters) on the subject they’re asking about and it’s difficult to concisely answer a question accurately. Good writing takes a lot of time and effort, and mediocre writing–which is my specialty–still requires a minimal amount of time, attention, and caffeine.

If I’ve already written a considered, in-depth analysis of whatever the subject is, and it can be easily found within a minute or two of internet searching, there’s no point in me starting from scratch or re-typing answers I’ve already written. It’s not that I’m too important to do it, it’s just that there’s no point in it: it’s a waste of my time and theirs. Most people seeking information would rather me direct them to a 1,200-word piece I’ve written (which they can then reference or cut-and-paste into whatever they’re writing) than me respond with three or four general sentences about it.

Some have suggested I reply with a “Let Me Google That For You” meme, and while I share the sentiment, asking the person to do the research is likely to be unhelpful, for the simple reason that they usually are not savvy enough to be able to critically analyze the flood of returns they will get. The average result for a Google search for “ghost hunting,” for example, is far more likely to be a pseudoscientific, mystery-mongering source or article than a science-based, skeptical one. An internet search is only as useful as the person looking at it who can tell what information is good or bad.

Thus I often end up splitting the difference, replying personally to as much of their e-mail as I have time for, and spending a few minutes doing an internet search for articles that I know will answer the person’s questions, either written by me or someone who I know does good work, and giving them the links. So I replied,

“Dear Madelyn,

Thanks for writing. I’m busy on deadline for my magazine Skeptical Inquirer, but I will try to answer your questions as best I can briefly.

Most of your questions about my opinion about ghosts can be found here: I don’t know for sure if ghosts are real, but so far there hasn’t been any good scientific proof of them, so my best guess is no. But most people who report ghosts are not crazy or stupid, they just saw something they couldn’t explain. You asked about ghost hunting equipment, here’s an in-depth response I wrote:

I’ve always been interested in finding out the truth behind mysteries, including ghosts! I’ve seen many alleged ghost photos and videos but nothing that I consider to be paranormal. I have never personal seen a ghost, and never talked to one, but maybe if they exist they’re just shy around me. I also found another resource for you, if you’re looking for more information:

I hope this, and the links above, help! Have a great holidays and a Merry Christmas!”

I know it’s not great and it’s hardly comprehensive, but it was about the best I could do; it took about 15 minutes to write out the response and find and add the reference links. I was tired, had a lot of work to get to, including a new book out next year.

I hope it was enough for Madelyn and she got an A on her report or presentation or whatever it was. Usually I never hear from them again, but every now and then I’ll get a follow-up from someone thanking me for replying; earlier this year a student named Keyri wrote back, “Thank you so much for spending some time on my questions, it means a lot to me that someone cares since everyone else turned me down. I really hope the truth about ‘el chupacabra’ comes out! Thanks again and good luck to you.” (An image of it is included above)

On a final note, I should explain why it’s important to me to reply to the public, and especially kids. One of the main reasons I got into skepticism and involved with science literacy was the only time I met Carl Sagan, in Albuquerque I think it was. He was the guest speaker, and I was in a room with about 40 or 50 other people who stood in line to meet him. I waited my turn, and when I got up there I just wanted to shake his hand, thank him for all his work, and get out of the way-after all, there were 30 people behind me, most of them probably more important than I was, as just an anonymous young kid. “Sit down,” he said with a smile. “I shouldn’t,” I replied, gesturing to the line behind me. He motioned again to the chair in front of me, and when I sat he asked me who I was, what I was interested in, and why I was there. He was warm and sincere and genuine.

We only spoke for about four or five minutes, but it seemed like an hour and during that time he made me feel important, respected, listened to, and worthy of the time and attention of one of the world’s top science popularizers. That was decades ago and I’ve never forgotten that, and it’s part of the reason why, to this day, I still try to respond personally to schoolchildren, journalists, and members of the public who contact me for information or advice about something I’ve researched or investigated. Obviously I can’t spend hours each week doing it, but I can spare a few minutes for a personal reply. Whether some young kid, or someone in prison, famous or anonymous, you never know what effect a small act of kindness and compassion, or a few minutes of your time, may have on someone. Maybe even Madelyn.