Which is more likely to be real, Ghosts or Martians?

Do ghosts really exist?

Is there life on Mars?

Despite what one might think, what with large class sizes and the homogenization of culture caused by TV and Fast Food, the fact remains that clumps of high school students organized into classes can vary widely from one another. Each year has its own characteristics, and each classroom-sized bunch of them, taking a particular course together, can be very different from the next. A teacher I know has ended up this year with a science class with a large proportion of students who believe that ghosts are real, and while they are at it, they also seem to think there is a high probability that Bigfoot is real, and probably the Loch Ness Monster and most conspiracies one might care to mention. I don’t think it is the whole class, just a half dozen students or so, but enough that the existence of ghosts has become a background theme in the patter that accompanies the usual classroom activities such as arriving at the beginning of class, asking permission to go to the bathroom during class, and leaving at the end of class.

From "Mars Attacks" which, if you have not seen, you must see.

So the other day the question of life on Mars came up; a student had pointed out the discovery of mysterious globe-shaped objects on the surface of the distant planet. During the ensuing conversation the teacher noted how exciting it would be to discover evidence of past or present life on Mars, and further noted that such a finding is well within the range of possibilities.

“Wait a second … You are telling us that you don’t think Ghosts are real but you believe in Martians?”

Huh. When it is put that way, it does seem a little strange. And, it brings up an interesting learning opportunity, or really, a set of learning opportunities, but the problem has to be parsed out and pared down quite a bit to make it not backfire. This is because things are rather complicated if you acknowledge the historical context of the question. In the end, a teacher who makes a lesson comparing the quest for ghosts and the quest for Martians is asking to get fired, if they teach in a public school, unless the administration has a well proven track record of standing by their teachers when Reverend Mike and the Dark Horses on the School Board show up. And, off hand, I can’t think of any schools that have that. But, we can certainly discuss it here.

First, I direct you to Claire Evans’ discussion, The Canals of Mars. Canals have always been an interest of mine. When I was a little kid barely able to walk I dug many canals connecting inland seas (that I has also constructed) to the nearby lake. Sometimes the nearby lake was the Atlantic Ocean which added additional engineering problems (a six foot tide) but also a great deal of excitement. Entire civilizations based on canals would be inundated by the twice daily sea level rise, never to be seen again despite my best efforts to construct something that might not only remain after the flood but perhaps trap something, like a shark or small whale.

Later, when I more or less grew up and became an archaeologist, I got to work with real canals. I worked on a project wherein the most important canal in America was being transected by pipelines, and my job was to be lowered down into the canal, emptied of water by dozens of pumps, in the middle of the winter, on the scoop of a 40-foot beam backhoe, where I would dangle there and examine the wall of the 400 foot long 45 foot deep excavation for evidence of past cultural activity. We also examined the remains of the canal this big new canal had replaced, the Champlain Canal, which was made at the same time as the famous Erie Canal and which remains as part of the same water level control system. We emptied the canals out by building dams or closing locks, and then pumping out the water underneath the ice, along with the tiny fish and other organisms, which would then spread across the grass covered field that was once the site of numerous industrial buildings, where they would first die then later stink. We hand rescued the larger fish, some of them quite large, using shovels and buckets, and they went into the nearby Hudson River or into undrained parts of the canal.

Later, I got to work on the Middlesex Canal, (pronounced “Middle Sex Canal”) which was the first canal ever build in the US to move boats, that ever actually got used. I also got to work, indirectly (through documents mainly) on Mother’s Brook. If you really know your early industrial history in the US you’d want my autograph. It was the very first canal in the US, it was the first attempt at joining two different river systems in their upper reaches, and it was the first human-made water way designed to power hydraulic machinery, and it happened way before anything we Americans would call the Industrial Revolution.

But enough about my canals, let’s talk for a moment about the Martian canals. I’m going to summarize a few key factoids for you, some of which you’ll find in Clarie’s post linked to above:

  • “Canals,” or waterways, were identified on Mars during the early days of modern astronomy.
  • Some of the early Canals were thought to be natural waterways, others dug by intelligent beings.
  • Some of the things identified as Canals were thought of as objects used by Martian sorcerers (thought this by actual scientists).
  • All of the Canals identified on Mars were optical illusions of some kind, they never existed.
  • The most detailed maps of Martian Canals, by Lowell himself, were probably detailed maps of the back of Lowell’s eyes, because blood vessels in the retina are a major source of the optical illusions referred to above.
  • Even though the canals that were observed for decades never existed, there are in fact canals on mars.
  • The canals on mars are not canals, but rather, natural water courses where water once ran. On Mars.
  • Percival Lowell was a relative of Francis Cabot Lowell, who was linked to early industrial development in Massachusetts that involved the excavation of the aforementioned Middlesex canal.

So. We have the idea of water courses on Mars, which may have been rivers, may have been dug transport canals, or may have been the tools of sorcerers. These ideas are based entirely on false data and eventually go away. But, early research on Mars also suggested the possibility of ancient free water on the planet, and eventually, these suggestions panned out. Let me add that some years ago the study of a rock that fell off of Mars and landed on Earth suggested life on Mars. That evidence has been questioned, but there were two distinct forms of evidence and they have not both been refuted. Indeed, the NASA machine currently tooling around on the planet is equipped to test this hypothesis directly, in situ.

There is the distinct possibility that life once existed on the Angry Red Planet, and it is even possible, I suppose, that there is some of that life there now, underground, mostly dormant, bacteria like. The long list of assertions made about mars includes many assertions of life, but many of these assertions need to be rejected because they are bogus. But does the presence of lots of bogus assertions weaken the others? No, actually, not at all, because they are coming from entirely different sources and based on entirely different data. But, given the nature of culture, the nature of Science Fiction interacting with culture, and the nature of the History Channel, this would not be easy to parse out with 10th grade students. But it is quite possible. It can show the corrective nature of science, and this topic brings in a lot of different elements from both physical and life sciences (which, in turn, makes this a difficult topic to develop in either area of teaching).

The part about ghosts is different. First, ghosts are linked to religion. A ghost is a spirit released from a human, so there is the presumption of a spirit, and beyond that, of a particular kind of spirit. Therefore, a teacher can not discuss ghosts with any sense they might exist (or even that they might not exist) without being seen to favor a particular religion or belief system, which in turn is a violation of various rules, laws, and policies. A teacher can’t really give ghosts a chance, even a ghost of a chance, without doing what we insist creationists are not allowed to do in our pubic school classrooms.

But having said that, one could “test for” ghosts. This can be done because the phenomenon of “ghost” is linked to a list of material assertions about them, and these can be investigated. So can Bigfoot, and so can the Loch Ness Monster. And, these things have indeed all been investigated and they are all pretty much explained away, though I quickly add that you should read my novel for a different perspective on all of that.

The difficulty is that disproving ghosts does part of the work to disprove religion, for the same reasons. Most (but not all) religions also make material assertions. One can disprove one or the other of a set of such assertions, and the religion can stand, because one could argue that “we just got that one wrong” or “this one was a metaphor” and so on. But after a while, when all the assertions are tested as best they can be tested, and they are all shown wanting of proof, religion kind of dries up and blows away.

That would be about the time Reverend Mike and the School Board shows up and the teacher gets his or her ass fired. For addressing innocent questions raised by students that could have been learning opportunities.

Oh well.

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When I first was a graduate student I had a roommate named John Carter. He went into the Army and became a Ranger. I always figured he'd end up fighting on Barsoom.

Did he at least make Captain?

By Randy Owens (not verified) on 30 Sep 2012 #permalink

The Banner line is jarring, til you think about it. In 1979 when I read them both, I preferred, "Tarzan." Frankly, I never wanted to be Tarzan as a child, I didn't like the TV shows or the movies, but in a slightly odd way found it more entertaining than John Carter. Though I s'pose if Edgar'd set it in a galaxy far, far away, or conceded light speed travel, or even wormhole travel, I might have been much more interested. I just had a tough time suspending my disbelief.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 30 Sep 2012 #permalink

"...noted that such a finding is well within the range of possibilities."

That's the sticky part, and it isn't the kids' fault they have not been exposed to the filter that cuts out many such findings at a first pass: would such a thing be explainable under our current understanding of the universe? Would it violate the laws of physics, etc. or require some new discovery in order to be possible?

It's actually not that hard to draw a line between ghosts and Martians using this filter. Ghosts presuppose non-material intelligence. Possible, I suppose, but it would require new science before we could even talk about it. Remains of a Martian civilization are possible without any new science; we have ruins on this planet too. A subterranean Martian civilization could exist now but atmospheric composition should show some hint of it.

Of course then the school board shows up with Rev. Mike Dimsocket, and you wind up dancing a NOMA two-step.

(Sorry, I just felt that Rev. Mike deserved a last name. Seemed discourteous not to give him one.)

No, it's not their fault, and actually, this is about when to expose them to this sort of thinking full blown, hoping that some background has been lain down by prior schooling. One problem, though, is that they get so much background from crappy fake scholarly TV.

Living creatures breathe. Before biochemistry, no one knew why they had to. But people did notice that dead things stopped breathing. In plenty of languages, spirit and breath are cognate. It is no longer adequate as an explanation, but the idea of spirit persists as folk wisdom and superstition.
Ask me why butterflies, pigs, and scallops aren't kosher.

By David Formanek (not verified) on 30 Sep 2012 #permalink

I know that, I know that! For the same reason some of us worship Pangolins!

30 some years ago, when I was actually planning to be a planetary scientist, I would have said that the chance for life on Mars was nil. Ever. Now my wild guess is a 50% chance of life there at some time, with a 50% chance it is still around.

The new mission is utterly awesome for geology. I am eating it up.

My squirrels made a serious effort to convince me that ghosts exist, but they failed because I am marginally smarter than them.

By CherryBombSim (not verified) on 30 Sep 2012 #permalink

I will be reposting my Real Ghost Story soon. For Halloween, of course.

Being a resident of Florida, it's hard not to believe in ghosts. There is so much haunted history associated with this state, especially in the St. Augustine area.

A lot of cool places to visit in Florida can be found here: http://FloridaFringeTourism.com

I think ghosts are more real than Martians. When I dream I often have conversations with people in my family who died some time ago. My only contact with Martians is in movies and books. It all depends on what you mean by real.


@bks... and, indeed, what you mean by "ghost" and "Martian". All part of the fun.

One of NASA's spacecraft in the 1970s had a test on board that was supposed to detect only actively metabolizing, i.e., extant, life in the soil. According to previously agreed criteria, the results were positive. The planned publicity was buried for political reasons on the excuse that a less sensitive test - later proven to be worthless because it could not find life in some harsh Terran environments - was negative. We have Martian meteorites that contain what look like fossile bacteria. We are now hearing that the bedrock of our planet can be permeated with bacteria to at least several miles down. This is an environment that was never before thought to be habitable. Is it so unlikely that previously existing Martian bacteria managed to evolve to hang on there as the climate worsened?

Great piece, Greg!

By Claire Evans (not verified) on 04 Oct 2012 #permalink

Re #13: Indeed bacteria have been found on Earth that feed directly on the Earth's crust with no need for sunlight or oxygen. Further more these kind of rock eating bacteria were amongst the earliest forms of life on earth (clay is thought to be an important ingredient for aboigenesis, clay only forms in the presence of water).
The lines of evidence you bring up however all have some level of doubt associated with them. So whilst I agree there is a strong likelihood of finding rock munching bugs on Mars we have so far failed to find the proverbial "smoking gun".
I also think the oceans of Europa and a handful of other ice moons whizzing around the gas giants are likely teaming with life but again, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, which in the case of microbial martians and Europan eels hasn't materialized (yet).

I'm too old to see them explore those oceans but I would like send a probe to the surface and find out whether all that red stuff ozzing out of the ice cracks is red algae or red dirt.

... or, at least, if it is red by conviction.

Great blog by a great teacher. Cheers!

By Peter_Pig (not verified) on 05 Jul 2013 #permalink