Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Spooky skepticism

Early this morning, I was getting dressed in my bedroom when I heard a horrible groaning noise. On inspection it was coming from my acoustic guitar. Untouched by human hand, the guitar was making strange, discordant noises. It sounded like a bad tape recording of someone trying to talk to me.

Whoever they were, they were in great pain - a few of the noises were absolutely heart-rending moans. Without human fingers on its soundboard, a guitar shouldn't even be able to make noises other than the specific notes of the strings - certainly not a hellish wail of torment. What the heck was going on?

I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. Was I receiving some sort of visitation from a fiery afterlife? Would I have to mend my ways and start buying oversize turkeys for coworkers? As it turns out, the answer was...


After watching the "haunted" instrument for a few minutes, I finally figured out what the cause was. I'd rested the guitar in upright position on a sports bag that was itself precariously balanced on some books. At some point, I'd stomped on the floor just hard enough to destabilise the bag. As a result, the guitar was sloooooowly sliding off it, and its head was being imperceptibly dragged down the wall.

The slight rasping motion was enough to create a resonant vibration in the body of the guitar, which was making the strings sing out. And the jerkiness of the guitar's slide was enough to make it sound a little like distorted human speech.

The moaning effect was because the guitar would only move a little way before coming to rest, so the last millimetre of motion was the slowest. This meant that the guitar's vibrational frequency dropped, so only the deeper strings would respond. The result was a descending wail as the frequency of the sound, averaged across the strings, gradually varied.

So much for my ghostly visitor.

What would have happened if I hadn't approached this phenomenon with a skeptical mindset? Well, for a start I'd have been out of that room before the dust had settled! I wouldn't have had the nerve to go back in until evening, by which point the guitar would have "magically" completed its slow fall off the bag and dropped dramatically to the floor. By then I'd have been convinced not only that a ghost was trying to speak to me but that it could levitate objects, poltergeist-style.

As a skeptic, though, I knew that what I thought I was experiencing - a ghostly conversation - was not necessarily what was really happening. As a skeptic, I knew to control my emotional response, to avoid leaps of logic, and to look for the most parsimonious explanation. With these powerful tools of thought in hand, I was able to fight back my instinctive superstition and come to a more accurate conclusion.

If I hadn't had that skeptical mindset, what you'd be reading here would be a story of how my guitar spoke to me, and that story would have been a lie. Speaking as someone who places a high value on truth, this incident demonstrated once again that skepticism can be our salvation.

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