Recently I decided to have fun with the members of the CCU Astro Club. About once a month we head inland into rural South Carolina and have a star gazing party. For the past few trips the star parties have been held at Playcard Environmental Education Center. Playcard is a great location for observing. There’s a large field surrounded by tall, thick trees which lends itself to nice, quiet dark skies. Over the course of the night the conversation usually wonders into spooky topics. One great examples of this is a student once asked, “What would you do if you looked over to the trees and saw a clown just standing there smiling?”
Personally I’m the skeptical type. I think the evidence is overwhelming that monsters, ghosts, ghouls, and the like don’t exist. But I did’t think that most of my students had the same point of view. So I tried an experiment on them.
There’s a nice little iPhone app called Ghost Capture. With this app you can take a picture from your photo album and insert a ghost into the image. I couldn’t help myself. I did just that and posted the doctored photo on the club’s Facebook page. The caption reads, “This is a bit creepy. Notice the figure in the background.” After posting the picture I just sat back and waited to see how the students would react.
The reactions were split. Some students tried what they could to figure out what’s seen in the background. They blew up the image in an attempt to identify the person or to look for some telling features that may give them a clue to what it is. The students that took this route could never find anything definitive. At one point they considered submitting the photo to a website to have someone else analyze it. (I’m not sure where they planned on submitting it to but there is the Can You Explain These Photographs blog hosted by noted psychologist Dr Richard Wiseman which gives an open forum for analyzing alleged ghost photos.)
The other camp, which was the majority of students, assumed the figure was real and they tried to remember who it was. I find this one funny, because if you spend just five minutes on any state university campus in America you’ll find that no students wear what appears to be a long dress, especially while at a social star party.
What I found most interesting is that nobody accused me of posting a doctored picture. They had all assumed that the picture was real. I guess I’m too much of a trustable guy. This will teach them.
I was pleased that nobody in the CCU Astro Club actually thought it was a ghost—at least they never admitted it to anyone. Everyone took a scientific approach. They analyzed the photograph. They looked for alternatives. They came up with their own hypotheses. Of course there is a selection bias in the audience. The members I tried this experiment on elected to join a scientifically based student club and, therefore, probably have already embraced the scientific method as a means to gain knowledge.
To bring the story to a close, months after the photo was posted, I slowly let it out that it was a doctored photo. Some have forgiven me and have laughed about it. Others, not so much so.