Now the NYT presents ghost stories as serious assertions

May 15, 2023 • 9:30 am

Perhaps readers can help answer the question, “Why does the New York Times keep touting woo, publishing pieces about ghosts, dowsing, reincarnation, and, especially astrology?” Not only does it present stories of woo like this without ever questioning them, but it does so repeatedly. Is woo supposed to be a replacement of religion for the “nones” whom the paper is wooing (yes, that’s a double entendre)? Or is it simply sensationalism? Your guess is as good as mine, but one thing is striking: the country’s most serious and respected newspaper presents superstition and the supernatural over and over again, but never prints articles debunking it. For more examples, see the link in my first sentence.

Today’s story is by Rachel Louise Snyder, identified in the piece as “a professor at American University, is the author of the forthcoming memoir “Women We Buried, Women We Burned.’” She has an estimable background as a writer and traveler, so this piece defies me. At the very least it shows that an educated and aware person can believe in complete nonsense.

Click to read:

The background: Rachel’s mom died of breast cancer when the child was but 8. Her father remarried, giving her a stepmother and two stepsiblings, but they fought so violently that the evangelical parents kicked all three kids out of the house. Eventually, Snyder made her way to Cambodia, where she learned about spirits of ancestors and ghosts—and finally encountered one in the form of her mom:

My travels eventually took me to live in Cambodia. Many Khmer people believe that there is a world of spirits who live parallel to our human world. Spirits can inhabit the tops of tall trees, make trouble in the life of the living, inhabit the bodies of dogs. The spirits are not those of spooky monsters and creaky homes. They are often ancestors to which we the living must pay homage, to remember them and give them offerings so that they don’t suffer in their next life.

As an American, I rejected such beliefs. As the years went by, though, I began to hear more stories of ghosts, not just from Cambodians but also from expat friends. There was the ghost who’d shake my friend Wynne awake in the night and not stop until Wynne said soothing things out loud: “You’ll be OK. I mean you no harm.” There was the State Department friend who woke in a hotel room one night to see a man walk across the floor and disappear. In the morning, her husband told her he’d seen him, too.

And then one afternoon, 30 years after my mother’s death, her spirit came to me in my Phnom Penh apartment. It was monsoon season, the light in my living room a mustardy yellow, and I was alone. What do you say when the person you love most in the world returns? I told my mom how much of my life she’d missed. I told her of relatives who’d died. I spoke aloud, into the humid air.

And then I knew there was only one question I truly had for her. “I wish you were here,” I said, “to help me decide if I should have a child.”

Her mom’s ghost (a Cambodian-like spirit of an ancestor) replied that this was a decision Snyder had to make, so she went ahead and had a kid. She also decided to let her kid make annual visits to Snyder’s previously alienated dad and stepmother. When her stepmother also got cancer, the relationship with Rachel strengthened. The stepmother then told Rachel that her biological mother died of cancer, which Rachel hadn’t really gasped. As her stepmother approached death, she turned more and more to Jesus, and Rachel accepted the religious woo.

I asked my stepmother, “Are you afraid?” She had just returned home from yet another hospital visit.

“I was afraid,” she told me. But then a chaplain came and talked to her and my father, and finally, she told my father: no more. She told him he could still hope, and she would hope, too, for a miracle. But in the meantime, she said she felt ready and she needed him to be with her. She said her angel had been in her room all week; she could see him as clearly as she could see me now. I thought of how in Cambodia death is just the end of a cycle, making space to start all over again.

Well, I’m not going to disabuse a dying person of her false beliefs, but Rachel’s own belief that death is part of a cycle is dubious at best, and religious woo at worst. It goes on.

Then [Rachel’s stepmother] said, “Can I talk to you about the Lord? I just have to because he’s my life.”

I nodded.

Jesus was on her right side at that moment and her guardian angel was on her left. She could see them. They didn’t talk, except once to say that everything would be all right. She just wanted me to know she could see them, her angel and her Jesus, that they had come to help her on her journey to wherever and whatever came next.

I nodded, listening. I believed her. Of course I did. We travel with our ghosts. Who better to lead us to what comes next? Our next life, our heaven, the birth of a daughter, a new mother, an old one.

I understood then. She wasn’t telling me a story of Christianity or faith or spirituality. She wasn’t even telling me a story about God. She was just telling me a love story. And I was part of it.

Now I’m not sure what the love story is here—perhaps I lack the emotional perspicacity to be moved by this tale. But what bothers me is Snyder’s dogged belief in ghosts—not as metaphors but as real apparitions. Further, the return of her mother’s ghost implies that those who die live on in some form.

Is there no fact-checking in op-eds? I know that when Anna and I wrote our op-ed for the WSJ, we had to vouch for every claim that we made (notice the links in the online version) and answer a passel of editor’s questions.  Is there no fact checking about whether Rachel saw a ghost? Of course there couldn’t be, as there’s no documentation, but everything we know about such claims testifies to the fact that there is no evidence for either ghosts or an afterlife.

You may think I’m being too picky: calling out claims about ghosts and the afterlife in what is supposedly a “love story”.  But what this does is simply buttress other people’s faith in woo, and in the pages of a respectable newspaper, too. In other words, it enables faith: here faith in ghosts, Jesus, angels, and the afterlife.

When I finished the story, I thought, “Jeez, the credulity of the paper is just begging for a Sokal-type hoax. Somebody should make up a story with the wildest claims about woo, embellish it so it’s also a heart-tugging tale, and then submit it to the Times.”  I won’t be the one to do that, but the paper’s penchant for this kind of stuff is real and, ultimately, harmful. What would you think if the paper retold a story about someone who really went to Heaven and met Jesus. who was riding on a rainbow-colored horse?  Oh, I forgot: there was a book about this, and it was a bestseller, earning millions.

From Flickr and the National Archives.

h/t: Greg

33 thoughts on “Now the NYT presents ghost stories as serious assertions

  1. The NYT survives based on subscriptions. 10 million or so, mostly among young, “woke” Americans. When the NYT survived on ads its “journalism” reflected a more robust and reasoned reader-base, demanding credible, intelligent work. Woke theories and “woo” are close relatives, neither are based on foolproof evidence.

    Check out this piece in the Atlantic (2018):

    “In a stressful, data-driven era, many young people find comfort and insight in the zodiac—even if they don’t exactly believe in it.”

    1. Oh and (apparently, I have more to say!) we are living in an age of fantasy. Men are literally women and women are anything anyone says we are. Soon, we will all be beyond human. So why not ghosts? And why not the zodiac?

    2. The Times target audience is older with over half the audience aged 55+. In terms of social class, they are overwhelmingly in the ABC1 social classes – and largely the A or B groups within that group. This means Times readers are likely to be professionals, managers or company owners.Jan 11, 2021

    3. Rosemary, do you know of any data to support your claim that most NYT subscribers are “young, woke Americans?” I strongly doubt that this is true. Whenever the NYT publishes an article or opinion column touching on issues dear to the hearts of the woke and the article/column has a comment section, the tenor of the comments is almost always strongly anti-woke.
      Case in point an article from yesterday entitled:

      Why Some Companies Are Saying ‘Diversity and Belonging’ Instead of ‘Diversity and Inclusion’
      The changing terminology reflects new thinking among some consultants, who say traditional D.E.I. strategies haven’t worked out as planned.

      If you sort the comments by reader approbation (or likes/Recommend), you see that most readers visiting the comment section reject the DEI orthodoxy.
      The woke stuff at the NYT was mostly driven by young NYT journalists, and greenlighted by the older higher-ups.
      The higher-ups at the NYT could have reacted to wokism like Netflix reacted to calls from some younger Netflix employees to cancel Dave Chappelle, namely tell them to look for another employer, but instead they chose to indulge their young woke journalists for a long while.
      Most people dislike or hate the woke. This is what the survey evidence says. (Of course, there are institutions that are dominated by the woke, but they are not in any way representative of American society.)
      I suspect that most readers of the Times are age 40 and up, and are left-of-center liberals.

      Only 11 or 12 percent of Democrats identify as progressive
      Six percent of adults in this country identify as “progressive

  2. “… but never prints articles debunking it.”

    That makes the problem crystal-ball clear.

    Perhaps the editor regards such ideas as simply any other knowledge, and putting it out there for society to ponder it is all about how – on their view – knowledge is all a “social construct”.

    But not the debunking. That’d spoil the fantasy.

    1. Debunking doesn’t just destroy the fantasy, it tells other people that they’re wrong about what they know to be true about themselves. Ghost stories, alien abductions, religious visitations, paranormal experiences and the like are often incorporated into the believers identity — this is what makes them who they are. If there’s one thing that spooks people it’s anything violating the increasingly sacrosanct autonomy of the creation of Self.

  3. As an American, I rejected such beliefs.

    I don’t understand what being an American has to do with it. It’s not like America doesn’t have a spiritualist tradition, table rappers and all. I’d hope people would reject such beliefs on the basis that there’s no credible evidence to support them.

  4. Good grief – the NYT should be ashamed of itself.

    I loved the link to the book about Jesus riding a rainbow coloured horse:

    In 2015, Alex Malarkey – a boy with a similar story to Colton Burpo’s – publicly recanted his own story and book The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven, stating that his near-death experience described in that book was fictional, and condemned Christian publishers and bookstores for selling popular “heaven tourism” books, which he said “profit from lies.”

    And yet still people fall for this nonsense. There really is one born every minute…

  5. I agree with Rosemary they do this kind of thing for clicks and subscriptions. But there are lots of things they could do for clicks – why do *this* in particular? I think it’s because the NYT is devoted to the idea that it would be nice if ghosts of our moms could visit us on Mothers Day, in the same way that it would be nice if transwomen were women, Rittenhouse crossed state lines, and puberty blockers were safe and reversible. They want to reassure readers that the world could be nice in this imaginary way.

    1. A perceptive response. I agree. We are approaching a world (in the so-called west at least) that is “imaginary”.

      A rather simplistic but potentially workable solution, have a mandatory AmeriCorps-like program where those who have completed high school (young-adults) serve a mandatory “give it back” -subsidized by the feds- program, preferably within the USA or even globally. Such a program will ensure commonality, meaning and a sense of worth in a world increasingly alien and divorced from nature, family and community. Humans do need something more than digital porn and digital fantasies.

      Nature is the great firewall (of course, I’m biased) if given a chance it can fix “a lot”, even our neurotic delusions. Israel does something similar with mandatory military service; if nothing else, a collaborative program of working together with fellow Americans on behalf of the commons will build a sense of “something bigger” something that is not a fantasy. Something real. Tangible.

      1. Any ChatGPT users here (I’m not)? Ask it to write an article like this – that’d be interesting to see.

  6. There’s an argument that there are 4 big attractions when it comes to personality types – Science, Religion, Magic and Art. They are all typical attitudes of differing personality types interested in a spectrum of what is True, or what is Good, or what is Beautiful.

    Now whatever the accuracy of this concept, the New York Times wants to cast it net as wide as possible to catch as many readers and subscribers as it can. It’s purely a commercial process driven by the wants of its audience.

    Personally I never support or subscribe to any publication that promote woo. I’m finding fewer and fewer suitable publications…

  7. I am not certain she really believes in ghosts. Maybe as a fiction/ non-fiction writer, she is using the concept of ghosts as a metaphor for the continued relationships the living have with the dead, and how those relationships connect us with other people in our lives. It is a more powerful image for her than referencing memory. It could be part of her approach as a writer to keep that ambiguous in order to open up the emotional aspect of her tale.

    Unfortunately, what I took away from this piece is that she had a terrible childhood. Also, the use of ghosts as either metaphor or reality alienates me.

  8. I’ve had several encounters with ghosts, but none of them seems to me as incredible as GPS or, for that matter, my garage door opener. Right now, my typing being as bad as it is, I’m dictating this comment to a machine that is typing it out for me. Now, that’s amazing. Ironically, it may well be that the more woo-like science and technology become, the more likely people are to believe in ghosts. 😊

    1. I believe Mr. Clarke’s Third Law is that “[a]ny sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

      That, of course, doesn’t mean it IS magic, Gary, only that it will seem that way to those not steeped in how the technology functions.

      The apotheosis of this confusion is probably the line from the Insane Clown Posse’s song “Miracles”: “F*ckin’ magnets — how the do they work?” 🙂

      1. Ha! Good one , Ken–you don’t believe in ghosts but you expect me to believe there’s a group called “Insane Clown Posse.” No way am I falling for that. 😊

    2. I think you’ve got it, Mirandaga. The kids grow up in the magic world of GPS, smart bots, and video games. And it seems that fewer and fewer individuals today are capable of getting “under the hood” of our modern tech marvels. Do contemporary teen-age boys know what the word “carburator” means (or used to mean)? Does the profession of TV repairman even still exist? In fact, even the rare individuals who repair electronic devices typically do so by replacing whole, printed circuit cards, not components.

      When the video games start incorporating virtual reality, the next generation will be primed to believe in ghosts, angels, the terror of microaggressive words like “field”, sex is a spectrum, and any other bunk that can be imagined. We are already, as you suggest, halfway there.

  9. As website physicist Sean Carroll explained some years back, the laws underlying the physics of everyday life are completely understood. See also the follow-up post by Prof. Carroll here. (There are, of course, laws of physics that are not completely understood, but the application of those laws at the level at which they are not fully understood is incapable of affecting phenomena at the level of human experience here on planet earth.)

    Nothing in the laws of physics at the level humans experience them here on planet earth allows for the existence of ghosts.

  10. We have a family down the street from us, and we are quite close to them despite vast differences in religion and politics. But they all fervently believe in ghosts, and have recounted more than once how their youngest daughter would see and speak to a long deceased member of the family.
    Trying to challenge this is not worth it. I get agitated. They get upset. It ain’t worth the trouble.

      1. Only in America.
        Possibly only in New York.
        Based on the output I see here, possibly only in the NYT’s editorial offices. Assuming they are in New York, which I wouldn’t take as a given.

  11. Why does NYT adhere to woo?

    In Western philosophy, the foundational joke is: “All philosophy is a footnote to Plato.” NYTimes cannot bring itself to violate this. Plato’s politics asserts the right to rule of an elite cohort of philosopher kings, and the king needs to ‘communicate with and educate’ the ignorant masses at the back of the cave. So, a newspaper of record and intellectual ascendancy is needed.

    Plato’s Element That Will Not Die is the ‘existence’ and primacy of the noumenal realm. This is the claim that everything tangible we perceive with the senses is merely an illusion because “real reality” is noumenal, beyond and above mere phenomenal ‘things.’ In other words, the supernatural. You can’t be Platonic (and part of the elite) without accepting the ‘existence’ and dominance of the supernatural.

    To become modern, philosophy generally drops the notion of “god” as the ruler of the noumenal, but does not drop the existence of the supernatural in some form. Woo will do.

    I could go on, but here’s my sarcastic punchline: If the New York Times were to eschew the supernatural axiomatically, it would have to admit that Ayn Rand was right. Can’t have that.

  12. Exposing examples of how popular media perpetuates superstition, faith and misinformation is extremely important, and is one of the many reasons why this website is so valuable. We would miss it terribly if it disappeared.

  13. I don’t offer this as a definitive answer to Jerry’s opening question, but I think a clue to a possible answer might be found in Daniel Dennett’s term, “belief in belief.” It seems that, as much as humanity has made and, we hope, is continuing to make strides towards Enlightenment, the belief in belief is a drag on us. In these semi-enlightened times, the root reason for belief has been reduced to fideism, that is, credo quia consolans.

  14. The NYT lost credibility in my eyes about 2 years ago, but it just keeps getting worse and worse…

  15. Any ChatGPT users here (I’m not)?

    I’d ask it to write an article like this – that’d be interesting to see.

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