Cinema Fiction vs Physics Reality: a response

This is an open letter to the authors of Cinema Fiction vs Physics Reality: Ghosts, Vampires and Zombies, which I found by following links from here. (I found it thanks to a link from this page on TV Tropes. Warning: do not go looking around TV Tropes if you value your spare time.)

Yes, I've sent a link to this page to the one author whose address is included in the piece.


I just read your piece from 2007, Cinema Fiction vs Physics Reality: Ghosts, Vampires and Zombies.

I applaud the goal you mention in your undated addendum, that of teaching critical thinking. However, I fear you have fallen into uncritical logical blunders yourselves to some extent.

Specifically, I would point out that, given the extent to which movies misrepresent well-understood phenomena, trying to make logical deductions from movie presentations of poorly-understood and/or conjectural phenomena, like ghosts, is a recipe for failure. Your arguments say very little about whether ghosts, zombies, and vampires exist; they merely say that if they do exist, Hollywood's presentation of them is inaccurate—and to some extent they don't do even that.

Consider, for example, one of the first things you mention: a chill upon (supposedly) encountering a ghost. There is an explanation of this that does not require invoking drafty doors: the possibility that the living person percives a chill without any physical chill present. If we allow, arguendo, the potential existence of a nonphysical entity like a ghost in the first place, surely it is not a significant stretch to posit that it can affect a living person's perceptions without requiring the physical stimulus that usually drives such perceptions.

Your arguments about "[m]aterial-lessness" (something wrong with "incorporeality"?) seem to hinge on the notion that an incorporeal ghost has to interact with physical stairs in order to climb them. I see no reason to accept this; you are attempting to apply Newton's laws to an immaterial entity, something completely outside physics's bailiwick—physics has nothing to say about how a ghost, if one were to exist, may or may not move. As for citing movie depictions (as in the text following figure 5) in support of an argument, I refer you to my first major paragraph above: movies do not hesitate to depict known, well-understood phenomena and objects in inconsistent or blatantly impossible ways; based on movies, one could as easily come to the conclusion that handguns do not exist, because handguns as depicted in movies don't actually exist.

To the extent that non-entertainment material (ie, no movies, no campfire stories, etc) describes ghosts, they are usually described as completely incorporeal. Human senses such as sight or temperature are reported in ways entirely consistent with the theory that the percept is being produced without the overt physical stimulus that usually provokes it.

Of course, this is equally consistent with the notion that the percepts are entirely deception by and/or of the reporter. I am not arguing either way on the question of ghosts' existence; I am arguing that your arguments do not logically support the conclusions you appear to be drawing from them, that you are failing at the kind of critical thinking you say you are trying to provoke.

The math you cite for vampires is inarguable. But all it means is that Hollywood vampires don't exist. But then, neither do Hollywood handguns, Hollywood car chases, Hollywood martial arts, and Hollywood a-whole-bunch-of-other-things. Your leap from "Hollywood vampires cannot exist" (which is correct) to "vampires cannot exist" (which comes from three lines before the footnote at the end of page 6) is unwarranted.

As above, for ghosts, I am not arguing that vampires do exist. I'm merely arguing that your arguments fail to demonstrate they don't.

Your arguments against zombies fail similarly. You cite one plausible explanation for one particular zombie, then appear ready to leap to the logically unwarranted conclusion that similar mechanisms are responsible for all zombies. However likely this theory may seem, the leap is logically unwarranted; the thinking you exhibit here is on a par with saying that, because parents do occasionally suffocate infants, SIDS ("crib death") does not exist.

Once again, I am not arguing that a supernatural (whatever that means) explanation for zombies is correct. I am arguing that the evidence and arguments you present are, at best, weak support for the conclusions you draw, needing to have added at the very least a search of relevant literature for other explanations and an application of Occam's Razor.

Your addendum falls into the same mistake again. For example, you write that "Many letters state that the authors have `missed' essential ideas in the `vampirization' of humans that invalidate the calculation and, thus, the final conclusion. We would like to assure the readers that we are familiar with all the variations of the myth. After all, how could we miss them if Hollywood and novel writers bombard us with them daily?". This is making two assumptions, neither of which I consider likely: (1) that entertainment material (movies, novelizations, etc) will include treatments every variant of the relevant tales, and (2) that it will accurately represent those variants of those tales. Entertainment fails spectacularly at doing these for things that are well- and widely-understood; I see no reason to expect it to do any better with vampires, even assuming (for the sake of argument) that they are not entirely fictional.

Yes, of course I have my own thoughts on the reality or lack thereof of ghosts and the like. They are not relevant here; I am pointing out (what I see as) flaws in your reasoning, specifically without addressing, either way, the correctness of the conclusions you come to.


Okay, that's it for the open letter.