I’ll go anywhere to find out what’s on Americans’ minds. This includes visiting a dark road in the middle of nowhere as the moon howls, and then getting freaked out when a bunch of high schoolers with flashlights start emerging from the woods.
I was looking for ghosts.
Do you believe in them? My friend and CNN colleague Chase Masters does, and recently I learned she’s one of the nearly 50% of Americans who do. Chase tried to explain to me why she did, and in doing so I think summed up two sometimes competing worldviews.
“You’re a numbers guy, right? So you’re like always in the thick of data, like facts,” Masters said. “And with ghosts, it’s not as much hard and fast data, as much as it is a feeling or almost like a faith.”
That exchange is from the first episode of my podcast, “Margins of Error,” which is launching on Tuesday. The polling-inspired title is a play on the fact that there are a lot of stories that may seem to be on the margins at first glance, but are actually where the fun and knowledge really begin.
I started the podcast because I love numbers and statistics. I was the type of kid who memorized the backs of baseball cards and the order in which states were called in the 2000 election. (Ghosts haven’t usually been my thing, but more on that later.)
Today, I find numbers and statistics more useful than ever. The reason is pretty simple: In a world filled with reporting that’s dismissed as “fake news” and opinion, numbers are one of the few ways we can tell the difference between fact and fiction. I’ll listen to the numbers, even when I don’t like what they’re telling me.
I usually look at statistics that help us understand topics generally viewed as hard news – stuff like politics and the coronavirus. The truth is, though, that I needed a break from those topics, and my guess is a lot of you need one too.
Still, I yearn to learn more about the world around me. And statistics can also tell us a lot more than who is up or down in the polls.
Numbers can help us learn about things in our society that might not be readily apparent. In the case of ghosts, I was shocked to learn that Americans’ belief in them has skyrocketed 400% since the late 1970s.
A number like this is merely the starting place, a reason to explore a topic. The number is interesting enough, but I wanted to find out why people are more likely to believe in ghosts than they used to be. That’s why it’s the subject of my first episode, called “How the Paranormal Became, Well, Pretty Normal.”
I ended up speaking to believers (like Chase) and experts. This journey led me to discover that the rise in ghost believers was linked to a lot more in a society than just whether someone thinks Casper (or someone like him) really exists. I learned along the way that while ghosts are often thought to be scary, many believers see ghosts as a friendly reminder of friends who have left us. No wonder a quarter of Americans have reported not just believing in ghosts, but seeing them too.
To be honest, everyone I spoke to and everything I learned had me questioning some of my own beliefs. Indeed, this show is a ride in which I open myself up. We’re in this podcast journey together.
More than anything else, I hope you’ll learn, as I did, that the world is a lot more complicated and intricate than we often believe.
This is perhaps the biggest lesson of the slate of episodes that will be coming at you this autumn – there’s a lot out there that tells us about who we are and where we’re going, and it doesn’t always have to do with the news of the day.
Of course, we’re not going to be talking only about ghosts. We’ll take a statistical dive into topics that impact our everyday lives, even if you don’t realize it at first. I’ll explore the fight over daylight saving time, the “half age plus seven” dating rule and even try to find numerical answers to how my uncle, Neil Sedaka, created such lasting musical hits.
I hope you’ll join me. If nothing else, you’ll make my mom happy. (And yes, she’s in one of the episodes too.)