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Skeptical Reality of Ghost Hunting
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Written by Brian Parsons on November 12, 2010, 10:09:50 PM

I typically ignore what the hardcore skeptics have to say about the paranormal field. A healthy dose of skepticism is good for any type of scientific endeavor in order to keep things balanced, but many times the hardcore skeptics have an axe to grind and will argue just for the sake of arguing. I will admit, however, that I will frequently read skeptical magazines and view skeptical websites just to see what is going on with the other side as well as to keep myself grounded.

In the November/December 2010 issue of Skeptical Inquirer I was curious to see a story on the cover called “Ghost Hunting Mistakes”. I rolled my eyes and expected to see the same drivel of pointless arguments, but as I flipped to page 44 I found myself nodding in agreement in every paragraph.

I even smiled a few times as I read things that I have rallied against for a number of years as the culture of our field has morphed to fit an ongoing homage to the television ghost hunting scene. I initially found it irritating that he only focused on one particular show as I feel they have all affected our field to a degree in a negative way, but I realized he was right; one show has changed the entire culture of ghost investigation.

Beyond this article I find it fascinating that a respectable paranormal investigation organization would call themselves “Ghost Hunters”. Back in 1990, when this particular group formed, there was a thick line between a ghost hunter and paranormal investigator. Those who were able to mature beyond stumbling around cemeteries and abandoned buildings to understand the field enough to be able to help living people through ghostly situations were proud to wear the “badge” of paranormal investigator – and they never looked back. Not that there is anything wrong with ghost hunting, just that if you want to do one or the other that’s fine, but don’t imitate the other. That line between the two former distinct groups no longer exists and the descriptions that separated them have died along the way as well.

The article, written by the Skeptical Inquirer’s Managing Editor Benjamin Radford, is basically six points at how the particular television show, despite its claims, is very unscientific. The article then reflects how this show has steered the whole field in the wrong direction, and like sheep in the dark many have followed this guidance blindly – and without questioning the validity behind it. This article was laid out simply as a list of mistakes and why they were mistakes, in contrast to his more famous article “Reality Check: Ghost Hunters and ‘Ghost Detectors’” which felt to me to be more of a rant, but a true and accurate rant.

After reading the article I felt that the ghost hunting/paranormal investigation world should read it as well as hear how a veteran of the field thinks of the points brought up in the article. Again, the premise of this article is that these gentlemen on this particular show have said time and again how their methods are scientific. Premise aside, all six points were very valid and sadly true. I have used his basic thoughts on these subjects and added my own feelings:

The first point is simply that credo that is repeated time and again by those in the field, “there are no experts.” Basically stated, there seems to be a thought that you don’t need any specialized training or knowledge to get into this field. Many groups/individuals feel that a few episodes of any ghost show is enough to ready anyone for the challenge of helping a homeowner decide if they need to move out of their home ( biggest investment of their lives) or not. Unfortunately, if you have little idea how cameras, science, critical thinking, psychology, interpersonal communication, and other specialized areas operate you are doing very little to advance the field or yourself (let alone realistically help the client). Granted, groups do band together with people with various backgrounds, but this is little balance to strengthening the individuals within the group and not relying on others for answers.

The second point has always been an issue and has affected every group now and again. Many groups say that if it cannot be explained it must be paranormal. Just because you cannot explain it does not mean the event, evidence, etc., cannot be logically explained. The irrational jumping to conclusions over potential evidence can be seen all over television and the internet. It must be frustrating and/or embarrassing to some groups to have another group hundreds of miles away watch their video and tell them what was going on in the room at the time. The second aspect to the second point is over interpreting phenomena encountered by investigators. Many times one will assume since someone died in a location that the voice that appears on an EVP must be that person, or if it sounds like a girl it must be a girl. Where is the critical thinking?

The third point is a problem since we are conducting investigations based on spontaneous events; it is using subjective experiences as evidence. We’ve all felt a tap, heard whispers, seen a shadow, etc. Is this evidence? Personal or subjective feelings or encounters mean very little in the evidence collection process of any scientific investigation, ghost investigation should be no different. Unless you encounter something while someone else is observing/recording (not investigating along side of you) and they are able to collect evidence (at least two other independent sources) the feeling or event is meaningless to the overall investigation. Belief is a very powerful thing that we cannot allow to dictate our direction.

The fourth point gives ghost hunting a well deserved black eye. This point discusses four valid reasons as to our field’s use of “improper and unscientific investigation methods”. The first has been a personal pet peeve of mine for years: the act of investigating with the lights off (Read my view, “Ghost Hunters Do it In the Dark: Do they See the Light?"). Honestly, I’ve heard all of the “reasons” along with the excuses and none of them make any real logical sense. Investigating in the dark limits our visual sense and alters our perception of the environment. Why would you want to do that? He makes a valid point that I have used in the past as well, how can you find a shadow or dark entity in the dark? Forget what you’ve been taught or handed down from other groups. The only reason it is done is because this was seen on television as a great way to get vieGotcha!wers because of the entertainment value, which in turn gets advertisers. Using Infra Red cameras is fine, but why does the whole investigation have to be “lights out”? There is no evidence that A.) Ghosts appear/manifest easier in the dark – that’s a myth. Ghosts are about interaction, hauntings are about repetition by finding a particular trigger, and you can’t sneak up on either one in the dark. If ghosts supposedly take energy from around us why would you want to turn off a potential power source? B.) your senses get more tuned in darkness- it’s the other way around. Our eyes and ears are actually tied together in a matter of sorts. When you lose your vision your hearing is not able enough to judge distance/depth, direction, or accurately identify things the way many investigators feel they are. Try investigating in the light; you’ll realize what you are missing. C.) IR lights can capture apparitions/ghost/spirits, etc. better than our eyes – another false belief. Despite being used for 3 decades, IR lighting has not been found to be a benefit to capturing paranormal evidence. D.) Ghost activity increases between 12 A.M. and 3 A.M. “the witching hour” – superstitious old wife’s tale belief systems perpetuated in stories and folklore for centuries. Such widespread belief in this timeframe has made many people connect the dots without thinking. In my experience, and with many of those I have worked/conferred with, paranormal events happen at any time day or night and never seem to intensify at any particular timeframe in a case study basis (the SPR validated this over 100 years ago). I’m not sure why I threw that in there, but I’ve been hearing the “time frame” thing a lot lately. E.) “Going dark” eliminates EMF and potential false positive readings. OK, this is partly true. Even if you turn the power off at the breaker you will still get power all around the home/building (See inverse square law) as well as through plumbing and many battery operated objects.

Sampling errors is the next subject of the fourth topic. This is another topic I highly agree with. Groups show up to a location and conduct their “initial walkthrough” and take readings on their EMF detectors or other devices. They might be smart enough to take readings again upon returning for their investigation, but are these limited samples enough to use these devices accurately for an investigation? Establishing baseline readings, which is actually a control, should be done for as long of a period of time as possible. If investigating in a home a few random sweeps with a couple of EMF detectors is not enough of a sample to accurately gauge “anomalous” readings from ones you have not yet encountered with a limited sample.

The next point is all about the ”tools”; they are unproven. None of the tools/equipment/tech used by any ghost investigators has ever been proven to effectively communicate with ghosts despite any claims to the contrary. In mCart before the horsey opinion it’s the cart before the horse. How can one confidently state that an EMF detector, Geiger counter, Frank’s/Ghost box, etc. is an effective tool if no one can provide valid proof that ghosts exist in the first place? Benjamin put it better, “Until someone can reliably demonstrate that ghosts have certain measurable characteristics, devices that measure those characteristics are irrelevant.”

“Virtually all ghost hunter groups claim to be scientific, and most give that appearance because they use high-tech scientific equipment such as Geiger counters, Electromagnetic Field (EMF) detectors, ion detectors, and infrared cameras. Yet the equipment is only as scientific as the person using it; you may own the world’s most sophisticated thermometer, but if you are using it as a barometer, your measurements are worthless. Just as using a calculator doesn’t make you a mathematician, using a scientific instrument doesn’t make you a scientist.” – Benjamin Radford, from “Reality Check: Ghost Hunter’s and ‘Ghost Detectors’”.

The fourth point of the improper investigation methods topic is “ineffectively using recording devices.” While there has been recent focus on real time listening to recorders, there is still the problem with identifying where the source EVP has come from. A lone recorder in a room is an ineffective way to collect sound data. Any stray noises will not be discernable from logical sources unless heavZoom H2y documentation is under way (hard to take notes in the dark). Multiple simultaneous recordings from various vantage points in a location would be more optimal for judging where a sound is coming from, thus eliminating potential false positive recordings. Again, some technology is here to assist (the ZoomH2). Again, real time interpretation should be a goal, not just to have interaction, but to review evidence as quickly as possible so that if it is false positive you stand a better chance in figuring it out at the scene instead of hearing odd things days after the investigation and not remembering the details.

The fifth point centers on emphasizing the history of a location over what is currently being documented there. Attaching a story to phenomenon is a backward way to investigate. Just because a little girl died in the location does not mean that EVP, photos, video, etc. collected, or even the experiences of the client, are that of the particular little girl. The goal, despite what many clients want, should not be to attach an identity to the ghost, but to investigate the events happening that are interpreted as paranormal. It’s another case of the cart before the horse.

The last point focuses on the unscientific nature of the “lockdown”, or having a ghost hunt where the group is “locked” inside. The premise with this argument is that paranormal groups feel this controls the environment by controlling who is in the location. The argument seems like a reach, but a good point he makes is on the diversity of potential evidence and how unlikely it is that a group could control even a majority of the conditions at any location (light, sound, smell, etc.).

That’s it, and if you feel a little anger pumping through your veins it might just be guilt or denial. Then again, if you’ve read this much then hopefully you have pondered some of these observations. There is nothing wrong with listening to a skeptic; again, it helps bring us into balance and should make us realize how belief has affected our various approaches. I am fully aware that the whole field is not following blindly, but not all groups are doing things right either. I’m just as guilty about many of these things myself and painfully some of these things are due to trying to lead a happy and balanced group.

If a group says it’s scientifically based, it better have more than just a dozen pelican cases packed with equipment, it should also have an understanding of what approaches are scientific and those that are not. Again, tools don’t mean science; they just mean there needs to be more controls put into place. It’s time that those who are serious about science in this field move on from the pseudoscience being portrayed on television and the groups that are fanatics that mimic what they see there. There is a lot of talk about groups being upset about the trickery and lack of science, but where are those who are helping to make this change? Many groups claim to be “different” than others for a list of reasons, it’s time this field sees a split of camps and those who are serious about discovery take the leap away from the norm and break the cycle of carbon copy approaches and websites.

Benjamin Radford has conducted many paranormal investigations, and unlike many hardcore skeptics, he believes that with the right effort it might be possible to prove scientifically that ghosts exist. He offers this article as solid advice to help educate the field and curb the lack of discipline in the general paranormal investigation/ghost hunting field and I echo his effort as this field is in dire need of a new direction. Kudos to those of you who have read this far and who have nodded their heads in agreement as well. Here’s to moving forward.


 

Read Benjamin Radford’s book; Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries”. Get a peek inside the book as he discusses the Top 5 Ghost Hunting Mistakes taken directly from his book that was the basis for the article discussed in this blog.

“Do I hope you’ll buy, or at least check out, my book? Sure I do. I spent years researching and writing it, and it’s a damn good book with great reviews. But even if you don’t, I want to help educate the ghost investigation community about what real science is, and how to do good research.”

 


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Brian,

Excellent article and review! I certainly hope many investigators absorb the excellent suggestions and tips you highlighted.

Doug



by Doug Kelley on November 14, 2010, 01:19:39 AM

Congratualtions Brian. A very great article ! Got to know and learn a lot of good things from this.

 

Gaurav



by Gaurav Tiwari on November 14, 2010, 12:41:25 PM

Thank you Doug and Gaurav! I wasn't sure if people would love it or want to hunt me down with flashlights and pitchforks. There is a lot to learn about our approach and it's time groups turn off the TV and move forward away from folklore. If more groups followed these basic ideas they would unfortunately get less EVPs and Orb photos, but they would start to see trends and gather more realistic evidence.



by Brian Parsons on November 14, 2010, 12:56:46 PM

Nice Write up Brian! Got me thinking about the investigations I have been on recently, and how far I have come from where I started.

Reading the "Top 5" now, thank you for posting it as a resourse (I had never heard of SI magazine).

We all have to remember that it is a two sided coin (or maybe more?). We need to keep our minds open. Be inventive. Closed Mindedness is the Hobgoblin of any research. But open mindedness does not have to equate to sloppy investigative methods.

Anyways, thanks!



by Chuck Underhill on November 16, 2010, 02:05:29 PM

Thanks Chuck. If you're able to look back and see your steps you must be going in the right direction. To many in this field "open mind" means only open to the paranormal, but you're right - there are other sides to consider and you can't get too locked in to one belief set or you'll find yourself arguing with everyone and standing still developmentally.

The top 5 are straight from his book and is basically what was written in the article.



by Brian Parsons on November 16, 2010, 05:45:31 PM

Hey Brian,

 

So I spent some time going over the top 5, and ordered the book. I have to say, I am thinking, at least at this point that Ben Radford might need to take a step back and look at what he is saying. One of the biggest problems with his "top 5" list is that he offers almost nothing in the way of what the right way of doing things is. He shoots down a lot of the things TAPS does, but offers nothing on the other side of the coin.

Clearly he has been doing this a very long time, and while his methods might be scientifically acceptable, clearly something is missing from his approach.



by Chuck Underhill on November 19, 2010, 01:32:24 PM

Chuck,

If you have a specific question on a particular approach let me know. I have started a thread on the forum: http://www.paranexus.org/index.php?topic=1095.0



by Brian Parsons on November 19, 2010, 09:41:38 PM

Brian - nicely written post. Thank you. I thought same as Chuck when I read Benjamin Radford's pdf: so, if we can't do any of that stuff, what should we be doing? I've also come across websites of real hardcore scientific investigators who would also agree with Radford's list and could probably add 10 more items to it easily. And all I can say is you wouldn't want to invite them to your barbecue :-) They'd probably all stand round in the kitchen, muttering.

I actually belong to New Zealand Skeptics, which I guess has the same genuine social concerns as most international skeptical organisations, and I try to encourage a culture of critical thinking in my investigation team, Strange Occurrences. Genuine skeptics are certainly not the enemy, and, as we know, they're not to be confused the armchair cynics and naysayers.

Will purchase Mr Radford's book when my credit card recovers.



by James Gilberd on January 27, 2011, 04:33:22 AM

James and Chuck,

In response to what do we do; I don't think it's up to one person to dictate how we approach this field to find answers, if there was a right way there would be someone out there leading the way already. Benjamin points out the mistakes that are more pseudoscience than actualscience. We should learn from these mistakes and move forward in other ways that cultivate the scientific approach more than guessing and armchair theorem that this field is repeating over and over. Again, give me an example of his points and I'll give you my best answer as to a better approach or why it won't work.

This was also the brick wall that Psychical research, then Parapsychology, hit during their own investigations of individual and case study claims. This is one of the reasons why they went into the laboratory to conduct tests on ESP, Pk (the foundation of ghostly claims). In order for this field to begin to get any credibility from scientific fields it needs to shed these basic pseudoscience methods and adopt better methods outside of folkloric and armchair theorem approaches.

The field needs more skepticism as this provides a balance from the unrealistic portrayal on television and the folkloric beliefs of many in this field, as well as the unfounded theories thrown around by many and believed by others.



by Brian Parsons on January 29, 2011, 03:36:41 PM
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Brian's insights into the world of the paranormal.
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Brian D. Parsons is the Executive Director for ParaNexus. He is formerly the Director of the Ohio Paranormal Investigation Network (now a client/investigator help site) and has been investigating ghostly claims since 1996. He has also studied under the MUFON Field Investigator's Manual for the various aspects of UFO investigations and has been a freelance cryptid researcher and investigator studying various cases in Ohio and western Pennsylvania.

Brian has written five books, “Handbook for the Amateur Paranormal Investigator or Ghost Hunter: How to Become a Successful Paranormal Group” as well as a companion book, ““Betty’s Ghost: A Guide to Paranormal Investigation”, and "Handbook for the Amateur Paranormal Investigator II: The Art and Science of Paranormal Investigation" serve as his introductory books into ghost investigation. His fourth book, "The 'E4' Method: Breaking the Mold of Paranormal Investigation" is an overview of his new methodology into client-centered paranormal investigation. His fifth book, "Handbook for the Amateur Cryptozoologist", provides a balanced look at the subject of cryptozoology and offers basic guidance behind the subject. He is a regular contributor of paranormal news (known as the Paranromal News Insider) to the Grand Dark Conspiracy radio program and has been a guest on several occasions.

Brian holds a PhD from the Insititute of Metaphysical Humanistic Science and lives in Twinsburg, Ohio, with his wife Amy and their dog Sasha.

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