Friday, November 6, 2015

Ghosts and Sodium Chloride

Halloween has come and gone once again.  And with the season, there was a flood the obligatory pieces written by reporters who went on a ghost hunt with their friendly neighborhood paranormal group and got creeped out.  Overall, at least the ones I perused, the articles were pretty cliche: "skeptical" reporter gets assigned to go ghost hunting with paranormal "experts".   Equipment with blinky lights are used, "unexplained" shadows are seen and eerie noises are heard.  So at the end of the night, the reporter believes they experienced something paranormal.   While these make for entertaining seasonal reading, they should be taken with a grain of salt.

I will break down one such article here.  I won't link to it because it was fairly typical of other such articles and I don't want to bring attention to the ghost hunting group.  It describes the same tired ghost hunting "formula" we've seen (without any breakthroughs) for the past several decades: ghost hunters with a bunch of blinky technical gear, a psychic or two coming along, all wandering around in a dark building looking for signs of ghostly activity.  (For more about the formula, please see:

A reporter was assigned to go to a haunted location with a local ghost hunting group.  While the reporter claimed she was skeptical, that was the last indiction of any skepticism in the story.  She described the ghost hunters as "paranormal experts".  Here's problem number one: If the reporter was a true skeptic, she would investigate and provide information on what the heck makes these folks "experts".  Formal education? Training? Professional experience?  Just because they said so?  As I've said before, as far as I'm aware, there is no degree or certification from any accredited institution in ghost hunting.  Unlike real professions, there is no licensing nor a governing body through any state department of education monitoring those in the paranormal field.  Anyone can put up a website, print up nifty tee shirts and call themselves ghost hunters, paranormal investigators, etc.

The reporter went on to say this group uses both psychic and scientific methods in their investigating.  Readers know by now how I feel about psychic methods and how subjective and even misleading they are.  As one who promotes critical thinking, I'm all for scientific methods.  But there was no description from the reporter of any scientific methodology.  Not a peep about hypotheses, independent testing of validity of claims, or any known scientific reasons how people mistake a situation for paranormal.  No mention of environmental, physiological or psychological issues that create misperceptions of seemingly paranormal events.   She did talk about them using EMF meters with flashing lights that lit up from time to time.  No explanation though of electromagnetic fields, nor what can affect them.  No description of the specific meters and what environmental factors can influence them such as EMFs from other equipment, cell phones, certain metals, etc. In fact, she describes the team using a ghost app on their cell phones while using the EMF meters.  For those who don't understand why this is a problem: EMF meters can pick up radio frequencies, including those from cell phones.  Other equipment used by the team included infrared cameras and voice recorders.  Again, no word from our supposed skeptical reporter on how these devices work, why they were being used, or how useful they really are on a ghost hunt, or again, what factors can causes glitches and false positives.

The location for the ghost hunt is a historical hotel and, according to one of the ghost hunter's research, women were beaten and murdered there and their bodies dragged out from a fire escape.  Unfortunately, as we have seen, well-known stories from some of the most famous "haunted" locations are complete fabrications. So... did this really happen?  Is there an official record of this story in some dusty archives somewhere?  You would think a journalist would do some research to verify such claims, since they seemed provide an origin of why folks think the place is haunted and who might be haunting it.

The article goes on to describe how they wander through the building in the dark.  Mostly, the reporter describes how one of the ghost hunters used dowsing rods and could "sense" ghosts.  Throwing any objectivity out the window, the reporter seemed to buy completely into this.  So there was no explanation of how priming can influence what we perceive, nor any mention of how the ideomotor affect has been attributed to dowsing rods.  This "sensitive" ghost hunter kept describing feelings of heaviness or lightness in the air and seeing shadows here and there. No questioning of what else could cause such sensations in the environment, such as infrasound. There was no mention of the shadows being captured on any of the cameras.  Because of this, if I was a skeptical reporter, I might look into the possibility of visual misperception.  But there was nothing to indicate she had done so.  If she had, she would have found that our eyes do not see well in the dark, and how misperception of seeing shadows peripherally are fairly common in low light conditions.  (See an older post of mine, "Ghosts and Misperceptions": ) By the conclusion of the article, the reporter too had seen a shadow out of the corner of her eye and had the sensation that the room felt "lighter" after the shadow was gone.  The ghost hunters "confirmed" this as a paranormal experience and now the reporter has gone from supposed skeptic to believer.

But in my opinion, the reporter was never truly skeptical to begin with.  Approaching claims from a skeptical approach is active, not passive.  It requires one to question claims and test their validity, not take them at face value.  Granted, this was a fluff piece done in the spirit of Halloween but the problem with this, and others like it, is that was written by an actual journalist, a professional we are generally led to believe is impartial and strives to report facts.  But there was no fact-checking at all here.  These types of stories not only mislead the general public, but also inexperienced paranormal enthusiasts in particular, that such ghost hunts are scientific investigations, producing evidence of the paranormal when they are not. They perpetuate misinformation and detract from actual science and the pursuit of valid answers.  I think it would be wonderful to find authentic evidence of the paranormal.  But as long as many ghost hunters continue to ignore scientific methodology and stick to subjective means because they are more fun (and popular), I doubt they can reach that goal.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Dabbling with Dowsing

I've been busy lately, so this month will be a short post about an informal experiment I did.

According to Wikipedia, dowsing is defined as: "a type of divination employed in attempts to locate ground water, buried metals or ores, gemstones, oil, gravesites, and many other objects and materials without the use of scientific apparatus. Dowsing is considered a pseudoscience, and there is no scientific evidence that it is any more effective than random chance."  I have both read about and personally observed some ghost hunting groups using dowsing during their paranormal investigations.  Because I've learned about priming and the ideomotor effect many years ago, I'm doubtful that they are tuning into anything otherworldly.  But my friend Wes, who is a believer in the paranormal, claims dowsing has given him some interesting results.  He is mindful not to call the results evidence, because he understands how subjective they are.  One of the reasons he believes so strongly in it is that dowsing has helped him recover lost items. I recalled reading about how hypnotherapy can help people find things they have misplaced.  So I contacted a retired professional hypnotherapist acquaintance of mine who confirmed that regression has been used, with good results, with helping patients find lost items.  What this suggests to me is that we have the information stored away in our subconscious and we just need to a means to unlock it.  Wes's wife (who is one of my dearest friends) gave me a set of dowsing rods to try for myself.  I believe isn't fair to knock something until I try it, so I decided to experiment with them.

Before I get into that, I'd like to discuss why I had doubts that dowsing is an authentic method of spirit communication going into this.  Studies have shown that some typical methods of divination, including use of dowsing rods, spirit boards, using pendulums, etc. are nothing more than the ideomotor affect.  Simply put, suggestion and expectation can subconsciously influence our muscular movement.  This means the person doing the dowsing may be 100% honest and sincere, but unaware how their beliefs and preferences are likely causing the rods to move instead of a supernatural force.  There have been scientific experiments testing the claims of dowsers.   In the chapter titled, "Put Up or Shut Up" in James Randi's book Flim Flam, he explains how he offered a $10,000 reward for dowsers (and other people making supernatural claims) who could prove their supposed paranormal abilities under strictly controlled experiments.  He talks in detail about the conditions and the results of the dowsing tests conducted.  None of the dowsers were successful.  (By the way, the reward is now $1,000,000 as of yet, nobody has managed to collect it.)
Typical of dowsing rods I've seen at paranormal conventions, for sale on Amazon

My friend Wes told me his dowsing rods don't respond to his questions when he holds them, but they will whenever his wife does.  He speculates it is because she is more "open" to the energies since she is a receptive person, meaning, one of those people everyone likes.  He admits he can sometimes be, in his own words, a dick.  I myself am not a belle of the ball type of gal, so to test this claim, I asked my laid-back, likable husband to also participate in my experiment. He is a little more open to dowsing, as he told me he has known farmers in our area who used "water witches" for wells.  But I don't find that validates anything, since we live in a fairly soggy region, surrounded by lakes, streams, ponds, rivers, swamps, etc.   Since one of the main reasons my friend is convinced dowsing works is because he was able to find things they've lost with it, I decided to try the dowsing rods for this purpose.  I have misplaced one of my photo albums and would like very much to find it.

So I was careful to follow what Wes briefly taught me about using the rods.  I "grounded" them by touching them to the ground before I asked if I had spirit guides to show me "yes" by crossing the rods.  I got nothing - they didn't move.  I asked my own higher self (what I consider my subconscious) the same question and again the rods didn't move.  I grounded the rods again before I asked, "Is my lost photo album in this house?"  Again, no movement of the rods.  This continued with my list of questions:
"Is my lost photo album in the basement?"
"Is my lost photo album in the master bedroom?"
"Is my lost photo album in the spare bedroom?"
"Is my lost photo album in the den?"
"Is my lost photo album in the office?"
"Is my lost photo album in the living room?"
"Is my lost photo album not in the house?"

I got nothing; the rods did not move for me.  So I handed them to my husband, who grounded them before I asked to show me "yes" by crossing the rods.  The rods crossed.  But my husbands hands weren't level to the floor, so we started over.  He grounded them, kept his hands level and I asked again to cross them for a "yes".  They crossed again.  So I started my questions:
"Is my lost photo album in this house?"  They didn't move.  So I skipped to the last question: "Is my lost photo album not in the house?" The rods crossed.  I didn't like that answer, so I continued with my list.  The rods crossed for "yes" for the master bedroom.  So I asked if the album was under the bed in the master bedroom.  They crossed again.  I asked if it was in the closet in the master bedroom.  Again, they crossed.  (For the record, the bed is NOT in the closet.)  I asked if it was in the spare room and they crossed.  At this point, my husband said they're just saying yes to everything.  So I decided to move on to the next phase.  I had my husband put a sleep mask over his eyes and wear headphones with music playing, so he couldn't see or hear what I asked.  I switched the order of the questions and added a couple of non-relevant questions.  After, I found the results to be interesting:  the rods never moved at all for any of the questions, including the request to cross for yes.  My husband was surprised to learn they never moved this time around.  To me, this supports the idea that a subject holding the rods can be primed by the questions,  affecting the movement of the rods.

While my experiment was far from scientific, in my opinion, it does support the evidence that dowsing rods are more likely influenced by the dowser than by any supernatural forces.  I was really hoping to tap into something that would help me find my missing album, but for now, it remains lost.

Image from Wikipedia

James Randi, Flim-Flam! Psychics, ESP, Unicorns and other Delusions
Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1982