Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Skeptic Stigma

For some reason, skeptics are often met with scorn within the paranormal community, even from those who claim they are "science-based".   I remember attending a public ghost hunt a few years ago and the lead investigator announced if there were any skeptics in attendence to "keep their mouths shut" and "not ruin the fun" for everyone else.  Ironically, this person boasted that her team was made up of "serious investigators", using "science" as part of their research.  If this were true, one would think she would welcome an objective opinion because in actual science, this called peer review.  Then several weeks ago, I was on a radio show discussing my views about paranormal investigating.  I mentioned that I call myself a "skeptical believer", meaning while I believe in the possibility of the paranormal, I recognize beliefs aren't facts and approach research as a skeptic. In my opinion, it is more responsible because it decreases the risk of misleading others. One of the emails that came into the show asked me why ghost hunting teams offer their "services" for free, but skeptics seem to always "have an agenda" to sell books and make money.  As I explained on the show, there are flaws with this assumption.

First off, not all ghost hunting and paranormal investigating teams offer their self-proclaimed services free of charge. There are some teams out there who charge even though there is no accredited degree or certification for ghost hunting, nor is there any formal governing body that regulates the field.  Some people tag on labels such as "forensic" or "professional" or "ordained" - as if that magically gives them any more authority than anyone else in the paranormal community -  and use these titles as a justification to charge their clients.  Also, there are those who charge for public ghost hunts.  To be clear, I have no objection if the money goes to the venue, especially if it is a historical site, but some teams pocket the money for their "services".  Besides entertainment, what exactly, are these services?  Many of them also present "evidence" that would never pass muster in any valid scientific research.

Secondly, there are mountains of books for sale written by believers about "true" ghost stories.  There are also many "how-to" books or "case studies" written by ghost hunters from a non-skeptical approach.  Many assert opinions or personal beliefs as facts without any actual evidence to back them up. In my experience visiting various book stores over the past few decades,  as well as attending a few paranormal conventions, these types of books greatly outnumber those written of a skeptical nature.  And according to bookstore owners I've talked to, they tend to sell better.

Third, turn on the TV:  if you have basic cable, you will see several channels featuring paranormal "reality" shows: Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, My Ghost Story, A Haunting, The Haunted, Long Island Medium, Haunted Highway, The Dead Files, and the list goes on.  These all approach the paranormal from, and cater to, a believer's perspective.  In addition, many of these shows mislead viewers by presenting false positives as "proof" of ghosts, manufacturing claims or manipulating historical facts.  How many shows can you list that approach the topic from a truly skeptical approach? I don't mean those that debunk one or two things and then go on to present false positives and misinformation in the very same episode.

Then there are the para-celebs.  Generally, these tend to be people who are famous in the paranormal community because they've been profiled on TV, not for any useful contribution to valid research. Many of them go on and use their relative fame to write and sell books.  Some of them attend paranormal conventions and sell their books for a grossly inflated amount and then charge to sign them.  In many cases that I've seen first hand, some paracelebs also charge their adoring fans - who already paid a pretty penny to get into the convention - another fee just for the privilege of snapping a picture with them.  So far, I haven't seen any skeptics doing that.

Many times when I explain to fellow paranormal enthusiasts that I conduct research from a skeptical approach, I often get a somewhat lukewarm to frigid response.  Most of these people mistakenly confuse the term "skeptic" with the term "cynic".  They fail to realize that skeptics, unlike cynics, don't automatically dismiss claims and evidence.  They either dismiss - or support - them based on scientific methodology, including peer review and independently replicated results, etc.  Even after dismissing a claim, they remain open to the possibility if new evidence supports it.  Another reason is that some of these people are resistant to any information that may challenge their beliefs or "evidence".  To me, this suggests they're more invested in preserving their egos than finding valid answers or acting in the best interest of their clients.  And unfortunately, when I present alternative natural explanations, a lot of people draw the false conclusion that I assume they are stupid, crazy or lying about their experience.  That is untrue.  Think of optical illusions:  we see things that in reality, aren't there.  In certain situations, while trying to process data, our brains create misperceptions.  Does that mean we're unintelligent, insane or dishonest?  Of course not.  But perhaps for some, it's easier to "shoot the messenger" than to accept facts.

Do you see the black dots in the grid?  No, you don't.  It's a common optical illusion.  (Wikipedia)

One anonymous reader of my blog accused me of throwing rocks at investigators when I should instead be throwing them at the main-stream scientists who don't take paranormal claims seriously.  Believe it or not, I used to feel exactly the same way.   Furthermore, I've been guilty of many of the issues I now criticize!  But then, I started to actively participate in paranormal investigations, as well as research facts about common misperceptions and misidentifications.  I learned from people with professional expertise in fields such as photography, audio engineering and psychology.  I have personally observed that many investigators call themselves science-based, but fail to apply any science to their investigating. Since many paranormal investigators present false positives as evidence, fail to use any valid controls or protocols during investigations, and ignore environmental, physiological, and psychological factors that can explain claims, it's no wonder that mainstream science has little interest.

Many paranormal investigators post their evidence, saying they welcome comments.  Unfortunately, some of these people really only want to hear "good catch" and aren't receptive to informed opinions that can disprove it. They become overly defensive and delete such comments and call skeptics names like bullies, trolls, jealous, etc.  To be fair, there are some skeptics who are unable to participate in civil debate, resorting to name calling and personal attacks. A few of them also conveniently hide behind fake names or the anonymity of a web page while trashing teams. But ultimately, the burden is on those who claim that they caught evidence, to prove it.

When presented with links or articles with information that could explain many paranormal claims, some paranormal investigators grouse about why skeptics bother to investigate (or write about) the paranormal if we constantly dismiss claims.  Well for me, it's very simple: no one can authentically declare something paranormal without considering, identifying and ruling out every other possibility first.  Just wanting or believing something to be true doesn't make it so.  I often hear paranormal investigators state that they want to "help" clients or "prove" the paranormal is real.  Presenting false positives, misinformation, and personal beliefs as "evidence" does not help anyone, nor does it prove ghosts exist.  I started out as a true believer, accepting paranormal claims at face value.  I am now, as someone I respect described, a skeptic with latent beliefs.  This shift has occurred mostly by continuing to research information and applying what I learn.  But I'm finding myself being pushed further toward skepticism by the hypocrisy of those who say they want the truth, yet decry those who present it.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Those Odious Orbs

I submitted "Those Odious Orbs"to The Bent Spoon Magazine and they were very kind to use it.  Check out the entire issue here:

Recently my friend Wes Forsythe invited me on his show "Paranormal Filler" to discuss the never-ending battle with those who believe in "spirit orbs".  He posed the question, "How the hell did we end up losing the orb debate?"

At first, I wasn't so sure we (meaning those of us who don't accept that orbs are paranormal since there is no supporting evidence) have lost the debate.  After all, many more paranormal teams are now dismissing orbs in photos or videos, recognizing them as airborne particles.  People are actively calling out teams who post them as "evidence".  Some paranormal sites won't allow orbs photos at all.  For example, enforces a strict no-orb policy.  And thanks to experiments conducted by credible researchers,* there is plenty of available evidence showing what actually causes orbs in photos and video.  But the fact that we're still having the debate, despite all the information listed above, indicates we haven't exactly won, either.

So, why?  There are many people who want to believe in ghosts so badly that they will cling to any "evidence" that will support their beliefs - even after it has been soundly disproved.  There also those who are emotionally invested in catching "evidence" because it somehow feeds their egos or agendas.  They create justifications of how "their" orb is the real deal.   How many times have we heard the following: "But there was no dust when I took the picture."   "But I recorded an EVP in the same spot we caught the orb."  "But I felt a cold spot, when I took a picture, there was an orb."  "But this orb is real because it is more opaque than dust orbs".   Of course, all of these have also rational explanations, which people either don't bother to learn about or choose to ignore. Then there is my personal pet peeve:  "99% might be dust but there's the 1% that are paranormal."  Who came up these numbers and where is the data to support them?  There is absolutely nothing to substantiate this claim!  Yet, it has been repeated so often that some people accept it as fact.

There are also claims that some orbs have been seen with the naked eye.  There is no evidence that these are paranormal either.  There are known phenomena to consider first, including ball lightning, electric discharge, piezoelectricity, bioluminescent matter, as well as visual misperceptions due from physiological and environmental factors.  Before we call something supernatural, we should try to better understand the natural world first.

One of the biggest criticisms of paranormal investigating is that most people in the field fail to educate themselves about their equipment or scientific methodology before they go traipsing around with cameras, recorders and EMF meters.  Many spend much more time coming up with nifty team names and logos and collecting "likes" on Facebook than they do learning the simple basics of how their cameras work.  Even some "seasoned" investigators who boast they have been in the field for a decade or two are still presenting common false positives such as lens flare and long exposures as evidence. In today's world, where information on basic photography is widely and easily accessibly, there is no acceptable excuse for this.

Business-minded people recognize these issues and exploit them for profit.  That is why we still have paranormal themed TV shows portraying orbs as evidence.  Some try to be clever by changing the terminology from "orb" to "light anomaly", but it's just the same camera affect caused by the same conditions.  Unfortunately, bogus evidence attracts more viewers than does rational explanations.  And viewership equals advertising revenue for the network, so I doubt they have any burning ambition to set the record straight.

In addition, many historic cities have least one ghost tour.  Again, the owners of these tours are in it for profit, so they promote false positives as "proof" to attract naive tourists.  They also know these customers will share their "ghost photos" that they captured on these tours with friends and family.  It's great free advertising.  And other businesses are cashing in on orb photos: for a fee, you too can "investigate" and "catch evidence" at so-called haunted hotels, restaurants, and abandoned hospitals. These owners are invested in continuing the promotion of spirit orbs.  Not a lot of people are as willing to fork out the money if all they know that they are only photographing dust.

To be honest, I like to keep an open mind.  After all, I used to be a believer myself before I took the time to do a little research.  Maybe there are spirit orbs floating about.  But until somebody comes up with technology that can provide objective data to differentiate them from the orbs caused by all the other known factors, I will remain skeptical.

So moving forward, how do we "win" the debate?  My answer:  inform and educate.  If you have a voice, a webiste, or blog, then you have the power to counteract the misinformation being pushed onto the public by TV shows. Make paranormal investigators and business owners accountable for any "evidence" they promote.  If you spot someone presenting orb photos, contact them directly and provide relevant resources for them to learn from.  If they persist after that, then either call them out publicly or notify someone who will.**  The notion that orbs are ghosts didn't pervade populate culture overnight.  It was repeated as "fact" for a while before it took hold.  With a little time and a lot of persistence, the truth will prevail.

*Kenneth Biddle:  Orbs Or Dust:  A Practical Guide To False Positives
Craig Telesha:  Strange Frequencies
Midnite Walkers Paranormal Society:
Association for Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena:

** Worst Paranormal:
VIPER Paranormal:
Debunk Paranormal: