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

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Day in Lily Dale

Almost twenty years ago, when I first moved to the state of New York and I was deep into the woo, I was excited to be within driving distance to one of the best known Spiritualist communities, Lily Dale. According to the National Spiritualist Association of Churches: "Spiritualism is the Science, Philosophy, and Religion of continuous life, based upon the demonstrated fact of communication, by means of mediumship, with those who live in the Spirit World."  But I didn't make the trip until author and Geeks and Ghosts co-host Kenny Biddle invited me to meet up with him there this summer.

Kenny at the Fox Family memorial, quite skeptical of the word "proof" in the context of this plaque. 

While the Fox sisters of Hydesville, NY are commonly credited with starting the Spiritualist movement in America, it is more accurate to say they were a spark igniting a fuel which had already been permeating the atmosphere for some time.  In the early 19th century, a second wave of a Protestant revival movement began in the United States, called the Second Great Awakening.  It was prompted, in part, by the notion that the second coming of Jesus Christ would arrive with the new century.  Starting around 1790, it gained popularity by 1800 and by 1820, membership among Baptist and Methodists rapidly increased.  Millions of members from evangelical denominations enrolled, leading to the formations of new religious denominations.  Charles Grandison Finny was a theologian, lawyer, college professor and president of Oberlin College, and also the most famous revivalist of the Second Great Awakening. He actively marketed and promoted revivals.  In his autobiography, he referred to an area in central and western New York as a "Burned-Over District", due to the large concentration of evangelists and converts in that region.

During this time period, western New York was an isolated frontier land where established clergy were scarce.  Many people in the region were attracted to the enthusiastic evangelists who brought their brand of religion to the area.  Believers converted not only to Protestant sects, but nonconformist religious movements founded by laypeople as well.  The Latter Day Saint movement was started when Joseph Smith claimed he was led by an angel to golden plates, near Palmyra, NY.  The Shakers, a celibate offshoot of the Quakers, who literally shook during their ecstatic sessions of worship, established their initial settlements in New Lebonon, and Watervliet, NY.  A farmer named William Miller in Low Hampton, NY preached that the Second Coming of Christ would occur on October 22, 1844.  Millerism became popular, and whether Christ showed up on that date or not, the Millerite movement started Adventism. Affiliated churches Adventists, Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah's Witnesses are still active today.

So the region was fertile ground for a religious movement to born out of table-rapping seances conducted by young sisters from Hydesville, NY.  The idea of communicating with spirits of the dead is ages old, spanning across cultures and religions.  But the ideas leading to it as a foundation for an actual religion first took seed in Americans in the 1830s when Mesmerism, based on the theories of German physician Franz Mesmer, gained popularity in United States.  Mesmer believed in animal magnetism, an energetic transference between all objects.  To heal his patients, he put them into a trance (later called hypnosis).  Some subjects reported they were able to communicate with departed spirits while "mesmerized".  This led to a fad of amateur "Mesmerists" going under trances in parlors.  Not much later, in the 1840s, English editions of Emanuel Swedenborg's works were available to Americans for the first time.  Swedenborg was a Swedish scientist, theologian and mystic.  Through visions, he said he communicated with God about True Christianity.  He also claimed to be able to communicate with angels, demons and spirits of the dead.  These ideas held great appeal to many people of the day.  As Whitney R. Cross explains in The Burned-Over District:

"Mesmerism led to Swedenborgianism, and Swedenborgianism to spiritualism.... The religious liberals of the forties [1840s] had grown beyond dependence on the letter of Scripture.  After their fashion, they had espoused science as the grand highway to knowledge and happiness.  But they lived in an era of romantic idealism.  Before they ever heard of Mesmer of Swedenborg, they expected new scientific discoveries to confirm the broad patterns of revelation as they understood them: to give mankind ever-more-revealing glimpses of the preordained divine plan for humanity and the universe."

In 1843, Andrew Jackson Davis, later dubbed as the "John the Baptist of Spiritualism", attended a lecture in Ploughkeepsie, NY on animal magnetism.  This apparently awakened his ability as a clairvoyant.  He later claimed Swedenborg's spirit communicated with him.  In 1847, combining the ideologies of Mesmerism and Swedenborgianism, Davis published The Principals of Nature, Her Divine Revelations, and a Voice to Mankind, in which he asserted a new age was dawning where spiritual communication with mankind would be established.

Early the following year, in March of 1848, adolescent sisters Kate and Maggie Fox claimed they heard knocking on their walls around bedtime each night.  It soon became apparent that that knocks were "intelligent", and a form of communication.    Intrigued, and influenced by a rumor that a man had been murdered in the house, neighbors came to witness the events.  If someone asked the supposed spirit to count to ten, there would be ten loud raps in reply.  Someone figured out how to use the alphabet by corresponding numbers to the letters, and that is how it was "confirmed" that a peddler had been murdered and buried in the cellar of the home by previous occupants.  Soon afterward, Kate and Maggie were sent to live with their older married sister Leah in Rochester, but the rappings "followed" them there.  Friends of the Fox family, Isaac and Amy Post, were convinced the girls were communicating with spirits and spread the word to their Quaker friends.  A large hall in Rochester was rented where 400 people came to see the girls demonstrate their abilities.

When Andrew Jackson Davis heard of the public demonstration in Rochester, he invited the sisters to his home where he became convinced of their mediumship felt they were the proof he was looking for.  Joining his cause with the sister's abilities, he soon became a leader of a new Spiritualist movement,  where people believed they could play a party in their own salvation and communication with spirits would offer them guidance in their journey. While the sisters toured as successful mediums during the following years, Spiritualism spread throughout the nation.  For example, my friend Anna Hill talks about Spiritualism near where I grew up in California:  Spiritualist camps sprouted up all over, including one along Cassadaga Lake, in New York in 1879.  It was later called Lily Dale Assembly in 1906.

It was a hot and humid day when my husband and I pulled into Lily Dale.  There was a gate fee of $12 per person which covers parking, daily activities and noted weekly activities. When we reached the crowded parking lot, we were directed to park right behind vehicle with a familiar looking guy, Kenny Biddle, who had just arrived with his family.  (Were spirits guiding us so we didn't waste much time trying to find each other, or was it pure coincidence?  I'll let you decide.) We had basically the same goals:  tour the grounds, visit various spots including the library, the museum, the bookstore, and attend public readings by the "registered" mediums.  It is a picturesque location right on the lake and nestled within trees.  The quaint old cottages with their well-kept gardens were welcoming. Everywhere, people were friendly and happy to answer questions.

In the Library we were nicely greeted by the librarian and asked to sign in.  The library itself was pretty much what I expected:  most of the books were on either the history of Lily Dale and Spiritualism, but also crystals, psychic powers, energetic healing, ghost hunting and the like.  Kenny and I had fun pointing out books we owned.

When we visited the bookstore, two women were giving readings.  One used Tarot cards and the other did what Spiritualists call a "mental" reading, in which they claim to be able to contact and identify a deceased loved one.  I was hesitant to get a personal reading because I am still sensitive to my father's passing and I was afraid I'd lose my objectivity or even my composure if my dad was mentioned.  So I watched Kenny and his wife receive readings with really vague information.  Instead of specific entities, the medium said "male figure" and "female figure".  Interestingly, when Kenny asked for more specific details, he was given the explanation that they weren't "allowed to go deeper into Spirit" because it was a free reading and she couldn't go any further.  Frankly, that was a less than satisfying answer to me, and resembled a cop-out. So I felt more confident about getting a reading too.  The Tarot Card reader pulled a card that said I was in a phase of experiencing "new beginnings".  This really didn't feel applicable to me, so she went into more (vague) detail that it could apply to a relationship (I hope not, I like my husband a lot), a new job, or just a general renewal in life.  Again, I couldn't make any connection.  Then it was the medium's turn and, as is my luck, she said she felt the presence with me was my father (oh, shit).  But then she continued with details about him that were really huge misses.  "He passed too soon, way too soon."  My father was just shy of 91 years old when he passed and since he had been so ill and suffering it was a relief.  "He gave encouragement in very gentle ways."  Let's just say this got a good chuckle out of those of us who knew my dad.  But afterward I found myself doing what many mediums count on: trying to make the information "fit" somehow.  I thought of my uncle who I lost this year, who was also my godfather.  He indeed was a gentle encourager.  But then I returned to reality when I remembered he passed at 92, and beforehand, reassured his family he lived a full life and was ready to go.

The museum had many interesting artifacts from the beginnings of Lily Dale and Spiritualism.  There were the trumpets that spirits supposedly used to speak through during seances, bent spoons, a small model of the cottage where the Fox sisters first made "contact" and many photos.  There was a large painting of a man dressed in a military uniform hanging on the wall.  Curious, my husband asked the museum employee who he was.  The employee said they didn't know, they just call him "The General".  I whispered to Kenny and his wife Donna, "With over a century of psychics and mediums here, no one could come up with his name?"  (Just sayin'.)  One of the items that caught my attention was a collage with pictures of famous psychic spoon bender Uri Geller during his visit to Lily Dale. Interestingly, according to Lily Dale curator and author Ron Nagy, physical mediumship is now frowned upon because "the physical phenomenon is easily faked" and mental mediumship brings a "more meaningful message" from Spirit.  In addition, Geller's "powers" had been debunked by magician James Randi many years ago.  There is a cringeworthy video of Geller's failure on The Tonight Show.  Before Geller's appearance, Johnny Carson and stage managers received instructions from James Randi how to set up the props to prevent known stage magic trickery.  James Randi also exposed serious flaws in scientific experiments at the Standford Research Institute supposedly supporting Geller's psychic abilities.  Among the issues were poor controls, omitting crucial data to skew results in Geller's favor, and strong concern and even opposition from some working on the project about scientific validity and protocols used in the project.   There is a clip of Geller in the James Randi biopic, An Honest Liar, where he argues that just because magicians can duplicate his abilities with tricks, doesn't mean his abilities aren't real.  With this, he fails to understand or acknowledge that the burden is on him to provide objective evidence for his extraordinary claims.  And so far, scientifically, he has fallen far short of that.

Did ghostly voices come through these saying, "Can you hear me now?"

Throughout the day, Kenny and my husband observed how greatly outnumbered they were by female visitors.  This actually reflects the beginnings of Spiritualism, but for different reasons.  In the 1800s, many followers considered themselves liberal Freethinkers who supported women's suffrage.  In fact, again in New York state, the first woman's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls in 1848.  The two main topics were womens' right to vote and reforming marriage and property laws for women.  At the time, unmarried women could own property, but once a woman got married, all her property was given over to her husband.  One could see the appeal of how woman could make her own name and career as a medium in a time they didn't have an equal voice.  As to why Spiritualism and psychic fairs tend to attract more women in current times, I can only speculate.  Some suggest it is because women tend to be more emotional and intuitive, so they are more receptive to subjective information while men are more logical and support more objective data.  (Although, I've seen some pretty silly superstitions with some men and their sports teams.)

The Fox sister's home from Hydeville, in which they supposedly first made contact with the spirit world, was moved to Lily Dale in 1915.  In 1955 a fire of "undermined" origins completely destroyed the cottage. (Apparently, none of the psychics saw that coming, and none of the spirit guides bothered to warn anyone.) Today, there is a garden and memorial plaque to mark where it had stood.  It reads in part, "Margaret and Katie Fox... received the first proof of the continuity of life".  I'll come back to that "proof" later.

Late in the afternoon, we went to a service at the Forest Temple, which was basically like any other psychic gallery reading I've attended or seen on TV, except they ask the audience to refrain from applause, recording, or taking pictures out of respect for their religion.  The mediums picked people out of the audience to tell them which departed loved one they see with them. Like the ladies in the book store earlier in the day, the information offered by the mediums was vague and they asked for confirmation from those who they were reading.  (This is a well-known cold reading technique.)  The first medium even chose people she had already read for earlier in the day, so she had a lot of information going in already.  She picked a lady in the audience and said she lost someone close to her, a young male.  The lady nodded and started crying.  A woman sitting next to Kenny said, "She lost her son."  I couldn't help but wonder if that woman already knew the story (probably from one of the other gallery readings earlier in the day), it was possible the medium did as well.   The second medium was a male and his performance was much the same: picking someone, saying there is a male father or father like figure, and asking for confirmation. Then he chose Donna.  Donna knows about cold reading so she did not offer any information unless asked, nor did she show any emotion or give any non-verbal indicators.  The first "spirit" coming through for her was a young man who passed who fit the description of Lou Castillo, Kenny's co-host.  (Happy to report Lou is still amoung the living.) When the medium asked Donna if that made sense to her, she said no.  He offered a couple more details, but again, it was a miss.  So then he moved on to a spirit he felt was her grandmother.  He described her as large woman and other traits that didn't fit with anyone Donna knew.  So he said it may go back a generation and he was actually seeing her great-grandmother.  Donna again said no, so then he said, "Go home and ask your mother".  This is where I gasped loud enough for Kenny to hear, because Donna's mother died earlier this year.  Knowing he was failing miserably, the medium quickly moved onto another person.  By this time, I'd seen enough, and decided it was time to leave.

Once back home, I looked through a couple of books I had bought at Lily Dale.  While they mentioned that some supposed skeptics of the day investigated the Fox sisters and could not find any sign of trickery, they failed to mention that there were also skeptics of the day who figured out how the girls were manufacturing the raps themselves.  For example, in 1850, E.P. Longworthy, a Rochester physician observed that the raps always came either from under the sisters' feet or doors and tables which were in contact with the girls' long dresses.  He concluded the girls were producing the raps. Reverend John M. Austin wrote how the noises could be produced by the cracking of the toe joints and Reverend D. Potts demonstrated it to an audience.  In 1851, Austin Flint, Charles E. Lee and C.B. Coventry of Buffalo University investigated the sisters and when they had the sisters sit on a padded couch with cushions placed under their feet, the raps stopped.  They concluded the noises were made by by cracking the joints of the toes, knees, ankles or hips.  In a signed statement in front of witnesses, a relative by marriage of the sisters, Mrs. Culver, admitted she helped Kate Fox by indicating through touch when to respond with raps.  Further, she said Kate showed her how she made the noises with her toes and that Margaret told her she could make them with her knees and ankles.  A few years later, in 1857, the Boston Courier offered $500 to any medium who could pass an investigative committee, which included three Harvard professors.  Margaret and Kate Fox did not get a favorable report from the committee who suggested they were making the raps with bones in their feet.

The conclusions made by these skeptics would be confirmed many years later, in 1888, by Margaret Fox when she confessed to an audience at the Academy of Music with her sister Kate in the audience in support.  She began her speech: " There is no such thing as a spirit manifestation.  That I have been mainly instrumental in perpetrating the fraud of spiritualism upon a too-confiding public many of you already know.  It is the greatest sorrow of my life." Physicians in the audience came up to the stage to observe close up how she snapped her toe against the table and the raps were heard throughout the hall.  Further, in a written statement to New York World  she explained that she and her sister Kate could produce noises with their joints.  Included in the statement:  "First as a mere trick to frighten mother, and then when so many people came to see us children, we were ourselves frightened and for self-preservation forced to keep it up... We were led on by our sister [Leah] purposely; and by my mother unintentionally."  Kate supported her sister Margaret's denouncement of spiritualism, and in an interview published in the New York Herald, Kate Fox stated, "Spiritualism is a humbug from beginning to end... the biggest humbug of the century." Amazingly, neither their confessions nor the exposure of numerous mediums at the time had much impact on the popularity of the movement.

Supporters of Spiritualism point out Margaret later recanted her confession. But it is important know what likely led up to her reversal.  After their public confessions of fraud and denouncement of Spiritualism, Margaret and Kate went on tour to demonstrate how the raps and other deceptions of mediumship were done.  They sadly learned the general public were far less interested in paying to be educated about the trickery of mediums than they were to pay for seances.  Furthermore, they were harshly criticized and shunned by the Spiritualist community as well as their former friends in society.  Also at this point in their lives, they were both battling alcoholism.  In 1889 their bookings were cancelled due to Kate's excessive problems with alcohol.  They were facing poverty.  After Margaret recanted, instead of welcoming her back with open arms, most Spiritualists were even more disgusted with her reversal. Kate died in 1892 and Margaret died the following year.

Spiritualists also point there was "confirmation" of the ghost of the murdered peddler that the girls first contacted in their cottage in Hydesville.  They refer to 1904 newspaper report from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that human bones were discovered buried under the former Fox home.  Later articles say a peddler's box was also found.  But again, they fail to mention how it was discredited at the time.  The New York Times and the Acadian Weekly both wrote editorials on the dubious nature of the discovery in 1904.   There was never any evidence that the bones belonged to a peddler or even that any peddler had been murdered.  At the time the girls were living in the cottage, there was local rumor of a murdered peddler and they likely exploited the story to bolster their act.  In 1909, an editorial in The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research appeared, explaining the source of the bones.  A physician investigated the bones:

"He reports to us that he found a number of bones there, but that there were only a few ribs with odds and ends of bones and among them a superabundance of some and a deficiency of others. Among them also were some chicken bones. There was nothing about the premises to indicate that they had been buried there, but might have been put there by boys in sport. He also reports that within a few days past he has learned that a certain person near the place had put the bones there as a practical joke and is now too much ashamed of it to confess it. Whether there is any better foundation for these incidents than for the original story it is not possible to decide, but it is certain that the probabilities that there is anything more than a casual coincidence or than a trick played on the credulity of the defenders of the Fox sisters are very much shaded."

Furthermore, there is no proof the peddler's tin was buried or uncovered at the site.  Investigator Joe Nickell did exhaustive research on it.  The first mention of the tin wasn't until 1922, and that came from a dubious source known for faking spirit writing.  Nickell went to Lily Dale to examine the peddler's tin in the museum.  The curator at the time, Ron Nagy, conceded there was no proof it had been uncovered in 1904, and Nickell concluded it looked in too good of a condition to have been buried for half a century.

Carolyn's Cycles of Truth: Either you're telling the truth or you're not.

A believer friend of mine said they weren't surprised of my impression of the Lily Dale mediums, since I went there as a skeptic.  I reminded them that part of me was actually hoping the medium who said my dad was with me would have given me something to believe.  Like his name, or a nickname he called me, or his profession, or the branch of military he served, or lizards stalking me.  (See my article:  But no, she only provided information that did not apply to him at all.  While I was not surprised, I admit I was a little disappointed. And my friend is missing a huge point:  the responsibility lies with the mediums to provide remarkable proof for their claims and the justification for charging grieving people $80 - $100 a reading.  In my opinion, Spiritualism as a religion can be used by mediums as a shield to justify their lack of evidence and deflect criticism.  By contrast, when I or loved ones were hospitalized, the priests or chaplains who came to pray for us never charged a cent.  I would love to find true evidence of the continuation of consciousness after death, and that contact with departed loved ones is possible.  But unfortunately, I didn't find it in Lily Dale.


Karen Abott, The Fox Sisters and The Rap on Spiritualsim, October 30, 2012

Whitney R. Cross, The Burned-Over District 
Cornell University Press, London, 1950  342-352

C.E.M. Hansel, The Search for Psychic Power: ESP & Parapsychology Revisited
Prometheus Books, Buffalo, NY, 1989 

Paul Kurtz, editor, A Skeptic's Handbook of Parapsychology
Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 1985 

Ron Nagy with Joyce LaJudice, The Spirits of Lily Dale
Glade Press, Inc., Lakeville, Minnesota, 2010

Joe Nickell, A Skeleton's Tale: The Origins of Modern Spiritualism
Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.4, July / August 2008

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

Monday, August 3, 2015

Logic and Lizards

Originally published for Paranormal Enlightenment Magazine:

My late father was a man who had many interests.  For example, he built model trains and was an avid gardener.  It was common for him to call me out to the garage to show me a new model building he painted or out to the yard to show me a prized rose blooming.  Once in a while though, my dad would take advantage of my gullibility.  On one such occasion during a visit a few years ago, he called from the garage, "Come out here, so I can show this." Since he'd been busy working on more models, I suspected nothing nefarious about the request and ventured into the garage, where, with a smirk, he pointed down at something near my feet: a skink.  For those who don't know, skinks are long, skinny lizards that look very similar to something I am phobic about - snakes.  I screamed and broke a couple laws of physics by promptly levitating four feet backwards.  Dad got the biggest kick out of it, enjoying a good belly laugh at my expense.  (The skink remained unharmed.)

I will get back to dad and lizards in a moment, but before I do, I want to discuss something important for us, as paranormal investigators, to be aware of:  apophenia, commonly called pattern seeking.  According to RationalWiki, apophenia is "the experience of seeing meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data".  Other related terms include Carl Jung's "synchronicity", in which he asserted that coincidences containing symbolism actually had meaning.  I've talked about Michael Shermer's term "patternicity" before.  From his book The Believing Brain:  "Our brains are belief engines, evolved pattern-recognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature.  Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not."

There are types of apophenia that paranormal investigators should be aware of when trying to find the cause behind claims.  Many are already familiar with pareidolia, also called matrixing, where a subject sees a meaningful shape, most often faces, in random patterns.  This also applies to sound, when ambient noise at certain frequencies and patterns can sound like speech.  Confirmation bias is when one tests their hypothesis in ways to only confirm it, not disprove it.  Hindsight bias is concluding that seemingly meaningful events have caused a current situation.  This is common in the paranormal community, where people take random events and connect them.  For example, weird noises in the house, disturbing dreams, and sensation of cold spots if taken individually, will each likely have mundane and unrelated explanations, but putting them together makes a recipe for a classic "haunting".   Of course, priming increases the likelihood of seeing a certain pattern that isn't really there.  For example, if we are told that a picture has what looks like a little girl, we are more likely to see a little girl in a pixilated blob.  When we are told what a supposed EVP says, we are more likely to hear those words, even if what was recorded wasn't a voice or words at all.

During a recent visit home, I pruned the rose bushes for my mom.   Naturally, as I was doing so, I thought of my dad, who taught me where to make cuts on the plants as well as the history of some of the roses.  Like one that came from a cutting from my grandmother's yard, which grew from a cutting from my great-grandmother's yard.  Afterward, I took the cuttings to the proper garbage bin and when I lifted the lid, sitting on top of the yard waste and staring at me with malice, was a spotted lizard. Not proud to report that I developed a spontaneous case of Tourette's Syndrome and slammed the lid shut.  I couldn't help but think how my dad would have gotten a good laugh out of this.  (Later, with my mom by my side for protection, I propped the lid open so the lizard could safely get out.)

The next day, I went to visit my dad's grave.  Because it is in an old picturesque rural cemetery, I brought my camera with me.  As I wandered around some of the older graves, I soon sensed I was being followed.  I heard a rustling of leaves on the ground behind me as as I walked and turned around but saw nobody.  Feeling a little creeped out, I continued taking photos, and as I stooped to get a shot of a wooden marker, my stalker made itself known:  a little brown lizard.  I waved my arms at it to try to persuade it to go elsewhere, and, thankfully, it did.  But soon after, another rustling of dried leaves from the opposite direction revealed another brown lizard, running straight for me.  It hopped up on a the concrete boarder of a plot right by me and started doing little push ups, which I took as a direct threat to my well-being.  I decided me and my camera were going elsewhere.  And again, I thought of Dad, watching this scene and chuckling at my irrational fear of the tiny reptiles.

Was my connecting the lizards to my dad merely a product of apophenia?  As a skeptic, I have to admit it is most likely.  But might it be possible that Dad was somehow around, laughing with me?  As a grieving daughter, I want to think so.  A psychologist once explained to me that it doesn't matter whether such experiences are actual contact with deceased loved ones.  What matters is how they keep their memories alive, and eases the pain of our loss somewhat.

I continue to encourage paranormal investigators to remain objective and use critical thinking when investigating claims.  But my experiences also prompt me to remind researchers to understand how and why grieving clients may be processing and interpreting information.  Several years ago, I was part of a writing seminar in which we all critiqued each other's pieces.  A woman wrote a ghost story, where after the funeral of the main character's father, a balloon floated from room to room until it rested by a photo of the deceased man, proving he was there with them.  I had to open my big mouth to provide a rational explanation like air currents and the stack affect in homes, and said it would take a lot more in the story to convince me there was a ghostly visit.  The woman broke down in tears, and later someone explained to me that although she had written it in the third person, the story was about her own experience.  I felt awful, but it was a painful lesson for me to be much more sensitive to others' grief when listening to their paranormal claims.  Maybe that's why those lizards were giving me the stink-eye.


Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
New York: Times Books 2011, 59

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Devil in the Details

A while back, I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is a true believer of the paranormal realm.  We were discussing a paranormal team's claim that they may have encountered an evil entity on a case.  An investigator suddenly experienced strong emotions that didn't feel like they were coming from him:  overwhelming anxiety, apprehension, sadness, overall discomfort.  The other team members said he tends to be skeptical and this was not typical behavior from him.  My friend discussed possibilities that are based only on spiritual/religious belief systems such as demonic oppression and possession, and I discussed real-world possibilities like extremely low frequencies and infrasound.  These are known (meaning, they have been observed and replicated in experiments) to cause the same sensations in some people as those described by the team member.  I went on to voice my concern over how this team discussed their suspicion of a negative entity with the homeowner, even though they admitted that they had not reviewed all of the data they collected on the investigation.  In my opinion, it was irresponsible.  My friend agreed that they should not have influenced their client, but then asked:  "But what if you're wrong?"

This simple question addresses why I choose to approach paranormal claims from a skeptical approach.   I, like every other person on this planet, am flawed.  I carry around my own biases and preferences.  So I concede I could be wrong; perhaps there are demons hanging out, waiting for the opportunity to nab an unsuspecting ghost hunter.  But here's the thing:  there is no objective, verifiable evidence they exist.  The concept of demons is traced to purely religious and spiritual beliefs. Various religions and cultures throughout history have viewed them differently, so there's not even a consensus among believers to what exactly they are, how they behave, or what their motives might be.  The term demon is derived from the latin daemon, which is a transliteration from the greek daimon, from the Indo-European term dai, translated as "distributer of destinies".  The earliest beliefs is that these were neutral beings, neither good nor evil, but were messengers revealing a person's destiny, and it was the perception of the recipient which decided whether it was positive or negative.  Later, Neo-Platonians considered demons to be both good and evil beings.  But as new religions were born, the concept of these beings changed to break with older traditions and fit new spiritual ideas and agendas. For example, as Carol Sagan noted in his book, The Demon-Haunted World, St. Augustine, an early influential Christian theologian and philosopher , assimilated the earlier pagan tradition replacing "gods" by "God" and decided that demons were evil, declaring that though they posed as messengers from God, it was a ruse to lure humans to their demise.

There are various ways, or models, of explaining abnormal behavior.  The oldest is the Demonological Model.  Archeological evidence of human skeletons support that during the Stone Age, people would practice trephining, creating a hole in the skull to release evil spirits.  Most often, it also released the patient's life functions.  In ancient Greece, it was believed that madness was caused by the gods.  Hippocrates was an exception, surmising such behavior was caused by a brain abnormality.  Unfortunately, his idea didn't catch on for another 2000 years. During the Middle Ages in Europe and the early Colonial Period in the United States, it was a common belief that madness, as well as fairly common conditions, were signs of possession by agents of the devil, such as witches. People suffering from nightmares, undiagnosed illnesses, or deformities could be under suspicion.  Fueled by Pope Innocent VIII's endorsement of the Malleus Maleficarum, a treatise on the prosecution of witches, this led to widespread hysteria and the death of thousands of innocent people.

On the other hand, science has given us possible explanations for these same experiences, supporting them with objective data that people can refer to for further study.  For example, in the study of psychology, the medical model views abnormal behavior as a symptom of an underlying disorder, such as a biological or biochemical issue.  While for much of history, auditory and visual hallucinations were believed to originate from supernatural agents, such as demons or witches, a secular movement finally gained traction with philosophers and scientists during the mid eighteenth century.  Visions and voices were now being viewed as having physiological origin, due to overactivity of certain areas within the brain.  The notion of incubi and succubi tormenting sleeping victims has frightened people throughout history.  But we now know this is explained by a fairly common, albeit frightening sleep disorder called sleep paralysis.  At the University of Waterloo, J.A. Cheyne and  colleagues have shown that between a third and a half of the general population has experienced this phenomena.  As the body enters REM sleep, the body is paralyzed, outside of shallow breathing and eye movement.  When this process is disturbed and dreamer awakens during this cycle, they will be unable to move, feel like a heavy weight is pressing down on them, might have a sensation of an evil presence, and are understandably overwhelmed by a sense of terror.  Because the brain is transitioning from a dreaming to waking state, the subject may be seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling things from their dreamscape.   These are hypnogogic hallucinations, and are not always as intense as those experienced in night terrors.  For example, common examples of hypnogogic hallucinations include waking to hearing one's name, seeing a figure by the bed, having a sensation of being touched, and smelling perfume or smoke.  As I mentioned in other posts, I've experienced  these all of my life.  Believe me, they seem and feel very real.

Many times, people react negatively to the term "hallucinations", assuming they are associated only with mental disorders.  This is untrue.  While there are mental illnesses which cause hallucinations, there are also mundane environmental and physiological causes as well.  I already mentioned how infrasound can cause uneasy sensations in some people.  It can also create visual misperceptions, such as seeing gray shadows.  Another example is sensory deprivation.  When deprived of light for some time, mild visual hallucinations such as flashing or colorful lights, can appear.  I often experienced these in my father's darkroom at his professional photography studio.  (I thought they were cool, so I wasn't frightened.)  Another example is hearing voices.  Oliver Sacks, professor of neurology NYU School of Medicine, explains in his book Hallucinations, that many sane people report hearing voices. This phenomenon was recognized in the nineteenth century during the rise of neurology.  Early researchers found such hallucinations were not uncommon in the general population.  The most common auditory hallucination is hearing one's own name, which Sigmund Freud reported experiencing in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life.  According to Dr. Sacks, recent studies confirm it is not uncommon for ordinary people to hear voices, and that most of people do so are not suffering from a mental illness such as schizophrenia.

Separate from audio hallucinations caused by psychosis, various explanations have been proposed as to why normal people hear voices.  Dr. Sack cautions that these subjects need further research since the majority of studies have focused on psychiatric patients, not the general population.  But some research suggests auditory hallucinations may be associated with abnormal activation of the primary auditory cortex.  They also may result from an inability to recognize internally generated speech as one's own, possibly resulting from cross-activation with a auditory areas of the brain or a physiological barrier that prevents us from hearing inner speech as external.

As mentioned earlier, for much of human history, madness has been considered a result of demonic forces.  Consider a person who suddenly becomes withdrawn, hears voices tormenting them, becomes self-abusive, claims there are entities following them, develop bizarre speech patterns, and becomes uncharacteristically disorganized or sloppy.  To some people, these could be seen as supposed signs of a demonic oppression or possession.  But to medical professionals, these are classic symptoms of schizophrenia. This medical illness has been studied more than any other mental disorder because of its seriousness. The symptoms are diverse and vary between patients. The exact cause has not been identified, because it is likely that there is more than one.  The brain of a patients with severe schizophrenia appears significantly different than a normal brain on PET scans and other brain images.  Researchers are studying various factors, such as dopamine activity and another neurotransmitter, glutamate.  Genes are a factor, since one is four times more likely to be diagnosed with it if there is a history of it in their family.  Research has linked certain genes such as CNP and ERBB 4 to schizophrenia as well as OLIG2, a gene associated with brain development and function.  However, since identical twins have only a 50% chance of developing the illness if their twin has it, there are other factors besides genes to consider.  Recent research suggests it may occur, at least in part, due to abnormal brain development during late teen and early years.  During this time, the brain naturally eliminates some connections between cells as part of maturation, but the rate of loss of tissue in the prefrontal lobes and parietal lobes has been observed to be more pronounced and covered a larger area in schizophrenic subjects.

 While ghost hunters and demonologists may be sincere, they typically approach cases from a completely subjective approach.  (It doesn't help that over the past several years, paranormal "reality" shows, which many ghost hunters emulate, have promoted the more sensational "demonic" story lines over average ho-hum ghosts.) On the other hand, psychologists, neurologists and other health professionals publish case histories, studies and medical trials for peer review and further testing and study.  Science is dynamic, it is constantly changing. As new discoveries and information appears, previous conclusions are challenged and reassessed. If the evidence no longer holds up under scientific methodology, it is dismissed. When faced with such a case where people are demonstrating behaviors mentioned above, only a properly trained and licensed medical professional, such as a psychologist, can diagnose, rule out and treat psychological issues.  Most ghost hunters do not have such qualifications, and can run the risk of making a situation worse for a client and their family, even if they have the best of intentions.

Some time ago, while listening to a paranormal web radio show, someone boasted in the chat room that when they use a ghost box to "communicate"with spirits, at least they are "helping" people while skeptics only want to help themselves.  First, fooling yourself and others with extremely flawed and subjective information is not helping anyone.  Secondly, offering real-world explanations and solutions IS helping.  For example, I was contacted by a mother who was worried about her toddler son.  He woke up screaming in the middle of the night saying "bad dream" and "ghost".  He was so upset, the mother had a hard time getting him back to bed and asleep.  He was still scared and agitated the next day, and said the ghost had been pinching him.  So I sent her links to scientific articles about hypnagogic hallucinations, as well as articles by psychologists explaining how it is common for young children not to be able to separate fantasy. I went on to suggest that she reinforce it was only a dream as to not feed his fear, and if it continued, to contact her pediatrician.  She thanked me because she had never heard of this fairly common sleep disorder, and said she would follow my advice and talk to his pediatrician.  Pardon me if I think it's more helpful to inform a worried parent about a documented condition that can be addressed by a qualified health professional, than using a broken radio.  One can imagine the possible damage that could be done to that little boy if Ghost Box Lady, or someone like her, provided their idea of "help" in that situation.

It is not my purpose to judge or criticize others' spiritual or religious beliefs, especially since I was raised in a religion that supports the existence of demons.  But it is presumptuous and even irresponsible to make claims or present "evidence" based solely on those beliefs.  If paranormal investigators are truly interested in helping people, I urge them to take a step back from their own beliefs or agendas and consider what is in a client's best interest.  Does anyone really want to risk making a situation worse by feeding a delusion?  Does anyone really want to risk creating unnecessary and unfounded fear in a family?  By approaching a claim objectively and using critical thinking, we help reduce being blinded by our biases, deceiving ourselves and most importantly, misleading those seeking help.  Science may not have all the answers, but as physicist Brian Cox says, it differs from other traditions because it can be checked to see if it is true.


Joni E. Johnston, PhD,  Complete Idiot’s Guide to Psychology,
New York: Penguin Group, 2009

Oliver Sacks, PhD, Hallucinations
New York, Toronto,: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012

Carl Sagon, The Demon Haunted World
New York: Ballantine Books, 1996

Spencer A. Rathus, Psychology: Fourth Edition Annotated Instructor's Edition
Philadelphia: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990

Vic Tandy, "The Ghost in the Machine"
Journal of the Society for Psychical Research Vol.62, No 851 April 1998

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Stop the Insanity

This article first appeared in Paranormal Enlightenment Magazine: 

A popular saying goes, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."  In the decades I've watched ghost hunters featured on TV shows and read about them in books, I've seen the same formula, with no new groundbreaking results.  The formula has been ingrained in our collective consciousness for decades thanks to popular culture.  Ghost Ship from 1952 is an example.  Ghostly goings-on prompt the owners to contact a scientist who studies the paranormal.  He brings equipment that can detect "vibrations" as well a psychic (the "real deal") and they discover the secret that helps the ghost "move on".

This formula, in various incarnations, is still featured on popular TV ghost hunting "reality" shows and copied by ghost hunting teams today.  And yet, there have been no headlines announcing any breakthroughs in paranormal research.  Maybe that's because it's not working.  If we want paranormal research to make any real progress, perhaps it's time to retire some of the counter-productive notions and practices commonly seen in the field.

Investigating in the dark:
There is no logical reason to investigate paranormal claims in the dark.  Yes, many paranormal reports occur at night, but many people report experiences during the day as well.  As outlined in my article, "Believing is Seeing", there are plenty of issues with visual perception in well-lit conditions.  Investigating in dark sets one up even more for misperception and misidentification, because our eyes are not designed to see well in darkness.   Since our retinal cone cells don't function well in the dark, our central vision will be poor and we must rely more on our peripheral vision, which is lacking when it comes to processing details and color.  In dark or low light conditions, we don't interpret the shape of objects accurately or see color well enough,  causing objects to look like shadows or even lights.  Another optical illusion occurring in dark conditions is autokinesis.  If you stare at objects or light sources long enough, they will appear to move.  Our peripheral vision's strength is detecting movement.  But without our central vision functioning well in low light, our ability to see what is moving, or how, is poor.  It is not difficult to understand how this causes misperception.   Also, another common issue is that sitting in total (or near total) darkness for a period of time is a form of sensory deprivation that causes some to see lights or colors (phosphenes).  This is something I experienced in my father's dark room in his professional photography studio.

Putting visual misperceptions aside, investigating in the dark causes misidentification in video and photographs.  Slower shutter speeds due to the low light causes light streaks, motion blurs (which can make objects and people look transparent), and grainy, pixilated blobs that can be misinterpreted into just about anything.  In video, "shadows" can form from the autofocus trying to work in low light conditions.  Night vision video not only is often grainy, but sometimes there are "hot spots" where parts of the picture is blurry.  Another common issue is that sometimes reflections from surfaces are amplified, making it appear there is a light that really isn't there.  FLIR cameras, if you can afford them, also have false positives with reflective surfaces and residual heat signatures.

Then there are common sense safety issues.  Many ghost hunters like to investigate deteriorating old buildings, which present dangers in bright daylight, let alone hazards hidden in darkness.

Orbs, ectoplasm, vortices, and other photographic effects:
It amazes me that 10 years after the most popular ghost hunting TV show explained orbs are airborne particles, there are still paranormal investigators who go into people's homes, declaring orbs are paranormal.  The orb craze gained traction after the popularity of early digital cameras.  While it is possible to capture orbs with 35 mm cameras, it is far less common. The point and shoot digital cameras had a greater depth of field compared to 35mm cameras, because of a smaller focal distance, and with the flash source closer to the lens, it made capturing airborne particles much easier.  Despite explanations from camera manufacturers, professional photographers and videographers and mountains of experiments demonstrating how orbs are photographed and videoed, there are those with an agenda, who cling to and promote the false notion they are proof of the paranormal.

Some argue dust or moisture can't "move that way".  Well, yes it can and it does.  The air is not static.  Even without an obvious source like an open door or window, there are air currents.  Some are caused by change in air pressure, humidity, or the difference between temperature on the inside versus the outside of the building.  Even if we could rule out currents, there is Brownian motion to consider. Air is a mixture of gases. If a larger particle (such as a dust particle) collides with a large set of smaller particles (molecules of a gas) which move with different velocities in different random directions, it can change direction.

Others argue they have seen orbs with their own eyes.  As explained above, there are faults visual perception.  But even if an orb is visible, it is a huge leap of logic to conclude it is the spirit of a dead person or anything paranormal.  There are other natural explanations to consider first.  For example, despite it being a rare phenomena, I know a few people, each at a different location, who witnessed ball lightning indoors.

Another common misidentification in photos are "ghost mists", AKA ectoplasm.   These can easily be replicated by breath, cigarette smoke, ground fog, humidity or dust.  Some have argued with me that they were inside a building, so it couldn't be cold enough.  This is false.  I have been in plenty of buildings (including the same ones in some arguments) that get cold enough to produce breath mists. Even if you don't see it with the naked eye, the camera can.  Incidentally, ectoplasm is a term manufactured by mediums during the spiritualist movement.  Mediums would hide cheesecloth or gauze (or in some cases, swallow it) and produce it during a seance.  Even though ectoplasm was debunked at the time, over a century later, some people still believe in it.

Thanks to popular paranormal shows, bleached out photos of hair have become known as energy vortices.  Never mind that energy vortices have yet to be proven and these photos are easily recreated with hair, thread, string, spider webs, etc., there are still ghost hunting groups promoting them as something paranormal.

In my opinion, those who still promote orbs and other explainable photographic "anomalies"as paranormal, are either supporting an agenda (like profitable ghost tours or TV shows) or are so desperate to have "proof" that they abandoned common sense for wish fulfillment.

While it makes for dramatic entertainment to have someone walk in, roll their eyes back, and claim, "There's a presence here", it doesn't do a thing to further paranormal research.  First off, there is already the assumption there is ghost at the site, or else ghost hunters wouldn't be there.  Secondly, there is no way to validate a psychic's "hits" during an investigation.  Are they truly in communication with the "other side", or, as has been duplicated by mentalists, magicians, psychologists and a philosophy professor I know, is it a product of cold reading?  In today's search engine world, it is too easy for anyone to access prior information about a location and its owners.  A psychic's ability, even if genuine, is too subjective to be considered evidence.

This leads into another unsubstantiated notion:  that someone can "clear" a house of paranormal activity or convince a ghost to "move on".  Again, there is no objective way of validating this.  While some have claimed activity stopped after a so-called cleansing, many others have reported their situation became worse afterwards.  Not long ago, there was a client who thought they had a negative entity, thanks to "signs" promoted on some paranormal TV shows:  headaches, fatigue, moodiness, trouble concentrating, etc.  The client had a team come in to cleanse the home, and not surprisingly, it didn't work.  Finally, a team who looks for rational explanations came in and found there was a faulty furnace that was causing a build up of fumes - which cause the same symptoms as a supposed negative presence.  Professionals were called, furnace fixed, no more "signs" of an entity plaguing the family.

If we truly want to help people, as so many paranormal investigators claim, then we should do so with something that can be backed up with objective, verifiable information instead of something that could mislead them, ignore a real danger (as described above) or feed a troubled mind, making a situation worse.

Ovulus, spirit boxes, flashlight "communication":
There are a lot of gadgets out there that are used to supposedly communicate with the dead.  The problem with them is they are highly subjective, with priming and suggestibility increasing the misinterpretation of "hits".  To me, they are high tech versions of an Ouija board.  The Ovulus and other such gadgets are not magic.  They are random word generators built using an algorithm.  Since they are designed for ghost hunters, and even the makers say they are "for entertainment only" it is not surprising that overzealous investigators find seemingly relevant words.

Spirit boxes and "Shack Hacks" are manipulated radios. There is no scientific evidence that ghosts, if they exist, can anticipate radio broadcasts and manipulate them to communicate. Again, this is a highly subjective methodology, with priming and suggestibility heavily influencing what people perceive.  A while back, I attended a session hosted by a well-known TV demonologist.  Even though he said he didn't put stock in these devices, he clearly encouraged the group when they thought they got relevant words. The word "soldier" came up a couple of times.  We were in a train terminal where soldiers were transported during WWII, so they thought this"proved" a ghostly soldier was trying to communicate.  I argued that since it was Memorial Day Weekend, the probability of the word "soldier" being said on the radio was quite high.  (I did not win any popularity points for this.)  Even if a word or phrase is clearly heard, it is impossible to prove it came from a ghost, especially using a machine designed to pick up radio.

Another entertaining method to communicate with the dead is using manipulated flashlights.  This became popular after a TV show (which is edited) featured it.  Again, it's highly subjective.  Many ghost hunters seem to focus on the 1 "hit" out of 10 questions, ignoring the 9 misses.  More importantly, scientific experiments have shown thermodynamics are behind the flashlight coming on and off.  So even if a manipulated flashlight going on "by itself" seems to correlate with specific questions, again, it's impossible to prove a ghost is behind it, especially when there is a scientific explanation that can be demonstrated.

Ghost detectors:
Many ghost hunters use EMF (electromagnetic field) detectors, ion detectors, Geiger counters, etc. to "detect" ghosts.  No one knows what ghosts, if they exist, are comprised of, nor how they interact with the environment (or even if they are able to).  Many ghosts hunters do not fully understand how these various gadget work, or fully understand the fields they are designed to measure, or what can cause false positives.  For example, EMF detectors, a favorite among ghost hunters, can also pick up radio frequencies including ELFs (extremely low frequencies).  Moving metal, static electricity, our own natural biological fields can also generate a "hit".  I get a kick out of groups who turn off all the power in a building so there are no fields.  Yet, they use cameras, recorders, various gadgets, which all throw off EMFs.  Not to mention EMFs are not static, they bounce around.  They don't honor boundaries, so something outside of the location can create a spike. And again, even if someone knowledgable picks up an "anomalous" reading, how can they prove it was due to a ghost?  As I've said before, it is a huge leap in logic to conclude something we don't have an immediate explanation for is a disembodied spirit of a dead person.

Cheap recorders and poor recording techniques:
As I've said in an article I wrote for The Bent Spoon Magazine, "EVP and the Voice of Reason", there are too many factors for me to accept people are recording voices from beyond the grave.  However, I recognize EVP (electronic voice phenomena) is the favorite "evidence" for ghost hunters and very few are going to be convinced to let go of it.  So instead, I encourage investigators to at least do everything possible to reduce false positives.  The truth is, it takes more time, money and effort.  While I understand not everyone has a big budget put aside for their ghost hunting, it is frustrating to witness teams skimp on the time and effort, which are free.

Inexpensive recorders produce false positives due to their poor frequency response and low sample rates.  So ambient noise is even more prone to sounding like a voice or word.   Lower-end recorders also have poor shielding, so they can be affected by radio frequencies or pick up static from other electric devices.  I advise those who are serious about EVP to invest in higher-end recorders, if possible.  I also advise to invest in more than one because of acoustics and how the microphones pick up sound.  What one picks up on one side of the room might sound differently on the other side of the room, so what may sound like a voice or whisper can be crossed referenced.   Let me share an example of how sound resonates differently in the same room:  during one investigation, two of us were sitting in the center of a room in a very large building.  We suddenly heard footsteps running up the stairs and quickly went to see who there.  The third investigator, who was sitting against the wall by a window, thought we lost our minds.  He heard the ka-thunk, ka-thunk of a skateboarder zipping by on the sidewalk (who he saw as well).  But the way it reverberated in the center of the room sounded exactly like someone on the stairs - and it recorded that way as well.

One of the worst ways to use recorders is often seen on TV ghost hunting shows:  holding it and walking around with it while recording.  This is one of the best ways to create false positives.  The mics pick up the investigator's breath, the movement of their clothes as they walk, the sound of their hands rubbing agains the recorder, etc.  The best way to reduce these issues is to set a recorder down a few feet away, and have investigators sit still during a session.  I personally encourage to have as few investigators as possible in the room, and instead utilize video to monitor the location and use as cross reference if something odd comes up on playback.  You would be surprised upon video review of how many "EVPs" turn out to be from investigators shifting positions, scratching an itch, yawning, etc.

Another technique I learned from Midwest Preternatural Research is controlled silence.  They spend at least 30 minutes recording the ambient sound of each room they are going to investigate.  Yes, it takes time out of the more fun "Is anybody here with us?" part of the EVP session, but it provides necessary data to use as cross reference.

A common mistake investigators make is priming and influencing others when they present their "evidence".  When you label an EVP "female voice saying help me", you primed your audience to hear exactly that.  There have been studies where researchers primed subjects to hear specific words or even phrases in white noise, and many of the subjects indeed heard them.  In order to get more objective reviews, it is more constructive to just label it "possible anomaly - what do you hear?" and ask people to give their answers in private messages, as to not influence each other. When investigators post in this manner, they more often get varied responses, demonstrating how subjective the EVP technique is.

Being snap-happy with cameras:
I don't know how many investigations I've been on where people just randomly point and shoot their cameras, without any methodology or protocols whatsoever.  Then they get upset when skeptics don't take their photos seriously.  Just like EVPs, it takes much more time and effort to get the most benefit from taking pictures on an investigation.

Like recorders, the better the camera, the lesser the chance for false positives and misidentification due to poor resolution. But even with the priciest camera, without implementing some basic protocols, you are wasting your time.

First off: control shots.  Take well-lit shots of every area you are going to investigate.  Cover every angle, wall, ceiling and floor.  This ensures you capture every surface for cross-reference for your pictures during the investigation as well as video you record.  You will be surprised how many surfaces can reflect light and cause a seemingly paranormal glow.  But by referencing the surfaces and angles, many mysteries are soon cleared up.

Invest in a good tripod.  This reduces the chances for blurring, light streaks, shadowing etc.  On one of my first investigations, I was using a cheaper camera without a tripod, so even though I was taking several pictures from the same spot, the slight movement between each picture made it look like a shadow was growing.  Take a series of comparison shots.  If you have a claim of an apparition in a particular spot, take a series of at least 5 - 7 shots versus one click.  Adjust the tripod higher and repeat.  Adjust the tripod lower and repeat.  Move the tripod from a different angle and repeat the previous steps.   If there is a weird blob in only one picture in a series caught in the same conditions, that would be of more interest that one shot taken randomly.  I'm not suggesting it means you caught a ghost, but it would be something interesting to investigate further.

Practice with your camera outside of investigations, in various conditions.  This will help you become familiar with, and recognize common things often mistaken for anomalies.

This should be obvious, but know where other investigators are at all times and plan your photo session accordingly. (This is why I strongly encourage video surveillance.)  I don't know how many times I caught a shadow or an "unexplained" light that really was from someone not following directions and wandering off aimlessly.

Accepting the history and claims of a location at face value:
There have been several examples of investigators doing their own in-depth research into the background of famous "haunted" locations and finding the history presented and stories associated with ghostly claims have been either manipulated or outright fabricated. This has caused some discontent in the paranormal community for some who didn't like their illusions challenged.  To be fair, sometimes the owner is just passing on what they've been told.  But in many cases, the stories crop up as a business opportunity.  One example in my area is an old hotel, complete with a ghostly soldier.  It's been featured on TV and is a hot spot for local ghost hunters.  However, the former owner's daughter has been known to say it's all nonsense and her family, in all the years they ran the hotel, never had any paranormal experiences. I have been to a few well-known haunted locations and heard the very same stories on the tours that have been presented on TV, only to later learn they weren't true.  On the other hand, there was a private case where an owner told us someone had been murdered at the location.  The story was pretty cliche, so I admit I had some doubts, but I contacted the county historian who confirmed it  happened.  If we call ourselves paranormal investigators, more of us need to do actual investigating, which includes fact checking.

During a training session for my former team, the lead officers conducted an experiment on claims and expectations.  We brought our team to a location, told them the actual claims reported by the client, but also made up a claim about a murdered little girl.  Not surprisingly, some of our members claimed to hear a voice of a little girl, and others saw shadows about the size of a little girl.  When we told them there was never any murdered little girl at the location, they weren't thrilled with us, but it did demonstrate to them the power of suggestion and how it influences what we think we see or hear.

SO... after we ditch some of these things that haven't been working for us as paranormal investigators, how do we move forward?  In my opinion, it is by changing the common approach to investigating. Many ghost hunters use scientific terminology and science-y gadgets, but fail to apply scientific methodology.  A lot of paranormal investigators go into a case assuming there are ghosts, and try to find evidence of them.  But in order to benefit both the clients who call for assistance and to contribute to valid research of paranormal claims, we should instead be challenging our own assumptions and beliefs and look for rational causes first.  We need to study and explore environmental, physiological and psychological factors that can contribute to seemingly paranormal experiences. When something is out of our scope of education or experience, we need to solicit the help of experts in relevant fields. Finding natural causes may reduce our "evidence" to present from an investigation, but it is a positive thing for the field, because we all learn from it and can apply it to future cases. Carl Sagan said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."  I'd like to add it requires extraordinary effort. To satisfy science, only after we've exhausted all natural possibilities can we consider something paranormal.  And if that day ever comes, what a remarkable payoff it will be.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A New Religion?

This article was originally posted in Paranormal Enlightenment Magazine

Recently, I watched "Houdini", a mini-series based on the magician's life.  In one scene, a supporter of of the Spiritualist Movement and the fledgling field of Parapsychology declares to a skeptical Houdini, "It is science".  Houdini counters, "It is religion masquerading as science."  Similar notions and pseudoscience that were seen over a century ago are still being applied under the guise of "paranormal research" today.  The only real difference is that gadgets have changed, equipped with more flashing lights and the venues have moved from private parlor rooms to national television.  There are still believers taken in by unscrupulous con artists such as cold readers and pseudoscientists and are blinded by their own biases.  They cling to the words of their favorite para-celebrities as gospel, and cannot be dissuaded by reason.

A few weeks ago, during a conversation on Facebook about how the paranormal community should strive find new "heros" to worship, religion was brought into the discussion.  The point was made that there are strong parallels between religious fanatics and paranormal fanatics, and I agree.  The concepts of an afterlife and a soul are rooted in various religions throughout human history.  According to a 2009 Harris Poll of religious beliefs, 71% of respondents believe in soul survival after death.  This is relevant to paranormal researchers, as we explore claims and try to understand why some people believe an experience might be paranormal and why others resist or even reject rational explanations for their experiences or "evidence".  As Michael Shermer explains in his book The Believing Brain:

"Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.  I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it."  

Later, he discusses cognitive bias:

"Once we form beliefs and make commitments to them, we maintain and reinforce them through a number of powerful cognitive heuristics that guarantee that they are correct."

Despite the title at the top, I'm not really asserting that zealous paranormal enthusiasts are forming an actual religion, but there are strong parallels to consider. Ninian Smart, a pioneer in secular religious studies, suggested in his book The Religious Experience of Mankind, that there are six dimensions to a religion:  1) The Ritual Dimension, where believers congregate in sanctified spots to pray, worship, or give offerings. 2) The Mythical Dimension, where believers are taught and share stories of the origin of their deities and creation. 3) The Doctrinal Dimension where doctrines are created to explain and give a system of belief to the stories.  4) The Ethical Dimension where a code of ethics is incorporated, and often used to determine a believer's fate after death.  5)  The Social Dimension, in which a religion is more than systems of belief, but are organizations with communal and social significance. 6) The Experiential Dimension in which believers hope to have contact with the spiritual through ritual, and ultimately, experience that world.

I see similarities in these dimensions and the paranormal community.  For example, The Ritual Dimension could be seen in paranormal conventions, where like minded enthusiasts gather and reinforce their beliefs and pay homage to their "leaders", the para celebrities they watch  on TV.  In the Doctrinal Dimension, where people share unsubstantiated ideas which reinforce their larger belief, such as 1% of orbs are paranormal, ghosts disrupt electromagnetic fields, children and animals are more perceptive to ghosts, etc. The Social Dimension can be seen in paranormal social media groups, paranormal teams forming "families", fans bonding over their favorite paranormal TV shows and para celebrities.  Finally, and this is probably the strongest parallel, The Experiential Dimension, where believers desire to and attempt to contact the other side, and capture proof of it.  Many paranormal enthusiasts become upset or even hostile when their beliefs, their "evidence", or their "heros" are challenged.  Some, to the point of fanaticism.  

During the several years I've been an administrator for paranormal sites and been writing my blog, I've encountered people who, even though they asked for opinions, got angry with me when I offered rational explanations for their claims or evidence.  Some of these kind loving folks responded that they hoped I get pushed by an unseen force or tormented by negative entity so "then you'll believe".  (Happy to report it hasn't happened.)  These kinds of responses are not unique to me.  I have several friends who have been stalked, harassed and threatened just for giving educated opinions challenging a paranormal claim or supposed evidence.  This behavior reinforces how for some, these beliefs are deeply entrenched and serve a bigger purpose for the believer, to provoke such anger and even hatred toward anyone who might contradict them.

One disturbing example of this is when Military Veterans Paranormal did extensive research on a famous haunted location and discovered that the history and ghost stories told on tours, TV, and books over the years, were false.  This prompted a harsh backlash from some zealots in the paranormal community who went so far as to state they wished their members had been killed during their military service.  Let's step back and look at this: people wished harm on other people over debunking a ghost story. I could see anger for those who perpetuated the false stories, but not for those who uncovered the truth.  If anyone had a reason to be angry, it would be the owners who might face a loss in revenue.  But according to the group, the owners were supportive of their findings.  While discussing this situation with Kenny Biddle and Lou Castillo on their show "Geeks and Ghosts", Lou, a military veteran, likened those critics to terrorists he fought in combat.  At first glance that might seem extreme, but really it isn't.  The only difference is that terrorists act on their beliefs, but the same unreasonable anger and unjustified hatred is there.

Another disconcerting example is when serious discrepancies surfaced concerning one para-celebrity's education and military credentials he has been presenting in his bio on various sites over the years.  Naturally, this upset people who honestly earned their degrees and is disrespectful to military veterans who have put themselves at risk to serve our country.  Instead of striving to set the record straight and producing evidence to disprove the accusations, this person went on the offensive and made "hit lists" of his "stalkers", even posting a woman's home address on his Facebook page.  As disturbing as this behavior is, what's more unsettling is how some of his fans defended him and joined in on the attacks of his perceived "enemies".  From an early age, most of us were taught lying is wrong, so why would people who most likely never met this man, or at the most snapped a picture with him at some convention somewhere, defend his behavior and attack the people who simply exposed the discrepancies?  This is speculation,  but it is possible that the ideas he promotes in his book and TV show may reinforce a larger belief system for them, and anything that weakens one link threatens the chain as a whole.

My purpose here isn't to judge or criticize religious or paranormal beliefs, since I harbor a few of my own.  We all carry our own biases, and it is easy to let emotions override reason when it comes to anything we feel passionate about.  But it doesn't get us any closer to answers we claim we are seeking if we label ourselves investigators.  That is why I encourage critical thinking in paranormal research, to help us keep our biases in check and distinguish fact from fantasy.


Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies - How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
New York: Times Books 2011,  5, 258

Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind
New York, Charles Scribner's Sons 1969