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.