Monday, January 25, 2021

Critical Thinking from Beyond...

 .... from beyond paranormal research.  

As you can see, I have taken a step back from the Corner.  I'm no longer actively involved in paranormal investigations and research, partly because of major life changes and partly because more than a decade after the most popular ghost hunting show declared that orbs are not ghosts, a lot people still believe they are.  At some point, one can get tired of shouting into the wind.  Luckily, there are still great researchers out there, using science and critical thinking to provide rational explanations, whenever possible, and debunking fraud.  I applaud them for continuing to fight the good fight.  For example, check out Skeptical Inquirer Magazine.  2020 has shown there is a great lack of critical thinking, scientific literacy and media literacy in our more divided society . 

The amount of misinformation and conspiracy theories regarding the COVID-19 virus and the election was staggering and had detrimental consequences.  And the fact that the director of the National Health Institute said that science and data at the NIH and Center on Disease Control concerning COVID were manipulated by the former White House administration based on policy, is frightening. How quickly baseless claims were spread like wildfire online, adding to the confusion in an already uneasy time was not only scary, but dangerous.  Some were even shared by people I know who work in health care!  It has been particularly disheartening for those of us who promote reason and logic. By the way, here is a list of COVID myths debunked by the Mayo Clinic: 

One of the main problems in paranormal research has been where many enthusiasts get their information from.  We've seen fake or misleading credentials, people being described as "experts" without any qualifications, para-celebs, ghost hunting tv shows, etc. all sharing anything ranging from opinions, to misleading information, to outright falsehoods within the paranormal community.  It has lead to inexperienced ghost hunting teams sharing these as "facts" to clients, spilling into the general community. This is what lead to me to start this blog in the first place.  

Another common problem in paranormal research is when enthusiasts are confronted with facts that go agains their beliefs or agenda, instead of being open to learning, they instead become defensive and go into attack mode.  They troll social media pages and groups, trying desperately to discredit anything that challenges their opinions.  Some people have gone so far down the rabbit hole that you can throw them a rope made of gold and they still won't grasp it.  Sound familiar?  That's because the same behavior is seen in pretty much any topic these days.  

One question asked repeatedly after the election was how have we become so divided?  How is it that those on the right and those on the left  have such opposing views on the same topics? A documentary on Netflix called "The Social Delimna" suggested, in part, we've become so polarized based on the social media content we are exposed to, based on algorithms instead of chance.   When we consistently see mostly only one viewpoint, we can become more prone to be biased.  And, when information is presented in a way to ignite emotion over reason, as we see in certain media outlets, it becomes even more difficult to keep the bias at bay.

As a former teacher, when students were assigned to write reports and had them vet and fact-check their sources, it was meant to be a life skill, not just for a grade on a paper.  Yet, I often see people I know share posts without first checking if there was any truth to them or where they came from.  When I have made pleas to people to do some fact-checking before sharing, another problem surfaced:  I'm asked, "Who is checking the fact-checkers"? A deliberate mistrust in legitimate news sources has been planted, making it even more difficult to have reasonable and constructive dialogues. But, it is understandable, because many major news outlets are biased.   And, some people have trouble distinguishing between authentic news, opinion, and flat-out propaganda.  

Recently a project called MAP (Make America Purple) was launched by Commune, an online community whose mission is to promote wellness.  (They offered some free courses on meditation and stress during the pandemic, which was helpful for yours truly.) The idea behind MAP is that people from who identify as liberal or conservative are matched up with those from the "opposing" side for open, honest dialogue in order to find some common ground and bridge the political divide in our society.  Unfortunately, right off the bat, I saw some people base their opinions on misinformation, and could not be persuaded that their "facts"have no merit, even when presented with evidence.  (Sounds familiar, if you've ever participated in paranormal discussions, especially online.)  So the problem isn't just misinformation, it's the inability to, and unwillingness to seek out accurate information.   We live in a time where major news sources now have a fact-checking section to fight misinformation. One journalist I follow regularly said we got to our current state by ignorance and apathy.  I can't agree more.  

To be sure, most new media is biased one way or another.  Even those with stellar reputations of providing news that has been verified by multiple vetted sources can be biased.  So where can we find the least biased news to be better informed?  Media Bias Fact Check is one source.  On their website,  they explain their methodology on determining the bias rating of media and provide a list of least biased sources.  (I personally have been reading Associated Press and Reuters for some time.) They even have a pseudoscience dictionary on the top of the page (yay!!).  

Is there hope?  This week marks Media Literacy Week (yes, it's a thing). The News Literacy Project and The E.W. Scripps Company are teaming up to launch a national public awareness campaign to promote news literacy and the role of a free press in American democracy.  Check out   The News Literacy Project here.  I'm a fan of the News Literacy Project, as they provide fact-checking tips and tools not just for the public, but lessons for teachers to share with students.  Here's an example of a tip on how to have a productive conversation:

My own personal tip: when all else fails, walk away because you can't reason with the unreasonable.  But like in the paranormal community, I encourage everyone to fact-check before they click "share" and be willing to speak up and speak out against fraud, lies, and misinformation. One tip we learned in our teacher credentialing program was the best way to teach (or get a message across) is with understanding, not criticism. Finally, wear a mask, wash your hands and stay safe, my fellow Corner Creepers.  

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.