Episodes

The (pseudo)Science of Ghost Hunters

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We’ve all seen the television shows and movies where purported ghost hunters use “science” in an attempt to be the first to actually catch evidence of a ghost or other paranormal entity.  This has gained a lot of fame recently, as producers found that it made incredibly compelling “reality” TV.  TAPS and Ghost Hunters are two recent examples.  Unfortunately, both attempt to align themselves with credible scientific inquiry by using high-tech gadgetry and supposedly skeptic investigators, but inevitably fail miserably at both.  Every episode seems to begin the same way, follow the same course, and end with the all-too-familiar, “we caught some interesting phenomena, which COULD be caused by a ghost because we can’t possibly think of what else may have caused it.”Now, it should be noted that TV programming is provided for entertainment purposes, and I do believe that these shows are, at a basic level, entertaining.  I hope I don’t ruin this value for any listeners, because that’s not my intent.  I’m just going to point out a few of the flaws in their investigational techniques, because I can’t bare to see the good name of science and scientists be tossed around so easily.Ben Radford does a great job of outlining the various scientific flaws found in a typical ghost hunting expedition in an article he wrote for the skeptical inquirer in December of 2010.  He mentions the following issues:1. Assuming that no specialized knowledge or expertise is needed to effectively investigate ghosts.

Since there is no certifying body or degree-granting institution in the field of paranormal investigation, anyone can be an expert.  For example, the two fellas who started TAPS and are featured in the SyFy channel’s “Ghost Hunters” are plumbers by day, but claim a lot of experience in hunting ghosts.  Great, but this doesn’t mean that they’re especially good at it.  They almost never make any solid claims at the end of their episodes.  What other area of research can you consistently work in (and be respected), without ever putting forth an actual answer to a question you’re studying?

2. Failing to consider alternative 
explanations for anomalous or 
“unexplained” phenomena.

This is a huge issue for ghost hunters.  Claiming that a specific finding is “unexplained” is much different than claiming that a finding is “unexplainable”.  The first can be accurately stated by anyone who is too lazy to research the possible causes of a finding.  The second can only be accurately stated when all other possible causes have been ruled out.  Obviously, a 30-minute television show makes it difficult to ever measure a phenomenon and also make a legitimate claim that the phenomenon is unexplainable, yet they typically fail to make this distinction.

3. Considering subjective feelings 
and emotions as evidence of 
ghostly encounters.

Jane’s goosebumps and John’s sudden feeling of impending doom are not, and never will be, scientific evidence of anything at all.  Enough said.

4.Using improper and unscientific investigation methods.

Why are you searching for ANYTHING with the lights off?  This is an astounding, yet constant feature of ghost hunting programs.

How is your EMF reader, geiger counter, infrared camera, geophone, white noise machine, ion emitter, or microphone related to ghosts?  None of these tools have ever been proven to measure the presence of ghosts, so how can you possibly use them as evidence of a ghost?  How often have you seen a ghost hunter discover an electromagnetic field, and then immediately assume that a ghost caused that fluctuation?  My first thought would be, “gee, I really have no idea how many geological or physical processes go into generating an electromagnetic field in the first place.  Maybe I should consult a geologist or a physicist.”  Nope, that never happens.

Ok, so you’ve recorded an EVP (electronic voice phenomenon….duh), is running around with a microphone and listening to the recording later really the best idea for locating a sound?  In his article Radford makes an excellent suggestion:  Why not use 3 different microphones, placed in stationary positions?  If a sound is heard, you can use a little math to triangulate exactly where it came from.  Seems like a good idea to me.

5.Focusing on the history of a haunted location instead of the specific phenomena reported at it.

Sure, hearing the old-timer at the post office exclaim, “You shouldn’t dig up the past!!!!” Is great television, but it does absolutely nothing for the investigation of an unexplained phenomenon.  Except of course, create a huge bias for the investigators who plan to “scientifically” study the phenomenon.

For further skeptical inquiry, I direct you here:

http://www.csicop.org/

and go here to practice your new-found skeptical knowledge:

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