SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Ghost Hunting Science vs Pseudoscience

by Steven Novella, Nov 08 2010

I was recently pointed to a conversation taking place in the Northern Iowan – a student newspaper of the University of Northern Iowa. The debate is about whether ghost-hunting is science or pseudoscience. The first salvo was apparently fired by Michael Dippold, who took the skeptical position. There is also a response by Peter Allen, defending the science of paranormal investigation. I hope these two students won't mind me jumping in and taking them to school a bit.

Michael does a decent job of spelling out the skeptical position, but I think he misses (or at least insufficiently emphasizes) a critical point, and not surprisingly Peter completely misses this vital point. If I had to point to one aspect of so-called ghost hunting that marks it as pseudoscience it is this – they don't carry out any actual hypothesis testing. Michael comes closest to this point with this statement:

Here is the problem with what they are doing: it's not science. There's not a single shred of evidence to suggest that ghosts exist, or that they can be identified by cold spots. Why are ghosts cold? Why do they never seem to show up in visible light, but infrared cameras always find them? Why can you never hear them speaking, but finding them in garbled audio (what they call electronic voice phenomenon or EVP) is absurdly common? The answer is that it's easier to find whatever you're looking for in distorted or unclear video and sound. This is a profession that thrives on false positives.

What Michael is describing here is the fact that ghost hunting, as practiced, is nothing more than anomaly hunting – searching for things that seem unusual or out-of-place and then declaring such anomalies evidence of the paranormal. But there is no reason, a-priori, to assume that a cold spot is evidence of anything paranormal or ghosts in particular. Michael does tend to mix two points here, which are worth clarifying (as Peter perpetuates the confusion in his response).

Ghost hunters can be criticized for at least two distinct methodological flaws. The first is that they are primarily engaged in anomaly hunting, not hypothesis testing. The second is that they are engaged is sloppy anomaly hunting. Michael mainly refers to the second criticism. The problem of not putting this clearly into context is it allows defenders of the paranormal essentially to argue that they are engaging in precise and rigorous anomaly hunting and therefore what they are doing is science. Peter does this, writing:

Furthermore, as a student who has done extensive reading on the differences between science and pseudoscience, I can say with absolute certainty that there is nothing that precludes the use of the scientific method in studying the paranormal. By definition, pseudoscience is said to be “easy to recognize because it violates the basic criteria of science … systematic empiricism, public verification, and solvability.” Is there a systematic way to observe supposed paranormal locations? Yes. Over time have there been theories developed in regards to the paranormal that can be tested, replicated and verified by others? Yes.

Peter confuses “systematic empiricism” with “systematic observation” – and that is the nub of the problem with ghost hunting as science. Making measurements, using fancy equipment, following a systematic protocol of observation – these are all nice, and may be necessary for certain kinds of scientific investigation, but they are not sufficient to qualify an activity as science. Even the best-case scenario of ghost hunters, those who follow rigorous methodology, are still just doing fancy anomaly hunting, not science.

Peter does not reference or mention one ghost-hunting study in which actual empiricism and hypothesis testing was employed. To my knowledge, such studies do not exist. He heads in that direction with his last sentence regarding proposing and testing theories, but then he sort of takes it back in the next paragraph:

Is it possible to prove the conclusions made regarding paranormal energies? No, but in fact one can never say anything is “proven” in science. What can be said, however, is that there is a growing accumulation of data to support them.

This is a confusing paragraph. No one is asking for metaphysical proof, just scientific evidence. Peter then demonstrates the “observation vs hypothesis testing” confusion, equating gathering data with science. What he essentially outlines, unwittingly, is the pseudoscientific process of ghost hunting (remember, pseudoscience superficially resembles science, but lacks key components). Ghost hunters put forward “theories” (really hypotheses) and make observations. That's it. But they never close the circle – using observations or experiments in order to test those hypotheses, in a way that can potentially falsify them.

For example, they find a cold spot in an allegedly haunted house, and they prematurely declare the cold spot an anomaly. This is sloppy anomaly hunting. They generally don't use their equipment properly, do not adequately gather baseline data, and they use no control for comparison. But even if they do precise anomaly hunting, and document an actual cold spot, all they do with that observation is spin what would be called a hand-waving ad hoc “just-so” story about what is causing the cold spot. (In other words, they just make shit up.) Weaving a paranormal “explanation” for the cold spot does not make it a scientific theory. Even calling it a theory indicates a lack of understanding of this point. At best such explanations are hypotheses. Now the hardest part of science comes into play – figure out a practical way to test that hypothesis. That is the most critical, and often the most difficult, step in the process – and it appears to be completely missing from the ghost hunters' repertoire.

Peter goes on to write:

Electronic Voice Phenomena can be very clear; characterizing it as a “low” threshold is entirely dependent on the standards that are placed upon it. If a so-called ghost hunter labels an inaudible murmur as evidence of a paranormal energy, then most people would agree that is a very low standard, but when credible researchers record very clear audio of words being spoken when it is known for a fact that no human could have possibly produced it, that is fairly solid evidence.

Again he is making the argument that really good anomaly hunting is science.  He also uses the “credible” fallacy – credible researchers still make mistakes, calling them credible does not answer the criticism. Also, he assumes that “very clear audio” must mean “paranormal energy” or some such. But why? I think he is underestimating the effect of audio paradolia – the brain's ability to match a speech pattern to random noise. But that aside, he is begging the question when he writes “known for a fact that no human could have possibly produced it.” How is that known, exactly? Have all other sources of the audio truly been ruled out? More importantly – how can we design an experiment to test whether or not a human produced the audio? How many other alternate hypotheses can we generate, and how can we test them?

Michael sounds like a good young skeptic, and I hope he continues to work on his craft. Fortunately for him and other young skeptics, there is now a vast online skeptical literature to help hone one's critical thinking skills. Peter sounds like he is genuinely interested in the science of the paranormal, but remains confused on some critical points. Hopefully he will also see this as a learning opportunity as well.

GD Star Rating
a WordPress rating system
Ghost Hunting Science vs Pseudoscience, 4.8 out of 5 based on 24 ratings

Recommended Reading

67 Responses to “Ghost Hunting Science vs Pseudoscience”

  1. NightHiker says:

    Great Post, Steve.

    It’s true that such enterprises lack proper evidence and a workable theory, but it goes beyond that. They not only lack positive evidence to back up an inexistent theory (obviously), their “hypotheses” also go against the whole current scientific consensus about how the Universe works and all the evidence it has gathered in its favor. In short, if ghosts do exist, there is no other conclusion to reach but that our current views about the Universe are mostly wrong.

    Therefore, if they want to receive even the slightest bit of credibility, they must first, before all the anomaly hunting, either come up with a way to make the existence of such phenomena theoretically compatible with our views on the physical laws, or at least come up with an internally consistent alternative that not only explains “ghosts” but also everything else the current views do explain.

    Good luck on that.

    • qbsmd says:

      I would have said the opposite: they can come up with hypotheses all day long, and regardless of how compatible they are with the current scientific consensus, I would want to see evidence before looking at their ideas. It’s similar to people who propose weather phenomena that could part the Red Sea, or comet impacts that could have caused Noah’s flood, or how there could be more crime during full moons because it’s easier for criminals to see; If you’re a fan of Skeptoid, you’ve heard Brian Dunning say repeatedly something about before proposing explanations for a phenomenon, make sure there’s a phenomenon to explain.

      Also, in science, the big advances often happen when someone makes an observation that is contrary to the existing consensus, requiring the theoreticians to come up with something new. They don’t get to tell the experimenters to only report phenomena that fit the exiting theories.

      • NightHiker says:

        qbsmd,

        “I would have said the opposite: they can come up with hypotheses all day long, and regardless of how compatible they are with the current scientific consensus, I would want to see evidence before looking at their ideas.”

        I think you missed the point. You can start from either, but of course you need both theory and evidence to come full circle.

        However, they claim to have found such “evidence” already in the guise of the aforementioned “cold spots”, “EVPs”, etc. What they miss is exactly the framework to demonstrate the phenomena they are looking for are relevant to begin with. In other words, that’s evidence of what, exactly?

        “Also, in science, the big advances often happen when someone makes an observation that is contrary to the existing consensus, requiring the theoreticians to come up with something new.”

        That’s exactly the reason I said they (ghost hunters) need to come up with this “something new” that can explain the evidence they claim to have found and is either compatible with the current paradigm or provides an equally compelling or better alternative.

      • qbsmd says:

        I don’t disagree with anything you said in this post. Originally I read

        “they must first, before all the anomaly hunting, either come up with a way to make the existence of such phenomena theoretically compatible with our views on the physical laws, or at least come up with an internally consistent alternative that not only explains “ghosts” but also everything else the current views do explain.”

        to mean that ghost hunters should be required to produce a theory of everything before we consider any possible evidence they produce. My point was that if ghost hunters came up with compelling evidence (I agree that they haven’t), we would need to reconsider our beliefs about the world, and eventually come up with new theories, but we shouldn’t require them to produce a new theoretical framework before looking at their evidence.

        I can see looking back that you specifically said “anomaly hunting”, which I think I missed the first time. I’d agree that anomaly hunting can’t produce evidence of anything.

      • Martin from the Philippines says:

        People once thought that Earth was flat. Eventually it was proven that it wasn’t. Based on that, qbsmd, do you really think that “the whole current scientific consensus about how the Universe works” is absolute, and that we have to accept that it’s true and say that it’s just how things are? If that is the case, then we would be just like those people who thought that Earth was flat, right?

        You said:
        “They not only lack positive evidence to back up an inexistent theory (obviously), their “hypotheses” also go against the whole current scientific consensus about how the Universe works and all the evidence it has gathered in its favor. In short, if ghosts do exist, there is no other conclusion to reach but that our current views about the Universe are mostly wrong.”

        Well, I say, what’s is wrong with that? Isn’t asking questions and coming up with definitive answers, the whole point of science in the first place? If Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastian Elcano’s expedition’s circumnavigation (1519−1521) did not happen, there wouldn’t be a practical demonstration of a spherical Earth and we would all still think that the world was flat. My point is that paranormal research (not just ghost hunting) is trying to play the role of Magellan and Elcano, changing minds based on definitive results. We have yet to see these results, but what’s important is that they are poking at the unknown and asking questions that might just reveal new aspects of our universe or solidify current theories and beliefs. The aim of science is to seek that truth, and I think paranormal research trying to find that out as well but the whole thing is just not scientific enough, just like what NightHiker said. There are plenty of so-called paranormal researchers who can be a bit sloppy and that’s maybe becuase there is no real scientific foundation and there is no concensus amongst other researchers regarding processes,methdologies,PURPOSE,etc, but of course I don’t really know that becuase I haven’t looked into the paranormal research that much, but it certainly seems that they are lacking and that’s why there are so many skeptics like you and me. I have some hope for those guys though. If they start doing things right, they might just come up with substantial results that can change minds.

        Although, there is an organization that is taking actual science and applying to similar if not the same issues that paranormal research is aiming at, and then some. It was featured in a Dan Brown novel. Uh-oh! haha! Anyway, it’s worth looking into. Check it out.
        Noetic Science
        http://www.noetic.org
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institute_of_Noetic_Sciences

  2. Old Rockin' Dave says:

    Just a collateral point here. I enjoy watching “Destination: Truth”. The cast is often funny and they do cool things in exotic places, often with appealing self-deprecating humor. They do indeed fall into all the traps described above, but their attempts at getting EVP have to be the most ludicrous of all the silly things they do. They sit in the dark (I guess ghosts can’t get sunglasses to stay on.) and they call out, “Is anybody here?” I would love just once to hear them record a nice clear remark like, “YOU ARE, idiot.” But what really piles on extra helpings of stupid is that they do it in English. The last two times I saw them do this, they were in the Atacama desert of Chile and in an old Japanese fortification on Truk. Do ghosts acquire new languages after they die? Or maybe they were hoping to hear “Babe Ruth go to hell” or “Marine, tonight you die!” I hope someone pranks them like that good and proper some time.

  3. Robo Sapien says:

    There is one thing most ghost hunting groups do NOT lack: a fat bald guy. You see one on every team. Based on that observation, I started doing my own scientific studies, hunting for a ghost hunting team that doesn’t have a fat bald guy on it. Then some asshole tells me I’m not doing science, I’m just anomaly hunting. Can you believe that?

    • Beelzebud says:

      Maybe the fat bald guy from that pawn shop show on TV could join one of these teams. Might be a new angle for his “expert opinions”. “Let me just ask the guy that used to own this!”

      • Old Rockin' Dave says:

        As long as we’re placing fat bald guys, I’d like them to work Andrew Zimmern into one of these ghost hunting crews – “Bizarre Foods: What Ghosts Eat.”

  4. noen says:

    Ghosts are the new UFOs.

    The younger kids grew up with their idiot boomer parents and relatives who believed in UFOs and so as a way of differentiating one’s self from your elders they slowly began to believe in ghosts and other paranormal phenomena.

    I think there are a number of reasons why:

    1. Adolescents seek to separate themselves from the elder generation.
    2. UFO reports have been widely ridiculed.
    3. Television and movies are saturated with ghost hunters and tales of demons and witchcraft.

    UFO abduction movies like “The Fourth Kind” no longer do so well in theaters while paranormal/demons themed movies do better. Though Alien invasion themes still seem to resonate. That could be due to a kind collective guilt in America over our own imperialism coming back and being used against us.

    • qbsmd says:

      That’s amusing; I once read some kind of book on the paranormal that made the claim that there was a correlation between UFO sightings going up with ghost sightings going down, and that basically, UFOs were the new ghosts. That was probably written in the 80s; maybe ghosts are retro now.

      • NightHiker says:

        Sagan defended on “The Demon Haunted World” that alien abductions were taking the place of spirit possessions. The current “ghost fever” seems to be to such spirits what “Intelligent Design” is to creationism. In short, an attempt to bring new life to an old idea by attaching scientific sounding jargon to it.

      • tmac57 says:

        I suppose that one could also speculate that as the science of evolution advances,and new theories of the origin of life continue to peck away at traditional religious views,that finding some confirmation for life after death ala ‘ghosts’, might be important to those who fear the finality of death.

  5. Max says:

    What’s the difference between ghost hunting and SETI?

    • MadScientist says:

      So far SETI has rejected all signals analyzed as being of terrestrial origin or known non-intelligent celestial origin. Ghost hunters seem to accept all the noise as proof of ghosts rather than rejecting it as noise.

    • Methos says:

      Integrity? Competence? One finds A LOT of something that probably doesn’t exist, the other finds NONE of something that probably does exist? Should we make up our own punchlines here?

      What’s the difference between them?! What’s the same about them?

      • Max says:

        What’s the same about them is that they’re both looking for something they know nothing about yet tend to anthropomorphize, they hunt for anomalies and then try to explain them, and they haven’t found anything in a long time yet still think it probably exists.

      • John Greg says:

        “… they haven’t found anything in a long time ….”

        If viewed from the perspective of the distances involved, the “size” of space, the time factors of the existence of the univrese and the various potential planets with possible intelligent life, and so on, SETI has been going on for about 1/2 of a picosecond. I wouldn’t call that a long time at all.

      • MadScientist says:

        If there is life out there (which is certainly not impossible), what are the odds that some form can create and manipulate tools and discover more about the universe, eventually leading to a mastery of nature similar to our own? I wouldn’t be too optimistic about evolution resulting in such creatures. Now let’s assume those creatures *did* exist – how do we let them know that we exist? Extremely powerful bursts of radio energy from stars (aside from our own) are difficult enough to detect on earth – we still have no means of signalling others.

      • Max says:

        If the odds of finding extraterrestial intelligence are low but the implications are huge, you could say that about ghosts and psychics.
        If the odds are high, then why haven’t we found anything? Cue special pleading.

      • NightHiker says:

        Max,

        “If the odds of finding extraterrestial intelligence are low but the implications are huge, you could say that about ghosts and psychics.”

        No, you can’t. To begin with, there is reason to believe other intelligent civilizations, if they exist, will sooner or later make use of electromagnetic radiation as a means of communication. Also there’s reason to believe that if they do so, such radiation may be detectable. SETI’s objective is to look for those signals. Their data therefore is relevant no matter what: if they do find such signals, their premise is validated. If they don’t, their premise is falsified. That makes it science.

        On the other hand, outside of wishful thinking and misunderstanding of how the human mind and senses work, there is no reason to believe there are ghosts or spirits to begin with, unless you throw away at least most of what we know about the universe. Ghost hunters have no valid, underlying hypothesis that can be falsified, because they don’t really know what they are looking for. Why are they looking for “cold spots”, “EVP”, or things of the sort? There is no logical link between those and the existence of ghosts, unlike intelligent life and the existence of communication through electromagnetic waves.

        If ghost hunters ran SETI we would be finding “intelligent life” every day.

        Ghost hunters like to say they’re working on the fringe of our current scientific knowledge, but that’s far from the truth. They are not wandering through a scientific no man’s wasteland. They are stomping without care on a very well maintained and fruitful scientific garden.

      • qbsmd says:

        “Their data therefore is relevant no matter what: if they do find such signals, their premise is validated. If they don’t, their premise is falsified. That makes it science.”

        There’s a big similarity: no matter how long you search for extra-terrestrial radio signals, you can’t conclude that there aren’t extra-terrestrial civilizations who use signals we can’t recognize or can’t detect. Similarly, no matter how many “haunted” houses you can walk through and not find anything significant, you can’t prove that the ghosts aren’t somewhere else, or just don’t want you to see them.

        The big difference is that SETI has a clear hypothesis that leads its observations: extra-terrestrial civilizations use radio signals we can detect and will send patterns that can be distinguished from natural phenomena. Therefore they looks for radio signals with patterns that can be distinguished from natural phenomena. For ghost hunters, the hypothesis isn’t so clear; something about dead people’s consciousnesses surviving death and interacting with stuff, and the observations of EVPs or IR sensors or EMF detectors have no direct relationship with that inferred hypothesis.

      • NightHiker says:

        qbsmd,

        “There’s a big similarity: no matter how long you search for extra-terrestrial radio signals, you can’t conclude that there aren’t extra-terrestrial civilizations who use signals we can’t recognize or can’t detect.”

        Such signals we can’t recognize or detect are, therefore, beyond the scope of SETI. The problem they have is a matter of logistics – in order to completely falsify their hypothesis they need to scan the whole sky and the widest array of frequencies possible. Now the problem with ghost hunting is one of principle, not logistics – before they know what they are looking for and why, it doesn’t matter how much they look.

        “The big difference is that SETI has a clear hypothesis that leads its observations: extra-terrestrial civilizations use radio signals we can detect and will send patterns that can be distinguished from natural phenomena.”

        That’s what I meant with “…there is reason to believe other intelligent civilizations, if they exist, will sooner or later make use of electromagnetic radiation as a means of communication.” Here you’re just saying the same thing with different words.

      • MadScientist says:

        @Max: I mean it’s unlikely we can ever positively identify life forms around other stars, nor do I agree with the “big implications” thing. It would merely confirm what we already know: that life can arise in a suitable environment. Personally I think it is a trivial matter – so what if we verified that there are intelligent alien civilizations? It is not information which will upset any current scientific theories. I’d rather spend my time establishing possible routes for abiogenesis.

    • tmac57 says:

      We at least have a data set of one for life originating on a planet,so even though it is highly unlikely that we will ever detect another extraterrestrial presence, it is possible in principle.There are no data sets for ghosts,however.

      • Max says:

        That’s one point for SETI.
        But if SETI finds an anomaly, there’s not much they can do with it. At least ghost hunters can actually visit the location of the anomalies to investigate, so that’s one point for ghost hunting.

      • John Greg says:

        “But if SETI finds an anomaly, there’s not much they can do with it.”

        So, you’re saying let’s just stop looking for evidence of life in the universe because we can’t do anything with it? Jesus, stop the presses and most of the more complex science experiments ’cause we can’t do anything with it. Man, talk about a narrow perspective.

      • Max says:

        I thought I was saying that ghost hunting has one advantage over SETI.

      • John Greg says:

        Yes Max, you’re right. I overreacted somewhat. My bad.

        What I should have said, and what is being somewhat pointed out by others in other posts, is that you appear to be making some false, or at least not very well argued, correlations between ghost hunting and SETI.

      • Beelzebud says:

        I know what you’re trying to do here, but this is just too simplistic. SETI *has* found anomalies, and further observations let them get to the bottom of said anomalies. There have also been completely unexplained signals, but they never repeated, and thus can’t be used as proof of anything.

        Ghost hunters find anomalies, declare it the presence of spiritual energy, and move on. SETI does not operate like that in any way. It’s an unfair comparison.

      • Max says:

        I’m not comparing SETI scientists to the clowns on ghost hunting TV shows. I’m comparing the basic idea. If SETI scientists went ghost hunting, would it be less scientific than their extraterrestrial intelligence hunting?

  6. Max says:

    “At best such explanations are hypotheses. Now the hardest part of science comes into play – figure out a practical way to test that hypothesis. That is the most critical, and often the most difficult, step in the process – and it appears to be completely missing from the ghost hunters’ repertoire.”

    That’s an important lesson for paranormal investigators, conspiracy theorists, and lazy skeptics, who just come up with an explanation for an anomaly, but don’t take the next step to corroborate it.

    Imagine if your car mechanic hears your car make a clunking noise, concludes that there’s either a ghost or a dead turtle in the engine, and leaves it at that.

  7. MadScientist says:

    It reminds me a lot of God Hunting. Aren’t flowers beautiful! That’s proof that there’s a god! Isn’t it awful how thousands of children are dying of disease and starvation each day? Fortunately god will look after them when they’re dead. No need for those cheap EVP recorders and expensive infrared cameras in the search for god! Just make anything up and say “goddidit” or “see, there’s a god!” Now I feel like switching on my game computer and going god hunting with Kratos.

  8. tmac57 says:

    The thing that puzzles me,is why would any anomaly,whether it is real or not be interpreted as a ghost? Since there have never been any documented evidence of what a ghost is,or what properties a ghost has,then how do you decide that a cold spot in a room is evidence for a ghost?
    If I recorded video of clouds for several days,I could probably sift through them and isolate images that look like a rabbit,ship,frog,fire hydrant,or whatever,but what would that tell me? Should I conclude that there is some force in the sky that is sending me messages?

  9. Sharon Hill says:

    Dr. Steve: I’m thrilled that this topic is getting such scrutiny lately. I’ve spent the past year researching the “scientificity” of amateur research and investigation groups and am finalizing a thesis project this month. My focus was on how these groups use “science” in words, images and suggestion in their activities – how they portray science to the public. Apparently they do it well enough to convince people who aren’t well-versed in science. Considering the American public has such low rates of science literacy, they are doing a fine job of fooling lots of people with their sciencey-ness.

    What I found interesting in my research is that when I contacted some very “scientific” groups about exactly what was scientific about their methods, they totally back-pedaled! They admitted that weren’t scientists, nothing that they did would be acceptable to the scientific community and they seemed to have a good sense that what they do was not in league with quality scientific research. Science as a privileged way of knowing is based on not just a general ‘scientific method’ but a culture of norms and ideals (see Robert K. Merton) non-scientists don’t follow.

    Pseudoscientific processes have issues such as lax rules for data collection and experiments; lack of adequate environmental or experimental controls; conceptually unsound or flawed methods; collection of soft data such as anecdotes and subjective feelings; and use of special pleading to explain validity of results or shifting of the burden of proof. The more characteristics attributable to the activity, the better chance it is not going to be accepted as science. It’s obvious that we see ghost hunting meeting all 5 of those. I prefer to call their methods “sham inquiry” (see http://idoubtit.wordpress.com/category/sham-inquiry/ for more info, references and examples) because they have presupposed an answer they wish to get to and it’s not real inquiry at all.

    I think this is a serious problem regarding science and the public since they appear to be buying into this. More people are forming and joining these groups (there are WELL over 1000 in the U.S. alone, I couldn’t count them all) and the TV shows capture millions of eyeballs each week. We need critical responses more than ever!

    [cross posted on Neurologica too]

  10. Science, in my opinion, is about making mistakes, learning, adapting, being creative and innovative whilst accepting peer review and critique.

    Ghost Hunting, in my opinion, is about eating Doritos in the dark.

    • highnumber says:

      Jose,
      Are you referring to the ghost hunters themselves or the viewers of their shows?

      I had the, er, luck to catch a bit of one of these shows yesterday. It crossed the line from so amazingly ludicrous that I had to watch so I could yell at the tv to so frustratingly inane that I had to walk away before I went mad.

      • There’s not much separating the viewers from the cast members of Ghost Hunters. Every time they mention the scientific method, I vomit in my mouth.

        Ghost hunting is possibly the most idiotic past time known to man. I should know. I endured 6 years of it as part of a character study. The mere fact the people who populate the scene refer to it as a “field” is proof enough that it’s a tragic comedy without the canned laughter.

      • John Greg says:

        There’s not much separating the viewers from the cast members of Ghost Hunters.”

        Except that perhaps the cast know better.

      • Wait, I just identified a key similarity with Ghost Hunters and Doritos. Cheesy.

  11. Bob Mcbride says:

    I’ve had arguments with people who have suggested that I’m closed minded since I don’t consider ghost hunting legitmate. Wanted to call them on their belief in equal validity but don’t know how to put it.

    • The argument I use is calibration. These people walk around with gadgets that aren’t calibrated for the intended use and the majority don’t have the input facilities to be calibrated in the first place. Also, calibrated equipment requires maintenance and regular recalibration. Now, you’ll get the odd individual who claims they do have calibrated equipment, so, ask them what their calibration target is whilst calibrating. There’s usually a buffer depending on how accurate you need the equipment.

      To put is bluntly, these people are walking around with gadgets that are not being used correctly or for the purpose of which they are designed. Hell, just ask them to explain the scientific method right there in front of you. Then, if they actually know it, ask them to give valid examples of how the method applies to their “hobby.”

      These people don’t like criticism. That’s their biggest problem. If you don’t like peer scrutiny or criticism, then you should steer clear of anything that relates to science.

      • Bob Mcbride says:

        They are already doing that. Starting their “research” with a preconcieved notion isn’t science. I’ve heard about the misuse of tools. Maybe the best guide for the un-innitiated that I’ve seen is the episode that Brian Dunning did on skeptoid. I’m unqualified talking about those tools though; having not been trained in their use.

      • Not trained to use the equipment? You should definitely look into some paranormal course. It’s about US$100 for a few days and you get a charming inkjet diploma at the end of it. Haw!

  12. qbsmd says:

    We should try to come to a consensus on scientific methods to detect ghosts, and challenge ghost hunting groups to meet that standard. At the very least it might make the difference between science and pseudo-science more obvious.

    My contribution: before using IR\EMF to try to detect ghosts, it is necessary to correlate such observations with hauntings. IR\EMF sensors should be left in several purportedly haunted locations for about a week at several different times of year, as well as in several control locations (those with no reputation of being haunted or history of people dying) of similar construction and age in similar geographic areas. The sensors should be set up by a team that has no knowledge of which locations are which. Then a third party should process the data, blinded as to which locations were which, and what the data they are analyzing is. If they don’t produce a clear correlation between signals on the detectors and locations alleged to be haunted, the hypothesis that these detectors is useful is falsified.

    • EMF is noise, distortion and compression captured on cheap audio equipment with microphones that are not fit for the task at hand.

      Not once have I heard an EMF from a high end digital tascam with highly modified and expensive preamps. You can hear a bee fart with absolute minimal distortion when amplified. Maybe the ghosts were speechless.

  13. NightHiker says:

    qbsmd,

    “We should try to come to a consensus on scientific methods to detect ghosts, and challenge ghost hunting groups to meet that standard.”

    Not really, unless you think we also should try to come to a consensus on scientific methods to detect fairies, djinnis, invisible pink unicorns, and each and every other such ideas anyone come up with, which is impossible. Those trying to defend the existence of such things are the ones who need to do the work and demonstrate how their enterprises are indeed scientific. All we can be realistically expected to do is analyse their methods and results.

    “If they don’t produce a clear correlation between signals on the detectors and locations alleged to be haunted, the hypothesis that these detectors is useful is falsified.”

    The problem is that you face the issue you mentioned with your criticism of SETI. Unless you search everywhere all the time for any kind of anomaly, which is also quite impossible, there will always be the proponents who will say you didn’t look in the right place, or will find a new, different anomaly to look for.

    And on the other hand, if you do find a correlation somewhere, it still will be no evidence of the existence of “ghosts” because they still need to properly define what it is that they are looking for to begin with. Again, if they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for, they will never know if they found it.

    • qbsmd says:

      “Not really, unless you think we also should try to come to a consensus on scientific methods to detect fairies, djinnis, invisible pink unicorns, and each and every other such ideas anyone come up with, which is impossible.”

      I would say that beliefs that are more prevalent and influential deserve more attention. Things like ghosts or religions are believed by a majority of people, and people like anti-vaccinationists can cause deaths even in small groups, so they’re more commonly focused on than things like fairies or unicorns, which are beliefs that don’t really affect anything.

      “Those trying to defend the existence of such things are the ones who need to do the work and demonstrate how their enterprises are indeed scientific.”

      I agree with that burden of proof, but don’t mind advising them on how to meet it.

      “there will always be the proponents who will say you didn’t look in the right place, or will find a new, different anomaly to look for.”

      But as you said, the burden of proof is on them to look in the right place or figure out what to look for. I’m not suggesting every skeptic group should start ghost hunting, I just think it would be a good idea for skeptics to set a standard for what ghost hunting would have to do to be considered scientific.

      “And on the other hand, if you do find a correlation somewhere, it still will be no evidence of the existence of “ghosts” because they still need to properly define what it is that they are looking for to begin with. Again, if they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for, they will never know if they found it.”

      Okay, the basic hypothesis is that human consciousness can survive death and continue to interact with living people and physical objects. This hypothesis is extended based on which interactions the ghost hunter is looking at: physical sightings, objects moving around, etc. The extended hypothesis I was addressing is that these interactions include temperature drops, EMF activity, etc.

      Since ghost hunters seem to like to use the fancy electronics, my proposed experiment was designed to show whether there is a correlation between the fancy electronics and reports of phenomena before fancy electronics are brought in. Obviously, if a correlation were found, the next step would be to find the direction of causation: do temperature drops or EMF spikes caused by natural phenomena make people think a place is haunted or not?

  14. Donna Gore says:

    Talk about putting the cart before the horse! It’s like arguing about “life after death” – nobody has ever been able to prove that such a thing as a “soul” even exists, yet they spend hours and hours arguing about what happens to this “soul.” I have a Catholic friend who actually believes in demons and exorcisms. I asked him, “Wouldn’t you have to first prove that demons actually exist before you could prove that they can take over a person’s body?” What a monumental waste of time, when there are so many REAL things to investigate.

    • Nothing wrong with belief. It’s the methodology and claims of “proof” or “evidence” that drop you in hot water. These people don’t follow any protocols that qualify anything they do and they’re content with it. That’s scarier than any “ghost” in my opinion.

  15. Lee Fairbanks says:

    Religion and Ghosts are just sloppy Science. On another thread here I mentioned that a group of skeptics should go to the EXACT locations where the Sci-Fi Channel Ghost Hunters “recorded” ghosts.

    We would SOON see how foolish these shows really are.

  16. ram says:

    offtopic—–one suggestion this site should have a share link….it makes it easily sharable and also popularity of site

  17. tmac57 says:

    All of these ‘paranormal’ type of endeavors strike me as a game of ‘let’s pretend’ that has gone too far.

  18. James says:

    Lee,
    Your suggestion is an excellent one and the suggestion that skeptics use the tools of critical thinking, scientific methodology, and assumptive reasoning to debunk supposed paranormal phenomenon is exactly what those of us who have experienced things that cannot be explained (at least by those of us without formal scientific training) have been begging for from the scientific community for decades. The problem is that a large majority of “mainstream” scientists will not delve into any field that might be considered outside the norm. Those fields include but are not limited to the study of UAP (unidentified aerial phenomenon), the study of other worldly manifestations in the form of EVP, video or photographic evidence, ESP, or crytozoology. The reasons that these bearers of scientific truth (and those of you in this forum who identify yourselves as “skeptics” yet have never undertaken any investigation of the paranormal) avoid such issues are plenty. I’m sure public ridicule, loss of grant money, and the outright scorn from colleagues might explain a lot of it. On the other hand, many so called skeptics I have talked to have told me that such investigations are a waste of time because to date there is not enough hard evidence to warrant any further study of these fields. I say, “Hogwash”.

    I must admit to complete frustration when reading skeptical blogs like these where derision, misdirection and ridicule rule the day. You pick apart the popular TV “Ghost Hunter” shows (rightfully so in most cases I might add) but completely overlook any evidence or research that appears to have been gathered in a manner consistent with scientific, empirical fact finding.

    Leslie Kean’s latest book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record, is a perfect example of such research. Her meticulous study coupled with the first hand accounts of hundreds of witnesses whose credibility, character, and pedigree are unquestionable leave no doubt that there are crafts regularly appearing in our airspace that exhibit technological attributes completely beyond man’s current ability to re-produce. She nor the experts quoted n her book lay any claim as to “what” these objects are or “why” they are here. The fact that documents recently acquired from our nation’s Government and others completely support this claim is enough. The “what” and the “why” are the things that YOU, the folks who claim to be interested in explaining things to those of us who are unable to do so, should be investigating.

    Instead, I suppose you will tell me that Kean is in collusion with the myriad of Generals, Pilots, and Government officials quoted in the book and that their sole intent is to make a buck through the selling of some books. That the Phoenix lights were flares even though there is video evidence that shows the “object” concealing the light from the stars behind it. That the Belgian air force pilots and hundreds of witnesses that saw a multitude of craft over several months all were suffering mass hallucinations.

    Skepticism is a critical and inherent part of any scientific investigation. The problem with this site and most other “skeptic” based sites is that you folks are not skeptics. You are de-bunkers. Your dogmatic, lockstep approach to these issues clouds your judgment to such a degree that no matter how good or how plentiful the evidence, it will never be enough. NOTHING can convince you otherwise. Science is the religion by which you live your lives and by which you explain our world, even when it is pointed out to you that many if not most of the positions that the great men of science have taken over the last several centuries have turned out to be either completely false or seriously flawed.

    You accept theories such as quantum entanglement as the Gospel because three sets of scientists have shown that two entangled particles react as predicted, yet when faced with tens of thousands of EVPs, many recorded under rigorous scientific conditions by men of science, you dismiss them as “CB radio” bleed over or as speech that is psychologically contrived. In 1900 the greatest scientific minds of the day concluded unequivocally that human flight in a man made machine was physically impossible. Very few questioned these proclamations because the men making them were considered to be beyond reproach. A short three years later Wilbur and Orville showed them otherwise. Just one of thousands of examples of scientific folly.

    I doubt I will change any minds with my long winded diatribe, and I’m sure my arguments will be shredded by those of you with doctorates in logic and philosophy. That’s fine, but I still would like to invite any members that regularly contribute to this blog to investigate these matters yourself. Set aside your preconceived notions for a moment and put your claims to the test. Go out into the field. Visit several “haunted houses” and use the very techniques and methodology to debunk the claims of the paranormal. Analyze the best UFO data, read the government documents, and talk to the witnesses yourselves. Send the Patterson film to the best video analysts and explain to us why you are certain it is a fake, not because it “has” to be, but because the EVIDENCE compels you to do so.

    I’m sure you will find that in many cases you will be able to do so, but if one, and only one, piece of evidence cannot be explained in any rational, scientific manner, then the whole “skeptic” house of cards falls down. THAT, I believe, is your greatest fear. THAT, I believe is why I won’t see you in the field, but will continue only to read more of your ridicule and rhetoric. In the face of mounting SCIENTIFIC evidence to the contrary, the only people deserving ridicule might be those who look back at you from your bathroom mirror.

    • James,

      Since when did UAP, the study of other worldly manifestations in the form of EVP, video or photographic evidence, ESP, or crytozoology become a “field”? It’s an area of interest. A hobby. A tragic comedy without the Benny Hill background musical score. They’re not a “field.” A field leans toward the assumption that they have a connection with science. That, they do not.

      “Those of you in this forum who identify yourselves as “skeptics” yet have never undertaken any investigation of the paranormal”

      Wait…I wasted almost 4 years hanging around bored housewives chasing dust as a character study. I started with an open, skeptical mind and walked away trying my hardest not to be cynical. Which remains difficult when this subject matter is in question.

      As far as I’m concerned, not a single “Paranormal Investigator” utilises genuine investigative techniques so they themselves don’t actually “investigate” anything. Happy to be proven wrong though.

      “I’m sure public ridicule, loss of grant money, and the outright scorn from colleagues might explain a lot of it”

      Assuming so, but I’d safely assume it has more to do with having better things to do. It may also be a case of “STFU Already!” where the people performing these “investigations” won’t be told what they’re doing is unacceptable and the people trying to educate them are simply tired of repeating themselves to an audience of voluntarily deaf victims of their own ignorance.

      “I say, “Hogwash”

      What do you expect? You people don’t follow protocols. Your methodology is questionable at best. Your theories have no bearing on reality or foundation in fact. You capture “evidence” yet aren’t able to qualify it as such. Your community doesn’t accept peer review or scrutiny. Your gadgets are nonsense. Your “teams” are too busy being caught up in petty, childish disputes over “locations.” The list goes on and on. Hogwash? No…that’s exactly how it is.

      “I must admit to complete frustration when reading skeptical blogs like these where derision, misdirection and ridicule rule the day.”

      You expected what exactly? Praise? Sure, you’ll get that when you’re worthy of it.

      “You pick apart the popular TV “Ghost Hunter” shows but completely overlook any evidence or research that appears to have been gathered in a manner consistent with scientific, empirical fact finding.”

      I love that show. It makes me giggle. If the real world functioned the way “Paranormal Groups” functioned we’d have nothing but chaos and anarchy. You people give yourselves titles and roles with no credentials or genuine training. Can you imagine people in Law Enforcement populated by people who woke up and decided to be a “Cop”? They have no valid training or qualifications but they got all their “smarts” from Miami Vice and reading “interweb” forums. Nice. How about Lawyers that never passed the Bar and simply watched episodes of Law & Order back to back? Yeah…well. You start following protocols that qualify your “evidence” as such and we’ll have a decent conversation. Until then…and I’d hate to say it…Hell will possibly freeze over before we see that happen.

      “Leslie Kean’s latest book, UFOs: Generals, Pilots and Government Officials Go On the Record, is a perfect example of such research”

      And that has what to do with chasing dust in the dark?

      Sorry…I stopped reading your post. I was afraid my brain would crawl out from my nasal cavity and beat me to death with my spine as payback for continuing with your insipid rant.

      Paranormal Investigation is bullshit. The onus is on you to prove otherwise.

      • PookNukem says:

        haha, earlier u said u endured 6 years for a character study and now its 4 years? kinda sounds like what ur saying is BS just to prove ur point, LMFAO!!! so sad…

  19. Joe says:

    Even the most credible witness can be led by suggestion and the most critically minded can have real seeming dreams.

  20. James says:

    Jose,
    Your dogmatic approach and unwavering ignorance of the subject show your opinions for what they are, but men of much greater stature than I have said it much better;

    “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which
    cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance–that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”
    - Herbert Spencer, British philosopher

    OR

    “If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain… In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.” – Richard Feynman

    • I prefer the quote from a more credible source.

      “That’s just bullshit”
      -Drunk lying in the gutter

      Please explain the protocols you have in place to conduct your “investigations” and gather “evidence”.

      Please explain your “methods” and use of your “equipment”.

      Please explain the “theories” and how they relate to the modern methodology of “ghost hunting”

      Please explain the “theories” and indicate supportive, credible, peer reviewed evidence that forms a foundation in fact.

      No seriously…please explain something other than stating I’m ignorant. Or are you going to take the back foot and hit me with the safety-net paranormal excuses like “do your own research,” “it doesn’t work like that,” “it’s paranormal and therefor unexplainable,” “it’s just a theory,” “our research shows,” “no proof is ever good enough for a skeptic” and the “you’re ignorant” as above.

      Seriously…let’s have it. I’ve hunted dust with the best of them.

    • I’ll consider this case closed (minded)

  21. Mike says:

    Conforming to an unprovable “Scientific” Method?
    Something to ponder…..

    Is science really just a Philosophy?

    The proof for this is relatively easy to demonstrate, just by examining the Scientific Method. The Scientific Method is the way in which scientists determine their truth. The Scientific Method is expressed as the following:

    1. Observation – observe something happen
    2. Hypothesis – make a hypothesis based on your observations
    3. Predictions – make predictions based on your hypothesis
    4. Experiment – do experiments to determine if your predictions are correct.
    5. Repeat until there are no discrepancies between the various steps.

    Now the first thing that can be noted is that the Scientific Method itself cannot be verified by the Scientific Method. That is, the Scientific Method is a system to determine truth. A system that determines truth cannot prove itself, for in the attempt to prove itself it must first assert that it is true in order to determine whether or not it is true, which is circular reasoning. Therefore, the Scientific Method is itself dependent upon the observer’s philosophical presuppositions to begin with—it must be presumed in order to be used. In other words, the Scientific Method is accepted because an observer decides by faith to accept it as true, not because an observer knows that it is true. This acceptance is not provable, but is instead merely assumed axiomatically based on the philosophy of the observer.

    The results of the Scientific Method are called “scientific.” But since the Scientific Method itself is dependent upon the philosophy of the scientist (that is, the Scientific Method can be used by both materialistic scientists, naturalistic scientists, and supernaturalistic scientists), the results of science are nothing more than a philosophical view expressed through a specific system. The same thing happens with logic (that is, people of various philosophical backgrounds can come to different conclusions while not violating the laws of logic because each person comes from a different presuppositional background).

    In other words, that which is “scientific” is nothing more than a philosophical view expressed through the Scientific Method, which is itself an unprovable axiomatic system. As such, the scientific answers presented are only as good as the philosophical presuppositions put into the system in the first place. This means that, rather than giving certain knowledge and distinguishing truth from error, the Scientific Method is nothing more than a way to determine whether something is consistent with your presupposed philosophy. Only if your presupposed philosophy is certain and true can the results of the Scientific Method be certain and true, and then only if the Scientific Method is also true (simply stating that it is consistent with your worldview would not necessitate the truth of the Method, even if your worldview is correct).

    So science, like religion, is a system of belief that conforms to a presupposed understanding of reality. Science is a philosophy, just as much as religion is.