Belief in Ghosts is rising: Looking beyond the headline claims

In September there was much news coverage about how a study conducted by YouGov showed that belief in ghosts has risen. Examples here at The Metro and The Telegraph. I was at the conference that the results of this study were announced at and I was instantly interested in finding out more, so when I got home I started digging through past studies to find which 2005 and 2009 studies the results had been compared to, but I had some difficulty because the poll information being written about was not obtainable anywhere.

With this in mind I contacted ASSAP and asked for the details. The results of the YouGov poll commissioned by ASSAP were then make available to view on their website. I think this is important because if you’re making big claims – especially in the media – you ought to make the information that backs your claims up available for people to study. It’s wrong to insist people take you at your word on something like this.

Yet, even with the ASSAP poll results now to hand, it was still difficult to work out exactly what 2005 & 2009 studies these results were comparable to, because the questions asked did not match any previous poll questions that I could find. I turned to other researchers to see if they were aware of any 2005 & 2009 polls that I wasn’t, but they too could find nothing that was comparative.

I again approached ASSAP for clarification, and was told that the results had been compared to a 2005 Gallup poll and a 2009 Comres poll. This was baffling.

View the 2013 ASSAP poll results online by clicking here.
View the 2009 Comres poll results online by clicking here.
View the 2005 Gallup poll results online by clicking here.

The ASSAP poll, run by YouGov, asked participants ‘To what extent do you agree or disagree with each of the following statements?’
– ‘I believe some people have experienced ghosts (i.e. seen, heard, smelt or otherwise sensed the spirit of a deceased person or animal)’
– I believe some people have witnessed UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) that have an extraterrestrial origin.

Participants then selected that they either ‘strongly disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘slightly disagree’, ‘slightly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘strongly agree’ or ‘not sure’.

The Comres poll asked people ‘do you believe in the following?
-Life after Death
-The human soul
-Heaven
-Astrology/Horoscopes
-Ghosts
-Fortune Telling/Tarot
-Reincarnation

The Gallup poll asked participants ‘For each of the following items please tell me whether it is something you believe in, something you’re not sure about, or something you don’t believe in.’ Participants then had to apply these three options to this list of things:
-That houses can be haunted
-Astrology, or that the position of the stars and planets can affect people’s lives
– That extraterrestrial beings have visited Earth at some time in the past
-That people can hear from or communicate mentally with someone who has died
-Witches
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You can see, just by glancing at the approach each poll took to their subject, that each poll is quite different and that the questions and available answers are wide open to interpretation. For example, the Comres poll lists both ‘the human soul’ and ‘ghosts’ as two different things you may or may not believe in, but many might suggest these were the same. The other polls do not make this split. The Gallup poll makes no mention of ghost whatsoever, and only talks about haunted houses… a topic that I’m sure many will agree is complex.
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If you are asked to say you either ‘believe’, ‘aren’t sure’ or ‘don’t believe’ that ‘houses can be haunted’ by a 2005 poll, but in 2013 are asked if you ‘strongly disagree’, ‘disagree’, ‘slightly disagree’, ‘slightly agree’, ‘agree’, ‘strongly agree’ or are ‘not sure’ that ‘some people have experienced ghosts’, are you really answering similar questions – the answers to which are comparative? I’m inclined to say no. Haunted House ≠ Ghosts in everybody’s mind, and that isn’t the only problem here.
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If you have three options ‘believe’, ‘not sure’, ‘don’t believe’ when it comes to haunted houses, but have more answer options when it comes to people experiencing ghosts, what was a ‘believe’ in haunted houses could suddenly become a ‘slightly agree’ that people experience ghosts, and what was a ‘don’t believe’ in haunted houses could also become a ‘slightly agree’ too. YouGov appear to use a 5 point linkert scaling system and it seems that ‘slightly agree’ and ‘agree’ would both be counted as positive answers (i.e. that support the idea belief is rising), so if what was negative in the Gallup poll turns into a ‘slightly agree’ on the YouGov poll, then of course it will seem as though more people believe in the paranormal than before, but that doesn’t mean this is necessarily happening.
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With all of this in mind I don’t think saying that the 2013 poll indicates that belief has risen in comparison to these earlier polls is a safe or trustworthy conclusion. I can imagine that belief may indeed have risen considering how easily accessible information about ghosts and the paranormal is nowadays, and how often society is bombarded with pseudo-scientific information about ‘ghost evidence’ and ‘ghost hunting’ and so on, but I’m just speculating here.
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I asked ASSAP why the 2005 & 2009 polls were chosen as comparison polls and was told that it was YouGov themselves that made this selection. When I voiced my concerns about the validity of these comparisons I was told:

That’s a methodological question. And the methodological experts disagree. I’m taking their advice on this. My focus now is to fundraise to ensure the polling can be repeated each year to allow a full picture to be built up over time. Our focus on this was the level of belief, much more so than the comparisons but newspapers chose to take that angle.

This is the start of what is hopefully a growing set of data that will come in year on year. I don’t want that project to get off to a bad start.

These are fair goals to set out, however I feel that this project was off to a bad start the moment the papers were handed the incomplete data set from this project and allowed to sensationalise how belief in ghost is rising, when the organisation that commissioned the study themselves admit that this is an incomplete and ongoing project.

thanks to CJ Romer, Bob Dezon, Stuart Ritchie & Wendy Cousins. 

Published by

Hayley Stevens

Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

9 thoughts on “Belief in Ghosts is rising: Looking beyond the headline claims”

  1. “That’s a methodological question. And the methodological experts disagree. I’m taking their advice on this. My focus now is to fundraise to ensure the polling can be repeated each year to allow a full picture to be built up over time. Our focus on this was the level of belief, much more so than the comparisons but newspapers chose to take that angle.

    This is the start of what is hopefully a growing set of data that will come in year on year. I don’t want that project to get off to a bad start.”

    Who said this statement – someone direct from ASSAP? Great article btw.

  2. Great post, Hayley – particularly with contentious issues like the paranormal/supernatural, it’s vitally important not to suggest that data tells us something it doesn’t. Anyone quoting or comparing polls should always make clear what the polls are and how they were compared. Thanks for doing that work for us!

  3. Useful analysis, it’s easy to take these things at face value.

    I’m a bit puzzled by the ASSAP statement. Who are the experts who disagreed and what exactly was the ‘methodological question’, I wonder? Did YouGov disagree internally over the validity of making comparisons between disparate questions? If so which expert did ASSAP go with, and why? And why didn’t ASSAP flag up the issues outlined in your article with them before promoting the results? There seem to be more questions than answers raised by this statement and it would be good to have the chairman expand on his tantalisingly vague response to your question.

    As an ASSAP member I am concerned that this has made the organisation look foolish, and wonder how much was spent on the exercise. YouGov seems to have made a mess of the data selection so perhaps we should be asking for our money back.

    Despite the assertion that the chairman doesn’t want the project to get off to a bad start, it looks like it has already got off to one, and if this is going to be done every year then serious thought needs to given to making it rigorous so that conclusions have more validity.

  4. Nice work, Hayley.

    > I asked ASSAP why the 2005 & 2009 polls were chosen as comparison polls and was told that it was YouGov themselves that made this selection.

    I have an additional concern: why only two polls?

    My cynical take:

    UFO proponents, for instance, having been saying for forever and a day that UFO sightings and the percentage of UFO belief are going up. This is well-known. Surely, then, we must be leery of a pollster giving the client exactly what they want — even if the client does not explicitly state their desire at the time. That’s how you get the customer to come back, right? Giving them exactly what they want.

    So did the pollster cherry-pick recent polls with the lowest “belief” scores so as to give the current poll a satisfying but false significance?

    And without showing long-term trends, the ASSAP numbers have no real context. What I mean is, it is possible the ASSAP UFO numbers are historically high for the UK but only because UFO belief there was historically low. At the same time, the new numbers might mask a long-term trend of decreasing UFO belief in the English-speaking world. Consider:

    In the ASSAP poll, 46% of respondents who gave an opinion agreed (to some degree) that UFOs are of ET origin. A recent HuffPo/YouGov poll claims that “48 percent of adults in the United States are open to the idea that alien spacecraft are observing our planet.” By contrast, in 1982, George Gallup wrote, “A solid majority (or 57 percent) of adult Americans aware of UFOs believe that they are real. This figure contrasts markedly with Great Britian, where only 27 percent said they believe in flying saucers” (Adventures in Immortality, p 104).

    The ASSAP poll comparison is nonsense.

    ————-
    48 Percent Of Americans Believe UFOs Could Be ET Visitations
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/11/48-percent-of-americans-believe-in-ufos_n_3900669.html

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