Bill Nye on Ghosts

bill nye

The folks over at BigThink.com recently shared a video in which Bill Nye answers a question from a woman and her son about ghosts.

‘We have a question on your perspective on ghosts, and what you think happens to your life energy after you die. Is it just pushing daisies?”

It presented a great opportunity for Nye to respond to a question that many people have asked through the centuries.

The answers provided by Nye are less than inspiring though. His first mistake is to treat ghosts and psychics as one subject when this simply isn’t the case. A parapsychologist will study psychic claims but typically not ghosts and haunted houses. A paranormal researcher (like me) will research ghosts and haunted houses but not psychics.

Nye mentions that he is a member of several skeptic societies who have “looked and looked for haunted houses, ghosts in cemeteries or psychics who believe they’re in touch with people who are dead and there’s no credible evidence.”

What I think he means is that skeptical investigators routinely examine the evidence presented by people who claim it provides evidence of such things, and find it to be less than compelling and certainly not up to standard. No skeptical society that I am aware of has ever launched investigations to actively find evidence which would be a venture into the pseudo-scientific.

In the video Nye also talks about Harry Houdini and the code that Houdini promised to deliver after he died should ghosts be real. He seems to be quite confused though as he states:

“You may know that Houdini, the famous magician, said “if anybody can come back from the dead it’s me, man. I’m coming. And he never got in touch with anyone, no-one ever heard from him. yet a secret word between he and his mother that he said, you know, I’ll give you the secret word when he comes back. You know what the secret word is? NOBODY KNOWS! It was secret! He never came back!”

The code word was actually shared between Houdini and his wife, Bess. The word was also published in the authorised Houdini biography written by Harold Kellock titled Houdini, His Life Story.

Those who listen only to Nye’s version will not know the truth and perhaps will miss out on the insight that the Houdini story provides into the human relationship with ghosts.

For a while Bess believed Houdini had communicated from beyond the grave but it is likely that this was her way of coping with her grief following his death. This has been written about in detail by Massimo Polidoro for Skeptical Inquirer and you can read about it here.

This is something we see happening even today. Ghosts are a coping mechanism for many people and research has shown that some people benefit from the belief that a deceased love one is visiting them in ghost form. This is why I found myself growing annoyed with Nye when, at the end of the video, he tells the woman who asked the question that she can outwit her friends who believe in ghosts.

“Your friends who believe in ghosts – you can outwit them. You’re ahead of them because you’ll not waste energy look around looking for ghosts.”

Oh, hun. No. Not believing in ghosts doesn’t make you a superior person. Just watch skeptics talk about politics and you’ll see that non-belief =/= intelligence.

People who believe in ghosts aren’t stupid. They’re often people searching for closure or trying to figure out what they’ve experienced. I should know because I am the result of that line of reasoning. People asking these questions are not wasting their time in doing so.

Although Nye is technically right that research has provided no evidence for the survival of the human “soul”, this isn’t the whole sum of ghosts or even paranormal research.

Some people who believe in ghosts do not believe ghosts to be the human soul. Some people do not believe that haunted houses are haunted by ghosts, some people believe in ghosts but not haunted houses.

Paranormal research is a complex and weird field of study regardless of which direction you approach it from. Even those who’ve been researching this area for decades learn new things all of the time, which is why the research is ongoing. The confidence with which Nye dismissed these ideas suggests that he’s an expert, but his incorrect statements prove otherwise.

It’s behaviour like this that make me think I was right when I recently wrote of how Science Snobs Make Us All Stupid. And you can take my word for it because I’m a member of several skeptical societies – and even on the board for one.

I would have loved for Nye to say “evidence suggests ghosts aren’t real but…”, because we have so much to learn and teach about human perception from the experiences that people report. Explaining the Ideomotor response or Pareidolia effect can blow minds. As skeptics we could do well to remember that just because we have knowledge, not everybody does and it’s this can be used to engage people. Not ill-informed dismissals.

Knowledge is only powerful if you share it.

Investigating Britain’s Sexiest Ghost

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The day I arrived in Torquay was the sunniest we’d had yet in 2016. People lined the sea front in their holiday clothes and ate chips and ice-cream. The breeze from the sea ruffled through, providing an occasional release from the unrelenting heat, spinning rainbow pinwheels and tumbling seagulls around the sky as it went.

A man with a sweeping brush drew complex patterns into the sand, moving in a way that suggested this was a form of meditation for him. Elsewhere children ran around just because they could, sticks at the ready to poke in the sand. Boys with kayaks fought the waves, a photographer carefully stalked a group of sandpipers up and down the shore. It was charming just as the British seaside always is but I didn’t have time to stop and enjoy it. I was on a mission to investigate Britain’s sexiest ghost, and ghosts wait for no man.

sexiest ghost Torquay
The ghost

That ghosts are even real is a subject of much debate but Torquay museum insist they’ve got one, and not just any old ghost at that. Theirs is the sexiest one. Part of me is alarmed that you can still be objectified once you’re dead but that’s a different conversation for another day.

Last October their ghost made the headlines when it left fingerprints inside a glass case which houses a mummy. It hasn’t been established just how a ghost could leave fingerprints on glass without having physical hands but let’s humour this idea for a moment.

Just prior to the fingerprints being discovered it is claimed ‘the female ghost was seen creeping between the artefacts. She was wearing old clothing showing off all her assets as she emerged from the floor and cast her eyes down towards a light.’

In July 2015 the ghost was photographed in the Old Devon Farmhouse exhibition, leaning forwards slightly and showing off her cleavage. There has been speculation online about the cause of what is seen in the photo. Some people believe it to be staged, others suggest it is the reflection of someone in a window pane among other theories.

I was contacted by US paranormal researcher Benjamin Radford who wanted to know if I (as a British paranormal investigator) had heard anything through the grapevine about this particular case. The grapevine is a valued asset to paranormal researchers and it’s usually through word of mouth that tip offs come that help solve cases. After a long discussion I agreed to visit Torquay to have a look at the room and to take detailed photographs so that a cause might be established once and for all.

Ghost photos that are genuinely interesting are rare; they generally tend to be bad hoaxes, random blurs mistaken for something, photographic errors, or nothing at all. There was certainly something in this photo which made it stand out in my mind. There are times when an investigator can work out what is happening without an on-site visit, but more often than not actually being on location is beneficial and eye-opening. The answer can slap you right in the face when you thought you’d need hours of sleuthing. You might meet the “ghost” in person and be able to kill your afternoon in the pub instead (this has happened.)

Upon arriving at the museum and venturing onto the top floor where The Old Devon Farmhouse exhibit lives one thing became apparent straight away. The ghost was not caused by a reflection as many had suggested. I found all of the reflective surfaces in the room and took photos of the fireplaces through them from different angles to try and replicate what is seen in the original photo but it wasn’t possible.

Photo 21
The things I do…

As I inspected the area I saw that there were small benches next to one of the fireplaces that were in the right position for the ghost to have been seated on at the time. Therefore it is my conclusion that Britain’s sexiest ghost  was actually a living person sitting in the dark next to one of the fireplaces. It almost looks as though her face is lit by the screen of an electronic item such as a camera or phone.

The small benches in question
The small benches in question

After my inspection of the exhibit I found staff members and volunteers on the ground floor and inquired with them about the ghost. They explained that many people took part in ghost hunt events in the museum and had strange experiences. One of the women I spoke to explained that a whole shelf of books had flown off of the shelf in the gift shop one afternoon as she spoke with customers. That was the one original activity that any of them could recall – everything else was related to these ghost hunting events.

This is problematic because people taking part in a ghost hunting event have primed themselves to interpret things that they experience as most likely to be paranormal. When a haunting is largely based on the experiences of people who have paid to have a paranormal experience it isn’t a very reliable or interesting case and eye-witness testimony is not useful evidence or data.

I inspected the mummy case while at the museum. Remember, this mummy made headlines in October 2015 when ghostly fingerprints appeared on it during a ghost event.

Photo 98
Can you see the fingerprints?

The only problem is that there were fingerprints and greasy hand marks all over the case when I visited. The case is quite low down so that children can see the mummy properly so there’s absolutely nothing to suggest, to me, that fingerprints appearing on this display are out of the ordinary.

Photo 101

To establish that the fingerprints were not inside the case originally, or that they had simply not been noticed before would be an incredible feat. But even if we know for sure that this was true there is nothing to suggest that fingerprints appearing inside a case were caused by a ghost. There are a number of perfectly ordinary scenarios that could result in prints appearing inside the case when they weren’t there before.

I believe that these ghost-related headlines and events are all inspired by falling visitor numbers and are an attempt to to get people through the door and to drive revenue. It’s a shame because this sort of ghost tourism is quite uninspired when there are such interesting exhibits one could use to engage the public with but I think we shouldn’t be too quick to judge. 

It has been reported that ‘council figures show the [visitor] numbers dropped in 2013/14 from 25,957 to 18,743′ and the same report detailed how in 2015/16 the museum faced a 42% budget cut from the local authority. The Austerity that the Conservative government have imposed upon the United Kingdom is slowly strangling art and cultural organisations throughout the country. Museum manager, Phillip Collins said the funding cuts could ‘kill Torquay Museum before we are able to put ourselves on a secure financial footing for the future.’ 

That museums face this challenge is heartbreaking. Please visit your local museum, and not just because Britain’s Sexiest Ghost might be lurking in the shadows. Pervert.


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The BBC “Guide To Ghost-Hunting” Is Anti-Science

ghostbusters

In the week that saw Ghostbusters 2016 launch on the bigscreen I’ve been contacted by many news outlets wanting to speak to me. As I have a proper job I haven’t been able to oblige but luckily for us all, BBC Three managed to get hold of ‘a range of the most experienced experts in the field’ to put together a guide called ‘How to be a real life ghost hunter’. I’d say that it was a useful piece of writing, only it isn’t. It’s terrible and made me laugh for all the wrong reasons.

According to them paranormal investigators are ‘focused primarily on collecting data and evidence of the paranormal’ which is utter nonsense. Ghost hunters use biased methodologies to do this, investigators actually investigate to discover the facts – two very different approaches. Only one of which is useful.

It all becomes clear when the article goes on the explain how they’ve been getting their advice from Tim Brown from the British ghost hunting team called PIGS. To begin with Brown sounds pretty rational and explains that ‘“99% of the time when we get called round to a house, it’s turns out to be something quite normal; a creaky home, changes in temperatures, etc.’ but then he lets himself down by presenting this photo as evidence.

pigs photo 1

Brown adds ‘“Sometimes you hear from people that they’ve got a funny smell, or they’ve heard voices, or they’ve seen someone walking around their house. So at that point we try and record some evidence or data of what’s happening in their home. So we can either explain it away as normal, or prove that it’s not normal, and make sure it gets fixed.’

All of this, and the rest of the article prove that people who call themselves paranormal investigators are not always investigators and do not have any idea of how to apply the scientific method to their work. They’re out to prove that ghosts are real and to capture evidence of ghosts when this simply isn’t possible. Anything that they capture will have a real-world explanation.

Brown says that his team work to capture data of the odd things that have been reported to them to see if they can then work them out or not but this is just a clever way of explaining why they look as though they’re just ghost hunters. They’re not really ghost hunters, they just look like ghost hunters because they’re gathering data. Data is a scientific word, don’t you know?

Here are some facts though – you do not need to experience the oddity for yourself to be able to explain it. Do you know how long it would take for some cases to get solved if everyone used this method? It also adds a huge bias to the research being undertaken because it means that the investigators a) think there is something to be experienced, and b) are more likely to interpret ordinary things as significant because they’re looking for something significant.

But hey… it makes you sound rational, right?

Data, Surveillance, Analysis, Peer Review  – these are all buzz words used by ghost hunters to assure others (and themselves, I would argue) that they’re legit.

When ghost hunters employ these approaches they often ignore the negative hits (when something doesn’t occur) and only focus on the positive hits (when something occurs) which means that their conclusions are based upon cherry picked data.

Further down the article John from Spirit Knights Paranormal Investigators explains how it’s important to respect who you’re speaking to. ‘It’s when people go in to antagonise them that it all goes wrong. People get scratched and thrown down stairs, all through handling it wrong’ he says, and the article states: Spirits were once people and we shouldn’t forget that.

It’s clear that Spirit Knights are a whole different kind of ghost hunting team because they don’t hide the fact that they employ spiritualist methods of spirit communication on their ghost hunts. It does mean that their advice isn’t useful, but then at least BBC Three got their science-to-nonsense balance sorted which is highly important to them, but unfortunately for them the science they portrayed is anything but scientific. Awkward…

There is something wholly strange about humans who act as though they’re white knights riding in to save the tormented souls of the dead. I would suggest it says a lot about the self-worth of those who act in this way.

I have seen Ghostbusters 2016 and I thought it was a fun film. We talk about it in Episode 12 of The Spooktator podcast. The thing that stood out to me the most though was the fact that in this alternative universe the Ghostbusters are all scientists who have respect for rational inquiry. In their world it becomes apparent that ghosts really do exist but in this world that isn’t the reality. So-called experts like Tim Brown chase their shadows and make themselves feel important by sounding science-y., they host paranormal tourism events while claiming to be impartial, and they use equipment that does nothing useful.

Ghost hunting teams often want to distance themselves from the Most Haunted-esque type of ghost hunting which seemed to boom in the early part of this century, but in truth they’re not completely divorced from those methodologies at all because they rely on them too much. If you totally disregard pseudo-science how are you going to show the world that you’re right even when you’re spectacularly wrong?

 

Who Do Gettysburg Ghost Gals Think They’re Kidding?

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“Every team back in the 90s was male-dominated. You didn’t find any teams that were female-run” claims Brigid Goode, a member of the Gettysburg Ghost Gals in an interview with Irish Central.

In the article it is claimed she has ‘been doing paranormal investigations for decades and founded the Gettysburg Ghost Gals in 2012.’ In an MTV article Goode also claimed that “during investigations we get better results than the men do.”

Hmm.

Ugly gender stereotyping aside, we always knew there’d be people who’d ride of the coattails of the new Ghostbusters movie this year and it appears that the Gettysberg Ghost Gals (GGG) are those people. Members of this US based team have cropped up on various media outlets basking in the limelight of the movie by claiming to be the first all-female ghost-hunting team in the US. This, is seems, somehow makes them relatable to the new Ghostbusters who also happen to be women.

The Ghostbusters were a team of (mostly) parapsychologists who had their funding withdrawn by their university and struck it out on their own but the Ghostbusters are nothing like real-life Parapsychologists. I’d even go as far as to say that they’re bad and unethical researchers. Look no further that the Zener card experiment near the beginning of the film for evidence of this!

In her book  ‘Parapsychology: a beginners guide‘, Dr Caroline Watt writes that ‘Parapsychologists do not run around in boiler suits, hunting down marauding ghosts with proton packs. Instead, like other scientists, parapsychologists often carry out well-controlled studies and publish their findings in both mainstream and specialist academic journals.’

Running around chasing ghosts with weird equipment? Sounds familiar!

Further into the MTV article mentioned above Goode tells aspiring ghost hunters to ‘“Know your equipment, and know what you’re talking about. If they use modern equipment, pieces of ghost hunting equipment that we actually use, it would add legitimacy.’

This is not true because there is no equipment that has been proven to detect ghosts. Nobody has ever established the qualities of ghosts so how on earth would you go about detecting them?

A browse of the GGG website reveals nothing much about the methodologies they use, but there is a page dedicated to the paranormal equipment companies that sponsor them, and their event management company, and all of their public appearances… it’s all rather unimpressive.

I was prompted to write this post after noticing that someone called Chris Goode (who I presume is related to Brigid) recently tweeted that the Gettysburg team should have been included in a list of influential American ghost hunters produced by Planet Weird.

Awkward…

It seems to me that this attention-seeking ghost hunting team aren’t very good at researching ghosts which leaves them only one claim to fame – that they’re Americas first all-female ghost hunting team. There’s no way of establishing this as an accurate claim (and I’m pretty sure it could be disputed) but who really cares?

There are so many women who made waves and shaped paranormal research (and many who continue to do so today) despite their gender so if your only claim to fame is your gender then you’re not really that special.

Ghost Hunters Are Freaking Out Over The Conjuring 2

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I’m guilty of freaking out about The Conjuring 2 on several episodes of The Spooktator podcast. Not because it’s super scary but because of the way in which The Enfield Poltergeist Case is shown in the film.

Ed and Lorraine Warren are portrayed as the main investigators of the poltergeist case when in all reality it was investigators from the Society for Psychical Research who played this role – namely Maurice Grosse and Guy Lyon Playfair.  Playfair doesn’t even feature in the film which seems, quite frankly, ridiculous considering it is his book on the case that launched the Enfield case into something other than a case that just becomes forgotten.

But… what if we’re overreacting?

Fiction has always been inspired by reality – should we really be shocked that the cases we investigate go on to become horror films? Horror as a genre reflects what we, as society, fear. It turns out that there’s a strong crossover between what is feared most and what paranormal researcher investigate.

The two main concerns for me have always been that the general public will think that what’s portrayed in the film is a reflection of the reality of paranormal research. Maybe that will happen, but it’s not a new issue we’ve never faced before is it? It could be argued that Most Haunted and even Ghostbusters contribute to this issue too.

My second concern probably stems from ill-placed British pride – how dare such a prolific British case of phenomena be handled in such a manner? But really, this sort of phenomena happens the world over. It isn’t even the only poltergeist case that has happened in Britain, and yet there is a certain sense of admiration for what happened at Enfield… but why?

When we look back at the history of Paranormal research on this isle I wager that a lot of us have a romanticised vision of what has come before us. No doubt most paranormal researchers have ‘This House Is Haunted’ by Playfair on their bookshelves in which he paints an almost quaint vision of what paranormal research used to be.

Many Paranormal researchers lament the state of “ghost hunting today” because they compare it to what they think has come before them, but in reality paranormal research has always been a messy, diverse, competative thing to be involved in. Perhaps some of us are guilty of thinking that The Conjuring 2 is creating a bastardised view of the past that we wish we could be a part of without realising that it’s just an idea that we’ve been sold in countless books and talks.

The history of British Paranormal research is only as important as we allow it to be. True, what has come before us as researchers does have infleunce on what we do today – but it is our own actions that present to the world what modern Paranormal researchers are.