On Occam’s Razor and “Rational Investigation”

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During the ‘Future of Ghost Investigations’ panel I sat on in early September we were asked ‘what equipment do you find is useful in apparition studies?’ Another panelist, John Fraser of the Society for Psychical Research, took a different approach to answering this question and suggested “rational and logical thought” was the only tool needed.

It’s a good answer in principle, but Fraser wrapped up “rational and logical thought” as Occam’s Razor saying

‘I think the only equipment that is absolutely essential is Occam’s Razor. Occam’s Razor is a Modus Operandi – the simplest & most accepted solution is the best one … the only thing a ghost hunter truly needs is rational and logical thought which is best summed up by Occam’s Razor’

Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate” or “plurality should not be posited without necessity.” Many people – including Fraser – define this to mean that the simplest solution is the best possible solution, and with this in mind I am inclined to politely disagree with Fraser that his interpretation of Occam’s Razor is an essential tool for paranormal researchers.

Firstly this is because I do not think that ‘rational and logical’ investigation is best summed up by Occam’s Razor. If anything, Occam’s Razor is a lego brick in the lego wall of rational investigation. It doesn’t make a good wall on its own.

Secondly, I believe that Fraser’s interpretation is confused.

What Occam’s Razor means is often open to interpretation, but I always focus on the ‘”do not multiply entities unnecessarily” aspect as I feel it is this that fits best with a rational approach to investigating weird stuff.

If a picture falls off of a wall Person 1 can say “The ghosts moved it“. Person 2 can explain the gravitational theory; Person 3 can also explain gravitational theory but add that gravity has ‘a ghostly presence’Person 1 has offered the simplest solution, but it doesn’t actually explain anything. Person 3 explains all the facts but unnecessarily adds an additional entity that adds nothing. Hence, it can be cut by Occam’s razor to yield the explanation offered by Person 2.

Occam’s razor is another way of stating parsimony. Or as Einstein is supposed to have said “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”. It makes good sense when applied carefully, but it is entirely possible to use Occam’s Razor as a justification for irrationally dismissing things a priori by people on both sides of an argument. Occam’s Razor has been used to dismiss ghosts while also being used to justify their existence! It’s important to keep this in mind.

So, while I think I get where Fraser was coming from when he says that Occam’s Razor is an essential tool for researchers to use, I think he confused what it actually means and how it applies to rational investigation. Have it to hand, but don’t walk around waving the razor wildly in front of you, because you might just cut off your nose…

Video: The Future of Ghost Investigations Panel

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Over the Weekend of September 6th I sat on a panel at the Seriously Strange Conference hosted by the Association of the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena. The panel was about the Future of Ghost Investigations. You can watch the panel below.

How to be a Ghost Buster!

how to be a ghost buster

This Halloween I am going to be delivering a free workshop at Bradford on Avon library for children aged 10+ called:

HOW TO BE A GHOST BUSTER!

A HANDS ON INTRODUCTION TO SCIENTIFIC PARANORMAL INVESTIGATION!

how to be a ghost busterWe will explore:

– How to spot fake ghosts
– Why people see things that aren’t there
– How to investigate ghosts using science
– How good our memories really are, and more…

There will also be a chance to have a ghost portrait photo taken for free* and get hands-on as we try to solve a ghost mystery!

I really hope you’ll consider coming (or, at least, spread the word about this), you can even bring your mum, dad or carer! It’s going to be great fun for Halloween and there’s so much to learn!

How to be a Ghost Buster
Bradford on Avon Library
Thursday October 31st, 4pm – 5pm
Free tickets – book via the library (details on the website)

*free photo portrait to be printed at home

Download a poster and spread the word! (PDF)

Hayley is a Ghost: The ultimate guide

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Recently a man sat through the talk I gave in which I spoke about being a non-believer who researches ghost phenomena, and in the break between the end of the talk and the Question & Answer session that was to follow he approached me and asked ‘how do you deal with the reaction from the people who say this isn’t real?’. I was confused, ‘say what isn’t real?’. He looked confused in return and said ‘people who say ghosts aren’t real and don’t think they exist…’

There was a slight silence while I tried to process what he was asking and then I simply said ‘well, I’m one of them. Didn’t you hear me speaking?‘ He had, he just hadn’t thought it was possible that a non-believer would care about paranormal topics even though I had spent an hour explaining how I do exactly that. You should have seen his face when I briefly mentioned that I was also atheist. There was just this pure disbelief in his eyes – ‘how can you be atheist about a god yet open minded about ghosts?’ he asked, ‘show me good evidence that either exists and I’ll start believing’. I think it clicked.

My belief in ghosts replaced my belief in god when I realised I was atheist during my late school years. What was heaven became an afterlife as I wasn’t quite ready to accept that this is the extent of my existence. Even Mario has more than just one go at life. I’ve since come to terms with this being it and am quite content with just this, but I wasn’t back then.

I can never really sum up perfectly how I first got involved in ghost research because I don’t think even I truly know why. It just happened. I started by frequenting online ghost hunting websites and watching Most Haunted, then when the show was hit by a scandal I started ghost hunting for myself. I guess it seemed like a good place to find the answers I was looking for and I did find them in the end but they just weren’t the answers I had expected to find. After many pointless hours spent looking for ghosts which, in my mind, would prove there was more to life that just a prolonged and gradually more and more wrinkly death I came to accept that there wasn’t, but on the flip side there didn’t need to be.

I started to refer to myself as a sceptic and non-believer in 2007 (though the two positions aren’t always mutual, of course). It wasn’t a light bulb moment, and it wasn’t a long painful process (and yet it wasn’t painless either). I didn’t jump out of a bathtub and shout ‘Eureka!’. It was a bit like a balloon deflating – quite disappointing. ‘Oh…’. I can see wonder in the world around me and I appreciate life and existence, but walking through walls, spying on people, and chatting to my dead Nan was quite appealing too, actually.

I can’t remember exactly when I began doubting the things I thought were true but I do remember that I became aware of things like the pareidolia effect, the ideomotor effect, logical fallacies, confirmation bias and the file drawer effect, and I saw them in action during the ghost hunts I was a part of and it progressed from there. Sitting through a table tipping session and scrutinising your ghost hunting colleagues to see who is causing the table to move through involuntary muscular movement just isn’t the same.

I’m still involved in paranormal research because I think the weird experiences that people report on a regular basis deserve our attention even if we think we know the answers already. Paranormal research is interesting, fun, and there’s loads of potential for new ideas and information. People have weird experiences – by researching or investigating those experiences I am not saying they are paranormal and I’m not being irrational either. I’m just curious and have always been a little bit fascinated with the paranormal since I was a child.

People have said I’m too lenient as a sceptic because I don’t dismiss ghost hunters, believers, or parapsychology out of hand, and I talk about haunted houses and ghosts as though it’s possible they are real. However, these subjects are complex and to dismiss them a priori is irrational. You don’t have to believe in ghosts to be actively involved in paranormal research, and if you think you do then you need to broaden your understanding of paranormal research or your understanding of how one goes about being open minded.

If ghosts aren’t your thing then that’s perfectly fine, but they’re my thing and that’s also okay. Ghosts don’t have to be woo.

In the short decade that I have been doing this stuff I have learned that it is never that simple and that these cases are always more complex than they seem. Dealing with those who experience ghosts is a minefield, and even those who have been researching ghost stuff for decades have to focus really hard so they don’t step on a mine and cause a small explosion of unethical behaviour or biased research.

As technology improves and multiplies so do the ways in which people can fake ghost photos and videos, but so too do the ways in which people can misinterpret normal everyday things as something a bit spooky. A fly sitting on a CCTV camera lens suddenly becomes a ghost floating across a pub, face recognition on a digital camera attempting to recognise a face that isn’t there suddenly becomes an invisible person only detected by the camera…

To be a decent ghost researcher you need to have the patience to deal with the same old stuff again and again, without rolling your eyes and not bothering to treat each case as a new case. You have to remember that not everyone has encountered previous cases where a rational explanation was found, like you have. It’s difficult (especially when you’re as impatient as I am), but it is worth it. It’s worth it because people have weird experiences and they deserve to be listened to. Not only because there may be something new to discover through studying their experience, but because you might just be able to work out what’s really going on, and in my experience that’s what people want to know.

When I would conduct numerous ghost hunts each month the people we would come into contact with who had experienced something weird were just so pleased to have someone acknowledge that experience without passing judgement.

Today I use scientific scepticism to assess claims made by other people about all sorts of things and I like to see evidence that backs up claims being made by people. If this is peer reviewed and replicated evidence then even better. Over the years I have developed an understanding of logical fallacies and often see these throughout the reasoning process in paranormal communities and I think that scepticism is a healthy approach to take to paranormal research. However, I don’t think it is enough to demand ‘evidence or STFU’ from those who are confused by an experience which is why I am still an active researcher and investigator.

Many insist that as a sceptic I am closed minded, but this isn’t true. Scepticism does not equate non-belief in something and it is possible to be a believer and to be sceptical. In fact, it’s healthy to be sceptical of the things you believe as well as the things you do not. Some people who say they are sceptics are naysayers who are closed minded, but someone who applies scepticism properly isn’t closed minded, and is actually willing to change their mind.

In the early period of identifying as a sceptic I often wrote dismissively of people and their ideas and came across as closed minded, but I’ve gotten over that since. I am wary of organised scepticism because there often seems to be an agenda of some sort involved, and often people claiming to be sceptics who dismiss paranormal research out of hand make it seem that sceptics are closed minded. This isn’t the case.

It’s not as complex as it may first seem, and I know I’m not the only non-believer who actively researchers ghost phenomena using scientific scepticism. I’m not really that unusual at all. I hope that this post has shed some light on what I “do” to those who aren’t sure, and if you were directed to this post by me it’s probably because you asked me a question I get asked a lot. I hope you found your answer here.

 

The ghost hunters are alright

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This weekend I attended the Seriously Strange Conference hosted at the University of Bath by the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP). I was a panelist on the Sunday and have been a paying member of ASSAP for many years, but I attended the whole event with my mum because it was close to where we live and had a great programme.

I was very aware of the fact that I was a skeptic attending a paranormal conference and that there may be some tension around that , but actually, I need not have worried because the audience was a diverse mix of believers and non-believers, and as one speaker pointed out during the weekend ‘we are all skeptics in one way or another’.

There were a couple of talks that I felt didn’t belong at the conference because of their irrational nature, but overall it was a very informative weekend and it was great to catch up with friends, and meet people I’d only ever spoken to online before.

The panels studied whether UFOs were different to other Anomalous Phenomena or not, Whether Poltergeist phenomena fell under the same heading as Hauntings, Multi-disciplinary approaches to the investigation & research of Anomalous Phenomena, and Anomalistic Psychology and Parapsychology were both covered extensively too.

The core message throughout the whole event, in my opinion, was that no matter your approach to your investigations and no matter what your personal beliefs were, we are all in this together and we have some genuinely interesting and important questions to ask ourselves. Are Poltergeists the same as hauntings? I didn’t quite know what I thought until the panelists spoke. Has Parapsychology achieved anything?

As I reflected on the conference after returning home a US friend posted a link on my Facebook wall to a Doubtful News piece that bemoans the stupid Ghost Hunters. It was quite timely, actually because the author of the piece states

For many and various reasons, I don’t buy these outrageous, extraordinary claims of hauntings. I would be amenable to helping with an investigation. But no one asks for a skeptic or scientist to be on the team. In fact, they kind of hate that.

This just furthered my opinion that we are fortunate to have an organisation like ASSAP because, although it is something you have to seek out if you want to improve your research skills and isn’t a mandatory thing (which is a good), ghost hunters, ghost investigations or whatever you want to call them, have a way of becoming top notch researchers who get good results. Thanks, ASSAP, you rock.

This idea that skeptics or scientists aren’t welcome, isn’t quite true though. Take this weekend and it’s diverse audience, for example. You only have to look at past cases to realise that a whole range of people are working together. Okay, so scientists might not be invited out by the local ghost hunting group to the screaming woods, but that isn’t where ghost hunting ends. That isn’t ghost hunting as a whole and lumping everyone in together like that is either intentionally or ignorantly dismissive and wrong.

Preaching at ghost hunters about how wrong they are and what a problem they are isn’t going to inspire them to change (and if you do that don’t be surprised when you don’t get an invite), and if you don’t want to inspire people to become good researchers then what good does moaning about the problem actually do in the first place? The Doubtful News piece ends by saying:

Ghost hunters need to get their act together and stop playing pretend scientist. They are failing.

We are getting our act together, and no we are not playing pretend science and we are NOT failing. Perhaps this person means those ghost hunters who go around using equipment that doesn’t do anything? It isn’t made clear as all ghost hunters are lazily lumped in with one another, again. A common theme on the Doubtful News site.

This weekend ASSAP announced an Accredited Qualification in Paranormal Investigation that is quite unlike any other offered to those interested in this sort of thing. It’s a distance learning course run by Accredited Tutors with modules that focus on:

1 – Ethics & Risk Assessment
2 – The Scientific Method
3 – Case Management

It will take roughly 90 hours to complete and the cost is minimal. I signed up straight away in the hope of being included in one of the first batches of people to undertake it. As it was being announced people were asked to show their hands if they were interested and almost everyone present raised their hands. People don’t want to be bad researchers. This runs alongside the two weekend long training courses that ASSAP offer to its members year after year. Courses that take them through good investigation techniques – covering everything, including the use of pseudo-scientific equipment.

The majority of people who use pseudo-science to hunt for ghosts don’t know they’re doing it wrong. It’s organisations like ASSAP that inspire people to change, and conferences like the one this weekend that show people that if we apply our research methods in the right way we can get actual results and help people.

Tony Eccles covered a number of cases in his talk and told us about the emotional impact these experiences had on the eye-witness. They were life changing events for them! Nicky Sewell, on the poltergeist panel, conveyed beautifully the complexity of being involved in a Poltergeist case, and during the Future of Ghost Investigation panel we all agreed that the future needed to be more rational, with less gadgets and gimmickry, and that academia needed to play a bigger role in this too. This is a change we’re working on though, as a wider community (no matter how small a role we play). This is progress that we will make because we recognise the need for it.

It’s funny because I used to be one of those skeptics who heavily criticised ghost hunters for ‘their stupidity’, but I’m not like that anymore and I know how unhelpful I was being. This change will come from within the Phenomana Research communities and not from outside – it is stupid ghost hunters who will improve research standards, not dismissive skeptics and not Doubtful News. I am so over that website.

I am proud to be a stupid ghost hunter because now is a good time to be a ghost hunter.

The ghost hunters are alright.

You can sign up as a member of ASSAP via their website by clicking here.