Annoying Myths About The Paranormal

ghostmyths

I’m a bit of a ghost geek and after being a paranormal investigator for over a decade I like to think I know a thing or two about ghosts. That’s why I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Halloween because on one hand “yay spooky times”, but on the other hand, I watch, aghast, as people who know very little about spontaneous phenomena suddenly start telling us the reality of it while really just rehashing old myths.

So, here are four stubborn myths about ghosts that I wish we could finally put to rest.

1 – Ghosts/Spirits are human energy because energy doesn’t die

I’m just going to say it. The first law of thermodynamics does not prove that ghosts are real. Ghost hunters occasionally claim that it does because if energy cannot be destroyed or dissipate then the energy in our bodies when we die must go somewhere, therefore… ghosts. This makes absolutely no sense at all because our bodies don’t just disappear once we’re dead. Things happen to our corpse and the energy in our cells is used in the decomposition process. Everything that makes us mobile relies on exchanges of different energies within our bodies.

This is GCSE science and yet so many people fail to grasp this. Remember in science class how your teacher explained that the sandwich you ate at lunchtime becomes energy that you use to kick a ball? They were right. Remember how the same teacher didn’t talk about some spiritual energy surviving death? Yeah!

If you want to know exactly what happens to your dead, bloating body when you die I recommend reading Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty. Be warned though, it isn’t pretty.

2 – Water attracts ghosts/causes hauntings because water has memory

Lots of so-called experts will tell you that houses with (or near) underground water sources are likely to be haunted and that bathrooms (where there’s lots of plumbing and water) are commonly haunted because of the water.

They are wrong.

The idea has its roots in the Stone Tape Theory that suggests a ghost or spirit can actually be a recording of a thing that happened a long time ago, the energy of which has been recorded in the fabric of the place the haunting is taking place in. In this instance, it would be a body of water or water source.

In fact, when I read John Fraser’s book ‘Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s guide’ (you can read my review here),  I was shocked to discover that he suggested water had memory and it was this that could cause ghosts to be drawn to it. (Fraser, 2010)

Nope.

Fraser suggests there is circumstantial evidence for this but there isn’t, especially as his circumstantial evidence involves the unscientific method of dowsing. (Fraser, 2010)

Yes. Dowsing, which only works because of ideomotor responses (unconscious muscular movement) which stop when you introduce a double-blind control as Professor Chris French did in this experiment…

Many people base their claim that water has memory on research by Dr Jaques Benveniste but they fail to realise or mention that Benveniste didn’t use a double-blind control is his research which could have (and probably did) bias the conclusions being reached.

The paper by Benveniste was published in Nature in 1988 but one of the conditions for publication was that editor John Maddox and James Randi could supervise a repeat of the experiment. They did, and they found that the assessment of the two types of water involved in the experiment involved a subjective evaluation by a researcher who knew which samples were which. When the protocol was tightened to avoid this the results were not repeated.

Other research by a Dr Emoto suggested that water could remember good or bad things spoken to it and that this would affect the way in which the water froze. However, as Carrie Poppy reported for Skeptical Inquirer, the protocols for these experiments were so lacking that it’d be impossible to replicate them.

‘Apparently, Emoto’s experimental protocols are so lacking as to be unrepeatable, and even the most basic attempts at scientific controls are absent. Regular Skeptical Inquirer contributor Harriet Hall reviewed Emoto’s book about his experiments herself, giving it the honor of “the worst book I have ever read. It is about as scientific as Alice in Wonderland.”’ Carrie Poppy, Skeptical Inquirer, 2014

So, although the idea that events can be recorded and replayed sounds possible and would account for some anomalous reports there really is no supporting evidence for this claim.

3 – More ghosts are seen at Halloween than any other time of the year

I see this claim made so often in the media and by paranormal researchers, especially at this time of the year. There are so many people rushing out to take part in ghost hunting events as a result of this myth and it’s a shame because they could be at home, in the warm, watching their Ghostwatch DVD instead. 

Halloween traditions change depending on where they come from but for many, it was (or is) a time to remember and honour the dead. Others would (or still do) go house to house in costume for food and would carry lanterns with them that represented spirits, or to drive spirits away. 

It was traditionally Christmas or Easter and the Pentecost that was most associated with apparitions of the dead and not All Saints Day or Halloween which was more about keeping the dead away. (Davies, 2007)

According to Owen Davies, ‘Today, Halloween is, of course, most associated with the imitation of ghosts and noisy spirits rather than concerns over their actual appearance.’ (Davies, 2007)

The idea that the spirit realm is somehow closer to that of the living is a nice idea that certainly suits the theme of modern Halloween but, as with many of the myths discussed here, this idea simply doesn’t have any evidence to support it. 

You might be more aware of your strange, ghostly experiences at this time of year because Halloween is so widely commercialised but, in all reality, you’re just as likely to see a ghost in July as you are to see a ghost in October.

4 – The X-box Kinect can detect ghosts

Thanks to US ghost hunting TV show Ghost Adventures, Youtube and ghost hunting websites are full of footage of ghosts captured using Microsoft Kinect, the advanced motion-capture camera that you can use with your Xbox console. 

Unexplained figures that are picked up by the camera are explained away as ghosts but is that really the case? Can this camera detect what the human eye cannot see?

No. It cannot.

The Kinect is capable of near-instant recognition of someone entering its field of view. It can work in complete darkness and detect body heat, facial expressions and your heartbeat (Corriea, 2014).  Yet, the camera isn’t completely accurate as anyone who experienced the failure of the motion control part way through a game will attest to.

Many of these Kinect ghost videos are inevitably hoaxes but a lot of them are also caused by the system picking out familiar shapes and identifying them as human even though they’re probably just shadows, light glare on furniture, or even temperature changes within the room. A bit like thermal imaging cameras do.

If you use the Kinect and stand behind a piece of furniture it will freak out and start trying to find something that looks like your legs. Does this mean you suddenly have ghost legs?

No. It doesn’t.

There is no credible evidence that the Kinect can detect ghosts. These oddities are more likely to just be technological glitches and not other-worldly. Don’t believe the hype. 

 

References

Corriea, A. (2014) ‘Ghosts in the machine? Using the Kinect to hunt for spirits’, Polygon. Available at http://www.polygon.com/halloween/2014/10/30/7079943/kinect-ghost-hunting (Accessed 30 Oct 2016).

Davies, O. (2007) The Haunted, A Social History of Ghosts, Palgrave & Macmillan

Frasher, J (2010) Ghost Hunting: A Survivor’s Guide, The History Press

Don Philips Still Playing The Science Game. Still Losing.

Don Philips

In the last few months, I have had a number of conversations with people who have found my previous blog posts about Don Philips. Philips, it seems, along with Steve Mera, has been causing a fair bit of concern states side with their claims and research ethics.

You may have watched my video on Dowsing after it seemed to be claimed that Philips could psychically influence dowsing rods being held by Mera.

Back in 2014, I wrote a blog post called ‘Don Philips plays the science game. Loses.‘ It looked at a newspaper report that claimed scientists had proven Philips was able to capture voices of the dead on tape. The report said that Steve Mera has been able to discount that the recordings are pareidolia. He is quoted as saying

In the article, he was quoted as saying that they had played Don’s recording to three people and they ‘picked out the same name. With pareidolia, they should all hear different words.”

In response to my criticisms of this Steve Mera wrote that he was ‘still going through all the paperwork, and lots more tests to carry out…’ and Don Philips similarly wrote ‘when the current project has ended experiments replicated, and data collated all information will be freely available.’

Yeah… still waiting on that.

Colour me surprised then when Doubtful News covered some more recent research by Mera and Philips under the name of The Scientific Establishment of Parapsychology [SEP] concerning an allegedly haunted house. Sharon Hill reports:

‘SEP report was horrible – full of unreadable graphs, following poor methodology, and bloated with pseudoscientific babble. Kenny [Biddle] had the report run through a software program commonly used to detect plagiarism and discovered that about 38% of the text was verbatim from other, unattributed sources. I wrote to the lead author, Steve Mera, with the plagiarism charge. He said that the report was not final, it was just a draft, and that Linder should not have released it. The report is dramatically stamped “cleared for release” and contains no indication that it is a draft or that the unattributed portions would be fixed or cited.’

It is my opinion that Philips and Mera use the “incomplete research” excuse time and time again to wiggle out of having to be held responsible for their bad science and questionable research ethics.

Hill concludes in the Doubtful News piece that ‘[Fact checking] and skeptical activism works to scale back inaccurate “facts”, unethical and unprofessional actions, and maybe even squash hoaxes or frauds. If we didn’t bust the fakers, we’d probably be overrun by them.’

There isn’t much I can add to that conclusion except to that that Don Philips and Steve Mera are still playing the science game and still losing.

Win: A Natural History of Ghosts

competition time

YOU CAN WIN…

natural history ghostsTo be in with a chance of winning a signed copy of A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke all you have to do is subscribe to this blog by filling in the form below.

Described as ‘insightful and illuminating’, A Natural History of Ghosts is a firm favourite in the Stevens household. In it Clarke traces the scientific and social aspects of ghostly sightings and brings to life classic cases from Hinton Ampner and Borley to the Angels of Mons. But he does more than just tell ghost stories… he explores why and how these stories came to be, and what they mean to us today. This book is a delightful read whether you believe in ghosts or not.

The winner will also receive a Ghost Geek pin badge and something from my ghost collection too (which is a collection of ghost-related merch, toys and items and not actual ghosts.)

Badge modeled here by "psychic conman", Ash Pryce
Badge in the wild. Model: Ash Pryce.

The best news is that I won’t bombard you with spam once you’ve signed up. You’ll just get an update when something new is added to the site. It’s a win-win situation!

COMPETITION NOW CLOSED

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.

Mystery Hand Haunts Belfast Mill Workers

the mysterious hand close up

HuffPo have reported that during the creation of a historic gallery by Belfast Live it was noticed that a photo taken in 1900 of some Belfast mill workers shows a disembodied hand resting on the shoulder of one of the women.

photo of mill workers
The Mysterious Hand

Sure enough, if you look at the woman seated on the right of the first row of four she has a hand resting upon her shoulder that appears to have no owner. So, is this a ghostly manifestation? Thing from The Addams Family dropping in to say hi? Or does she literally have a disembodied hand sitting there?

the mysterious hand close up
Close up of the hand

As a paranormal researcher of some experience I can tell you that when it comes to photographs nothing is ever what it seems. Many people believe that photo manipulation was born when the modern computer was created but it pre-dates Photoshop by a long, long time. In fact, as soon as the science of photography was perfected for general use people began to manipulate the photographs they were taking.

Usually this was to correct over-exposures and similar issues by fitting two photographic plates together to create one image, other times this would be for comedic or artistic effect. Photograph manipulation was particularly popular among advertising agencies and also, more controversially, for political propaganda – the most noted case of this being Stalin having opponents erased from or added into photos.

stalin photos
Naughty, naughty Stalin…

People also faked ghostly apparitions in their photographs by creating purposeful double exposures which would result in ghostly figures appearing in the photograph alongside the medium or the customer (who was often hoping to contact a deceased loved one.) American spirit photographer William Mumler is by far the most famous employer of this method of trickery, having been caught out and tried in court for fraud.

Mumler photos
Examples of the work of William Mumler

The mysterious hand in the photo of the Belfast mill workers is most likely the result of photo manipulation. I suspect there were other people in the photo who were edited out, with the hand accidentally being left in place – or proving too difficult to erase cleanly. Today we would call this sort of mistake a “photoshop fail” and there are whole web galleries devoted to left behind limbs. Here are some examples:

catalogue photo error
How many hands does this man have?
miley cyrus photo error
Miley Cyrus appears to have a third hand

 

basketball player photo
Extra hands would be useful in basketball, I guess…