A Humanist Ghost Buster


I stopped believing in ghosts in 2007 and for the first few months I decided that the best use of my time was to explain to others how the things they thought were true were wrong. It bordered on me being almost offended that people could believe such silly things until I realised that I had believed in those things too and it had been really easy.

For a while now I have equally admired and loathed the fields of paranormal research for the complex systems that they are and for the way in which they have changed rapidly as the world around us has changes while, at the same time, not changing very much at all in some aspects. In doing so I have realised that over the years my approach to my paranormal research has become humanistic in nature which isn’t all that surprising considering I identify as a humanist, but of all the places that these values would manifest themselves ghost research seems the less obvious place. That is… until you start looking a bit closer at ghost research and the variety of people who come with it.

Paranormal researcher, CJ Romer, once described his main method of research as a Cup of Tea method where the well-being of the person or people that a case of potentially anomalous phenomena centres around comes before the research into the phenomena itself. “As an academic one of the first things you are taught is that you don’t do research with the recently bereaved and unfortunately one of the groups you’re most likely to be approached by is someone who has suffered a recently bereavement … Do you look at the phenomena, do you offer anything more than a cup of tea and sympathy– my preferred approach -and break off contact as quickly and gently as you could?”

Important questions. Ensuring your research is ethical should be a priority – this is something I interviewed CJ Romer about previously on this blog. Once you start considering the ethics of your research into anomalous phenomena and once you start focussing on the people more than chasing the ghosts I think you acknowledge the complexity of being human and belief and your approach becomes humanist in nature.

In the skeptic movement the “Don’t Be A Dick” talk by Phil Plait at The Amazing Meeting in 2010 (video above) felt like a pivotal moment at which those who didn’t care about how they engaged with believers and those that did care often found themselves in debates about their approach to skeptic activism or outreach. I have written extensively on this blog about how I care about how I communicate with people regarding what they believe in and why. Belief is often a complex thing and to attack someone simply because they believe in something you think is irrational isn’t productive or rational. Time and time again we see psychics being exposed as tricksters only for their fans to group around them because of the cognitive dissonance they’re experiencing.

Over at Scientia Salon Massimo Pigliucci, in a piece titled Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements wrote that he’d ‘rather have a productive conversation with an intelligent Christian than a frustrating one with an obtuse atheist’ and it’s a sentiment I know all too well. I cannot tolerate those who dismiss paranormal claims and eye-witnesses a priori because they are convinced they know what is right and think that is rational when it is anything but. The whole piece by Pigliucci is an interesting evaluation of the freethinking movements that so many people become a part of and then find themselves uncomfortable with and I would recommend that you consider reading it in full.

Similarly, over on his blog Ashley Pryce has written a post called Dealing with those that believe and talks about how, as a public speaker, he encounters people in his audiences at skeptical events who aren’t necessarily skeptics. This post by Pryce was finally written by him after many failed attempts after a discussion we had on a Facebook post finally prompted him to finish it. In this social media exchange I had shared how ‘I sometimes find it difficult to do my talks because there are people in the audience who desperately need to believe and it makes me feel so guilty.’ Unsurprisingly I’m not the only one who deals with this issue and feels this guilt.

Some would say to simply dismiss the claims to psychics, tell them all psychics are frauds and ghosts aren’t real so grow up. I do not think that is the right approach, in fact I think it is so much the wrong approach I would consider those that make it to be more damaging to rational discourse than those who insist that ghosts are real. – Ashley Pryce

When speaking for Skeptics in the Pub groups you deliver your presentation which is then followed by a break. The audience are invited to then return for a Q&A session and it is normally here that I encounter those who want or need to believe in an afterlife and I have become quite talented at answering questions in a way that wouldn’t be considered unethical by CJ Romer’s Cup of Tea standards because I acknowledge that some people need to believe in ghosts and an afterlife in order to grieve and find closure. To stand in front of them as an “expert” and blow their hopes out of the water would be easy but it is not at all appealing.

A few years ago a lady approached me after a talk to tell me that she had lost a baby and she sometimes thought that she saw a child out of the corner of her eye when at home. “What do you think it could be?” she asked me. As soon as she had approached I’d known that something of this nature was coming because it happens regularly with all sorts of people who want my honest opinion but probably don’t. You can sometimes see the battle. To this lady I replied “there could be a perfectly ordinary explanation but it would be unfair of me to speculate about what you’re seeing as I’ve not been present. But if you think it is the ghost of your baby and that thought brings you comfort then there’s nothing wrong with that.”

She cried and I think she was a little shocked that I hadn’t tried to explain it away. She hadn’t asked the question during the Question and Answer session because she was scared the skeptics in the audience would have laughed at her.

If my time as a ghost research has taught me anything it is that some people will believe what they need to believe regardless of your rational ideas and some people just need you to acknowledge that they’ve had a strange experience. I think that this approach that echoes humanist values is the most productive approach and it is certainly the more rewarding for all involved.

Please Help Me Make My Video Series

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I have today launched an Indiegogo campaign in an attempt to fund a video series that I plan to produce to reach a wider audience in a way that isn’t restricted by written word.

Can you really find water with dowsing rods? How easy is it to make a ghost hoax go viral? What happens if you lock a skeptic in a haunted house? Why do Ouija boards seem to work? Can you really trick the human brain into seeing ghosts?

I have a long list of fun, informative videos that I want to produce but I need your help. If you can make a donation that will help me fund this project I would be extremely thankful and you’ll get some really cool rewards!

Check out my Indiegogo campaign now and please consider making a donation and spreading the word.


The Anti-Science Bias Of Ghost Hunters

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I wrote previously about a research team at Clarkson University headed up by Professor Shane Rogers that seek to establish whether there is a link between air quality and strange experiences people often associate with a haunting or with ghosts. Rogers said “experiences reported in many hauntings are similar to mental or neurological symptoms reported by individuals exposed to toxic moulds. Psychoactive effects of some fungi are well-known, whereas the effects of others such as indoor moulds are less researched.”

I have seen a frankly bizarre and at times bitter reaction from large swathes of ghost hunting communities to this news such as:

“Oh yeah? How do they explain EVP then?”

“Mould doesn’t explain all of MY experiences!”

“These guys are stupid. They just need to see to believe!”

It is completely bizarre for anyone- regardless of what they believe -to react with hostility towards people who are conducting scientific research in order to learn more about why people have strange experiences. Learning more about the world around us and establishing facts about our experiences as human beings who are greatly influenced by the environments we live and exist in is a good thing.

If you react with hostility to the news of this ongoing research then it says quite a lot about you as an individual. It says that you’re closed minded and that you do not want people providing alternative and rational explanations for the things that you are convinced are paranormal in origin.

I pointed out a few issues with the research myself in my original blog post, like the fact that people have been quick to use the ongoing research to dismiss a whole range of paranormal experiences a priori when actually if a link is established this will only indicate a new cause for a small number of experiences.  This doesn’t mean the research isn’t a good thing and I look forward to the conclusion when it is presented.

Those people who asked “how does this explain EVP and EMF fluctuations?” should know that it doesn’t. However we do already have explanations for those things that show, unequivocally that they are not paranormal in origin and yet such people ignore those too so I’m sure there’s no chance they’ll pay attention to this research once it is concluded too because they are simply psuedo-scienctific ghost hunters who are willing to believe anything other than the factual truth.

Establishing the cause for paranormal phenomena is what paranormal research is at its very core, and anyone involved in ghost research that doesn’t like that approach ought to pack up their EMF meters, Ghost-box and Dowsing rods and go home.

Further Reading

The Rational Causes Of Electronic Voice Phenomena
A Rational Look At The Ghost-Box
Why Personal Experiences Aren’t Evidence Of Ghosts


Ghost Event Company In Being-Insensitive Shocker!

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Simply Paranormal UK, who charge the public to attend ghost-hunting themed events at allegedly haunted places across the country (“act like what them people on the TV do for a night and pay us for the privilege”) have caused offense after referring to a now-closed mental health treatment centre as a “lunatic asylum” in their publicity of an upcoming event in Leicester.

The Leicester Mercury reported that ‘in a posting on Facebook, Simply Paranormal UK used the term when announcing an event in May this year. The posting said: “We are pleased to announce another Mental Asylum. The Towers Lunatic Asylum in Leicester – Ghost hunting never got even more exciting.”  The Towers began its life in 1869 as the “Leicester Borough Lunatic Asylum” but its name has changed over the years.’

Ghost hunting… never got… even more exciting…

Terrible sentence structure aside, the name change was prompted, I’m sure, when it became obvious that describing those with mental illness as “lunatics” wasn’t actually very helpful or nice. But why on earth would a paranormal tourism company give a crap about what is helpful, decent or right? Ghost Tourism event companies never cease to scrape the barrel when it comes to decency! I’ve previously written about a similar company called Compass Paranormal who ran an event in what used to be a Prisoner of War camp… and let’s not even get started on the company saying “…another mental asylum” as though these places are collectors items. Ugh.

It’s not just Most Haunted though. You can watch any of the range “reality” ghost hunting shows out there and the chances are that you will see the hosts put on a show of bravado and “confront” ghosts and “antagonise” ghosts because their priorities lie with having a scary, fun time and not with being decent people. Of course the companies who make a fast profit by imitating these television shows are going to behave in the same way.

They don’t care about the legacy of the people whose ghosts they claim to be chasing, they just want to ramp up the fear factor to sell tickets and you don’t do that by saying “hey everyone, we’re investigating a premesis in which people received treatment for a variety of mental illnesses that will probably have little or no impact on our event.” The fear factor comes from referring to such a place using outdated language like “lunatic asylum” which loosely suggests that mentally ill dead people are scarier than regular ghosts and there aren’t enough adjectives in my dictionary to describe how fucked up that is.

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When Ghost Investigators See Ghosts

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The investigator is supposed to be a rational figure who enters the scene, looks at the evidence and solves the case with an explanation that was right in front of everyone the whole time. Yet sometimes the investigator becomes an eye-witness. I sometimes see ghosts.

I don’t believe that they are the souls of dead people who have somehow survived the death of the body. I think that is a too-simple explanation, easy to use to explain away every odd thing that is encountered in the context of a ghost investigation. Boring and unimaginative.

I used to find it enthralling to witness something mysterious. I would hear a strange sound in the silence of a haunted house and that would tick all of my boxes. I once sat on the stage of a Victorian theatre and watched a door open on its own and in the panic that followed (as we all scrambled over one another to get to the door) a huge smile covered my face because that was the jackpot. Now, that would be the start of something even more interesting.

Seeing “ghosts” is inevitable for ghost researchers whether they believe in ghosts or not when you think about it. Weird stuff happens and many people who report these encounters just aren’t familiar with these occurrences, some people just have a low threshold for what counts as evidence of something supernatural. I get sent accounts or photos that I can find a solution for easily because I’ve seen similar dozens of times before, but sometimes cases are presented to investigators that are baffling that you really have to think about. I strongly believe that these weird things have a rational explanation – you just have to look for it… and this is where people tend to divide within the field.

Many people involved in paranormal research are satisfied with just these weird experiences. In their quest to find “the truth” with an open mind they will experience odd things (that undoubtedly have a rational cause) and will leave it there, content that they’ve found what they were looking for. Yet, with the right questions and the right research there could be something even more interesting to discover.

It is important to continue to believe that ghosts are real for many of the people who are involved in paranormal research. Such a shame, then, that for this to be a reality these people must sacrifice a truly open minded approach to their cases and make do with one that reaches the same comforting conclusions time and time again.

That a paranormal researcher encounters odd stuff out in the field shouldn’t be surprising, but those odd experiences should be the catalyst, the launch pad that leads to the discovery of what’s actually happening and not where the investigation ends.