“Feel like a Mulder, Question like a Scully”

mulder and scully

I’ve written before about the moment on a case investigation when something happens and you’re not quite sure what is going on and it’s equal parts exciting and equal parts intriguing. I think that’s the closest you can get to feeling like Mulder and Scully on one of their more adventurous cases.

Sure, it might end up to be foxes in the garden outside of the property sounding a bit like a baby crying and not an actual ghostly baby crying in the next room (that happened) and you might not end up chasing something mysteriously and scary as the perfect duo from The X-Files often do, but it’s still cool. And in that moment it’s easy to see how simple it would be to convince yourself (and, in turn, convince others) that what you are hearing is paranormal and mysterious. To add that kick of spooky flavour to your reality.

But you mustn’t.

Twitter user @fowkc brought the above tweet from @realscientists to my attention this morning and lo! a new mantra has been born.

Feel like Mulder, but question like Scully.

I’m a non-believer but I still love a good mystery. And I love investigating these mysteries in a way that hopefully reveals what’s going on. It’s easy to fall into the pattern of using the facts (“it’s wasn’t a ghost, it was carbon monoxide”, “it wasn’t Nessie, it was driftwood”, “she isn’t psychic, she’s using cold reading techniques”) to punish those who dared to believe something paranormal, but that isn’t productive.

I love the Loch-Ness Monster legend, and that of it’s younger cousin Bownessie and I am an advocate of being open-minded yet rational in the research and study of weird experiences that people have. I try to champion skeptical inquiry in my research, and you should too! This is why I still investigate weird stuff despite not believing in the paranormal, it’s why I am a member of the recently re-established Fairy Investigation Society, and it’s why I will always have time for people who want to talk about the weird stuff they’ve experienced.

Because it’s important to Feel like Mulder, but question like Scully.

but don’t use a gun ‘cos that’s dangerous, and try not to chase scary things on your own and don’t go getting arrested or anything. Gawd. 

How Ghost Evidence Is Rated And How People Get It Wrong

Evidence

The plural of anecdote is not data. 

It’s a rule that anyone involved in paranormal research, even casually, is familiar with. The things that we experience are open to our personal biases and the biases of those around us – not to mention the flawed memory that we have to contend with when trying to accurately recall something that we experienced (and yes, that does include those that people refer to as “expert witnesses” due to their occupation.)

Anecdotes are a good starting block for paranormal investigation and nothing more. This makes it quite difficult for paranormal investigators to investigate those cases where eye-witness testimony is the only information to go on. As an investigator myself I always encourage eye-witnesses to immediately note down anything odd that they experience in the hope that the cause will become apparent in any patterns that might emerge – experiences seem to happen in warmer weather, just after they’ve watched Ghost Adventures, when the heating has been turned off, when they’re tired…

But even noting down an experience soon after having it doesn’t protect the testimony from the aforementioned biases, suggestion or flawed memories. At the very core of being a paranormal phenomenon experiencee is the decision that an experience is significant. This decision itself is influenced by personal biases and the suggestion from our peer groups. Can any of us confirm that something we experienced is paranormal in nature when there aren’t characteristics that have been documented and proven to belong to ghosts? I think the answer is no, not as conclusively as many people do.

This is why more physical forms of evidence of ghost manifestations are considered to be much more useful to paranormal investigators. A photo or piece of footage that contains something ghostly or strange is thought of by many investigators to be more reliable… yet these forms of evidence are also at the mercy of the same issues that plague eye-witness testimony too! It’s never-ending.

As pattern seeking creatures it is our natural instincts to seek meaning where there is not – that could be a face in vague shapes in a photo, or in the decision that a strange knocking sound just as you ask a question is significant (would it have been if you hadn’t asked a question? No.)

It’s even easier to think the insignificant is significant and to find meaning in randomness in the context of a paranormal investigation where you might be hoping to experience something strange. This is why it’s really important to have a methodology that limits the amount of bias that can be introduced to proceedings. Additionally, if you’ve been told that you work or live in a place that is paranormally active you’re more likely to interpret something insignificant as significant because the ghost stories are one of the first things that come to mind when you encounter something that seems a bit odd.

We also have to consider whether something strange in a photo or on footage is actually just something normal being misidentified, such as a hair or finger in front of the camera lens and out of focus, or perhaps an insect whizzing past just as you trigger the shutter of the camera. Or perhaps could have been purposefully altered to look strange. Hoaxing ghost photos has always been extremely easy to do – even easier with the advancements of modern technology such as smart phones and editing software meaning that you no longer need to keep partially exposed photography plates to hand. Not only this but even the ways in which you use your camera can cause a photograph to look strange. A long exposure, for example, can cause people who stand in shot and then move out-of-the-way to look partially see-through or distorted and using a panoramic setting on your camera incorrectly can make people in the photograph look… well… bizarre and unrecognisable!

A reliance on such forms of so-called evidence clearly has many shortfalls, but so too does the aim to prove that a location is haunted or paranormally active by seeking these forms of evidence in the first place. If you have a conclusion in mind before you even conduct an investigation then you’re likely to interpret what happens during your investigation in a manner that fits with your already decided conclusion and that isn’t very open-minded.

Depending on eye-witness testimonies as evidence that something paranormal is real is poor form, but providing something more than just eye-witness testimony doesn’t automatically strengthen the case. If investigators don’t have a good methodology that limits the way in which personal biases can be introduced to their investigation then they will inevitably be chasing their own tails like agitated dogs and agitated dogs don’t make good paranormal investigators.

Have You Seen A Fairy? Share Your Experience!

fairy-investigation-society
seeing fairies
Reports from the lost FIS archives

When I saw that ‘Seeing Fairies – From the Lost Archives of the Fairy Investigation Society by Marjorie T Johnson had been published I bought a copy and read it immediately. My first love will always be ghosts, and monsters come in at a close second (I love you, Nessie!), but there is something about fairies that has always interested me.

I found the book fascinating even though I don’t quite believe that these people were seeing fairies. Do I believe in fairies? No. Do I want to see a fairy? It depends… I don’t want to be chased by a small angry man with a stick, but a lot of the eye-witness testimonies sound so lovely and calming, so I think I’d quite like to see a gnome wandering around my garden. In reality though I don’t think that’s very likely.

That didn’t stop me from contacting the Fairy Investigation Society and asking if I could become involved in their research and activities.

Yes, that’s right. A skeptic who wants to investigate fairies.

It’s important, I think, to acknowledge human experiences and I find the experiences that people report fascinating to study and it is possibly my favourite part about being a paranormal researcher. Sometimes I am able to provide rational explanations for these experiences and other times I am not, but I still love the stories either way. I love listening to people tell these stories too, safe in the knowledge that I don’t think they’re stupid.

The FIS have just launched the Fairy Census which is a two-year project to chart fairy beliefs and fairy sightings in Britain and Ireland. I had some minor input on this that I hope will help gain an understanding of a modern societies take on fairy phenomena.

The Census is going to be the biggest folklore survey of its kind ever undertaken which is really exciting. The census is launched this week in Fortean Times magazine and includes an online form for those who have had fairy experiences, and another questionnaire to measure how fairy belief has changed in recent years among the general public.

There have already had some responses with some pretty interesting experiences being shared. Project coordinator, historian Dr Simon Young, says that: “We are not interested just in what people see, but why they see it. For example, fairy sightings are often associated with sleep deprivation or unusual moods. We are also interested in how fairy sightings change. So, fairies seem to have, generally speaking, gotten smaller through the centuries. Will this trend continue? With the census we will have the means of measuring changing beliefs.”

If you’ve seen something that you think was a fairy please consider filling out the survey. Or, if you’ve got an aunt or a friend who says they’ve seen a fairy perhaps you could pass it onto them, or fill it out on their behalf? I think the result of this will be extremely interesting and it would be great for this to be shared far and wide.

The surveys can be found here.

The ghost hunters are alright

assap

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.

Leave the ghosts alone

A follow on to this post: Leave the ghosts alone part II

I don’t believe in ghosts because of the lack of supporting evidence. I also don’t know what a ghost is because of the lack of supporting evidence for any one particular definition (and there are many definitions.) One thing I am certain of is that the majority of people who go ghost hunting believe they are communicating with the ‘spirits’ of the deceased. It’s evident in the apparent conversations they hold with what they think are spirits.

This raises numerous problems. The biggest problem being that most ghost hunters are being disrespectful and unethical with their intentions to communicate with the dead. I have had this problem with ghost hunting for a long time, ever since I first realised in 2007 that I was acting unethically. I’m writing about it now because today an article over at The Guardian about the discovery of a buried cottage and entombed cat discovered in the Pendle Hill area has brought out the Yvette Fielding wanna-be’s, who are drooling over the potential of chasing the ghost of a witch.

It’s strange behaviour considering that no paranormal activity has been reported at this discovery – and the only thing to link it to a ghost is outdated and inaccurate folklore. To investigate such a thing as a ‘paranormal researcher’ is illogical.

Pendle Hill has long been a focus for ghost hunting groups because of the folklore and the infamous witch trials and executions that took place there.

I don’t know how the two examples, Don Philips and Richard Case, operate and the ways in which they work – but the fact they’re investigating a ‘case’ where there’s nothing to investigate calls into question why they’re even bothering and is an excellent example of the eagerness of thrill seeking ghost hunters to jump on the potential of a spooky story simply because of associated folklore.

It’s not just that though. Many other teams and individuals (not necessarily the two mentioned above – I don’t know…), go crawling all over Pendle Hill trying to challenge the ghosts of the witches to do something to them in vain acts of ghost hunter bravado. It’s horrible, especially when you consider the fact that the majority of them truly believe they are speaking to the spirits of the deceased.

Even though they’re being illogical they’re also being extremely disrespectful.

I used to behave in a similar manner… when I was 18 and 19. Then I grew up and stopped trying to be some sort of paranormal super hero. It’s not okay to behave this way, the potential thrill and confirmation bias is not worth more than some respect for the deceased and their surviving family. It is not worth more than the ethical behaviour a ghost hunter owes the location owner and those they are misleading through their behaviour.

I do not believe that the spirits of the so-called witches are still on Pendle Hill. I do not believe they do exist, I do not believe they can exist, but those who go looking for them do. I think there is something very wrong with this behaviour – to pursue what you genuinely believe is the earth-bound spirit of a person who was executed, or died in such horrendous circumstances for no real crime is horrid. To taunt them and challenge them is even worse. It doesn’t make you very special. In fact, I think it makes you a bit of a coward.

Not only that, but it makes potentially makes you a closed minded and illogical researcher. 

If you genuinely believe that the spirit of a deceased person is still here they should be left to rest in peace, or at least treated in a respectful manner.

Leave the ghosts alone.