Ghost Hunters vs. Paranormal Investigators

Man Holding Flashlight

Confirmation bias, according to its Wikipedia entry, is ‘the tendency to search for, interpret, or recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses’ and we’re all prone to this bias even when we think we’re not. In fact I think it’s fair to say that we’re really good at thinking we’re not biased when we actually are. This is why scientists introduce controls to their studies and get their peers to review and replicate their research to ensure that their results are not biased or flawed.

Being aware of confirmation bias is what I believe separates paranormal investigators from ghost hunters. This isn’t to say that being aware of confirmation bias means that your outcomes won’t be influenced by it, but attempting to keep your personal biases in check is always a good start which is why ghost hunters doom themselves to a future of agreeing with themselves and patting themselves on the back for proving themselves right via the use of pseudo-scientific apparatus or outdated and debunked spiritualist methods. An investigator should ask their colleagues their opinions of their findings and should consider constructive criticism. A ghost hunter will often take constructive criticism personally and (in my experience) will lash out in retaliation.

 

Anyone can call themselves a paranormal investigator or a ghost hunter and apply their own definitions to the terms. I’ve been known to use this phrase “ghost hunter” to describe myself in the past despite not actively looking to find ghosts and identifying more as a paranormal investigator or paranormal researcher. However, these are just words – what really sets us all apart are our methodologies.

A ghost hunter is someone who literally hunts or searches for ghosts and doesn’t seem to realise (or care) that this means they are using a completely biased methodology because they use tools and methods that assist in their quest to prove that they are encountering a ghost. An investigator or researcher is someone who spends their time investigating and… you guessed it, researching the case a bit further to establish the bigger picture in the hope that this will reveal the cause for what is being experienced and reported.

In order to do this effectively an investigator/researcher may spend a lot of time visiting the location, comparing data to build a complete set (e.g. the normal temperature fluctuations over the course of time in a room) and to observe patterns as/if they emerge (e.g. activity seems to increase when a certain person is present and whipping people’s expectations up). This isn’t always true though, there have been cases that I’ve managed to solve by simply speaking to people other than those who insist a location is haunted, or by visiting the location unexpectedly. Sometimes a few hours spent online looking in the right places will give you a lead, or perhaps an afternoon in the local reference library.

A ghost hunter will typically spend a day (or less) at the location and presume their data is complete after only a few hours worth of readings to compare against. They’ll present the history of the location as relevant and they’ll probably use a medium or a psychic. You can often tell you’re dealing with a ghost hunter because they’ll conduct their “research” at night-time and in the dark even if the reported activity occurred during the daytime or with the lights on.

Something odd will happen and a paranormal investigator will ask “Who? What? Where? When? How? Why?” whereas a ghost hunter will say “that’s weird, and it’s probably a ghost or evidence of something supernatural.” Ghost hunters will often be vague with the claims they make because they’re somewhat aware that they can’t prove anything scientifically because they rely on gut feeling whereas a paranormal investigator will question themselves as much as you question them and will welcome alternative opinions about their conclusions.

Methodologies used usually reflect the reason somebody becomes involved in ghost research or ghost hunting in the first place, but one has to wonder how proving your biases to be correct over and over again is a beneficial use of time and resources. Not forgetting those paranormal event companies who pretend to be honest researchers but rely on positive results for their events to stay relevant. If the only people that were being fooled were themselves I wouldn’t take issue with such irrational approaches but as anyone who follows this blog or has seen me speak in public will know, sloppy methodologies harm more people than you could imagine and should always be questioned.

When Ghost Investigators See Ghosts

lego ghosts

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.

In defense of scepticism

burds

As 2012 became 2013 I wrote a blog post listing 4 lessons I had learnt that year. The lessons were ‘Become a better investigator’, ‘Talk and listen to young people’, ‘Never be too certain’ and ‘Be hungry for change’. Throughout 2013 I wrote a lot of criticisms of the modern skeptical movement. In fact, when looking back through my blog I was quite surprised at the extent to which I had blogged my thoughts. Here’s a quick recap:

Community, you keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means
James Randi & Social Darwinism | James Randi and Social Darwinism revisited
How it is
Walking the Walk
Communication disaster, the damage skeptics cause
On Guerilla Skepticism and Skeptical Outreach | Further thoughts for the day
I am woo? I am skeptic!

If you go back further you find more and more blog posts from me questioning the movement that until recently I felt a part of. It’s what sceptics do – having an open mind and casting the scepticism inwards as well as outwards, and there really is some funky stuff going on within parts of the skeptical movement that warrants scrutiny. Yet, in recent months it has become clearer and clearer that it isn’t scepticism that is the problem, but indeed a small group of very vocal skeptics.

I have been really thinking about skepticism since blogging on the subject again last week and I have decided to blog once more in the hope that this will be my final summary of why I feel disconnected from the skeptical movement, and what skepticism means to me. Organising skeptics is often referred to as ‘herding cats’, yet we – as a wider collective of people – are represented in the media by such a small group of individuals. How messed up is that?

For many people, being a part of the skeptical movement is being a skeptic and being a skeptic is being part of the skeptical movement. When I say that I don’t identify as part of the skeptic movement it’s often presumed that I’m saying I’ve turned my back on skepticism but this isn’t the case.

Scientific scepticism is the practice of questioning whether claims are supported by empirical research and have reproducibility – it is this that I use as part of a wider methodological approach to my cases, and also an approach I take to things that I encounter on a regular basis. That is why I call myself a sceptic.  To me it’s best to keep scepticism simple and well defined.

What does my scepticism look like? When I see claims made in public that are not supported by evidence I submit complaints to Trading Standards, OFCOM or the ASA if it is appropriate to do. I have gone undercover to unearth dubious health claims being marketed at the desperate, and to uncover hoaxes perpetrated to make a quick buck from the unsuspecting and undeserving who believe in fringe ideas.

Very recently I went undercover at a herbal medicine centre and told them about the very complex (and real) problems I am having with my ear. I told them all about my past surgery and my current symptoms which are indicative that I may have another tumor in my ear. The treatment required may involve surgery but the herbal medicine practitioner told me that acupuncture would treat my immune system and it was my immune system that was causing the problem in my ear. This is dangerous.

I’ve submitted hundreds of complaints to Trading Standards and the ASA since 2008 and have made international news through doing so (something I had no intention of doing). I also speak to a range of audiences about using scientific scepticism as a paranormal researcher – young children, older children, believers and non-believers alike. I act as a media adviser (for free) to outlets that range from the BBC and ITV right down to regional newspapers on weird stories they are covering or have been approached with. By doing these things I get to engage with people about paranormal phenomena and the best ways to seek the answers.

I have arrived at my current sceptical position because I was inspired by grassroots scepticism within the United Kingdom. It’s a scene that isn’t overly defined, where individuals come together to work or to share information and expertise, where there are no rules and there is very little point scoring. What works for one doesn’t always work for another but that’s okay because it’s organic, there are no expectations, but it often gets the job done.

Last year I spent almost a week in Stockholm listening to skeptics from all over Europe speaking about the work that their skeptic organisations do. Good, decent outreach work that tries to inspire the minds of the next generations, work in the media that counters misinformation, and lots of undercover work and research to make sure claims being made about products (especially medicinal products) are evidence based. Activism. It’s decent sceptical activism that makes a difference. It’s hating stupidity and loving people. It’s seeing wrong and caring enough to make it right.

Yet there is a small pocket within the wider movement/community inhabited by those who create a information feedback loop, who don’t actively research the claims they dismiss, who defend famed members of their movement despite their terrible wrong-doings (the cognitive dissonance is almost cult like). Ego is often the motivating factor, back-patting and a bigger platform is the reward, and differences of opinion are settled through point scoring and petty attacks. It’s a movement within a movement where agendas are hidden by smokescreens and mirrors, and where the rational aren’t very rational at all.

“They tend to block honest inquiry, in my opinion. Most of them are not agnostic toward claims of the paranormal; they are out to knock them. […] When an experiment of the paranormal meets their requirements, then they move the goal posts. Then, if the experiment is reputable, they say it’s a mere anomaly. – Marcello Truzzi

These people do not represent skepticism like they might claim to, but they do seem to have the bigger voice. They might have represented skepticism at one point, but in my experience, more and more rational people are becoming wary of such individuals and their increasingly irrational behaviour.

When I write criticisms of skepticism it isn’t that I’m saying skepticism is bad or unhealthy or that skeptics are bad people. I am rooting for the grassroots efforts. I’m saying ‘let us not tolerate bullshit from those who claim to be anti-bullshit’. Let’s not be consumed by a movement that drags us around and around, but let’s stand on our own two feet and question everything.

Let us be better investigators, let us engage with younger generations, let us not be too certain, and let us be hungry for change.

On Occam’s Razor and “Rational Investigation”

ghost panel 1

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…

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.