The BBC “Guide To Ghost-Hunting” Is Anti-Science

ghostbusters

In the week that saw Ghostbusters 2016 launch on the bigscreen I’ve been contacted by many news outlets wanting to speak to me. As I have a proper job I haven’t been able to oblige but luckily for us all, BBC Three managed to get hold of ‘a range of the most experienced experts in the field’ to put together a guide called ‘How to be a real life ghost hunter’. I’d say that it was a useful piece of writing, only it isn’t. It’s terrible and made me laugh for all the wrong reasons.

According to them paranormal investigators are ‘focused primarily on collecting data and evidence of the paranormal’ which is utter nonsense. Ghost hunters use biased methodologies to do this, investigators actually investigate to discover the facts – two very different approaches. Only one of which is useful.

It all becomes clear when the article goes on the explain how they’ve been getting their advice from Tim Brown from the British ghost hunting team called PIGS. To begin with Brown sounds pretty rational and explains that ‘“99% of the time when we get called round to a house, it’s turns out to be something quite normal; a creaky home, changes in temperatures, etc.’ but then he lets himself down by presenting this photo as evidence.

pigs photo 1

Brown adds ‘“Sometimes you hear from people that they’ve got a funny smell, or they’ve heard voices, or they’ve seen someone walking around their house. So at that point we try and record some evidence or data of what’s happening in their home. So we can either explain it away as normal, or prove that it’s not normal, and make sure it gets fixed.’

All of this, and the rest of the article prove that people who call themselves paranormal investigators are not always investigators and do not have any idea of how to apply the scientific method to their work. They’re out to prove that ghosts are real and to capture evidence of ghosts when this simply isn’t possible. Anything that they capture will have a real-world explanation.

Brown says that his team work to capture data of the odd things that have been reported to them to see if they can then work them out or not but this is just a clever way of explaining why they look as though they’re just ghost hunters. They’re not really ghost hunters, they just look like ghost hunters because they’re gathering data. Data is a scientific word, don’t you know?

Here are some facts though – you do not need to experience the oddity for yourself to be able to explain it. Do you know how long it would take for some cases to get solved if everyone used this method? It also adds a huge bias to the research being undertaken because it means that the investigators a) think there is something to be experienced, and b) are more likely to interpret ordinary things as significant because they’re looking for something significant.

But hey… it makes you sound rational, right?

Data, Surveillance, Analysis, Peer Review  – these are all buzz words used by ghost hunters to assure others (and themselves, I would argue) that they’re legit.

When ghost hunters employ these approaches they often ignore the negative hits (when something doesn’t occur) and only focus on the positive hits (when something occurs) which means that their conclusions are based upon cherry picked data.

Further down the article John from Spirit Knights Paranormal Investigators explains how it’s important to respect who you’re speaking to. ‘It’s when people go in to antagonise them that it all goes wrong. People get scratched and thrown down stairs, all through handling it wrong’ he says, and the article states: Spirits were once people and we shouldn’t forget that.

It’s clear that Spirit Knights are a whole different kind of ghost hunting team because they don’t hide the fact that they employ spiritualist methods of spirit communication on their ghost hunts. It does mean that their advice isn’t useful, but then at least BBC Three got their science-to-nonsense balance sorted which is highly important to them, but unfortunately for them the science they portrayed is anything but scientific. Awkward…

There is something wholly strange about humans who act as though they’re white knights riding in to save the tormented souls of the dead. I would suggest it says a lot about the self-worth of those who act in this way.

I have seen Ghostbusters 2016 and I thought it was a fun film. We talk about it in Episode 12 of The Spooktator podcast. The thing that stood out to me the most though was the fact that in this alternative universe the Ghostbusters are all scientists who have respect for rational inquiry. In their world it becomes apparent that ghosts really do exist but in this world that isn’t the reality. So-called experts like Tim Brown chase their shadows and make themselves feel important by sounding science-y., they host paranormal tourism events while claiming to be impartial, and they use equipment that does nothing useful.

Ghost hunting teams often want to distance themselves from the Most Haunted-esque type of ghost hunting which seemed to boom in the early part of this century, but in truth they’re not completely divorced from those methodologies at all because they rely on them too much. If you totally disregard pseudo-science how are you going to show the world that you’re right even when you’re spectacularly wrong?

 

Week In Summary: #BlackLivesMatter, NASA, and Pokémon

black lives matter

Welcome to another curated list of interesting stuff that I’ve discovered online this week. It’s a bit longer than usual but a lot of stuff has happened that I think needs to feature, so without further ado…

Scenes of police violence unfolding in America were broadcast live to the world this week as a series of shootings of black men shocked the world. Many of us scrolled through our social media timelines and were met with the footage of Alton Sterling being murdered by a police officer. Later we watched Philando Castile die after being shot at point blank range by a police officer. Then came the videos of the attack on police officers at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas which resulted in several officers being murdered and injured.

That this violence is a regular occurrence is one terrible thing, but that it now plays out to the world in real time is new, shocking and difficult to process.

I can remember the first time I heard that a man had been shot dead on the news – I was about three years old and I ran to tell my parents what had happened and I was surprised at how little my parents seemed to care. It was just an abstract thing then – something that happened to someone else somewhere that we never had to be confronted by – words spoken by a news anchor and nothing much more. Now it is all too real, in your face and there is no avoiding this brutality. Vice explores this in an excellent piece titled ‘The Week America Watched Death on Our Phones’.

Then came the news that the shooting in Dallas had been stopped by an armed police robot – news which prompts strange images in your mind before you grapple with the scary reality of the situation. Should police be this militarised? Gizmodo explores that very question and over on The Verge is a conversation about the ethics of the situation. Vice have a piece exploring the deadliest attacks on police officers in the last 100 years.

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It seems that in the aftermath of these unfathomable tragedies people desperately search for anything that can justify what has happened. However it’s important to remember that there are no absolutes – not all cops are racists, not all black men who have criminal records are thugs and so on. Boingboing reminds us that we should reflect on how we respond to breaking news. It’s good to sit back and think before reacting because facts are not always what they seem.

GQ Magazine report on a fantastic take down of the crappy and entitled #AllLivesMatter response to #BlackLivesMatter.

These seem like grave times for humanity. Especially when you add to the mix the fact that Trump is so popular, that people are being subjected to racist abuse on a daily basis following the EU referendum here in England – why are right wing movements across Europe becoming more popular? New Scientist breaks it all down here and it’s scarily fascinating. 

all that’s needed for greater understanding between groups is contact – Thomas Pettigrew

In the week that saw NASAs Juno spacecraft begin its orbital mission around Jupiter many people in my timelines were not sure what all the fuss is about. Popsci have a great overview of the project, as well as previous observations of the planet too. In other NASA related news, technology used in space may be coming to Earth in the form of an exosuit for the human hand that would enable people to weild tools for longer without sacrificing dexterity.

Elsewhere, Belgian researchers have developed an extremely sensitive gas sensor and the good news is that it’s super portable and may have several different used. Chemists at UC Irvine recently devised a new method to break down plastic into its constituent elements, including diesel. This could be big news for the future of recycling!

Could a DVD player be more conscious than a human? George Johnson explores the latest ideas and thoughts around consciousness for the New York Times. Over at New Scientist Jeffrey Guhin puts forward the argument that a national ruled by “rationalism” would be terrible, and I’m in agreement.

Grist reports on a The Global Food Security Act which will see over $1 billion a year spent providing support to small farmers in developing countries. This will vastly increase their quality of life and see rise in education standards for children living in poverty. Nice one!

Did you know that Dry Shampoo might be damaging your hair? These 11 hair experts suggest that this might be the case. Excuse me while I throw mine out. I guess if something seems too good to be true, that’s for a reason.

I wanted to share this beautiful animated short which explores how modern technology has been influenced by the shapes and dimensions found all around us in nature. Technically not from this week but still worth a share, I think.

As Pokémon Go launches around the globe people are leaving their computer desks and taking to the streets in the hunt for Pokémon. Laughing Squid have all you need to know about the App. I personally walked three miles in the search of nearby Pokémon yesterday without even realising the app was making me exercise more, but many are wondering how long it will be until someone gets in trouble for trespassing or gets killed by a car because they’re so engrossed in the App. It has been reported that a teenager using the App to find Pokémon discovered a dead body. Eesh.

China have completed work on the world’s biggest radio telescope which will be used to study pulsars and can help in the search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilisations, and more. Perhaps we can expect more discoveries such as the one made by astronomers at the University of California-Santa Cruz who have found evidence of water clouds outside of our solar system for the first time.

Finally, a Happy Pride to all of my readers, friends and family who are taking part or watching Bristol Pride this weekend. #LoveIsLove

My grandfather died

On November 1st 2015 my lovely grandfather- Pappy, as we called him -died.

We knew he was going to die because he had dementia and had suffered two strokes, that didn’t make it any easier, but what did help was knowing that he wasn’t truly gone. Maurice Stevens hasn’t vanished and ceased to exist.

I know that he lives on because the first law of thermodynamics tells us that no energy gets created in the universe, and none is destroyed. This is where the idea of ghosts comes into play for many, but I know that all of his energy, every joule of heat, every wave of every particle that was him remains here, somewhere. All the hundreds of billions of particles that encountered him have continued on their way, directed by his mere presence. Still.

As Aaron Freeman says in the Physicists Eulogy ‘according to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.’

This may have troubled Pappy slightly because he liked everything to be “ship shaped and Bristol fashion. A place for everything and everything in its place”, his career as a chef in the Royal Navy never truly left him. But look up at the stars, look at the world around you and know that this is our place and we are all in it.

Many of my geeky friends recite the lovely fact that “we are all made of stardust” because our origins are pretty inspiring, and so too is our destination. This is why I take comfort from the nature of the universe and our existence because deep down, beneath the feeling of loss, I know that I am statistically fortunate to have ever known Pappy and that his existence lives on in our genes, our memories, in his actions and in the universe.

Life is extraordinary, it’s bigger than any one of us which can be a bit overwhelming at times but, as Pappy would say, ‘it’s good here, isn’t it?”

Pappy

The Anti-Science Bias Of Ghost Hunters

anti-science bias

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

 

Book Review: Abominable Science

abominable scienceAbominable Science! authored by Daniel Loxton and Donald Prothero is one of those books that comes along and makes the world a better place. A rare treat that you didn’t know you needed until you had it in your hands.

The combination of good research, good references and an honest, open-minded yet critical outlook turns Abominable Science! into a must-have for anybody with a passing interest in monsters and strange creatures. There is no doubt in my mind that this book will help people understand how to critically assess claims that they come across and the numerous detailed references mean that you don’t have to take the authors at their word and can explore each subject further for yourself.

There is still a general lack of respect for skeptical inquiry within paranormal research, including ghost investigations, monster investigations and more. Headline stories in the media about monsters are not rare even today in 2015, and a quick flick through the numerous available television channels will reveal shows like Finding Bigfoot or Destination Truth where unconventional and, at times, pseudo-scientific methodologies are championed in the quest to find evidence of legendary monsters. These programmes sacrifice a factual approach in order to provide so-called evidence of that which they hunt for.

A great time, then, for a book like Abominable Science! to be available. This is an engrossing read and it’s a must have for any self-identifying Skeptic, Cryptozoologist or Monster Hunter. There is a lot to learn about Cryptozoology in the modern world and this book is where you’ll find it.

Someone buy Matt Moneymaker a copy quick, and make sure he reads it. Or better yet sack the entire crew of the awful, awful Finding Bigfoot and use the funds to get Loxton and Prothero their own show! Fact is that people who are heavily invested in their belief in these cryptids won’t be convinced by a book, even one as detailed as Abominable Science! but it’s there if they ever decide to change their minds.

If this book had been published fifteen-years earlier I might have read it as I went on my first road trip to Loch Ness, but would it have stolen some of the magic of the experience from 13-year-old me who was fascinated by the weird and wonderful ghost and monster lore?

No. I would have been better for it. Skeptics are often accused of ruining the magic or stealing the fun from fanciful ideas and although this is a charge levelled at this book by some true-believers I don’t think it is an accurate criticism. The book embodies the kind of skepticism that I hope that I champion (even a little bit) in my own approach to paranormal research.

In 2012 I visited Loch Ness again, this time joined by Joe Nickell and we visited the Loch Ness Centre & Exhibition, a guided tour that introduces you to the story of the Loch Ness Monster and critically analyses every single aspect of the legend in an educational manner that not only debunks most of the nonsense but also introduces you to the geology, history and ecology of the area. It is so engaging and fascinating that you don’t even realise it is a lesson until you leave with a newly installed sense of the wonder of the scientific approach (how the Centre hasn’t won any awards from skeptic organisations I do not know.) In my opinion Abominable Science! is right up there with the Loch Ness Centre. A wonderful read and a wonderful resource for future generations.

Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero. 2013. Abominable Science! Columbia University Press, New York. Available from the Columbia University Press, on amazon.com and amazon.co.uk