The ghost hunters are alright

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.

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15 Comments on The ghost hunters are alright

  1. I’m sorry Hayley, did you undertake a science and the public degree program and investigate 1000 American paranormal research groups and their use of science? No.

    In contrast to your continued haranguing of my web site, and your claims that I lump all researchers together, you do the opposite extreme and cite your personal wishful thinking that skeptics and believers can exist in happy harmony. That is CERTAINLY not true in the US. Just read the story that I was commenting on relating to that news piece done by CNN. I’m not just the one saying the paranormal scene is broken, the paranormal groups themselves are saying so. I am offended by your allegations that I think ghost hunters (and other paranormal investigators) are stupid. I have stated many MANY times that they certainly aren’t and have good intentions. They are off track and in some cases, downright dangerous, telling people they have demons in their house or imagining or manufacturing evidence.

    What is your current position? I can’t tell. After praising Doubtful News, you suddenly talk trash. It’s so flip-flopping and confusing. Deleting the tweets and the facebook posts you now regret or don’t want to deal with is not commendable behavior. You are not the sole commentator on the ghost scene. I’m allowed to have my informed opinion as well. My opinions are not directed at you. Don’t take stuff so personally.

    Professionalism is worth practicing. Tweeting about how ridiculous some speakers were then going up on stage at this conference? That was not good. I understand the frustration, I’ve screwed up doing that myself but I’m trying to learn not to.

    Several people have asked me what your trouble is with me because of your targeted focus in the past few months. I can’t really answer them but it is reflecting poorly on you. Every once in a while it pays to take a break and consider your goals and what is really important to you. Recalibrate. Figure out what’s worth spending effort on. I am used to constructive criticism and take it seriously, but wasting your time attacking me is not a useful exercise.

    I do not mind if you do not post this entire reply. It’s your blog.

    • “did you undertake a science and the public degree program and investigate 1000 American paranormal research groups and their use of science? No.”

      I’m not sure how to respond to this appeal to authority… but I will point out I’ve never claimed to be an authority on the subject of Paranormal Research. I do however, consider other peoples experiences and stories before lumping them together.

      Targeted focus on you? Not exactly. Continued haranguing of my web site? Um… I criticise what I disagree with, it just happens that I often disagree with the way in which the Doubtful News site writes about researchers, and also the way in which the writers treat people they don’t agree with or get on with. Snide and nasty. That’s when my support of you and what you do ended. No yo-yoing, no flip-flopping.

      There are many people who think the same as I do about the way in which Doubtful News appears to dismiss large groups of people, or, at least, lump them in together, and I find the allegation that I am wishfully thinking believers and non-believers can exist in some sort of happy harmony ridiculous. It’s quite clearly a position I do not hold.

      Also, I didn’t state anywhere that you were the only one saying the paranormal scene is broken, but you sure seem to have something against ghost hunters and cryptozoologists.

      If people judge me for criticising that I find worthy of criticising, then it’s no skin off my nose.

  2. I don’t know what ghost hunting groups are like in the UK, however here in the us they seem to require you spend a lot of money on silly items (google ghost hunting supplies) and require also that any skeptic on the team accept the legitimate use of these unproven gadgets. Also, we have ghost hunting groups not looking for ghosts, but looking for a tV show. Perhaps the UK with their longer history of ghost hunting does not have this problem. It’s not about ghosts often, it’s about money, from people selling gear to people renting out their haunted home for investigations, to people offering a change to “join a ghost hunting group” for only $200 for a weekend. Here is it too often about MONEY and FAME and not about finding out the truth. Our local ghost hunting group has a professionally made video they pimp around to the media in hopes of getting a show. They are far from alone. Every single college in town has a ghost hunting group, and they are often found to be trespassing, and there have been serious injuries. (to homes, graveyards, and living humans). They are far from “alright” here because of their lack of respect for property, their lack of training in whatever overpriced devices they carry around, and their trampling over the feelings of the families. (they tend to google a bit too much and then hurt the feelings of a family that has lost a loved one). I really hope that the professionalism of all ghost hunters in the UK (as I stated, the UK has a much longer tradition and perhaps some better rules in place?) is of a higher standard than that of the US. It’s a crazy free for all here.

    • We have those problems too, but rather that just dismiss everyone as ‘failing’ people have gotten off their arses and made a difference. That’s my point.

  3. I teach a “Psychology of Belief in Paranormal” class, and typically link to both your site and Sharon’s. It has been my experience that ghost hunters (and I have been both asked to speak to, and actively avoided by, different ghost hunting groups) are eager to learn the science behind their equipment, but considerably less eager to learn the considerable amounts of psychology that also apply to their searches. Of course, that would be my bias, but clearly a good working understanding of sensory, perceptual, memory and cognitive processes should be a bare minimum for any paranormal topic (“paranormal”, after all, is negatively defined by eliminating possible normal explanations). Our local college paranormal club shuns scientific explanations, because they “want to keep an open mind”.

    It is also my experience that many of the scientists weighing in on these matters could also use a dose of psychology. When the question is one of perception, the answer is not found in physics, but psychology. When the data come from eyewitness accounts, the important caveats come not from biology, but from psychology. It is very easy for us (scientist and non-scientist) to believe things on the basis of very shaky evidence (or none at all), and then to systematically distort new findings to bolster our initial opinion.

    Psychology has over a century of close association with ghost-hunting; William James was, for instance, the first president of both the American Psychological Association and the Society for Psychical Research (studying mostly mediumship and claims of communication with spirits). We have a history of studying subjects who are (sometimes unintentionally, sometimes quite intentionally) trying to fool us; the same cannot be said for physics. As such, our methodology is better tuned for parapsychology than that of many other sciences.

    tl;dr–I believe you, that ghost-hunting groups are inviting scientists. I’ve seen it. I know, also, that ghost-hunting groups are avoiding scientists. Seen that, too. And I know that some are inviting scientists in good faith… but are inviting the wrong ones. And, sadly, those scientists don’t realize it.

    • Exactly, but the important thing is that a lot of people within the research field are trying to get it right and don’t deserve to be written off as ‘failing’ based on the behaviour of others.

  4. Great blog Hayley.

  5. Doubtful News never seem to print anything critical of themselves and they are stupidly American-centric. They are best ignored as pathetic saddos. Half an hour in the jungle with me and they would be crying for mummy.

  6. Half an hour in the jungle with anyone and I’d be crying for mummy! Take Lembit :)

  7. Great review. Have ‘Doubtful News’ cottoned onto the double-meaning of their name?

  8. I re-read the DN piece. I re-read the underlying piece on CNN. The CNN article was dealing with American ghost hunting groups cut throat competition in order to get a prize TV gig or movie deal. The DN news piece was dealing with the American ghost situation. Hill has experience dealing with U.S. ghost hunters compared to what it sounds like you encountered at the Con and at other times. The conference you attended appears from here to be U.K. centered, the DN piece and the CNN story were U.S. centered. I think the comparison here isn’t quite oranges to oranges. It’s more oranges to tangelos (or a grapefruit).

    I know of the British ghost scene less than the American scene. It isn’t my first area of interest. The British might be more scientific, and/or be more willing to be evidence critical than the Americans. From what I know the U.S. ghost researchers employ a lot of mediums and proudly show off their gadgets and gizmos.

    I hope the accreditation system works out, and heads U.K. ghost research into a more evidence based approach. If you choose to post updates in this regard I look forward to see how it all works out as you earn the credits. If the accreditation system is evidence based, I hope once accredited folks take the field the education ‘sticks.’ I think we can all agree running about in the dark with a glorified thermometer and night vision goggles isn’t progressing to anything.

    • I agree that running around with thermometers and night vision goggles isn’t progressing anything, but this is the mistake people are making here. That’s what some ghost hunters do, but that is not ghost hunting in a nutshell. Not at all.

      It isn’t even American ghost hunting in a nutshell. Not entirely representative, and pretending it is, is damaging. Dave Wood, the chairman of ASSAP has said that ASSAP get more enquiries from US researchers about training than they do from UK based researchers. This says that there are organisations in the US who are serious about good research standards – and lumping them in with those who are pseudo-scientific and classing ghost hunters as ‘failing’ is what I have a huge issue with.

  9. The class sounds fascinating. Looking forward to reading more about it.

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