As part of the talk I deliver to Skeptics in the Pub groups I often touch upon how modern ghost hunters are often just upgraded seance participants of the past whose main aim is to talk to ghosts. The only thing that has changed is the medium they use to communicate with them through. In times gone by that medium would be a table (for table tipping perhaps), a seance circle, a Ouija board, a person who claimed to have the ability to communicate with spirit, or perhaps a glass that the spirit would push around a surface (this was sometimes replaced with a top hat or similar).
Although people still use such Spiritualist methods today, ghost hunting has become much more hi-tech in the last few decades with devices being used to both rule out naturally occurring causes for phenomena witnessed, and for pseudo-scientific reasons such as detecting fluctuations in Electro-Magnetic Fields alleged to be caused by a ghost manifesting. Yet, there’s another purpose these devices are used for that doesn’t set modern ghost researchers apart from the antique ghost hunters of the Victorian Seance Parlour.
When EMF meters don’t find anything interesting they are sometimes turned into what I like to call a yes or no device, as are any other devices that light up or makes a noise. The idea is quite simple – you place the device on a table or the floor and ask questions that can be answered with ‘yes or no’. You might ask ‘Did you die here? Make the EMF meter light up for yes’, or ‘is your name Elizabeth? Make the device beep to answer yes’. Devices such as the K2 meter (a type of EMF meter, pictured above right) that have a selection of coloured lights are often used to detect a ghosts strength with ghost researchers asking the spirit to ‘light the meter up as far as you can’. The more lights lit, it seems, the stronger the spirit.
I can remember taking part in a ‘vigil’ with some ghost researchers I’d never met before in a pub in Devizes, Wiltshire. After a number of hours of trying to experience something ghostly and failing the other people present got a torch (or flashlight) out of their bag and unscrewed the bottom of the torch which you would normally do to put new batteries in. The bottom part remained loosely in place and they then placed the torch on a bed in one of the rooms and began to ask questions of the ghost, asking it to light up or turn off the bulb in the torch in response. The light did go on and off occasionally- sometimes seemingly in response to a question, sometimes in response to nothing at all, and sometimes when the alleged ghost was asked to turn the torch on or off,nothing happened. However those occasions when the torch seemed to respond to a question were noted as spirit communication and the times when the light turned on or off without command, or didn’t respond were overlooked completely.
Many ghost researchers who use these techniques fail to acknowledge the huge flaws in their thought processes. For example, ignoring the times the torch or the EMF meter don’t respond to a question but making a big deal out of the times the device does seem to respond is a form of cherry picking – a form of Selection bias, as is Confirmation bias which sees humans favour information that supports their beliefs or hypothesis e.g. that ghosts exist.
Believing that a yes or no device is responding to their questions is a conclusion ghost hunters reach with no supporting evidence and based only on hearsay from other researchers and their own positive experiences. There is nothing that supports the idea that a ghost can and does effect these devices and there is nothing to support the idea that ghosts cause/have an energy that they can manipulate to interact with an EMF meter or the bulb in a torch. On the other hand we know that EMF meters detect naturally occurring (and naturally fluctuating) Electro-Magnetic Fields, and that if you loosen up the connection between the bulb in a torch and the batteries used to light it, the bulb will flicker because it does not have the constant power source it needs to stay lit. Ignoring these demonstrable causes for the effects experienced when something is turned into a yes or no device is irrational and desperate.