I’ve often been asked how grassroots skeptics and grassroots skeptic organisations (such as ‘skeptics in the pub’ groups) can deal with pseudo-scientific ghost hunting teams on a local level. This was also a point raised by the lovely Andy Wilson who hosted the ‘Ghost Investigations Today’ panel at QEDcon in February 2011.
There certainly is potential for such groups to get involved on a local level but the key is taking the right approach, and knowing what to look for. That’s why I’m writing this post in the hope that it can help those wanting to approach ghost teams, or deal with the nonsense and associated fear they often spread. Often ghost hunting teams don’t hurt anybody but themselves. What I mean is that they simply pay (or in some cases get free access) to visit ‘haunted’ places, and confirm their own biases and potential delusions using ghost hunting techniques. Although it’s not great to hold delusions, they’re not always overly harmful.
Teams that start making claims that affect other people, have the potential to harm.
More often than not, ghost hunters have one aim – to find a ghost. This can be because they want to prove themselves right through confirmation bias, or because they want to be like the people they watch on television. However this is a biased approach and only produces the results that they want to see. This isn’t a problem unless they are conducting an investigation in someone’s home or business. Imagine experiencing that you can’t explain, you think it’s a ghost and you’re really scared and a group of people who seem to know what they’re talking about come into your home and, through their investigations, confirm that it is a ghost. That’s going to be even scarier and just leave you with more questions that you had in the first place.
Very few teams have an after care system in place, and once an investigation has been completed at a home or business they will just leave and that will be that. That leaves people potentially frightened to be at home or work. even more worryingly, a lot of teams do not check who they’re letting into their teams, and they do not assess whether a home owner is vulnerable or not before conducting an investigation.
Signs that something isn’t right
If you’ve found a local paranormal team you think are a bit suspect you should ask the following questions:
1 – do they conduct ‘private investigations?
2 – do they use devices to monitor or detect ghosts or paranormal energy?
3 – does their main aim seem to be to find evidence that ghosts exist?
4 – do they have a page of evidence with ‘EVP recordings’ and photos on?
5 – Do they display photos of orbs/vortexes/plasma/mists as proof of manifestations?
Although most of the above are generally harmless beliefs one might hold, if you answer question 1 with ‘yes’ and then any of the others with ‘yes’ then there is potential for a problem.
Personally I look to see if an operating research team have insurance and a code of ethics that members must work by, and I look to see what kind of things are written in their location reports and displayed on their evidence pages to try and gauge whether they’re working with bad logic or not.
So what shouldn’t skeptics do?
Tell people they’re deluded and they’re more likely to dig their heels in. People often fight cognitive dissonance by explaining away your logical argument with their illogical reasonings. Tell a home owner they don’t have a ghost and they’re likely to side with the ghost hunter who ‘helped’ them.
What can skeptics do?
Sometimes the best think you can do is simply offer an alternative point of view. People wont always accept it, but being abrupt or patronising will not help. I’ve built my entire blog around doing just that – offering the alternatives for when people come looking or asking about certain subjects.
Suggesting alternative causes can have a better effect than explaining them.
“Perhaps it was…”, “have you guys considered…”, “I once experienced something very similar…”, “I heard that…”
I personally think it’s important to not aim to change peoples minds, but that it is important to try to encourage people to understand how to review situations in a rational manner (which is the approach we have adopted with the Project Barnum website).
You don’t have to have decades of experience as a ghost researcher to tackle pseudo-scientific claims when they’re made my amateur ghost hunters, you just have to have the right approach.
It would be great if regional groups started looking closer at the ghost hunting groups in their local tows and cities because there are so many such groups out there who make psuedo-scientific claims without being challenged about them, and their influence and reach is unknown.
It could be harmless fun, or it could be an ethical minefield right on your doorstep. You simply can’t tell until you start looking – in fact, I bet that if you were to search online for groups in your area who spend their weekends looking for ghosts you’d be shocked at just how many there are.