There are many people who claim to investigate ghosts using a scientific approach, but this is a claim that should not be taken at face value because a lot of people who make this claim are actually using pseudo-scientific methods without necessarily realising it. These are methods that can be misleading and can provide false positives.
Before I get into too much detail about how pseudo-science rules the majority of ghost research (and it does, believe me…) it’s probably worth pointing out that the very reason that people start to investigate paranormal claims can often influence the way in which they then decide to go about their investigations. The choice to use techniques that seem scientific but actually aren’t can often be the result of three things:
1 – A need for confirmation bias.
I often talk about how the very reason a person chooses to become involved with paranormal research can affect the choices they make and the rationale they use during their research. If somebody becomes involved in paranormal research simply because they want to prove that their belief in ghosts is correct then they’re probably going to use methods of investigation that provide them with such confirmation.
People who are trying to prove something to themselves or others will be more likely to use spiritual techniques such as table tipping or glass divination. These methods are easily influenced through people’s expectations. The ideomotor response, for example, is the reason that these spiritual methods are so successful at yielding positive results. The people involved in the glass divination or similar, unintentionally move the glass to meet their expectations – this is an effect that has been proven in numerous studies.
However, expectations and a desire to find a ghost or paranormal cause for phenomena reported can also influence seemingly scientific measurements too, but more on that later.
2 – The copy-cat effect
Many people who become involved in paranormal research do so because they have been inspired by other people – whether it is a paranormal television show or other paranormal investigators that they have heard about or have seen locally, in books or online.
The main problem with this is that people will conduct very little independent investigation into how they should go about their research. They will simply copy the people who have influenced them, using the same methods and pieces of equipment they use. The copy-cat effect even reaches as far as the locations the team chooses to visit!
3 – A general misunderstanding of science.
Many paranormal researchers or research organisations claim that they use a scientific approach to their cases because they use an array of gadgets that can help to detect ghostly presences.
This claim is flawed in itself because claiming to use gadgets that detect ghosts on your investigations is introducing a bias to your investigation, i.e. that there is a ghost at the location to be detected.
The gadgets that many paranormal investigators use that they claim are scientific are devices that have been designed to take measurements for other fields of research or monitoring.
There are a plethora of gadgets that are used by ghost hunters that they often claim detect ghosts. Too many to list in detail in this post, and I have written about them before for the WPR team website, however I will touch upon the most popular.
EMF meters, for example, measure Electro-magnetic fields but some ghost researchers claim that ghosts cause fluctuations in electro-magnetic fields when they manifest (despite these fluctuations occurring naturally anyway), thermometers measure the temperature but are sometimes used by ghost researchers to monitor ‘cold spots’ that are sometimes attributed to ghosts, Ion detectors measure positive and negative ions that are naturally occurring, despite this some hold the belief that a ghost manifesting itself can create positively charges ions, also Thermal Imaging cameras simply show the surface temperatures in an environment but ghost researchers use them to search for temperature anomalies that could be caused by a ghost…
The fact is that there isn’t a testable definition for what a ghost is, and because of this, there is no way that anyone could design a piece of technology that detects them (if they exist). The use of such gadgets is pseudo-scientific not only because such gadgets are not designed to detect ghosts, but also because the readings people take with them are open to interpretation and that interpretation can be (and often is) influenced by the expectations of the investigator, or the need for confirmation bias (i.e. that there is a ghost present, or that ghosts exist, depending on the individual).
A thermometer in a room may detect a temperature drop of 5oC, but all that the thermometer tells us is that the temperature has dropped, and not why or how. To some people, that reading would simply mean the temperature has changed in the room through natural causes, but to others it might indicate a paranormal cold spot. Of course, the thermometer hasn’t told them this, it’s simply their interpretation of the reading – influenced by their expectations, just like the glass used for glass divination.
Can you really use science in paranormal research?
When people hear that you can use science to investigate ghosts they often picture people in lab coats putting translucent beings into a test tube. There are scientists who are conducting good research into how the environment around us can cause people to experience odd things they might think are caused by ghosts, and also how our minds can fool us into thinking we’ve experienced something ghostly, but you don’t have to be a scientist to use science in paranormal research – simply by using the correct behaviour you can ensure that your research is scientifically sound. It is easy to use science on an investigation simply by applying the scientific method to the case you are dealing with.
The scientific method
The scientific method can be broken down into a number of basic steps as follows:
- Ask a Question
- Do background research
- Construct a hypothesis
- Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment
- Analyse your data and draw a Conclusion
- Communicate Your Results
The scientific method is something that sometimes repeats itself by asking a question (step one) of the results being communicated (step six). The hypothesis being tested can be in relation to a case of paranormal phenomena that has been reported to an investigator to help find cause and effect relationships in nature.
One thing that many paranormal researchers fail to do (and thus, cause themselves to be pseudo-scientific in their approach to their research) is consider all possible causes for the phenomena they are investigating, and simply presume that it is caused by a ghost.
If an investigator uses gadgets to detect ghosts, then they are aiming to detect a ghost and have decided that there IS a ghost in the location to detect. The same can be said of those investigators who use spiritual methods to ‘communicate’ with ghosts.
This will only lead to flawed conclusions being reached because they have already drawn a conclusion before constructing and testing a hypothesis and they will, often unintentionally, analyse any data they collect in a way that makes it fit with their already drawn conclusion. This is known as cherry picking your data and only using certain data that matches with your expectations is known as ‘the file drawer effect’.
The file drawer effect
When scientists conduct an experiment they note down all the positive and negative results so that a clear conclusion can be reached. It also helps when somebody tries to repeat or improve the experiment. This is a good behaviour that ghost researchers can use to ensure that they reach and present a clear conclusion to their research.
This often doesn’t happen because ghost researchers who use pseudo-scientific methods remember the positive hits (when a reading on a piece of equipment suggested to them a ghost was present) but forget the negative misses (when the same piece of equipment didn’t respond when they asked it to), meaning that they create false positives in their conclusion. This is known as the file drawer effect.
So, in summary, it is possible to research the paranormal using science – but it’s more about your behaviour and maintaining an open mind than the equipment you use…