Ethical issues in Spontaneous Phenomena Investigations: An interview with Dave Wood & CJ Romer

I interviewed Dave Wood, the chairman of the Association for the Scientific Study of Anomlous Phenomena (ASSAP) and CJ Romer, a highly regarded phenomena investigator, about the ethics of ghost hunting for Episode 105 of the Righteous Indignation Podcast. Below is a transcript of the interview…

H = Hayley Stevens
D = Dave Wood
CJ = CJ Romer

H We’re here to talk about an article you both wrote for vol. 45 of the ASSAP journal ‘Anomaly called ‘Ethical issues in spontaneous phenomena investigations’.Do you believe unethical behaviour is a large problem among amateur paranormal investigators? I think it’s probably a bit of a given…

CJ I’d say it’s almost certain that there are ethical issues that come up almost on a daily basis for anyone who is active within the field. I’ve faced all kinds of ethical problems in my own time, and I’ve probably made lots of incorrect decisions myself. A couple from my own experience from running a paranormal group back in the 90’s before this all started to take off and everyone started to do it.

On one occasion I asked another academic, a colleague, if he’d like to be involved as he was a reputable scientist. I asked him if he’d like to come along on an investigation and he filled in a form and agreed to maintain confidentiality etc. We met him at the university, he got in the car and we thought ‘what possible harm could come from taking this fellow with us?’ and in fact no harm did come from it, but the first thing he asked us as we got out of the car was ‘why have you brought me to my house?’

It turned out that the case which was very sensitive involved his next door neighbour who’d he’d been friends with for many years who had been too embarrassed to tell him anything about the phenomena they were witnessing. So, inadvertent but straight away that raises a few interesting points, doesn’t it? On another occasion some time later we found what appeared to be a full blown physical relationship between a young child and a babysitter, and there’s real legal issues that become involved and I think one of the problems psychical researchers don’t realise is just how much they stick their necks out just by going into people’s homes which is why I strongly encourage people not to do it.

H Yes

D I agree with CJ, there’s some really shocking headline ethical issues that hit the papers, and I think some examples we used in the article included known registered sex offenders going into family homes and that kind of thing and really incredible mind-blowing stuff where you’re thinking ‘how could this have even happened?’ and it’s worrying on all sorts of levels, but going back to what CJ said originally, minor ethical issues crop up every weekend when paranormal investigation groups go out, most of which don’t have ethical codes of any description and from my own limited experience of seeing other groups as opposed to groups I’ve been directly involved with, ethical issues crop up all the time and I think it’s a big worry.

H I certainly know from my own experience – I mean the reason that I do less investigations now is because of ethical reasons, I just can’t assure that I’m being ethical so I steer clear. CJ you mentioned a ‘sensitive case’, could you describe what a sensitive might be?

CJ As an academic one of the first things you are taught is that you don’t do research with the recently bereaved and unfortunately one of the groups you’re most likely to be approached by is someone who has suffered a recently bereavement. It’s very hard.

D Yes

CJ a question that arose when we were writing the paper was ‘do you take on those investigations? Do you look at the phenomena, do you offer anything more than a cup of tea and sympathy – my preferred approach, and break off contact as quickly and gently as you could?’ How do you deal with it Dave?

D I think generally that certainly within six months of someone being bereaved there’s a good case that it’s almost automatically unethical to deal with someone who has been bereaved in the previous six months, there’s so much going on there. They’re automatically vulnerable in pretty much every single case. I don’t think a paranormal investigator is a suitable person to be working with them. Everything is too fresh and raw and it just doesn’t sit right with me at all.

An interesting offshoot to that is something that a number of paranormal researchers have done over the years, is set up legacy research. A few years ago I came across someone who put in place a plan for when they eventually died as to what research they wanted done by the people around them when they died which was kind of strange to me and kind of highlighted that issue there as to how you deal with that sort of thing as well

H Are these investigators who are saying when I die I want you to try and communicate with my ghost?

D yeah that sort of thing, a few years ago I came across an investigator who had a whole kind of plan in place of research they wanted conducting to try and make contact

CJ It’s almost the norm for members of the SPR[Society for Psychical Research] to do things such as set bicycle locks, create complex cypher messages that could only be decoded with the correct key, and to do other things so they can be used as tests of survival. I don’t have an ethical issue with this as it is people who are making informed decisions to assist a future research community and the normally the research doesn’t start until quite some time after their death.

But no… Stay away from the recently bereaved! And stay away from working with Children! Absolute horror!

D Yep

CJ I used to be a psychiatric nurse and one of the things they drummed into us was even if you’re a psychiatric nurse you don’t work with children unless you have that sort of training and understanding and we didn’t so they told us to stay away from them.

D I completely agree, going into a private case where children are present is a big no-no in most respects. People have argued the opposite view but I’m with CJ on that one. Working with children directly, there is the potential to do a lot of harm for them. Before anyone thinks about doing something like that they need to speak to professionals and get advice – certainly not something to do without thinking about it.

In the article we made a difference between statutorily vulnerable adults and then people who didn’t fall into that category. If you’ve got someone who has mental health issues, learning difficulties, is very elderly or frail, or someone who’s recently bereaved then they would fall into the category of statutorily vulnerable and that means they have some kind of care needs and you shouldn’t be working with those people at all because they should already have professional networks of support.

Then you have people who are non-statutorily vulnerable which is pretty much anyone in their own home who is concerned, worried or distressed about something happening in their own home and I think in any case where there’s than non-statutorily vulnerable you have to be very careful about how you deal with those situations and as CJ said he’d probably avoid them entirely and I’ve spoken to a refreshing number of researchers who have said ‘I don’t have enough training to deal with this, I would avoid the situation entirely’ but I think if anyone was to work with someone in a private house, and lots of people do, I think it’s important to have a very strong ethical code in place to ensure that person is protected.

H I know a lot of a lot of research teams who’ve gone into people’s homes and have done horrific things on their investigations and in the way they handle their ‘findings’ which is quite disturbing for those involved. When raising my concerns they often say they not sure how to work out if someone is vulnerable. Do you think it’s best to avoid private investigations completely unless they have specialist training?

D Yes I think unless they have some sort of ethical grounding I think the safest thing is to avoid those sorts of cases. At ASSAP[Association for Scientific Study into Anomalous Phenomena] we provide particular training on dealing with no statutory vulnerable people in private houses, and I think unless you’ve gone into it in a great deal of depth it is much better to err on the side of caution as we are dealing with people’s lives, and avoid these cases.

CJ You’ve got to bear in mind that even a trained social welfare professional will be working as part of a multi-agency task force, they’ll be working as part of a team. You’ll have a GP involved, and maybe social services, they may have contact with local clergy who deals with the faith of the family, with the housing officers, the hospital, maybe psychiatrists, perhaps a substance abuse teams. All those people work in an institutional frame work that protects them, gives them assurance, gives them cover but is ultimately designed to prevent unnecessary sharing of information and ensure that the client gets the best possible deal out of ay intervention.

What happens with paranormal investigators is more like:

*acts the knocking of a door*

*puts on voice* ‘Hello Ma’am, oh I’m sensing it already! It’s a headless baby, it’s horrible and disfigured, did you have a miscarriage? It’s coming through the walls!

I mean, I mock but that kind of horrific scenario goes on out there.

H Yeah I’ve seen that kind of thing

CJ These people believe it’s okay to go and do this. Actually there’s a real issue here. There are two kinds of psychic researchers at the end of day. Those who see themselves asspiritual super beings who save the world through psychic intervention and some of these do a good job and make people feel better and I have seen positive outcomes from mediums-

H a bit like a placebo

CJ Perhaps… sometimes though it can do horrendous damage. How do you know which people are going to leave you in some state of uncertainty and cause you untold degrees of horror, and how do you know whose going to tell you a nice story about the ghost and sort it out – whether its true or not doesn’t matter.

D Yeah, I’ve spoken to people in the past who say they feel quite comfortable approaching mediums because mediums tend to have this tenet of not doing harm at the centre of what they do, but I have come across cases of mediums going into locations and scared the bejesus out of people quite frankly. Saying there are dozens of ghosts in your house, or in your children’s bedroom and the children can’t sleep at night. So I think there is no way to know when you invite someone in your house – that can be a medium or an investigator –how do you know if they’re going to help and reassure you or how do you know they’re not going to make it worse?

CJ mediums generally do at least claim their aims are therapeutic. My team once had a call from a woman saying: “I’m so terrified, my children have gone to stay with their grandparents. The saucepan just got thrown at the dog. The dog is howling, objects keep moving and thumping! Doors keep opening and closing. I can’t take it anymore, I can’t take it anymore!’

My friend turned around to me and shouted: “Yes! We’ve actually got a good one!”

Utterly inappropriate. We went down there and the woman was absolutely hysterical and from my nursing perspective I wanted to cheer her up but it quickly became apparent that activity occurred when the family were stressed and upset so I also had this strong scientific urge to make them as unhappy as possible…

H *laughs*

D I’m sure you didn’t act on it!

CJ No, actually what I did was tried to calm them down, and that will always take priority for me over of hunting for evidence. One of the problems I have is statistically I don’t think there’s much point of going and sitting with a camera because even on the most live poltergeist cases where I’ve been, as soon as you have an outsider involved you might see or hear something but the phenomena is extraordinarily elusive so I spend most of the time trying to explain the phenomena in rational terms and trying to calm people down.
At the end of the case the woman said to us ‘you don’t want to get rid of the ghost at all, do you? You want it to stay here!’ and I think that’s true of a lot of research groups, they want the ghost to be there.

D They mean well and feel they’re doing a good job, and they may do a good job in the way they investigate, but not having an ethical code and a grounded ethical way of doing things, statistically speaking you’re going to have so many ethical issues coming up over the course of x number of cases you investigate. Unless you’re prepared to deal with them, small amounts of harm are going to take place, you may not know they take place, you may go in, do an investigation, leave and never actually realise that after the event something takes place that causes harm to the family.

We can focus on headline issues and horror stories which I think is good because that brings out good examples, but the thousands of investigators who operate without an ethical code just create these small ethical breaches over the course of time creates a huge accumulative problem.

H What do you think is the cause of unethical conduct? Is it people ignoring the problem? Or just not realising the potential for the problem is there?

D I think probably not realising the potential for the problem is there, I think very few people go out there trying to scare people and cause distress. I think the vast majority of investigators are trying to do a good job and a good thing through this sense of personal morality that people would hope guides them through a process. I suppose it’s where you’re coming from. If you think about Paranormal Investigation, it’s pretty much an amateur type hobby, most amateur hobby you don’t tend to have any code of how you act – you go into something with common sense and hope it prevails.

Indeed with psychology, that used to be, broadly speaking decades ago, how psychology worked, the individual morality of the person – albeit a well-trained person – would hopefully see them through the experimentation they’d do.

Psychology and other disciplines quickly learnt that actually the only way to really protect people is to have a set of behaviours, a code of conduct, a set of ethics to guide you and help you interpret different eventualities. Things you hadn’t considered and potential harm for people you wouldn’t consider. So I think very few of us can go into an investigation case having knowledge of every possible outcome that could happen. At least with a code of ethics you can institutionally minimise risk of harm and be in a position to address it if it comes up. So I think people go into it with the right mind-set but with the not that kind of professional mind-set that says ‘yes, we must have a formal code of ethics’.


About Hayley Stevens 448 Articles
Hayley is a ghost geek and started to blog in 2007. She uses scientific scepticism to investigate weird stuff and writes about it here while also speaking publicly about how to hunt ghosts as a skeptic.

4 Comments on Ethical issues in Spontaneous Phenomena Investigations: An interview with Dave Wood & CJ Romer

  1. I keep hearing about all these paranormal investigators but have never seen a scientifically valid report from any of them. People have been ‘investigating’ for 100+ years and yet nothing. Either the investigators are inept or we are in ‘little green men’ territory. Can you give me some links to some scientific proofs of the existence of ghosts.

    • Excuse me? Go look for yourself. I also actually have a whole list of studies on this website to various papers that are a result of scientific study and analysis. You say you haven’t seen a scientifically valid report from any of them? Scientifically valid in what aspect? Perhaps it is you who is incorrect in your assessment – you presume all paranormal investigators are aiming to find proof of ghosts. Wrong.

  2. Sorry to have seemed insulting in some way. Perhaps my post was poorly worded. I was looking for something that, using the scientific method, states that ghosts exist. I have read papers that disprove various instances, ones that say further tests are required or they are electro/temperature anomalies. My back story is that when I was in my late 20s (almost 30yrs ago) I had a ‘ghostly’ experience with my deceased aunt. To this day I cannot explain it as it was early evening in a very well lit house. As an engineer and skeptic it goes against everything I know and have read and hence my quest for answers.

    • The code of ethics is really a separate issue from the science (or non science). The ethics deal more with how the investigators interact with the living.

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