The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ghost Hunters: Addicted to Technology

I had previously posted an essay by my friend Dave about the problems inherent in most attempts to perform scientific analysis of ghosts. Well, Dave has written a follow-up, so here 'tis:


So, a couple of weeks back I started talking about Ghost Hunting. As you may recall, I noted that I have a great deal of friends who are 'ghost hunters', and while I'm personally not a believer I have no particular desire to piss in anybody's Cheerios. One thing that does irk me a bit, however, is when ghost hunters and paranormal investigators claim to be doing work that is scientific, rather than passing their work off as a philosophical or spiritual endeavor.

Do I really need to go through this intro again? If you haven't read Part One, jump in my archives and go catch up. Don't worry, the internet will wait.

Did you read Part One? Great!

So in part one, we talked about confirmation bias when it comes to paranormal investigation, and how to try and eliminate confirmation bias using blind testing. Today, I want to talk about 'ghost hunting equipment.'

There's a school of thought that I've noticed a lot in ghost hunting which goes like this; "What we're doing is science because we use scientific equipment! Look at all this equipment! Boy, our equipment sure is expensive! And we sure have a lot of it! I mean, this has got to be science, right?"

The fact of the matter is, not only does the use of expensive scientific equipment like EMF detectors not legitimize haunting research, it's actually one of the things that makes ghost hunters look like hacks.

Let me explain...

As a ghost hunter, your primary goal is to try and convince the scientific community that ghosts exist, capice? In order to be scientific, I mean, truly, honest-to-Darwin, unbiased scientific, you can't take the existence of ghosts as a given. You with me so far? So if the existence of ghosts itself isn't a given, then you can't go ahead and make presumptions about the qualities of ghosts, or you've just shot any pretense of non-biased experimentation right in the balls...

I mean right square in the balls.

Hmmm... I see by your furrowed brow that I've lost you (or you're imagining being shot in the balls). Let me give you an example.

You can't say, "I'm trying to prove that ghosts exist. I've found an unaccounted for electromagnetic field, which proves there was a ghost here, because we know ghosts give out an electromagnetic field."

You see what the problem is with that statement? It's rife with circular reasoning. In order to use electromagnetic fields as evidence of ghosts, you have to leapfrog over a whole series of hypothesis that you've found no evidence to back up. How do you know that ghosts would give off an electromagnetic field? Because you happen to be looking for evidence of ghosts and there happens to be an electromagnetic field that you can't find the source of? In the atheism community, we call this the 'God of the Gaps' fallacy.

Do you know what electromagnetic fields provide evidence for? They provide evidence for electromagnetic fields. That's it.

Amongst other things, thinking that ghosts cause electromagnetic fields may very well be putting the cart before the horse. There's a theory that the opposite may be true; that proximity to electromagnetic fields can cause feelings of supernatural presence; in other words, ghosts may not cause electromagnetic fields, electromagnetic fields may cause 'ghosts', particularly if a person already believes in them.

It is, of course, an unproven and inconclusive theory, but one that takes far less of a stretch than the alternative hypothesis.

And I think it's sad that I even have to make this next point, but experience has shown that it's necessary; if you want to maintain even the slightest shred of scientific credibility, if you want even a glimmering hint of being taken seriously by scientists, for goodness sake put away the damned divining rods. If you want to present even a microbe of pretense that you're being scientific, don't pull out a medieval toy that's been considered a fraud for hundreds of years. By the same token, you do yourself no favors by bringing psychics or mediums into your investigations. Two unproven phenomenon do not make a proven phenomenon.

Let me reiterate; if you're doing ghost hunting for fun, or as a 'spiritual' or philosophical exercise, then knock yourself out. Invite Madame Cleo and go ghost hunting with a metal detector for all I care. But if you're wondering why the scientific community won't take you seriously, you may want to go looking for the receipt for that EMF detector you just bought.

And let me copy and paste what I'm sure will have to be a regular disclaimer: While you may think these posts are snarky, they really are meant to try and help out paranormal investigators who want to be taken seriously in the scientific community. The point of more rigorous testing isn't just to see you fail. Most scientists would think it would be brilliant if you succeeded; if you could discover a whole wonderful field of study that has real weight via the scientific method.


By the way, if you want to know some specifics of the mis-use of techie stuff for ghost hunting, check out this.


Joshua said...

There are in general deep emotional reasons why people believe that technology (especially electronics) are connected to the supernatural. One of the primary issues is that both seem magical to people who don't know anything. There are other reasons as well.

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I wrote a blog about this earlier
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Anthroslug said...

Plug away, good sir.

You may be onto something there. If someone is unfamiliar with technology, then it may not be unreasonable to conflate technology with magic. In fact, I wonder if this may be the reason why some sci-fi and fantasy authors give scientists access to magic and/or the occult (this conflation is almost as tired as the tendency to make magic and science antagonistic opposites).

Ebrothers said...

I completely agree with your post here, but I think it probably stops short of getting to the real crux of the matter, which is, "What would be irrefutable proof of the paranormal?" I'm a science professor as well as an avid GhostHunters viewer. Foremost, I understand that Ghosthunters and similar programs are simply entertainment, despite considerable posturing to the otherwise. Regardless, the scientific question is one that interests me a great deal. I'd be willing to say that there would be no truly scientific proof of the paranormal that would be able to withstand peer review, as the subject matter is simply too elusive. The human element would have to be completely removed from the situation, double blind controls used, and any possibility of tampering/interference would have to be removed fully. What more, the evidence would have to be repeatable by an independent party. In the face of such overwhelming obstacles, perhaps "ghost hunting" should remain in the realm of entertainment.