The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Ghost Hunters and Science!

Some time back, I thought that it would be fun to write a series of posts on the basic problems that prevent the self-declared science of ghost hunting from actual science. It isn't that they have chosen to study ghosts, but rather that their methods for doing so are so blatantly unscientific that prevents their claims to scientific legitimacy from being valid. I had worked out what I would write about, and begun thinking my essays through...and then my friend Dave beat me to the punch by writing the same thing, but doing a better job than I would have. It was originally posted elsewhere, hence the talk of "tagging" people and whatnot, but the essay itself is pretty solid. So, without further ado, here's Dave's essay...

There's a post that's been floating around my head for... oh, roundabouts two years now; ever since I wrote the Shadow Circus show 'Paranormal Investigators.' I hadn't gotten around to posting it in the past because the more thought I put into it, the more the post seemed to grow in my mind until, at long last, I'm left with what can only now be an ongoing series of posts, which may or may not continue depending on how robust my attention span is (spoilers: it's as robust as a concussed kitten's).

I want to talk a little bit about ghost hunting.

I know a lot of ghost hunters. I expect that there are going to be a whole lot of people reading this post thinking that it's directed specifically towards them. If you're reading this and thinking that very thing then trust me - this post was inspired by you and at least fourteen other people... and the Sci-Fi channel, of course. (Or is it already the SyFy Channel? The Sigh Figh Channel? Who can keep these rebrandings straight?)

But I digress; I know a LOT of ghost hunters.

Despite being a non-believer, I largely approve of ghost hunters. Why not? I still enjoy a good ghost story, it's not my time or money being spent and I generally approve of any hobby that involves people getting out in the fresh night air or that generates interest in vintage architecture. Ghost hunting? There's worse things to do on a Friday night, and like most other beliefs that I don't share, as long as people don't come around saying "the spirits have told me that homosexuals shouldn't have rights, that non-believers should be tortured for eternity and that senior citizens should give me half of their fixed income! Whoooo!" then I don't really give two hoots what people believe.

But what irks me just a bit is that ghost hunters invariable say that what they're doing is science. They don't call it a philosophical exercise, or a spiritual activity or even 'running around playing grab-ass in the dark for kicks'. Ghost hunters want to beat the square peg of the paranormal into the round hole we call 'science.'

::deep breath::

The thing about the scientific method is that it has a pretty specific definition and that definition is not 'carry lots of equipment with blinky lights.' Mind you, I'm not saying that it would be impossible to define paranormal phenomenon, if it exists, using science. I'm just saying that ghost hunters aren't doing it.

Now, I shouldn't need to point out that I am not a scientist. I'm what Penn and Teller call a 'cheerleader for science.' In fact, I'm more than that; I'm the slutty cheerleader for science who will happily have sloppy animal sex with science behind the bleachers after the big game, especially if science happens to be that dreamy quarterback Paleontology.

But, I am tagging my friend Matt in this post, who actually is a scientist, so that if he feels so inclined he can chime in with other suggestions or, failing that, inform me that I am full of shit. I'm also going to go ahead and tag Greta Christina, who is not a scientist, but is my favorite skeptical blogger, and the thought of her weighing in on my thoughts makes me giggle with fanboyish glee.


So without further ado, I give you part one of:

Part One: Eliminating Confirmation Bias


Whenever I hear about a ghost hunting case, or see one on TV, or I read about one, it almost always starts off the same way. Somebody will come along and say "I think my house is haunted! Strange things happen in the kitchen and in the children's bedroom!" Then the ghost hunters will go in and pay particular attention to the kitchen and children's bedroom and oftentimes will come back saying, 'oh yes. I definitely felt something strange - in those two rooms especially.'

Okay; quick quiz. Can anyone tell where I'm going to go with this? Anyone? Show of hands? Matt, you can put your hand down, you don't count.

If you tell people that a particular area is haunted, people are going to feel strange and uneasy there, and any trivial incident is going to be used to confirm the phenomenon. Batteries died? Equipment glitchy? Tripping over a cable that you swear wasn't there a minute ago? Well, this is the room where they told us the phenomenon happened - it must be the ghosts!

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking; when people look for other phenomenon, they go straight to where the sightings happened. If people say 'Hey, I saw a hairy man playing softball with his poop over in Africa', scientists are going to go to Africa to find it. I mean, duh. Why should it be different with ghost hunting?

Well, for starters, people who have looked for cryptids fall into two categories; successful (mountain gorilla, giant squid) and woefully unsuccessful (Nessie, the yeti, etc). The successful cases have always, and I mean always had physical evidence to back up the eyewitness accounts. They always had carcasses or feces or footprints or something. Searches that were based on anecdotal evidence alone have pretty much always been unsuccessful, and continue to be unsuccessful to this day.

In short, if somebody says that there was a haunting in a particular room and that room is covered in ectoplasmic substance that science can't identify then, by all means, target the fuck out of that room.

You also have to consider what your end result will be. When people were trying to show that the mountain gorilla exists, all they had to do is go to Africa and catch one. Ta-da; here's your gorilla. Case closed, muthafuckah! Unless you happen to be Harold Ramis, you can't do that with ghosts. Being ephemeral by nature, you're left with an even greater burden to give evidence free of confirmation bias.

You need a blind study.

What you do is this; have an outside party identify a house which is supposed to be haunted. Ideally, it should be a house where specific rooms are haunted with specific phenomenon on a regular basis. Then have the outside party find five or so other houses which are not supposedly haunted, but are reasonably similar in age, upkeep and style. After that, let the paranormal researchers investigate all of the houses for an equal amount of time (this is the important part, guys) without knowing which house is supposedly haunted.

If the haunting is a true and repeating phenomenon, at some point the phenomenon should manifest itself in the supposedly 'haunted' house in the rooms that were previously specified in a way that does not surface in the other houses. I understand that the phenomenon might not surface immediately. Ghost hunters may have to scour all six houses for months. But at the end, if the hypothesis is sound, the ghost hunters should be able to identify which specific house is haunted and which specific rooms in the house are haunted without any prompting at all.

I'm sure that there would be some ghost hunters that would balk at the idea of a blind study such as this. They might complain that the test is unfair, that you can't hold the non-material to the same standards of evidence as the material, etc, etc, etc...

And you know what? That's fine. But blind-studies are the sorts of things that scientists have to do all the friggin' time to try and eliminate bias. If you think that this testing is unfair, so be it, but for goodness sake, stop trying to pass your field off as science.

Besides, if you think this kind of testing is unfair, wait until I write Part II - 'Showing your work and why your toys don't impress us.'

And remember, folks. 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.

But to do science, you have to have scientific standards.


Anne said...

I think that at least some of the ‘scientific investigation’ you’re calling for in your post is actually taking place. Just one example is the article ‘An investigation into alleged ‘hauntings’’ by Richard Wiseman et. al. (published in the British Journal of Psychology (2003), 94, 195–211). In this paper they describe two experiments in which they conducted blind studies of just the kind you suggest. To quote their abstract:

In cases of alleged hauntings, a large number of seemingly trustworthy witnesses consistently report experiencing unusual phenomena (e.g. apparitions, sudden changes in temperature, a strong sense of presence) in certain locations. The two studies reported here explored the psychological mechanisms that underlie this apparent evidence of ‘ghostly’ activity. The experiments took place at two locations that have a considerable reputation for being haunted—Hampton Court Palace (Surrey, England) and the South Bridge Vaults (Edinburgh, Scotland). Both studies involved participants walking around these locations and reporting where they experienced unusual phenomena. Results revealed significantly more reports of unusual experiences in areas that had a reputation for being haunted. This effect was not related to participants’ prior knowledge about the reputation of these areas. However, the location of participants’ experiences correlated significantly with various environmental factors, including, for example, the variance of local magnetic fields and lighting levels.

While their conclusions are somewhat unsurprising their data could be interpreted in a number of ways - most of which might be interestingly debated here. While I think studies like the one above are important for a number of reasons not least of which is their adherence to academic research practices which allow for replicateable studies, academic terminologies and quantifiable results (just to name a few). I also feel that you simultaneously hold ‘ghost hunters’ up to this kind of scientific rigor whilst also acknowledging that paranormal investigation is, most often, a ‘hobby’. If particle physicists had to conduct their experiments with equipment they built in their garage then it is likely that their investigations would seem similarly more quirky (not that sting theory isn’t doing its part). At the end of the day ‘ghost hunting’ is not an area of research for which one can (generally) get research funds or university positions unless one wants to study the nature of belief in the paranormal (for example as above). Which brings me to my second point, which is that ultimately ‘the paranormal’ cannot reasonably be accommodated for within ‘normality’ (para from the Greek meaning beside, near, past, beyond, or contrary) and as such research paradigms structured on this necessity (such as those that require replicateable results) will often not be able to accommodate that which is sought – i.e. that which is beyond normal. While bringing paranormal phenomena into the normality of science may have some positive results one could also argue that to subject all paranormal investigation to the scientific method is yet another attempt to reduce the metaphysical to the physical and thereby to ignore the unknown.

Anthroslug said...

Anne, thank you for the excellent comments.

I am aware of Richard Wiseman, as, I believe, is Dave. He is doing some really interesting work, and I very much enjoy reading and hearing about it. I look forward to following through and reading the article that you reference (unfortunately, that will have to wait a few months until I'm back home and have access to a research library again).

As for your comment that ghost hunting is primarily a hobby, yes, I agree. I see nothing wrong with people pursuing their hobby in any way that they see fit (I myself have spent time wandering through allegedly haunted places looking for whatever I could find or see). What Dave is criticizing is people who claim to be doing rigorous scientific work when they in fact are not doing so. This is a specific subset, and does not include everyone who is interested in the subject, but when people claim to be scientists, it is absolutely valid to criticize them for not being what they claim.

Also, unless I'm very much misunderstanding what you mean (which is quite possible) it's incorrect to say that trying to apply scientific methods to the paranormal is a way of excluding and ignoring the paranormal. If these phenomenon do exist, and it's open to debate whether or not they do, then their presence should, at the very least, create anomalies that are detectable even if not explainable. Basically, if ghosts exist, then they are impacting the physical world (otherwise we'd not be able to percieve them with our physical senses), and are therefore detectable, even if their ultimate nature was unexaminable. Rather than ignoring them, this is taking them seriously enough to not hand wave one's denial or acceptance of them.

Now, you could say that the fact that people perceive these things means that they have been detected, and you may be right. The problem is that our senses are notoriously unreliable and prone to a wide variety of influences. So, without a way of clearly eliminating such influences, you're left with anecdotes, not evidence. Ultimately, that's what Dave is getting at in his essay.

Perhaps he's wrong, the blind study may not be the best approach, but that doesn't mean that there isn't a workable approach out there.

Again, though, thank you for thoughtful and well-articulated comments. I hope that you will comment again in the future.

Evan Davis said...

My PKE Meter has often detected the ethereal beasties. Luckily I had my Proton Pack handy to hold them long enough to get my traps out. I am holding them in my ECU if you would like to examine them with all your sciencey methods.

Anonymous said...

JakeR said...

The blinding plan assumes the ghost hunters don't have access to information about the alleged haunted house, which is not a safe assumption. A ghost hunter who signs on for this deal will be looking for information on every house identified, using local newspaper morgues, other published accounts, and the internet. You can't reasonably sequester these folks for weeks possibly before and certainly during the test.

Further, the study must be double-blind. Once the outside party has identified the houses for the study, the person who briefs the ghost hunters must be blind. Ideally, the person who assesses the ghost hunters' findings must also be blind, and the assessment must be based on objective criteria that the ghost hunters either do or do not meet. If the alleged ghost is male, fat, and about 40, the ghost hunter must unequivocally find those facts, and the assessor must not give a pass to Barnum statements such as, "He met a violent death" or "she is lost and confused."

Anthroslug said...

JakeR: Good points as well. When Dave suggested the blinding, I assumed that he was describing something along the lines finding a location that is reputed ot be haunted, but which would be difficult to find information for on short notice (I know of a few such locations).

I agree with your second point, in principle. If an alleged ghost has a defined set of attributes, then it is wise to look for those attributes, and definitely avoid vague statements. In practice, I would settle for a even a few verifiable attributes.

Oddly, the word verification that I get is "Dying".