The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Thursday, July 19, 2012

So, You Want to be a Paranormal Investigator, Part 2

It's been a little while since I posted part 1 of this, but here I am with Part 2 (edit to add: part 3 is here).  A quick re-iteration: there are many people who engage in activities that could be labelled "ghost hunting" or "paranormal investigations."  This set of entries is directed at the sub-set of them who are genuinely interested in trying to do good, robust work, and not those who simply want to hang out in creepy places (which, it must be said, is something that I enjoy doing, so I see nothing wrong with it).  So, here we go...

In the last entry in this series, I discussed the problems inherent in basic data gathering.  Although I focused on eye-witness testimony, and specifically all that is wrong with it, the basic concepts (know what type of data you are collecting, what [if anything] it actually means, and why you are collecting it) apply to any situation in which you are attempting to gather information. 

So, the last entry focused on some of the basic ways to think your way through data gathering, this one is aimed at saving you time and money by looking at the different tools of the trade.  I am going to be focused on actual tools that measure actual things - not on the use of "psychic devices" ranging from a medium's impressions to dowsing rods (which certainly have their own problems, but other have explained the issues there more clearly than I ever could).  I will briefly discuss some of the more "exotic" tools amongst the ghost-hunter's cache, but will spend a bit more time on two types of equipment that I have more direct personal knowledge of: cameras and audio equipment.

Now, many a ghost-hunting enthusiast will say "ha!  Well, this guy admits that his experience with this equipment is limited, so why should you listen to him and not us, us who use this equipment all the time?"  Simple:  Unlike them, I actually bothered to read up on what the equipment actually does and does not do, and while my direct experience is limited, I have been able to find enough to figure out that they are either lying or else know even less than I do about these devices.

So, for starters, here's a run-down of some of the more common equipment, what it gets used for, and what it actually does (Much of this information is well-summarized here, for the curious):

For starters, the ghost hunters seem to have a love affair with everything infra-red, which is odd.  Infra-red devices read heat signatures.  That's it.  They do different things with these signatures (create images, measure temperatures, etc.), but their purpose is, simply to read heat signatures.  What's more, each type of infra-red device reads heat signatures in a specific way, and usually (though I can't swear that this is always the case), they read SURFACE heat signatures.  So, for example, an infra-red thermometer reads the temperature of a surface - not the air, not gases, not ectoplasm, but a surface.  So, if you point an infrared thermometer through a room, you will get the temperature of whatever object happens to be on the other side oh the room (most likely the wall), but not something insubstantial, such as gasses, smoke, or a ghost.  What's more, depending on what the object that you hit is made of, and what is connected to it, you may get radical-seeming variations from fairly common things.  Infra-red motion detectors do a similar thing, detecting either major changes in temperature or the movement of objects with heat signatures different from whatever the background field is.  Even if one is claiming that there is a "cold spot", it would need to be of sufficient temperature difference and size to trigger the motion detector. 

Also, there tends to be a bit of an inconsistency with how these objects are used by ersatz investigators - I have seen shows, and had conversations with people, wherein images from infrared camera showing warm, human-shaped areas were held up as evidence of ghosts, while "cold spots" were also used simultaneously.  So what is it?  Is the ghost cold or warm?  The fact that both tend to get used depending on what the equipment is picking up indicates that these people are detecting randomness, not ghosts - in any sort of field of measurement, there will be natural "clumpings" of readings due to basic random distribution (remember, random does not mean "evenly distributed", it means "without pattern", and "clumps" will appear whenever a pattern is lacking).  Whenever you see these clumps, they can seem striking, if you don't understand the nature of random distribution (one thing I have learned about ghost hunters - they are, to a person - very, very bad at understanding statistics).  So, finding areas that appear hot or cold with an infrared device is not really useful information unless you can demonstrate a reason for it to be a different temperature (the common trope of "we can't explain these readings, therefore- GHOST!" grows out of a basic mis-understanding of how this works - there is always the possibility of seeming anomalies in randomness, the odd readings only mean something if you have good reason to expect them to be something other than what they actually are - and area that remains cold after being hit with a blow-torch, for example). 

Anyway, unlike some other critics of paranormal investigation, I will not say that infrared equipment is useless.  I will, however, say that it is only useful if you have a clear reason to be using it, and you have a sufficient understanding of both how the equipment works and of the environment in which you are deploying it to be able to know with some degree of reliability whether or not you should be getting one set of reading and not another - and knowing that tends to require alot of background knowledge of both the place where you are, and of the basic engineering that went into building it and selecting the materials to build it.  If you haven't done this minimal research, then your readings are essentially meaningless.

Similarly, electromagnetic field meters are often abused in the name of parapsychology.  What an EMF meter does is measure the electromagnetic field.  Electromagnetic fields are all around us - the Earth generates a giant one, and out bodies generate them as well, as do all electronics.  These tools are useful in the hands of people who work with electrical equipment for a living, but tend not to produce meaningful results in the hands of anyone else.  Why?  Simple: there are many possible sources for EMFs, and someone who is accustomed to dealing with them will have an idea of what EMFs are anomalous, and which are to be expected.  Moreover, when they find an anomalous one, someone with a background in electrical work is going to have an idea of what to look for as regards its source*.  Moreover, the readings that one gets with an EMF meter depend in large part in the specifics of how one uses it.  Many commercially available meters require multiple readings to be taken in a few different ways in order to find anything meaningful (so, someone walking into a room, taking one reading, and announcing that they have found something is a sign that the person in question hasn't a clue as to how to use their equipment).  Similarly, the way one handles the meter may create anomalous readings:  for example, my fiance and I once did a ghost walk during which we were all handed EMF meters, and she and I quickly discovered that we could make these particular models spike by flicking our wrists slightly while holding them - doing little to the electromagnetic field, but screwing with the sensors - it was fun watching the other tour members try to figure out why the ghosts wanted to play with her and I, and not any of them.

Similarly, people tend to like to use ion detectors and Geiger counters (although the Geiger counters are usually given another name).  Ion detectors detect ions, atoms in which the total number of electrons are not equal tot the total number of protons and therefore have an electrical charge (positive or negative).  Ions are both naturally occurring and can be created by a variety of different pieces of equipment.  Geiger counters identify ionizing radiation from nuclear decay (alpha particles, beta particles or gamma rays), which, again, can be (in fact, usually is) naturally occurring, or can be the result of human activity.  As with EMF fields and heat signatures, readings on these pieces of equipment are essentially meaningless unless you have a good reason to expect one type of reading over another. 

In all of these cases, the infrared devices, the EMF detectors, the Geiger counters, and the ion detectors, the devices are not measuring something mystical, something weird, or something abnormal.  They are not measuring paranormal energy, ghosts, or the Force.  They are measuring properties that exist in the world, all around us, at all times.  And all of them can only produce meaningful measurements if you know what should and/or should not be in a given location, which requires a whole heaping load of background research.  Hell, in the case of things such as radiation and ions, a basic knowledge of local geology and weather is necessary to know what should or should not be present, and I rarely see a paranormal researcher consult a geology or meteorology textbook. 

Okay, so now onto the items with which I have a bit more direct experience and a bit more to say. 

While in college, I trained to be a radio DJ, but found that I had a much greater affinity for the recording and manipulation of audio than for the on-air hijinks that accompanied DJ-dom.  I became pretty good at making the various audio devices to which I had access make all manner of weird sounds, manipulate signals in odd ways, and create audio effects unintended by the equipment's manufacturers.  What's more, I learned of the many ways that audio equipment can pick up unexpected noise, and I learned that following a basic train of cause-and-effect, I could invariably find the source of the sound (which, often, was very different from what it initially sounded like on the recording).  Now, mind you, I could track down the sources in a controlled studio environment - if the same sorts of things had occurred with a tape recorder out on the town, I'd have had a much harder time tracking down the source - it likely would often be impossible - but my experience in the studio had taught me that unlikely sources can create odd noise and effects in recordings. 

Most commercially available audio equipment is different from the professional-grade stuio equipment in that it is usually more compact, and gives the operator less control - but it has all of the same basic parts and features, it just either pre-sets them to "typical" conditions, or else automates them into a few pre-sets.  The point is, this equipment has pretty much the same ability to create anomalous sounds as the studio equipment that I used, but fewer ways for the operator to minimize interference or alter the sound produced to create a cleaner recording.  What's more, outside of a controlled studio environment, things such as tape recorders picking up faint radio signals, as well as the re-use of old tapes creating "bleed through" is common. 

Digital recorders avoid some problems (such as bleed through), but still have some of the same issues, and several new ones unique to digital audio.

To make matters worse, most enthusiasts of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP - the alleged voices of spirits captured on electronic equipment) advocate the use of white noise int he background when you make recordings.  This is dumb.  Dumb, stupid, foolish, and asinine.  As you may recall from Part 1, the human brain looks for patterns in randomness, and in laboratory experiments it has been shown to be very, very common for people to swear that they have heard human voices saying specific, coherent things in randomly generated noise.  So, if you create white noise and then sit and listen to it for voices, you are very likely to hear voices whether or not there is anything there.

So, when someone plays spooky noises that they recorded at the local cemetery, it probably goes without saying that I am singularly unimpressed.  Even when they are sure that they hear a human voice answering questions, it is really, really unimpressive.

Now, am I not saying that audio equipment is useless.  If you can routinely replicate certain types of phenomenon, and you are able to successfully rule out all common sources of interference, then you may have something.  Now, what you have may be an uncommon problem with your equipment, or it may be something truly strange, and you will have to find different ways to further explore it, but you might (and note, I say "might" not "are") be on to something.  In a more pedestrian sense, audio equipment, especially a good, simple tape recorder or digital voice recorder, is an excellent way to take quick, on-the-fly notes to help you out later.  These things are useful pieces of equipment for any researcher, but as with everything else discussed here, you have to understand what they are and how they work, and how your brain interprets sound in order to get any real use out of them.

And now, onto cameras.  I am a hobbyist photographer and have been for many years, so while I am not a professional photographer, I do know a thing or two about the subject.  And when I see photographic "evidence" of hauntings, I am consistently underwhelmed.

First off, there's the fact that many of the things that are currently held up as evidence of ghosts - streaks, "orbs", etc. - are actually pretty well understood properties of how cameras function.  A camera operates by bringing light in, and turning that light into an image, either on a photographic paper or through electronic sensors. Anything that reflects light will effect the image, and as cameras bring in light in a manner a bit different than how the human eye does, this means that objects may appear on film or in digital images that are not visible to the naked eye. Small objects that can reflect light (raindrops, motes of dust, insects, etc.) tend to reflect it in a spherical pattern that is not visible to the human eye, but does show up on camera. If the object is caught in a particular way or is moving quickly enough, this may show up as a "streak" rather than a sphere. Likewise, small light sources, maybe dim enough to not be noticeable to the naked eye, may show up on film as streaks if the camera or the object emitting the light is moving, even slightly, when the shot is taken. This is especially true in low-light conditions.  Now, some people will say "well, this orb is translucent, that one is solid, therefore we know that this one is an artifact of light, BUT the other is a ghost!"  Nope, sorry, both are artifacts of light, and anyone who tells you different is either completely ignorant of photography, or is lying to you.

Indeed, it is a sad fact that the reason why we have these obvious artifacts being held up as ghostly images is because most of us are familiar enough with special effects that we will no longer uncritically accept a modified image.  As a result, those who wish to capture ghosts on film have tried to find ways to use unmodified images to support their claims.  The problem there, of course, being that, to anyone who knows the ins-and-outs of camera functionality, these images are pretty clearly mundane.  The fact that there are some photographers who are only to ready to jump on the spooky bandwagon (usually to make money off of selling either their services or their photographs) doesn't change the fact that these really are pretty damn mundane.

On a related note, it is common for people to take other types of photographs from other people as evidence of ghostly activity.  Typically, the line goes something like this: a photograph appears to show something strange, it was taken to a photography expert who states that there are no signs of tampering with the image, and therefore the image really does show something strange!

Leaving aside the images created via pariedolia, there is another problem here.  All of the images below are analogous to types used as evidence for paranormal phenomenon.  None of them have been tampered with, and therefore would show no signs of tampering if examined:

Every one of them shows a vague human outline, or a human form that is insubstantial, or a face that seems somehow wrong.  In some of them you will have to look closely, but these sorts of ghostly images are present in every one of them.  Several have strange streaks of light or "orbs".

Those human shapes in the ghostly images are myself, and my friends Robin, Michael, and Robert.  None of the images were created using photo manipulation software, studio editing, or any other form of image manipulation.  In other words, not a single one was tampered with, and none of them would show signs of tampering if examined.

Which doesn't mean that there was no trickery involved.  I used a variety of techniques to create these images: pinhole apertures, slow shutter speeds in low-light conditions, and a mix of digital and film cameras, utilizing properties unique to each of them.  In some of the images, I intentionally used non-optimal settings (making the exposure to bright or too dark, putting the image slightly out-of-focus, etc.) to make the image look just slightly not-right before inserting the spooky element (this serves to prep the viewer to see the image as spookier than it really is).  I used cameras with light leakage, or used flashes, to create the streaks and orbs.  I created the images intentionally, knowing full well what I was doing, and what I was going to get when I was done.  So, just because a photo has not been edited or altered doesn't mean that it is real, and this should be kept in mind whenever you are presented with a photograph as evidence.

But this also brings us to another issue: that, like the audio equipment, lower-end cameras (especially digital point-and-click cameras, but also many non-professional film cameras) have the same parts as higher-end cameras (lenses, film or sensors, apertures, etc.), but generally automate those parts or have them at pre-sets, limiting the ability for the user to manipulate them in order to cut out interference, creating numerous anomalies that may seem odd or even spooky to someone not familiar with how to intentionally create the same sorts of images.  Moreover, an unwary user of a film camera is likely to end up with double-exposures, which can result in "a person who wasn't there appearing in the image!", and most people using these cameras on ghost hunts do not keep accurate photo logs in order to recall the precise conditions under which images were created.

Like audio equipment, cameras are useful tools.  They can allow you to document conditions, act as a supplement to your field notes, and there is a small but real chance that you may even catch something in the image that might prompt further investigation.

While the IF devices and EMF meters, etc. are probably best left at home, cameras and audio equipment are legitimately useful, and should accompany someone who is trying to do real investigation.  But you should always be aware of the limits of your equipment, the nature of your equipment, and of the fact that many of the things taken as evidence of ghosts are, in fact, easily explainable by someone who knows what the equipment is and how it works.  So, bear all of this in mind when using it.

Okay, the next part, which I hope to post in the not-too-distant future, will focus on the basica problems inherent in the lack of theory and testable hypotheses in paranormal research, and what you can do to make things better.

* Fun fact: on occasion, a television show will bring someone in who is said to have the correct background to make sense of EMF readings.  Assuming that they do (and given the way that paranormal television shows often play fast-and-loose with the qualifications of people who I have actually know the background of, I have little hope that they get anyone else's qualifications correct), the devices are almost always shown being used in a manner inconsistent with what is needed to get reliable readings.  So, even in these cases, the devices are being mis-used.


Weatherwax said...

Re the infra-red detectors. I heard an interview with someone who had visited the set of one of the ghost hunter shows. I think it was Benjamin Radford. Anyway the infra red showed a handprint shaped hot spot on the wall, and of course the crew was very excited. He pointed out that it was just the remnants of one of the crew leaning against the wall. Everyone denied anyone had leaned against the wall, but a quick review of the film confirmed that someone had.

Shows how easily such equipment can be mis-used by people who don't know how to eliminate real world causes.

Anthroslug said...

With alot of these shows, I have to wonder how much of it is honest mistakes, people not paying enough attention to control for real-world causes, and how much is outright fraud in order to try to boost ratings. So, I suppose, I wonder whether there was an honest error with the person leaning on the wall, or if they figured that they would be able to create a false piece of evidence.