The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

So, You Want to be a Paranormal Researcher? Part 1

Every now and again I get an email at the ghost story blog from someone who wants to engage in "paranormal investigations" and wants some pointers.  So, I thought I'd write up what most of them have asked for as a blog post to which I can point them in the future.  I should also not ethat this was inspired, in part, by entries written by my friend Dave Hasbrouk

Now, let me make it clear to whom this entry is addressed - there is a sub-set of people who wish to engage in paranormal investigations who actually want to do it well and in a way that produces usable results.  These folks may or may not believe that they are going to find something, but they absolutely want to make sure that if they do, it will be something that could convince any fair-minded but discerning audience.  So, I am writing specifically for some of those people, not for the large number of people who simply engage in ghost hunting for fun (and activity with which I have no problem), or those who are convinced that there is some sort of big, bad "scientific establishment" out to "hide the truth" (a viewpoint based in delusion)

There is no shortage of how-to guides both in print and online, and pretty much every one of them is filled with nonsense.  I am, admittedly, not an expert on paranormal claims (I would point out that such a title is pretty much always self-appointed, though), but I am trained as a scientist, which means that I know how to look for and analyze data, and also that I know the potential that we all have to fool ourselves into thinking that we have proven something that we actually failed to prove (the entire scientific method is, in fact, built around trying to prevent a researcher from fooling themselves).  So, my how-to-guide isn't going to tell you what equipment to use, but it will tell you how to think about what you are doing so that, should you find something, it is likely to be something real and not simply a figment of your own imagination.

This is in two parts - Part 1 is about data gathering, and points out some of the basic issues involved in gathering your data.  Part 2 will be about the use of technology in gathering data.  Part 3 will be about theory - that is, the body of evidence and conclusions that form the basis of any solid research.  So, here we go with the data gathering:

Do your background research!

Typically, the paranormal investigators that I have encountered will assume that local rumors or folklore are accurate descriptions of historic events at an allegedly haunted location.  The problem is that they usually aren't.  It's pretty much a given that in looking into ghost stories for a location I will encounter someone who claims that a particular person once owned a property only to discover that the person is not in the chain of title for the property in question, or that a location housed a particular type of facility that even preliminary historic research demonstrates never existed on said property, or that there will be claims exaggerating real events (a good example is that hospitals with reputations for being haunted are often said to have had a number of deaths that, if accurate, would actually have killed more people than lived in the region that the hospital serviced).  That doesn't even get into the number of places that are allegedly built on Native American burial grounds, but are, in fact, quite a distance away from any type of archaeological site at all.

Here's the thing - records exist for all of these things.  The archaeological records are hard to access (there's alot of issues with sites being looted, so site records are usually considered confidential), but most of the other records can be gained through visiting the county assessor's office (to work out the historic ownership of a parcel) or even the local library (many libraries have local history sections that have both published works and primary sources for regional history).  If the property that you are looking into is particularly famous, you may even be able to find books written by qualified historians documenting the history of the place.  In addition, looking into more general local information will provide a good reality check - for example, if a hospital is reputed to have had 1,000 deaths per day due to tuberculosis, but is located in a county that at the time of the outbreak had a population of 10,000, you can be pretty sure that the death estimates are bullshit.

This background research is usually not easy - it takes time, effort, and a willingness to deal with basic bureaucracy, which can be trying.  However, if you have not done it, then you have no reason to assume that any of the information that you have gathered for a property is in any way accurate.  More importantly, if you have failed to do this research because it is hard and time consuming, then you have essentially demonstrated that you are more interested in the folklore than the fact, which is fine in of itself, but it does mean that you should call yourself a folklore collector and not a paranormal researcher, as you are failing to do even the most basic preliminary level of research research.

If nothing else, the fact that you can correctly point out where the folklore gets the facts wrong, and also give a well-documented accounting of what non-supernatural things are known to occur in a place, you will buy a good deal of credibility with whomever you are speaking.

The Problems of Eyewitness Testimony

Okay, you've done your background research, and now you're ready to collect data.  No problem, there's loads of people who have experienced strange things at the location of the investigation, so you're going to have no shortage of eyewitnesses to weirdness!  The skeptics will have to have their eyes opened when they can't explain what people have seen, heard, and experienced here.  AmIright, or what?

Well, no, not really.

See, most data regarding supernatural events comes from eyewitness testimony, which is notoriously unreliable. In fact, it is increasingly becoming a concern when used as evidence in trials, see here, here, here, and here.  In fact, the Supreme Court of the State of New Jersey recently made a ruling calling out for new rules to be used in eyewitness testimony because of the problems with eyewitness unreliability.

There's a fair chance that you are reading this and wondering just what the hell rulings on criminal law have to do with paranormal investigations.  It's relevant because the issues with eyewitness testimony in a criminal trial also apply to every other form of eyewitness testimony.  And understand, these criminal cases involve trained observers such as police detectives, as well as people who have often witnessed huge important events (and are therefore often certain that they have a vivid memory of said event), and they are testifying in cases that at the very least involve property and are often literal matters of life and death.  If eyewitness testimony is problematic in criminal trials, it's fair to say that it is at least as problematic in a paranormal investigation.

Eyewitness testimony has its place, but from a scientific standpoint it is a weak form of evidence, and should never be taken at face value without other evidence to back it up.  There are a few reasons for this, and you need to understand them if you are going to actually use eyewitness testimony (including your own) as evidence for a claim.  Basically, it boils down to the limited nature of human perception.

Our eyes don't see all of our field of vision at any one point in time.  They are constantly moving, scanning, and only see a small portion of our field of vision at any given instant.  Our brain compensates by filling in the rest of the picture via our memory of what our eyes saw the last time we looked in a direction, as well as our general memory to fill in gaps.  As a result, it is common for people to mistake one type of object for another if it is hovering just at the edge of our field of vision - our brain fills in the details and tells us that one thing is in the area when something else is (edited 7-17-12: the webcomic XKCD has a great illustration of this here).

A case in point - a couple of years ago, I was standing in the post office, when a woman walked in behind me.  I saw her just out of the corner of my eye, and she bore a striking resemblance to the character of Veronica Palmer from the show Better off Ted, complete with grey business suit.  When I turned around again, I realized that, while the woman was tall, thin, and blonde, she otherwise bore no resemblance to the character, and her clothing consisted of a white shirt worn under a black apron from the bakery across the street.  My eyes had caught just enough of her to mark a few elements of size and color, but not enough to accurately account for her appearance, and so my brain filled int he rest with an image from memory that had some similarities.  When I turned around and was able to actually see her, she bore little resemblance to what I originally thought that I had seen.

This is very common - all of us do it, it's how our vision works.  And when we're tired, or stressed, or pre-occupied, or in low-light conditions, our eyes don't scan as well, and our brain has to go into overtime filling in gaps that our eyes are missing.  It's the reason why so many ghost witnesses describe seeing things "just at the edge of my vision."  And remember that our brain seeks patterns from our memories, so if you are constantly reading paranormal books, watching horror movies, etc., then the things that your brain has to draw from include those things as well - in other words, your' vision of an apparition might just be your brain trying to compensate for tired eyes. And, weirdly, these false images actually mean that your brain is working correctly, even when your eyes might not be.

In other words, many a spooky encounter might be due to the fact that our eyes suck.

There's another problem with perception that comes into play, as well.  This is called pareidolia, the tendency for our brains to try to force a recognizable pattern onto randomness.  It's the reason why we often perceive faces in the leaves of shrubbery, animals in the shapes of clouds, and so on.  It doesn't just work in our vision, though.  People tend to hear voices or music in what is clearly just random noise (for some cool examples, go here), and may even feel sensations on their skin that they misinterpret due to unfamiliarity. 

Okay, though, you have someone telling you that they saw something head-on, that it wasn't at the corner of their eyes, it was very detailed (ruling out simple pareidolia), that they were well-rested and out in daylight, and it was there long enough that it couldn't have simply have been their brain filling in details until their eyes could catch up.   What's more, there's no reason for this person to lie.  That would be proof, right!

Well, this is definitely better evidence than is usually presented to support claims of hauntings.  However, there is another problem: human memory.

People tend to think of memory as being like a computer's hard drive - data is stored, and then recalled as needed.  This isn't how it actually works, though.  Our memories are malleable, always changing, and changing due to a number of factors.  To make matters worse, whenever we recall a memory, we don't simply re-play it, we re-write it, taking things out and adding things in as befits the narrative forming in our mind at that time.  This means that our especially vivid, often recalled memories (where you were on 9/11, the first kiss with your spouse,  the death of a pet, your favorite childhood outing) are far more likely to be flat-out wrong than the memories that we recall less often.  And, to make matters worse, we can form unshakable, but patently false, memories due to suggestion.  And this is important:  this is true of normal, perfectly sane and healthy people.  This is not unique to people with psychiatric disorders, it is true of every human on the planet. 

To make matters even worse for eyewitness testimony, these tendencies are very prone to impacts from our direct experiences and social pressures.  This is the reason why someone who doesn't take ghosts seriously is very unlikely to encounter one, while people who hang out with believers are very likely to experience one.  Our brains are processing information based in part on the external world, and in part on our own internal workings and the social pressures working on us.

So, a perfectly sane, honest person can have fabricated memories of events based on their own psychological pressures as well as on the faultiness of human perception. 

By all means, gather eyewitness accounts.  These can be valuable when you are trying to figure things out.  But be aware that even the best eyewitness account is poor data from a scientific standard because of all of the issues discussed above.

Third Men, Emotion, and Perception

Related to the above-discussed issues with human perceptions, you also have a few other psychological factors at work that can be problematic to someone wanting to research a haunting.  Let's start with reported emotions.

When you read the accounts of haunted places, a very common thing that ersatz researchers will report is feelings of dread, fear, or startlement that they encountered when entering an allegedly haunted location.  Many people, called themselves "sensitives" will act as if their experience of these feelings is somehow objective proof of something spooky.

The problem is that we tend to ignore what our emotions actually our.  Our emotions are not the results of us somehow receiving "vibes" through the air, or being hit by weird energies (indeed, when someone talks about "energies" or "vibrations", you can be pretty sure that they don't know what they are talking about).  Our emotions are evolved responses to help us survive, and as such they have environmental triggers that make us feel certain things when confronted with particular stimuli.  So, entering a dark place where you expect to encounter something scary and weird?  That's going to make you experience feelings of dread, and it will make you easily startled, even jumping at things that are products of your own eyes and brain (as described above).  Feeling dread, fear, feeling as if we are being watched, etc. in the dark or when entering a place where we anticipate trouble is evidence of our evolutionary history amongst predators and other (sometimes violent) hominids, not of us being "tuned in" to something paranormal.  These types of reactions are normal, and have been studied by neurologists and psychologists, and so appealing to them as evidence of the paranormal indicates that one hasn't done their necessary research into perception, not that one has encountered a spirit.

To make matters even weirder, we have psychological effects such as the Third Man Factor (a term coined by author John G. Geiger), where a person under extreme duress (you know, like being extremely frightened while hunting for ghosts) will experience the presence of an incorporeal being who encourages them.  This appears to be another evolutionary adaptation in which our brain is literally telling itself to go on.

Now, I am going out on an interpretive limb here, but I would make an observation: most of our brain's survival techniques can get triggered by weird things, and are often triggered differently in different people.  I suspect, though I will be the first to admit that I have no evidence of this, that for some people, the Third Man might be triggered with minimal duress, or maybe with none at all.  This would explain why many otherwise perfectly normal people experience "presences" under some circumstances.  Given that many people have even inadvertently trained themselves to access some of their brains funkier functions, it seems reasonable to think that many people may have likewise trained themselves to experience a Third Man under particular conditions, possibly explaining why some people seem to routinely be contacted by spirits - it may literally be a normal part of their brain's functions being triggered under odd conditions.

Again, this doesn't necessarily mean that you should ignore emotional/internal reactions to places.  It does, however, mean that you shouldn't assume that you feeling something or sensing a presence means that it is really there, rather than something internal to you.

Does Your Data Mean Anything?

It is extremely common for paranormal researchers to gather data - whether it be their impressions, or information from equipments, or the claims of psychics - without any regard for what it actually means.   Here's a primo example:  if you hang out with ghost hunters, it won't be long before someone declares that a battery being drained quickly is evidence of a ghostly presence.  How do they know?  Well, everyone knows that the presence of ghost drains batteries, therefore a quickly drained battery = a ghost is about.

the problem is that nobody has ever established that this is actually the case.  It is, as far as I can tell, just a bit of lore that gets passed along from one ghost hunter to another.  Account is never made for the types of the batteries, the failure rates of the batteries, how old the batteries were before they were put into the device in which they are being used, whether or not their was some sort of equipment malfunction that could train the batteries*, etc.  All of these things are relevant to the use-life of a battery, but none ever seem to be accounted for (or they are hand-waived with a statement like "they were new batteries" - but, you know, I have had crappy new batteries that died quickly).  In other words, the data is collected ("battery drained") without any real reflection on whether or not this bit of data actually means anything at all.

Likewise, if you gather data based on what you see or feel, then you should also keep account of the various different factors that may influence what you perceive.  Hell, in field archaeology I have to keep track of this sort of thing (noting levels of fatigue, weather conditions, lighting, etc. in my notes), and we are nowhere near as subjective in our observations as ghost hunters are.

Add to this that there is often no attempt at bridging arguments made between data collection and the drawing of conclusions.  Basically, if you say "we saw strange lights, therefore: GHOSTS!"  you are being a fool.  Why would ghosts cause the lights?  Is there no other phenomenon that could cause them?  Even if you have ruled out all other phenomena that you can think of, that doesn't necessarily mean that it is ghost, it may simply be a phenomenon that you haven't considered. 

What I am saying is this: not all data is meaningful.  Some of it is just due to flukes (you got bad batteries, bro!), some of it is only relevant in context (what were the lighting conditions when you saw this shadow person?), and all of it has to be interpreted to be meaningful.  I'll go into this in Part 3, but you need to keep all of this in mind when you attempt to make sense of your data.

So, in Conclusion...

Many years back, I read an article in which a parapsychologist was being interviewed.  He said that he found it frustrating that scientists weren't taking his work seriously when he was doing "solid, good science."  The problem is that, as he described his work, he never did his background research (relying instead on local folklore), he always took the perceptions of himself and his team at face value without considering the limits and problems of human perception,  and he routinely gathered emotional and psychological impressions of places as if they were solid, reliable data.

In other words, he was routinely failing to observe even the most basic rules of data gathering: identify and account for potential biases; do not become overly-reliant on biased data.

He was not doing good science.  He really wasn't even doing science at all, contrary to his claim. 

If you are serious about investigating paranormal phenomenon, then don't make the same mistakes that every (and I do mean, pretty much without exception, EVERY) self-proclaimed parapsychologist makes.  Instead, learn something about the place, be aware of the limitations of yourself and your colleagues, and approach your work with the mind-set that you can be fooled, sometimes even by your own senses, and that you have to find ways to account for that.

Next time I'll get into the issue of using equipment in this sort of work, and how a serious paranormal researcher can save themselves some money.

*In high school I took classes on basic electrical work, and one of the fun pranks we would play was find small ways to tweak someone's work so that it would drain their batteries, but appear to function normally.  In other word,s your video camera may seem to be working without a hitch, but could still have a problem (sometimes an intermittent problem) causing battery drain. 

1 comment:

RBH said...

Several decades ago a student at the (quite good) liberal arts college where I taught induced me to look at an article reporting paranormal 'research' After looking at it carefully, I wrote a long letter to the editor of the Journal of the American Psychical Society, where the research was published, critiquing the article. After some correspondence, I ended up being a paper reviewer for the journal for some months, finally withdrawing when not one paper I reviewed (of a dozen or so) came even close to standards I'd consider worth publishing. It was an enlightening experience, though, rubbing my nose in the kind of glop that was considered "research" in that domain.