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‘Investigating Ghosts: The Scientific Search for Spirits’ — book review

If enthusiasts want to find out if ghosts are real, they’re going about it the wrong way.

Ghost and paranormal investigations were considered a “mainstream intellectual pursuit” in the mid 1800s. This was during the advent of the Spiritualism movement, a time in which the first handful of ghost and paranormal investigation clubs were formed, primarily in British academia.  The most enduring of these groups is the Society for Psychical research, which still exists.

The heirs of these clubs and societies are the ghost hunting groups that have proliferated in the English speaking world in recent decades. Many of the first modern groups took inspiration from the work of Ed and Lorraine Warren, paranormal investigators who were active from the 1970s until Ed’s death in 2006. Today’s groups seem to be taking cues from their most recent predecessors, the ones they see on television.

One could rightly assume that the time and toil spent investigating the existence of ghosts should have produced good evidence by now. With over 150 years and thousands of investigators focused on the question, surely we should have some proof or solid data that points in the direction of spectral existence, right?

Unfortunately the answer is no, we do not.

Is the reason for the lack of evidence simply that ghosts do not exist outside of our imagination? That may be the case, but it’s not necessarily the only conclusion. The lack of verifiable evidence may be due to the methods employed by the investigators.

Some old school spirit fraud, from Investigating Ghosts

Skeptical investigator Benjamin Radford explores that possibility in his book, Investigating Ghosts:  The Scientific Search for Spirits, conducting investigations utilizing his understanding and experience with the scientific method. He has also observed and worked with modern ghost hunting groups, which revealed to him that, “This Scientific process is virtually nonexistent in ghost hunting.” Modern ghost hunters seem to have no understanding of the tools of investigation. Their night vision adventures in possibly haunted locations are more akin to LARPing than scientific investigation.

The book is a primer for how to approach these investigations, and is written with the modern ghost hunter in mind. It helps that Radford has an agnostic position as to the existence of ghosts — he’s open to the possibility they exist, but some verifiable evidence would be nice.

The book is separated into three sections:

  1.  Approaching investigation
  2.  Analyzing Evidence
  3.  Investigation Case Studies

In the first section, Radford goes over the history of investigations into ghosts and ghostly activity. He shows that in the early days of the Spiritualism Movement, those who desired to contact spirits of the departed were often met with fraud and hoaxes. Indeed, it seems that from the séances in the early days to the modern reality show setting, there has always been an air of theatricality to much of the endeavor.

Radford exposes methodological flaws in the approach that modern ghost hunters fall prey to. Among these flaws are anomaly hunting without any rigorous approach towards explanation of the supposed anomaly. Another is automatically conflating these perceived anomalies with a paranormal explanation.

This leads to a “Ghost of the gaps” approach — if something doesn’t make sense or is out of the ordinary, it’s a ghost. Ghost hunters will often try to establish the identity or behavior of ghosts before showing they actually exist. Traveling toward truth can be quite difficult when the cart is placed before the horse.

Another issue taken to task is the equipment ghost hunters use in their investigations. Quite often these tools are not used properly or there is no proof of what they are supposed to do. Sensitive audio equipment is used to capture any otherworldly sounds or Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP), which are ghostly voices that don’t necessarily manifest in-person but can be heard when played back later. The words and phrases parsed when listening to the recordings amount to audio pareidolia, which is nothing but subjective.

Some actually go low tech and use dowsing rods. Dowsing rods can apparently be used to find anything from water to, yes, even ghosts. The only thing dowsing rods consistently find is the ideomotor effect.

A staple of these investigations is using flashlights in dark rooms and recording it on night vision cameras. This looks great on television, but it serves to increase movement of shadows that can be confused for ghosts and shadow “people.” Since most reported ghost sightings are in well-lit conditions, this makes little sense.

It’s not possible to tell whether or not the equipment is recording useful data. Not much effort is taken to establish there are no confounding factors that could account for the status of any of the readings taken or phenomena recorded. Readings are never recorded under different conditions (time of day, weather, presence of neighbors, etc.). Ghost hunters don’t bother with controls to falsify the data.

All of these poor methods lead to false positives, also known as Type I errors. As a result, none of the information collected can be considered verifiable data. Many ghost hunters consider their methods scientific because they don’t really understand the process or the rigor involved. Their actions and “results” are what scientist and author Sharon Hill calls “scientifical” rather than scientific. The overall result is the patina of science without the actual science.

Radford offers guidance in the proper way to approach an investigation in a skeptical, science-based way. The core of this approach is Carl Sagan’s baloney detection kit. These precepts are a distilled version of how to think before, during, and after investigations. Every investigator should have it taped to their wall or refrigerator.

A stripped down version is as follows:

  1. Wherever possible, there must be independent confirmation of the “facts.”
  2. Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  3. Arguments from authority carry little weight.
  4. Propose more than one hypothesis. If there’s something to be explained, think of all the different ways in which it could be explained.
  5. Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  6. If whatever it is you’re explaining has some measure, some numerical quantity attached to it, you’ll be much better able to discriminate among competing hypotheses.
  7. If there’s a chain of argument, every link in the chain must be strong.
  8. Occam’s Razor. This convenient rule-of-thumb urges us when faced with two hypotheses that explain the data equally well, to choose the simpler.
  9. Always ask whether the hypothesis can be, at least in principle, falsified.

Radford also shares a full 20 more guidelines for ghost investigations, including proper research, scholarship, focus, and understanding the right questions to ask.  Engaging in a proper investigation involves a lot of work. A weekend warrior who just wants to wander around a “haunted” location with cool equipment and get freaked out with his/her friends need not apply.

In the second section, Radford considers some modes of evidence for ghosts. The original ghost photos were hoaxes accomplished easily due to the long exposures needed to take photographs. While the subject patiently sits still, a confederate emerges behind them. The result is a photo with a translucent or ill-defined human shape behind the person sitting for the photo. As cameras became more sophisticated, double exposures were used for the same end. Of course there have also been accidents and abnormalities that a person so motivated would see as ghostly. Deceit was not a necessary component.

Modern ghost photos almost never show any semblance of a human form. Orbs are small circles of light that appear to have three dimensions. Light streaks are lines of light appearing in the image. Light mist is … well, you can guess by now. Ghost enthusiasts claim these forms as ghostly because they’re anomalies that weren’t visible by the human eye, but appear on the digital image.

Each of these ghost forms are artifacts of the flash used in taking the pictures. The light reflects off dust particles, insects, breath on a cold night, and many things that are not apparently visible to the naked eye. Photos taken without a flash usually don’t show these ghostly “anomalies”.

EVPs are currently one of (if not the) most popular forms of evidence collected by ghost hunters, even though they’re purely subjective and prone to the bias of whoever’s listening. Radford recounts an instance in which a researcher claimed to have recorded an EVP of the last words of cowboy legend Wild Bill Hickok. That would be an amazing feat considering that Wild Bill was killed instantly and had no last words.

The section ends with a discussion of the psychology of the ghost experience. It’s important to understand the motivations, state of mind, and beliefs of the individuals who comprise these ghost hunting groups. They all seem to be believers who attribute their belief to specific events they deemed unexplainable. This belief is encouraged by folklore and popular culture. It’s understandable that when these beliefs are carried with them in a spooky setting, surrounded by like-minded people, that they’re prone to false positives. It’s human nature.

The bulk of the third section is Radford’s recounting of an overnight group investigation in Fort George, near Ontario, “Canada’s Most Haunted Place,” which was being filmed for a TV pilot. The investigation utilized a mother-daughter psychic team, sound equipment to record EVPs, digital cameras, a séance (in which a medium found herself possessed by a spirit), automatic writing, and the token skeptic. As a bonus, there was pre-existing lore of the ghost of a playful little girl, named Sarah Ann, who haunts the grounds.

Double exposure mistaken for “real” spirits, from Investigating Ghosts

Much of the “fruit” of the investigation were subjective experiences (one of the psychics feeling as if she was being pushed by an unseen force) or impossible to interpret (automatic writing that amounted to scribbled circles). Hours of investigation resulted in a dearth of falsifiable or verifiable phenomenon.

One actual objective phenomenon did present itself that night, though. A light that had been turned off in a locked room was discovered to be illuminated again. Given the atmosphere of the evening and the fatigue of working through time reserved for sleep, the phantom light switch was considered by some to be a possible indication of otherworldly influence. Not willing to accept that single explanation, Radford looked further and was able to provide a plausible non-supernatural explanation.

For those curious and interested in exploring the supernatural, I suggest reading Investigating Ghosts:  The Scientific Search for Spirits — twice — as this is just a small taste of the details it contains. If you’re fully invested in the existence of ghosts and are looking for confirmation of those beliefs, it’s probably not the book for you. If you follow the methods and procedures Radford advocates, their utility will become apparent, providing greater understanding of the scientific process. If ghosts actually exist, a science-based approach is the way to find out.

….then it’s on to Bigfoot.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AiPT! Comics cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture and skepticism of pop culture.

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