This post is a response to Benjamin Radford's article "Are Ghosts Real? Science Says No-o-o-o", published here on the LiveScience site, 21st October 2014.
Let's say now, I largely agree with the factual aspects of the article, but I feel it is a little unfair to amateur ghost hunters, generally pessimistic, and I think there are some flaws in its logic (see below).
I am an amateur ghost hunter myself, but like most I prefer the label Paranormal Investigator. I am sometimes labelled an 'open-minded skeptic', but that's another misnomer, because all true skeptics are open-minded. 'Soft skeptic' is more accurate, but who wants to be called a soft anything? And I'm not anti-science. Just clearing that up.
First, a little background on ghost hunting.
In 1848 the Fox sisters ignited modern Spiritualism with their supposed rapping communications in New York, a craze that invoked the curiosity of some great minds of the time (Henry & Nora Sidgwick, the eminent psychologist William James, et al), leading to the formation of the Society for Psychical Research in England (it still exists - see website) and the ASPR in the US in the 1880s. Leaping forward to 2004, plumbers Grant Wilson and Jason Hawes similarly kicked off the craze of ghost hunting when their paranormal group TAPS was featured in Ghost Hunters - a reality TV show on the SyFy channel that became very popular and widely emulated. Hawes and Wilson could be credited with inventing the modern, technology-based method of ghost hunting (or at least popularising it, as individuals such as David Rountree had been working on it for decades, as testified in his book Paranormal Technology).
Wilson and Hawes inspired many to take up ghost hunting and form their own teams (Strange Occurrences is but one team of many partly inspired and influenced by those early shows). They are likeable, ordinary blokes, plumbers - as opposed to pointy-headed professional science-y types - so their viewers naturally thought, "If those guys can do that, so can we." And they did, in their tens-of-thousands. The gear they used was accessible, if you were prepared to lash out a few hundred or maybe a few grand; IR security video camera systems, ordinary digital cameras and laptops, voice recorders, non-contact thermometers, EMF meters - all easily obtainable, cool to own, occasionally useful for other purposes (we try to convince our spouses of this) and fun to wave around. I recall the feeling of being the real deal when my first Trifield EMF meter, sourced from TradeMe, turned up in the post.
The UK show Most Haunted began broadcasting on LivingTV in mid-2002, and could have inspired greater interest in ghost hunting in the UK; but its investigation methods, which were centred on the team's medium (initially Derek Acorah, who was exposed as a fake by parapsychologist Dr Cairan O'Keeffe in 2005 - see Mirror article) and presenter Yvette Fielding's dramatic reactions to the smallest events, were not seen as credible. Rather it was the methods of the TAPS team - dispensing with mediums and conducting their own EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) sessions, and generally adopting a more high-tech approach - that set the template for contemporary ghost hunting.
Thing is, the Ghost Hunters show is ten years or so old now. That represents a huge investment of time spent with an ever increasing array of various recording equipment deployed inside the many of the world's most reportedly haunted locations, and mind-numbing scrutiny of uncountable of hours of recordings, for what? Bugger all that you could look at and say, "That really does seem to be a ghost you've caught there." While they've had their moments, it's still a big zero on the hard evidence front - that which would draw serious attention from scientists. And I'm not just picking on Hawes & Wilson here, I'm including all TV- and internet-based ghost hunting shows, and all the thousands of amateur groups (including my own) that do not have their own shows but would surely have gone public if they had managed to obtain strong evidence of the existence of even just one ghost.
And it's not just the last decade or two. There have been other periods of fairly intense ghost hunting, albeit without the benefits of 21st century technology. The Victorians had almost no technology. They only had phonographs for sound recording, their cameras wouldn't even work in the enforced darkness of most seances, and they scarcely employed photography even when they could have. (Baron Von Schrenck-Notzing was one exception. His photos revealed many of the tricks and deceptions of mediums, although he was somewhat of a believer in their abilities.) Overall, by the early 20th century at least, the combined investigations of the SPR and ASPR exposed many mediums as frauds but a few especially talented individuals remained as possibilities for demonstrating genuine paranormal powers; perhaps Mrs Piper, and (on a few occasions occasions when not caught blatantly cheating) Eusapia Palladino, and maybe a few others. Despite the two societies' concerted and considerable efforts, they were unable to furnish good evidence that it was possible for the living to communicate with the dead. (Deborah Blum's book on this is really the one to read.)
Peter Underwood's 1993 book Ghosts and how to see them (Anaya Publishers, London) actually includes "A Ghost Callendar" - a three-page section listing ghosts that are seen in haunted locations in the UK on regular dates. If the Underwood's callendar was not entirely fantastical, it should be a simple matter to line up, cameras and recorders ready, at the listed locations on the listed dates and see before you the ghosts that are said to appear. Wouldn't that be nice.
So, in 140 years of organised ghost hunting, what do we have in terms of evidence that would make even a soft skeptic like myself believe that ghosts are real? Zero. So are we doing it wrong? Maybe.
Benjamin Radford certainly thinks it's all a waste of time, so let's have a look at his article.
I have no problem with it, at least up to the second and third paragraphs of the section "The Science and Logic of Ghosts".
"Still others create their own special categories for different types of ghosts, such as poltergeists, residual hauntings, intelligent spirits and shadow people. Of course, it's all made up, like speculating on the different races of fairies or dragons: there are as many types of ghosts as you want there to be.
"There are many contradictions inherent in ideas about ghosts. For example, are ghosts material or not? Either they can move through solid objects without disturbing them, or they can slam doors shut and throw objects across the room. Logically and physically, it's one or the other. If ghosts are human souls, why do they appear clothed and with (presumably soulless) inanimate objects like hats, canes and dresses — not to mention the many reports of ghost trains, cars and carriages?"
These concurrent paragraphs contradict each other. The first ridicules the idea of there being more than one type of ghost; the next says that since all ghosts essentially are the same, their behaviour should be consistent.
Without launching into a discussion about how a poltergeist (noisy spirit) is not considered a type of ghost, but rather is thought to be a phenomenon caused by the telekinetic emanations of a living human concentrated by emotional turmoil, and so on, (there are other online places to find this information, such as The Paranormal Encyclopedia) let's just say that there are different categories or types of ghosts in order to account for these very inconsistencies of behaviours in reported experiences of ghost-like phenomena (of which there are a great many, as opposed to reports of fairies and dragons, of which there are none, so it's not a valid comparison).
"Ghost hunters use many creative (and dubious) methods to detect the spirits' presences, often including psychics. Virtually all ghost hunters claim to be scientific, and most give that appearance because they use high-tech scientific equipment such as Geiger counters, electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors, ion detectors, infrared cameras and sensitive microphones. Yet none of this equipment has ever been shown to actually detect ghosts."
OK, I agree, and have recently considered this issue in this post (it's rather long, sorry, like this one). I think it's a given that none of the equipment ghost hunters use has ever been shown to detect ghosts. If it had, we wouldn't need to have this discussion. (For example; EMF meters (or IR cameras or laser grids, or whatever) have been shown to detect ghosts, therefore there are ghosts.)
These days, the better ghost hunters are more sophisticated than this about using the equipment they choose to employ. In order to investigate a report of a paranormal phenomenon, it is necessary to understand a lot about the environment in which the thing allegedly happened. Much of the time the phenomenon can be explained as natural (not paranormal: "debunked", if you like using that word - I don't) by using the equipment to record and measure so as to help to understand the environment.
Here's a simple example from one of our own investigations: a householder reports the sensation of being touched on the head or shoulder when she goes over to the kitchen sink. Using a Trifield Natural EM meter, we were able to take measurements to establish that she had a much higher static charge on her body than the other three of us present (4-5 times greater), due to the sole material of the house shoes she wore interacting with the wool carpet. When she touched the steel sink she earthed herself, discharging her body of static electricity and allowing her hair to sink back to normal, which created the feeling of being touched. (More on paranormal investigation equipment and its uses here.)
The following paragraph, quoted from the article, is fallacious in its argument.
"Other people take exactly the opposite approach, claiming that the reason that ghosts haven't been proven to exist is that we simply don't have the right technology to find or detect the spirit world. But this, too, can't be correct: Either ghosts exist and appear in our ordinary physical world (and can therefore be detected and recorded in photographs, film, video and audio recordings), or they don't. If ghosts exist and can be scientifically detected or recorded, then we should find hard evidence of that — yet we don't. If ghosts exist and cannot be scientifically detected or recorded, then all the photos, videos and other recordings claimed to be evidence of ghosts cannot be ghosts."
OK, so if I claim that the technology for recording the presence of ghosts doesn't yet exist is the reason why we haven't yet recorded a ghost (Radford's first sentence), that claim is perfectly consistent with the claim that all the alleged recordings of ghosts made to date are bunkum (Radford's last sentence). Radford states these two claims cannot both be true, but he is logically incorrect. The people who make the claim in the first sentence think that the existence of ghosts has not been proven, so they would also think that all alleged ghost photos and other evidence gathered so far are worthless. Radford incorrectly implies the opposite.
Radford's dismissal of the belief that a human's 'energy' persists after death in accordance with the laws of physics is absolutely correct. And I agree that ghost hunting is riddled with pseudoscience (I may still need to clarify this page a little) and many believers in the paranormal (in general) have a pretty loose and flexible definition of the word "energy". Although a complex concept, energy is well understood and described by the science of physics.
"If ghosts are real, and are some sort of as-yet-unknown energy or entity, then their existence will (like all other scientific discoveries) be verified by scientists through controlled experiments — not by weekend ghost hunters wandering around abandoned houses in the dark late at night with cameras and flashlights."
Yeah. True, if scientists were interested in finding out what causes people to experience ghosts. Some of them might be, but they would not risk their careers undertaking such research. Professional science depends on grants, which would not be available for this purpose. Also, much ridicule from peers would ensue once news of the funding application got out.
And can someone please describe to me a repeatable scientific experiment that would establish if ghosts are real? I just can't imagine one that wouldn't involve having a ghost in a jar to experiment on. So I'd say that the chances of Radford's paragraph above being a true prediction are close to zero.
Having said that, I am optimistic that science may one day cough up an explanation (or, hopefully, multiple explanations) for ghost encounters, but probably not while looking to explain ghosts. It might be a more sophisticated model of time that allows for the past to be, under some circumstances, perceived in the present, which would explain a lot of ghost experiences; or perhaps some study of the human brain will reveal that it is capable of bursts of telepathy and/or telekinesis when under extreme stress or is dying, which would explain poltergeists and crisis apparitions, for example. (These are not things that the parapsychologists of the past, armed with packs of Zener cards, could ever have found out with their tedious experiments.)
Radford's concluding paragraph:
"In the end (and despite mountains of ambiguous photos, sounds and videos), the evidence for ghosts is no better today than it was a year ago, a decade ago or a century ago. There are two possible reasons for the failure of ghost hunters to find good evidence. The first is that ghosts don't exist, and that reports of ghosts can be explained by psychology, misperceptions, mistakes and hoaxes. The second option is that ghosts do exist, but that ghost hunters are simply incompetent. Ultimately, ghost hunting is not about the evidence (if it was, the search would have been abandoned long ago). Instead, it's about having fun with friends, telling stories, and the enjoyment of pretending to be searching the edge of the unknown. After all, everyone loves a good ghost story."
Although I grudgingly accept that this is probably the case, I am somewhat optimistic that it might not be. There is a third possibility.
Many people in history have experienced ghosts, and there have been a large number of published accounts of such. All of them are mere anecdotes, of course, and we all know that science won't run on anecdotes any better than scientist's cars will run on sushi. But many of these anecdotes have come from people who are not barmy attention seekers (like the vast number of UFO "abductees") but are well educated and/or credible people with positions in society that they risk damaging in making their experiences known. These people have something to lose and no reason to lie. So are they all mistaken in their perceptions? Human perception is error prone, as psychologists will happily explain, so many of the accounts will inevitably involve mistaken perception. Others will be outright fraud, or the result of pranks unknown to the victim. Yep, I'm fine with those reasons, but do they account for all of the historic accounts? Unfortunately we can never find out one way or the other, we can only suppose.
So, what again is ghost hunting/paranormal investigation? (As well as other types of paranormal activity; UFO sightings, cryptozoology, PSI abilities, etc) it is the investigation of contemporary accounts of ghost experiences, or those in the recent past, where the witness/es can be interviewed first hand and the scene, as it was, examined thoroughly with the intent of explaining the reported event.
Paranormal Investigators don't sit back in their armchairs and lazily dismiss a claim for the sorts of reasons mentioned in these paragraphs; they go out and interview people involved, investigate the location, collect as much data as they can and try above all else to find a natural (not supernatural) or normal (not paranormal) explanation for the claim. And if they can't find a normal reason for the thing, that doesn't mean it's paranormal; it just means they couldn't find the reason.
Bad paranormal investigators start making paranormal claims at this point, but they shouldn't. Although settling on the paranormal reason is tempting, it can't be proven. Instead, just say; here's what we were investigating; here's out data; this is what we found to be naturally occurring; this is what we were unable to explain. And leave it at that. Don't make claims that lack the support of strong, hard evidence.
To do paranormal investigation, you have to go out in the field, get your hands dirty, wade into the water (or however you want to put it), and find the information first hand in order to try to establish out what's really going on (a lot like police detective work, in fact). And yes, it can be quite a lot of fun (or terminally boring), and it makes for some damned good stories round the dinner table, especially when it's dark and late and everyone's had their fill of red wine and that rather rich pudding.
James Gilberd, 28th October.
Note: so as to avoid getting bogged down in a discussion about semantics, I've not tried to define many of the terms used in the Radford article, such as; ghost, reality, theory, etc. We understand broadly what is meant by these terms. The main purpose of my post is to address the (what I believe to be) the logical faults in the argument (surprising to find, given its author's career and reputation, so perhaps I'm wrong) and it's general tone of dismissal. Hopefully your comments will help clear this up.
is a blog by James Gilberd - leader and co-founder of Strange Occurrences. Views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Strange Occurrences team.
James Gilberd is an amateur paranormalist, writer and musician, and a professional photographer, living in Wellington, New Zealand.