free debate

September 22, 2011

Ghost Hunting: How Not to Do It

In science, we look for multiple independent corroborating lines of evidence to prove any phenomena. We also want that evidence to of the highest quality we can get. Take evolution, for example. We have genetic analysis, morphological similarities, the fossil record, and biogeography (the distribution of living things across the globe) all pointing towards this one unifying idea. When it comes to ghost hunting, however these ideas on evidence seem to go out the window. Case in point is the Paranormal News article "Do It Yourself Ghost Hunting Part 1: Getting Started."

The first recommendation they have for finding ghosts is to get yourself a camera. The article says "The most important item would be a standard digital camera. Now, you don’t need to go all out and buy an expensive camera like a Canon PowerShot, most pictures that have evidence are from cameras that you can buy at any department store for a relatively cheap price." This statement should set off alarm bells galore. Why would you want to take a lower quality evidence? Of course, the author is correct to say that most ghost photos are from cheaper cameras. This is because most (if not all) ghost photos are due to flaws in the camera or mistakes by the photographer.

Next, they recommend you get an audio recorder. I have no problem with this suggestion as it stands, or even that maybe ghosts might somehow communicate to us by this means. To me, this is no weirder than ghosts existing the first place, but for both assertions we need evidence. Here is where we have an issue. If you record and listen to hours of white noise, it would be almost miraculous if your brain was not able to find something in that randomness that sounds like a human voice. We are wired to find patterns. So what might you do to separate out the noise?

Get more data!

For a moment as I read I thought this might be what the author was suggesting next. He says to bring a friend with you to not only make it more fun but also to build your credibility. This is a great suggestion. After all, if you could record the same voice at the same time on two different devices that is a much more interesting result. Imagine a ghost photographed from two different angeles at the same time. They may be on to something here. Oh wait...
There’s been some cases where we’ll have two audio recorders going on at once and they’ll catch two completely different results or one will catch something and another, running right next to it, will catch nothing at all. Cameras are the same way. When we were doing the investigation in Bethlehem, New Hampshire where Nicole caught the picture of the blue mist behind Nancy on the stairs (Photo on my website), I was taking photos as well, but where she caught something, I caught nothing on my camera.
What? I always understood that if you have two data points that contradict each other, that is a negative result. Taking a picture of the same spot with two cameras at the same time acts as a kind of control. If something is in one photo but not the other that screams of photographic error.

So if you want to go out on a ghost hunt, do it, but do it right. The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) has a great article on this by renowned ghost hunter Joe Nickell that says...
The scientific approach to hauntings does not begin with the unproven, seemingly contradictory notion that entities are at once nonmaterial and quasi physical. Rather, in scientific inquiry one seeks to gather, study, and follow the evidence, only positing a supernatural or paranormal cause when all natural explanations have been decisively eliminated. Investigation seeks neither to foster nor debunk mysteries but instead to solve them.
 There are a lot of ways we can be fooled and we can fool ourselves but there are also still a lot of mysteries out there to solve. So get out there, have fun, and be skeptical.