Ghost hunting, pseudoscience and skepticism

By Michael Dippold – Michael.S.Dippold@gmail.com

Published: Thursday, October 28, 2010

Updated: Thursday, October 28, 2010

I have a confession: I am a recovering believer in the supernatural. In the past, I've been prone to believing in and actively looking for ghosts and spirits. I used to peruse books on Bigfoot and the Bermuda triangle without really questioning whether their existence was even slightly plausible. I would stay up late watching shows about UFOs and wishing I was on a boat searching for the Loch Ness monster. And as someone who has now shed those beliefs, one of my greatest annoyances is that I cannot seem to convince everyone else to do the same.

I understand the appeal though. As a former paranormal addict, I was all set to embark on an exciting career as a paranormal investigator – a scientist really, just trying to convince a jaded world that ghost hunting is a legitimate science and a respectable profession. Thankfully my love of real science, and my hard turn towards a systematic rejection of any beliefs that were not supported by evidence, shook me of these nonsensical ideas. For those of you who still might cling to supernatural, paranormal or extra-worldly beliefs – consider this an intervention.

Specifically, I want to look at belief in ghosts. Cable television is heavily saturated these days with reality shows tracking the exploits of various bands of paranormal investigators. You've probably heard of the Syfy show "Ghost Hunters" by now. It focuses on a team of "paranormal researchers" who go to a location where people have reported paranormal activity, and covers in detail that team's use of expensive technology in attempting to catch that paranormal activity on camera or in audio. They provide the thrill of reality, but retain that fantastical promise of witnessing something otherworldly, assuming you squint hard enough at grainy video footage.

Here is the problem with what they are doing: it's not science. There's not a single shred of evidence to suggest that ghosts exist, or that they can be identified by cold spots. Why are ghosts cold? Why do they never seem to show up in visible light, but infrared cameras always find them? Why can you never hear them speaking, but finding them in garbled audio (what they call electronic voice phenomenon or EVP) is absurdly common? The answer is that it's easier to find whatever you're looking for in distorted or unclear video and sound. This is a profession that thrives on false positives.

The important thing is that there is literally no reason to believe that ghosts can be identified by cold spots, or magnetism, or any of those things. It's a total fabrication that is not based on any scientific evidence. Of course, many "ghost hunters" would tell you that when they find cold spots they are gathering "evidence" to prove that ghosts exist, but that's one of the most pernicious and corrupting things about the paranormal: it sets the threshold for "evidence" so low that it becomes nearly meaningless. If I call a ham sandwich evidence of fairies, am I using evidence in the scientific sense? Absolutely not. That "evidence" is not backed up by observable facts, and has no explanatory power when it comes to the phenomenon in question.

Paranormal investigators also tout their skepticism when beginning an investigation, but that too is a sham. They will try to disprove some claims, maybe finding a draft to explain a banging window, and that's a good thing, but their skepticism is quickly revealed to be superficial. One vase falling from a shelf, and suddenly you have "hard evidence" of a ghost. That's quite the logical leap, and a clear abandonment of the intense skepticism and scrutiny that characterize real science.

There is a lot more that could be said, but hopefully you can see some of the reasons that these beliefs are so ridiculous once you take a step back and examine them with a critical eye. The important thing to take from this is that beliefs should be based in evidence. They should mesh with our understanding of the world, as opposed to contradicting everything that science has already taught us. Beliefs should also be exposed to significant criticism before we accept them. Taking things at face value leads to the acceptance of absurd claims, which is clearly demonstrated by the popularity of "paranormal investigators." Put simply, there is more beauty and elegance in truth than in any superstition, and taking a stand against irrational beliefs is the first step in showing others that beauty.

 

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