Category Archives: Ghost Hunting

What Makes An Odd Event Paranormal?

Strange things happen. All the time. And that is where the woo people and I part company; when the believing folks see something unusual, it seems their first reaction is to assume a paranormal explanation, but my own reaction to something out of the ordinary tends to be something like, “What the f…?”

There aren’t an awful lot of things the paranormal people claim to have seen that I, too, have not – in some form or another. The difference, though, is that my own reaction to something I observe but have no immediate explanation for, is to wonder about it, and if I can’t think of and confirm a rational explanation, I put it on hold. Often, the best I can do is to try to work out what is more or less likely in any given situation and just leave it at that.

Think of it this way: if one of my employees turned up late for work and said that it was because of a punctured tyre on his or her car, then I might believe it, just because car tyres really do exist and they sometimes do get punctured. It’s happened to me a number of times, so I can confirm that the proposed scenario is quite possible, even if the employee is telling lies because he or she just overslept.

But what if my employee said they were late because they had been temporarily abducted by aliens from another galaxy and their lateness was due to extended anal probing by grey-coloured humanoids who are creating alien-human hybrids with a view to infiltrating the highest levels of governments across the world in order to facilitate a take-over of Earth? Only die-hard believers in UFOs and alien visitation would entertain such a thought for more than a few milliseconds.

Yes, that’s what I’m getting at. When something odd happens, the choice you have is to think it through, or to jump to a preconceived conclusion. That is what the believers tend to do, especially if there’s something in it for them – publicity, perhaps, or even a cash reward if it increases business, as it often does for places where a good ghost story might increase revenue. There are lots of pubs, for instance, that have a ghost story attached. It’s never bad for business to have a ghost around.

That’s one reason I was interested in yet another ghost story highlighted on the Skeptic’s Boot blog (and I recommend you head over there to read it, and then follow the blog – it’s very good). Long story short: a customer’s glass of lager suddenly exploded, therefore “ghostly explanation,” supported by still pictures from CCTV; and even better, actual video from a different, but similar, event, where you can see the customer’s glass shatter in a very dramatic fashion.

The Skeptic’s Boot offers a reasonable and plausible explanation of what might have actually happened, and I am particularly interested because something very similar happened to me a year or two ago.

What happened to me was as simple as this: I made myself a cup of coffee and started to drink it. I was using the same glass cup I had used for a number of years, and had taken just a few sips from it. The cup was just over half full, but as it sat there beside me on my desk, it suddenly shattered and coffee was all over my desk. The sudden bang as it happened took me by surprise, alright.

Although the Skeptic’s Boot offers a perfectly rational explanation for the exploding glasses (possibly a glass still hot from the pub’s glass washer being stressed when a cold drink was put into it), the same explanation would not easily fit in with my own experience. My own cup is usually washed in warm, not hot, water, and in any case adding a hot liquid to a warm glass shouldn’t really cause a sudden, catastrophic failure of that kind, surely? I had used it hundreds of times, after all.

As you might guess, my own reaction to a personal experience that is odd is, to say the least, to try to find a plausible explanation before I start to invoke paranormal or supernatural answers. In my own example, I can’t give a definitive and confirmable answer as to what happened, but I can make an educated guess. Glass production has to be very precise so that the object created is going to be stable and safe to use. When glass products are made, it is important that the temperature is controlled throughout the process. The glass has to be made at very high temperatures, but more importantly, the objects made have to be cooled very, very slowly, otherwise the glass itself becomes stressed and therefore liable to go wrong, so to speak.

I think my own glass coffee cup was already stressed before I bought it. It worked fine for a number of years before it exploded right beside me, but it’s also possible that sometime recently when it had been handled, it might have been damaged. I know it had been dropped several times without apparent damage, but I think all it would take to make any internal stresses reveal themselves would be just the slightest scratch on the surface – possibly from a fall, or rough handling when it was placed onto the dish rack with other cups, plates and cutlery. But why should anyone propose a paranormal explanation for something that is much more likely to just be “one of those things”?

I tend to become rather exasperated when the believers accuse sceptics of simply making up what are, to them, “implausible excuses” to explain what is obvious to any believer: it’s a ghost, a poltergeist, a malevolent spirit, karma, or [insert preferred woo here].

The way to find out what is actually going on in a strange situation is to try to rule out normal explanations before coming to a paranormal or supernatural conclusion. And if you can’t find the cause of the problem, then you really need to put the thing on the back burner until there is more information available. Often, as in the above cases, no further information might come to light (yet), so all you can do is regard it as a bit of a curiosity. There are many natural ways for strange things to happen, so assuming the paranormal (which has never been proven to be real) is just irrational.

Paranormal activity cannot be considered as a possible cause of any unusual event until such time that someone can demonstrate that the paranormal has any basis in reality. Stressed glass is real, and so it can be put on the list of possible explanations for the above events. Ghosts have never been proven to be real, so they can’t be put on any list of possibilities. And of course, it’s not up to me or anyone else to disprove a paranormal hypothesis; the burden of proof is on anyone who makes such a claim. Giving preference to a paranormal explanation over a natural (even if tentative) explanation, is just bad thinking.

SPR Has A New Website

There’s a new website on the block – the Society for Psychical Research has replaced its old site with something newer and more up to date. It is, in fact, an improvement on the older version and easier to navigate and find articles of interest. The old site was one I seldom visited nowadays because it was fairly static for such a long time, so I didn’t ever really expect to find anything new (apart from some notices about forthcoming events). My interest is renewed, however, since I found out about this new upgrade thanks to Tom Ruffles.

But I’m a sceptic, so why am I (sort of) advertising “the opposition”? The fact is, although I don’t think there is anything in paranormal and supernatural claims, I think it’s important to look at and examine everything relevant to what is going on out there, as it were. Even though I am sceptical of paranormal claims, I don’t have any qualms about the possibility that someone, somewhere, might, actually, prove the reality of life after death, telepathy, poltergeists, astrology, Tarot, dowsing, auras, precognition, psychokinesis, remote viewing, apparitions, ghosts, orbs, UFOs, alien abduction, Bigfoot, mediums and sundry psychics, not to mention the assorted medical quackery out there in the form of homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, reiki, and other types of faith healing and magical thinking, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

To be fair, I regard the SPR as one of the more serious organisations that deal with paranormal claims; it has been around since 1882, after all, and it has had some very eminent people among its luminaries. I don’t think the SPR has proven the existence of anything paranormal in all that time, but I am prepared to defend the organisation as one that takes the matter seriously and at least tries to apply some academic and scientific rigour to what it does.

Personally, I don’t regard my disagreement with what I think of as “woo” as something that has to be (or should be) taken more (or less) seriously than any other academic disagreement. The paranormal exists or it doesn’t. It comes down to a basic inductive logical concept: the burden of proof is on the person who makes the claim. Promoters of the paranormal (including the SPR) have the obligation to prove the claims they make, so how is the SPR doing so far?

I haven’t had time to delve very deeply into this new site, although in their Psi Encyclopedia I have had a look at a couple of articles so far: one on the Victorian-era medium Eusapia Palladino, and another on the spoon bender Uri Geller.

I’m not sure the SPR are doing themselves any favours here. Palladino, in her time, was tested by some of the biggest names of the day, but she was repeatedly caught out using outright fraud to achieve the alleged paranormal effects that seemed to occur during her various séances. For some reason, the investigators overlooked, ignored or just dismissed these blatant ruses, preferring to believe that when they couldn’t catch her out, then she must have been producing genuine paranormal phenomena. That’s a bit overly optimistic, in my opinion.

The section on Uri Geller is also too flattering. Anecdotal claims of his supposed psychic powers are there in lieu of hard evidence, and some of the claims made (especially regarding Geller’s supposed work finding oil for oil companies, not to mention his paranormal espionage claims) can’t be elaborated on because of secret commercial interests and state security – so we are told, anyway. There is no mention of the famous Johnny Carson TV show where Geller failed to perform at all when he was presented with props he had had no previous access to, nor is there any mention of the numerous YouTube videos that purport to show him using nothing more than sleight of hand rather than real psychic powers. None of that is conclusive proof that Geller is a fraud, but the fact that contradictory evidence is excluded from the article is rather troubling if the SPR’s new site is supposed to be unbiased in its reporting of alleged psi in action. But maybe it isn’t designed to be unbiased, even though there is, for both articles, a list of references; that looks good on the face of it, but actual links would have been useful (and more convenient for the casual reader).

I’m basing what I have written so far on only a couple of articles, of course, so keep that in mind before you rush to make an overall judgement of the website. I will have to read further to find out if there is any actual sceptical or critical thinking being employed by the SPR to analyse any of the people or claims featured. I recommend that you follow the links I have given and judge for yourself.

Overall, I would recommend this new, revamped, website to anyone who has an interest in the paranormal (either pro or sceptical). I think some sceptics will be quick to pounce on logical and factual irregularities such as the ones I have pointed out above; at the same time, I think the believers will accept what is there at face value. In any case, the new site is more accessible than the old site, it is easier to navigate and there is the implied promise of a lot more content to be added in the coming weeks and months.

I applaud the SPR for upgrading their main resource for both their members and a lay audience; time will tell how it will work out. I’m rather ambivalent here: the believers will, I think, love it; the sceptics will probably shrug their shoulders.

 

Harry Price: Ghost Hunter (TV Version)

I watched the ITV production of Harry Price: Ghost Hunter that was broadcast on 27th December, but I came away from it with mixed feelings.

Although the production and the acting can hardly be faulted, it seemed to me that apart from the name of the main character, Price, everything else was pure fiction with little to do with Harry Price the person.

I had expected (or hoped) that this drama would have been more of a biography, covering the work of Price over a period of time, but this was a single dramatic portrayal of one alleged case investigated by the eponymous paranormal investigator. Although I have read about Harry Price, there was little – almost nothing – I recognised as factual in this TV show. For more information about the details, I recommend that you read the critique by Tom Ruffles, which gives an excellent outline of the drama itself and the problems with the factual (or not) details.

For me, the biggest problem is that people who might have heard of Harry Price (and many who have not)) will probably come away with a totally wrong idea about the man and his work. Although he was a controversial figure of his day, I don’t think there is much doubt that he was serious in his research into the allegedly paranormal, rather than being the con man he is initially depicted as.

I don’t believe in ghosts or any other aspect of the supposed other-worldly, but I don’t mind if some people want to spend their time properly investigating it; if any of it turns out to be real, that’s OK by me. What does irritate me, though, is that this TV drama is just tagging the name of a real (historical) person on to a piece of pure fiction that could have stood on its own as a one-off fictional drama in its own right.

As Tom Ruffles suggests, this might turn out to be the pilot episode for a future series, but if so, it will do a disservice to Harry Price in particular, and serious paranormal investigation in general.

(Additional note: for some more information about Harry Price, there is a good article about him at The Haunted Museum. Well worth a read.)

Haunted Drivel–The Eerie Power Of Video Editing

GhostI found yet another paranormal “reality” TV show recently as I was idly flicking through the hundreds of channels available nowadays. This one is called Haunted Collector, and its theme (or gimmick, depending on your point of view) is that a demonologist (no less) heads up a ghost-hunting team that seeks to resolve paranormal problems by finding and removing supposedly haunted objects that are the focus or cause of whatever haunting they are investigating.

There is more information about the series at Wikipedia, and a rather less-restrained critique at Rational Wiki. Long story short: the team investigate a haunted location and subsequently identify an object that is haunted. The owner of the property is then offered the opportunity to have the object removed (free of charge) into the personal collection of the head ghost hunter, therefore also removing the haunting that has been going on. The fact that these items are often antiques, sometimes worth lots of money, is neither here nor there, of course. If someone is gullible enough to believe in ghosts, and stupid enough to hand over valuable antiques for someone else’s personal collection, that’s up to them, I suppose. There’s nothing illegal going on, apparently, but it must be ethically dubious at the very least.

What caught my attention in the episode I stumbled upon – about a supposed haunting in an old west brothel about to be converted into a modern hotel – was a glaring filming and editing blunder. To be honest, I wasn’t really studying the programme, but when I looked at the screen, I noticed some kind of mark or smudge near the centre of the picture. That was during a segment supposedly filmed in darkness with a night vision camera.

Here is the problem: as with all similar scenarios, the action and the conversation between the people involved was continuous and uninterrupted. When I’ve watched these things before, I’ve assumed that they must be using at least two cameras – maybe even three. Obviously, the pace of the action is more dynamic and engaging if different camera angles are used, thereby allowing each person’s dialogue to be intercut quickly, as well as their facial expressions as they react to whatever is supposed to be going on.

However, the same smudge appeared in every camera shot as the picture switched between the various characters, although their conversation appeared continuous and uninterrupted. This is where I call, “foul.” It looks like the mark in the picture would have been caused by some kind of contamination on the camera lens, but an identical mark would surely not be on a second, or third camera. And yet each cut from one person to another had that same mark spoiling the entire sequence. (In fact, when I looked across to watch this particular scene, I thought at first that there was a mark on the television screen itself, but it wasn’t that.)

It’s pretty clear that the scene I was watching was filmed on just one camera. And it seems reasonable to suppose that in a low light scenario the cameraman (or woman) would easily have failed to notice a small mark in the picture.

If that is the case, then it means that the whole scene was an act, rather than spontaneous and unrehearsed, as the viewer is led to believe. The only way the scene could have been done as presented would be to stop the action at certain points, and then for the people involved to carry on their dialogue after the camera operator has adopted a new point of view. Obviously, if that is the case, then it follows that the whole thing is a set-up; the shrieks of fright and everything else must be staged for the sake of dramatic effect rather than real reactions in a live, genuinely haunted situation. In other words, there were no truly spontaneous reactions to anything that was going on (if anything at all was going on).

I guess the mark on the camera lens was not noticed until some time later in the editing suite, but it would be too late by then to do anything about it. It’s unlikely that it would be possible to get everyone together again maybe weeks later to re-shoot it all, so there would be no choice but to use the footage they had. And a scene crucial to the whole show could hardly be left out.

Using a single camera but showing multiple camera angles is a legitimate technique most of the time. A TV news report will do the same thing by focusing on the interviewee, but later record the interviewer as he asks the same questions again, not to mention cutaway shots before or after the interview itself. That just makes that segment more interesting for the viewer, and as long as the edited version transmitted is accurate in its factual content, then that’s OK. For the creation of dramas, the technique is essential, but at least there is no pretence there that the production is live or anything other than fiction, produced for entertainment, and no one is pretending that what is being recorded is anything otherwise.

What you see is not always what really happened when you saw it. Misperception and misinterpretation of observed events explains a huge percentage of what many people think are actual paranormal events (not that you will ever convince a true believer they’ve got it wrong). So consider the possibility that a paranormal ghost-hunting show aimed specifically at the confirmed believer is using, essentially, actors merely pretending that something eerie is happening when it isn’t. Add to that some creative editing. Then think of the symbiotic relationship between the people who produce these TV programmes and the people who want to watch them to confirm their irrational beliefs. In this case, the viewer sees what he or she thinks is a live recording, but it’s nothing of the sort.

There are people who produce nonsense, and there are people who are prepared to pay for an endless supply of it. Market forces in action, perhaps, but it’s a dumbing-down overall. The people who eagerly watch this bilge are consumers, not thinkers. And the producers of the same bilge are just shrewd suppliers, filling (and sometimes creating) a demand in the marketplace, and perhaps also using the specific marketing techniques that will ensure a continuing supply of mugs dupes marks viewers.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a sceptic’s work is never done. Anyone who believes anything that is portrayed in this or any other ghost-hunt type show – especially anything supposed to be filmed with night vision cameras – is guilty of bad thinking.

Shame on the the perpetrators of such nonsense.

A Guide For Paranormal Investigators

Let us be clear about one thing: the existence of anything supernatural or paranormal (including alien visitation and abduction, not to mention magic medicine like homeopathy) has not been proven. For such claims to be true, there would have to be something fundamentally wrong with everything that science has discovered about the world around us and across the whole universe. The laws of nature are pretty well understood, and for the usual claims of the paranormalists to be valid, they would have to demonstrate how their claims do not contravene those laws, or at the very least they would have to show that they have discovered some hitherto unknown law or laws of physics.

It is claimed that telepathy, for instance, is real, but there is no testable hypothesis suggested, and there is certainly no theory (in the scientific sense) that explains how information can be transmitted directly from one person’s brain (or consciousness) to another. The proponents of such claims sometimes talk in terms of a mysterious energy that is undetectable to science (which just happens to be very good at detecting and measuring energy), but which is somehow just transmitted and received by certain rare people who also cannot explain it in any sensible way that could lead to objective confirmation.

Parapsychologists, of course, claim they have the proof, but when their claims are tested by others they just don’t work. At least they usually seem to be following scientific protocols, but replication is the acid test for any scientific claim; so far, however, no one else can get the same results, so the paranormal is not taken seriously by science. That’s the way it is.

Quite honestly, however, I would not be bothered by science rejecting, say, dowsing, if those dowsers could actually do what they claim they do in the real world. If a dowser could clear minefield after minefield, I would be convinced, never mind what those “closed-minded” scientists say. My own hypothesis, however, is that the number of dowsers it would take to clear a minefield is exactly equal to the number of mines in any minefield. (That hypothesis is testable, so it is a scientific hypothesis. As a proposed experiment it would not pass any ethics committee, of course, but my other hypothesis is that no dowser would volunteer anyway, so it’s a moot point – unless any dowsers want to travel to any of the many war zones in the world to prove me and science wrong.)

Things get murky, however, because there are a lot of enthusiastic but scientifically illiterate paranormal “experts” who go on various “ghost hunts” and “vigils” and so on, promoting absolute nonsense in lieu of rationality. To put it bluntly, they have no idea what they are talking about. They go on about “energy” but flounder about when asked what, exactly, they mean. Over a year ago, I listened to a local radio station broadcast where a group of ghost hunters were interviewed by an equally credulous presenter. One of the interviewees, a local beauty therapist by trade, “explained” that when someone dies, their energy can’t dissipate. It’s electricity, she said, although she didn’t mention Ohm’s Law, or the relationship between voltage, current and resistance in a circuit, nor did she give any of the basic mathematical relationships between those concepts that would explain why the well-established laws of thermodynamics are invalid within her interpretation of reality. Michael Faraday, et al, did not rate even a mention. I can only assume that she is qualified in her chosen career, and that when her clients leave her beauty salon they are (at least in a statistically significant way) less ugly than when they entered. But I think she should stick with make-up rather than making it up.

In short, parapsychologists are doing it wrong, ghost hunters are doing it wrong; psychics, dowsers and all the rest of them are doing it wrong. If they could get it right, there would be no dispute. So, as an aid for those self-styled experts in the paranormal, and as a public service, I present the Bad Thinking Guide For Paranormal Investigators:

Arse elbow illustration 4

Feel free to use the above illustration for educational purposes.

The South Shields Poltergeist – TV Documentary Even More Dire Than The Book

20140118_113858-1When The South Shields Poltergeist was published in 20o8 it came in for heavy criticism from the outset. The book was written by Mike Hallowell and Darren Ritson, described  on Mike Hallowell’s website by veteran paranormal writer Guy Lyon Playfair as two “dedicated amateurs.” But dedicated or not, the result was a totally unconvincing account of an alleged poltergeist haunting in an otherwise normal household. [The link or its contents might change later, but I have a copy of the page to resolve any disputes about its contents that might arise later.]

Most of the criticism the authors faced when the book was published (apart from the fact that it was utter tosh) was the fact that they have not publicly released any of the evidence they say they have that would support what they believe to  be a genuine case of paranormal activity. Among the many excuses they made for not publicising their evidence was the claim that to do so might compromise the possibility of having a TV documentary made if a producer could not have access to evidence that had not been used elsewhere. (The authors also lambasted their critics for criticising them without examining their evidence, oblivious to the fact that they would not let anyone else see it anyway, except fellow believers who also would not – or were not allowed to – release it into the public domain.)

Well, things might change now because a Canadian company has produced a “documentary” that features the eponymous spirit, and you can see it online at this link. (Until recently it could not be viewed from the UK unless one went through a proxy server, but the link appears to be working now – at least as I write this.) So now that their long hoped for documentary has been made, perhaps Mike and Darren will be releasing their long awaited confirmation of a genuine poltergeist event?

Personally, I think there’s a better chance of Myleene Klass turning up at Mike’s front door wearing nothing but baby oil and a smile, asking, “How about it, big boy?” (At least there is no doubt that Myleene exists, so the possibility is there, however remote that possibility might be.)

The documentary itself deals with three alleged poltergeist hauntings, including the South Shields case. It’s embarrassing to watch, however, because the standard techniques of the woo documentary makers are clear to see. For example, dramatic reconstructions that bear no resemblance to reality are the norm in this sort of show, and anyone who has read the actual book will realise that there is no similarity between the photographs of the house portrayed in the book, and the overly dramatic and sinister portrayal of the house in the documentary.

It appears that none of the authors’ original “evidence” has been used anyway, and especially not the absurd “bottle footage” that Mike had removed from the internet after it came in for so much laughter and derision, even from people who believe in the paranormal.

There is, however, some sceptical input from Chris French, who says that the most likely explanation for events like this can be hoaxes, misperceptions of events and so on. But later, the host of the show, Darryll Walsh asks what the scientific evidence says about it all – but does he return to Chris French or go to any other scientist? No, of course not; his first “scientific analyst” is Guy Lyon Playfair, non-scientist, who reckons it must be real (he’s been writing about the paranormal for decades, after all, so you just have to take his word for it.).

The other “scientific” answer from a non-scientist comes from Alan Murdie, a British barrister who is also chairman of The Ghost Club Of Great Britain. Unfortunately, like his commentary here, he presents his case in the manner of a lawyer defending a client he knows to be guilty. No doubt the believers will lap it all up. [I have a copy of that page, too, just in case.]

Obviously, neither the book nor this pathetic excuse for a documentary has a believability level that has drawn the serious (like, it’s real) attention of any reputable news organisations – the BBC, for instance – or any genuinely scientific organisation. It’s one for the seriously dedicated believer who doesn’t have the time or the inclination to be weighed down with the burden of thinking for him or herself.

But I like to be optimistic about things, so the fact that the long-awaited documentary has now materialised, as it were, means that perhaps now is the time that Mike and Darren will release all that evidence they say they have, and prepare to be invited to present their findings at the Royal Institution, followed by the presentation of their joint Nobel Prize for discovering a hitherto unknown force of nature that  goes beyond – or even explains – the quantum physics that the most brilliant minds on Earth have been struggling with for over a hundred years.

(No, I don’t think so, either.)

(The woo brigade are always claiming “quantum” this, “quantum” that, after all, despite the fact that no quantum physicist would entertain such nonsense for a moment. Even if there are any scientists familiar with quantum physics who believe in the paranormal and think it can be explained by subatomic phenomena, not one of them has provided evidence, proof or even a mathematical foundation for such claims.)

But the documentary is now out, and with the help of my sceptical powers (that I have vowed to use only for good), I predict that the authors of this bedtime story will still find excuses for not showing us the evidence.

The book’s hype says that this is one of the most disturbing books you will ever read. That might be true for the uncritical believers, but for the rest of us, it’s just a bit disturbing that there are that many credulous people around to spend the money that keeps this sort of nonsense in vogue. As for the “documentary,” I can see the authors’ fans wetting themselves in fear, while everyone else is wetting themselves with laughter.

In the UK, like many other countries, it is a legal requirement that all children receive at least a basic education, but it’s not a legal requirement that anyone has to learn anything. The ones that don’t are the people that keep this nonsense alive because of bad thinking.

Affirming The Consequent In The Search For Ghosts

Ghost meterSuppose – just for argument’s sake – that ghosts are real. And suppose, again, that when a ghost is in your vicinity, it affects the magnetic field around it.

Now imagine you are on a ghost hunt, run by one of the hundreds of ghost hunt companies that exist – those commercial enterprises that claim to take you through a haunted location to find evidence of the paranormal. An overnight vigil, perhaps. You pay money to go on a ghost hunt, and you are offered the use of scientific instruments in your pursuit of the supernatural.

Scientific, remember.

One of the scientific instruments you might use is an EMF (Electro Magnetic Field) detector. They seem to be very popular within the ghost hunting fraternity. So, assuming that ghosts are real, and that they affect the magnetic field in their vicinity, a basic logical proposition can be formulated:

If there is a ghost present, then there will be a variation in the local magnetic field.

So, you set off in pursuit of ghosts, and after a short while, the needle on your device’s dial flickers and moves to a point showing a definite magnetic anomaly. Bingo! You’ve found a ghost. Or have you?

Numerous paranormal “experts” will quite happily tell you that there is a “theory” that the presence of ghosts will give readings on EMF detectors, and so if you get such a reading then it is indicative of a ghostly presence. It’s logical, isn’t it?

In fact, no, it is definitely illogical – a non sequitur, as it happens. I’ve assumed for the above scenario that ghosts are real. If they were, and they did cause magnetic anomalies, then it would be true that a ghost in the area would cause a deflection of the needle (or flashing lights) of your EMF device. But the fact that a magnetic field can change (or just be there) does not indicate, logically, that a ghost is present (even assuming that ghosts exist).

This logical fallacy occurs in formal logic when it is assumed that if particular premises imply a particular conclusion, then the conclusion also implies the premises.

The logical form alluded to above is called Modus Ponens. It goes like this:

If P, then Q.

P, therefore Q.

For “P” read, “A ghost is present.” For “Q” read, “There is a magnetic anomaly.”

In formal logic, the above is called a valid argument because the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises. (Strangely, however, neither the premises nor the conclusion of a valid argument have to actually be true in the real world; the important thing is that the conclusion follows from the premises. I’ll come back to that later.)

So if a ghost causes a magnetic reading, why can’t you take it that when you get such a reading that a ghost is around? The simple answer is that there are lots of things that can cause magnetic fluctuations. In any modern building (and old ones), you are literally surrounded by magnetic fields. Electrical wiring is all around you, so it just takes someone to operate an electrical light or appliance somewhere nearby to cause a fluctuation that can be measured. Metal objects nearby will also affect a magnetic field. Anything with an electric motor, especially, will do the same. Even if a ghost could affect a local magnetic field, there are many other possible causes as well.

In short, a magnetic variation can have numerous different causes, and there is no way to tell what, in particular, is causing the altered reading.

The fallacy is called “affirming the consequent.” It’s quite common, in fact. On a mundane level, try this:

If it is raining, then the ground is wet.

It is raining, therefore the ground is wet.

Modus Ponens, and valid reasoning to boot. But if someone came indoors and told you that the ground is wet, should you conclude that it is raining? The simple answer is no, you shouldn’t: you can easily think of several reasons why the ground might be wet without the need for rain. A burst water main, perhaps, or your neighbours are watering their gardens, and anything else you can think of.

If the ground is wet, it might, indeed, be raining, but it might be something else. The fact that P implies Q does not mean that Q therefore implies P. (There is an exception to this rule when a logical argument is also a biconditional – another post for another day.)

A similar thing happens in other aspects of paranormal research. ESP researchers spent decades trying to prove the existence of telepathy – quite often with the use of Zener cards. Essentially, a potential psychic is presented with series of cards, each of which have one of five possible symbols printed on it. Over a series of tests, the psychic’s task is to identify by psychic means the symbols as they are drawn randomly. Pure guesswork should give results that align with chance expectation; psychic abilities should enable the psychic to identify significantly more than would be expected by pure guessing.  The reasoning among psi researchers has tended to go (If P then Q):

If ESP is at work, then the (statistical) results will deviate from chance.

The results deviate from chance.

Therefore, ESP has been confirmed.

Unfortunately for the believers, there are many other reasons why the results of psi tests might deviate from chance – none of which has anything to do with the paranormal, including poorly designed experiments – anything from poor experimental controls to the great bane of paranormal research, outright fraud. Like the examples above, the assumption is that if the premises imply the conclusion, then the conclusion must imply the premises. But it just ain’t so.

The first sentence of this post was, “Suppose – just for argument’s sake – that ghosts are real.” And that is where the problems start. So-called ghost hunters assume at the outset that ghosts are real entities – immaterial, maybe, but the assumption is that they are real, nevertheless. But no one has actually demonstrated that ghosts are anything other than wishful thinking on the part of the believers. There is no confirmable, testable evidence that ghosts exist (whatever your definition of a ghost might happen to be). How do the experts know that ghosts (if they exist) affect magnetic fields anyway? The short answer is that they don’t.

EMF detectors are useful for detecting electromagnetic fields, and there is no reasonable doubt whatsoever that the electromagnetic spectrum is real. Electric motors, for instance, could not exist otherwise. Electromagnetism from the far ultraviolet, through visible light to the far infrared is a reality and all of it can be demonstrated scientifically.

Ghosts, on the other hand, are a made-up idea to explain phenomena that sometimes do not have an obvious or demonstrable explanation. If you find an electromagnet field with your EMF detector while you are looking for ghosts, so what? You will have found an electromagnetic field, alright, but why should anyone think that a ghost is causing it?

As I said earlier, neither the premises nor the conclusion of a valid argument need to be true in the real world. Think of the characters in a novel, for instance. For a story in a novel to work, all of the elements have to have a clear logical relationship to each other, even though the characters, places and events don’t exist in the real world.

If Merlin is a wizard, then he can perform magic.

Merlin is a wizard, therefore he has magic powers.

That’s fine in the context of the story of King Arthur even though the characters in the story are nothing more than myth, at best. But in the same story, a character that has magic powers is not necessarily Merlin. The fact that Morgana has magic powers does not make her Merlin.

The essential point to keep in mind in all of this is the form of logic that appears in an if/then scenario. It is “true” that if Merlin is a wizard then he has magic powers – at least in the sense that the conclusion follows from the premises – even though Merlin is not a real person, and magic is nothing more than fantasy.

It cannot be said too many times that it is the relationship between premises and conclusion that is important. For a conclusion to be true in the sense of being real, then the premises also have to be true. Before it can be claimed that ghosts affect magnetic fields it is first necessary to demonstrate that ghosts are real, and then show how it is that ghosts affect an electromagnetic field. Until someone can do that, you can be sure that EMF detectors are a complete and utter waste of time and money for anything other than the job they were designed for.

I assume that the people who run these ghost hunting expeditions do believe that ghosts are real and that they can be detected by electronic gadgetry with dials and blinky lights and so on. I also assume that they have no understanding of basic logic.

The bottom line.

Modus Ponens is part of formal logic, and is also known as deductive logic.

The conclusion must follow from the premises for the argument to be called valid.

The premises of such an argument imply the conclusion, but the conclusion of that argument does not imply the premises.

If you do happen to go on a ghost hunt and you use an EMF detector, just keep in mind the fact that you might be able to detect magnetic fluctuations, but those fluctuations tell you absolutely nothing about the existence or presence of ghosts or anything else allegedly paranormal – even if ghosts were real (and I’m pretty sure they aren’t).

Using EMF detectors to find ghosts is nothing more than pseudoscience, but the assumption that you can detect ghosts with such a device is just bad thinking. If your ghost hunting host tells you that an EMF detector is useful in any way for detecting ghosts, ask him if he knows what the logical fallacy affirming the consequent means. At least you know what it means – now.

Just for fun:

Here is a logic puzzle for you to try if you want to. It is a basic puzzle that will probably be familiar to people who have studied logic, but anyone can have a go at it. I’ll wait to see if anyone wants to try it and put their answer in the comments (with the reasons for their conclusion). In a couple of days, I will post the actual answer in the comments.

Here we go:

In the next street to where you live, all of the houses on one side of the street are bungalows. On the other side of that street, all of the houses are detached houses.

Here’s the funny thing: the people who live in the bungalows always tell lies.

The people who live in the detached houses, however, tell only the truth.

One day, you meet three men who live in that street. Let’s call them Tom, Dick and Harry. After the initial meeting and introductions, you ask Tom, “Do you live in a bungalow or a detached house?”

But Tom mumbles something you can’t hear. So you ask Dick , “What did Tom say?”

Dick replies, “He said he lives in a bungalow.”

Harry immediately turns to you and says, “Don’t believe Dick, he’s a liar.”

The question is: does Harry live in a bungalow or a detached house?

Should I Go On A Ghost Hunt?

“The curse of man, and cause of nearly all of his woes, is his stupendous capacity for believing the incredible.” – H. L. Menken.

I’ve been thinking of going on one those ghost hunts that seem to be advertised all over the place. You know the kind of thing – pay some money and get to spend half the night in some supposedly haunted location. You can be just like those people in TV shows like Most Haunted and others.

Ghost hunt poster 03 Where I live, I often see posters advertising these events, and I have also often wondered if I should maybe cough up a few pounds just to see what goes on.

Then again, it’s pretty clear what goes on. A bunch of gullible clods get to wander about in the dark looking for non-existent ghosts, helped by the seemingly obligatory medium in tow, and the latest in high tech ghost hunting gizmos (EMF meters and suchlike).

You can expect séances and other mumbo jumbo, too. “Trigger objects” will be set up to elicit responses from the spirits. And if you just look at the websites that advertise these outings you will find rules and regulations that only a dimwit could agree to.

Having looked at some of these websites, I have to conclude that only the terminally credulous could think that they are actually going to find ghosts – but they also have to be willing to sign away their rights.

Participants in these events are encouraged to bring along their own recording devices – stills cameras and video cameras, as well as audio recording equipment, for example. Notebooks can be used as well.

But there is also a catch. Depending on which particular cowboy outfit you sign up with, you can expect to give up your rights to anything you do actually record on the night you pay them to participate in. As I looked at the various websites advertising their ghost hunting adventures I noticed a common theme: you pay them money to go on a ghost hunt, but you also give them the copyright to anything that you record with your own equipment.

To be fair, not every ghost hunting business demands the same level of rights to your recordings. Some say that you retain your own copyright, but they have the right to use your recordings as they see fit. But sometimes, if you want to use your own recordings for your own purposes, you can do so only if you can get their permission. What if you don’t get it?

I have also seen a website promoting these ghost hunts even saying that they retain the copyright to everything you record and that’s it. They’re not daft – but their customers might be.

But it’s a bit difficult to offer links to these sites for two reasons:

1) The web pages (in particular their terms and conditions) seem to be altered on a regular basis, so anything I link to is likely to be modified (or radically changed) in some way by the time you read it.

2) I have found one website that says quite clearly that it is forbidden for anyone to link to it. And the same site has said that they will take legal action against anyone who disobeys them.

That second part is a bit naive, of course; it’s the age of the internet, and linking to various sites is not illegal. But there does seem to be more than just a bit of paranoia on that particular website. As is pretty typical for the modern ghost hunting fraternity, they do not avert criticism by producing confirmable evidence of the paranormal, they stifle criticism with threats of legal action. But if they think their beliefs cannot survive a collision with reality, they must be pretty insecure about it.

Most of these organisations seem pretty much the same, though. The ones I have looked at commonly state in their terms and conditions that they accept no responsibility whatsoever for their customers’ safety and well being. Go on one of these outings entirely at your own risk, it seems. But I’m not sure if these organisations would get away with it if someone were actually hurt or injured. The law as it is now requires such things as risk assessments to be carried out, public liability insurance to be in place, and efforts made to ensure the public’s safety. They may well do all of that anyway, but the fact that they tell you, in effect and sometimes in fact, that they have no responsibilities must say something about them.

Oh, and they make a point of telling you there are no guarantees that anything paranormal will happen when you go along on one of these outings.

The bottom line seems to be this: you go ghost hunting at your own risk; you have to be prepared to give up your rights to any photographic, audio or any other recordings you make; there is no guarantee that anything will happen anyway; your safety is your own responsibility, and you may not say anything about the hosting organisation (positive or negative) that includes a link to their website(s).

And you pay them money for the privilege – twenty five pounds or so is not untypical.

I think I’ll give it a miss.