May 14 2012
The subculture of pseudoscientific ghost hunting continues to evolve. Have you heard of a “ghost box?” It seems all you have to do is put the word “ghost” in front of something and it becomes technical jargon for ghost hunters, and also a great example of begging the question. A cold spot in a house is therefore “ghost cold.” An electromagnetic field (EMF) detector becomes a “ghost detector.” And now a radio scanner has been rebranded as a “ghost box.” Of course no one has ever established that any of these phenomena have anything to do with ghosts, so they are putting the cart several miles ahead of the horse.
A more scientific and intellectually honest approach would be to declare such phenomena as anomalous (although I don’t think that they are). Ghost cold would more properly be termed anomalous cold, or a regional cold anomaly, or something like that. One hypothesis for the alleged cold anomaly would be some sort of supernatural entity (call it a ghost) that acts as a heat sink generating cold spots. First, however, researchers should endeavor to find a mundane explanation for the cold. In fact before declaring it an anomaly they should thoroughly rule out any possible explanation. Only when that has been adequately done would they have a tentative anomaly.
It would then be reasonable to generate a hypothesis as to what is causing the anomalous cold, but such hypotheses are only useful if they lead to testable predictions. If the regional cold anomaly phenomenon is the result of “ghosts”, then what might we predict from that and how can we test it? I don’t know of any way to definitively test it, as ghosts are not a well-defined phenomenon, but perhaps there are some preliminary tests that could be done. For example, is there at least a correlation between cold spots and experiences often interpreted as ghosts or hauntings? Perhaps cold spots are just as likely in homes without other such “ghost phenomena.” Such a correlation would not prove the ghost hypothesis, of course, but it would at least be a start, and the lack of correlation would seriously jeopardize the hypothesis.
Ghost hunters, however, skip over all of this scientific methodology and reasoning and simply declare cold spots “ghost cold” and then use them as evidence for ghosts. They are then puzzled when scientists and skeptics don’t accept what they consider to be compelling evidence for ghosts, but what is really compelling evidence for the complete lack of scientific understanding on the part of ghost hunters.
All of the tools of the ghost hunting trade are the same as cold spots – they are common phenomena one might encounter in any location that are simply being declared ghost phenomena without ever a hypothesis being generated or tested. EMF meters, for example, simply detect the ubiquitous EMF in the modern world, which are then declared to be a ghost phenomenon. EMF are particularly satisfying because you can make the little needle move along the gauge, or (if you are digitally inclined) you can make numbers appear on the screen. You can wave around your EMF meter, without having the slightest idea how it works, and see stuff happen. Why are EMF associated with ghosts? There is no logical basis for this notion. It seems to be entirely based upon the fact that EMF is something you can encounter in alleged haunted locations, because you can encounter them almost anywhere.
We can now add the “ghost box” to the list of such equipment. This one is particularly humorous because it seems to be deliberately designed to generate false positive results. The inventor of the ghost box (sometimes called a spirit box) is Frank Sumption (who initially called it “Frank’s box). Here is his own description of the device.
The purpose of the ―box, as it is now referred to, is simply to provide a source of audio bits made up of fragments of human speech, music and noise. This noise is known as ―raw audio, it is the raw material out of which spirits of the deceased, and other entities use to create their own voices out of. ―Presumably by remodulating and remixing the raw audio to make the various noise fragments from words and voices of their choosing. In the box, the raw audio is created by sweeping the tuning of a radio electronically across it’s band, or tuning range, the resulting bits of speech music and noise are the raw audio. Radio is simply a convenient source of raw audio. However, that’s only a guess as to how the box works, there does seem be an RF component, or at times an actual signal received, or some other method of getting an external voice into the radio in the ―the box. Some of the manipulation of the raw audio seems to take place inside the electronics, again, presumably ―they can manipulate the electrical signals. I don’t have the equipment, or know how to be able to test these ideas.
What you hear, then, is what you would hear if you had an old radio with an analogue dial and you simply moved the dial quickly up and down the frequencies. You get a mix of static with snippets of speech or music. It is a perfect set up for generating audio pareidolia. The practice emerged out of electronic voice phenomenon (EVP), in which ghost hunters listen to hours of audio recorded in an allegedly haunted location and listen for noise that their brains can interpret as words. They then impose meaning on the random words. The ghost box just speeds up the process by generating “raw audio” for the pareidolia.
There are two layers of pattern recognition that are occurring when we have an eager ghost hunter sitting in front of a radio scanner (sorry, I mean “ghost box”) listening for the ghosts. The first layers is hearing words, names, or phrases. Sometimes the words are actual words coming through from a radio station. Sometimes, however, they are just noise that the brain tries to match to a word. Here is a great example - most of the words and phrases “heard” by the ghost hunter in this video are more imagination than anything else. I suggest you listen to the audio without the video and write down any words that you think you hear. Then watch the video and see if they match what the ghost hunter thought he heard.
On the video the alleged words flash up on the screen, so that suggestion will kick in. This is a well-known phenomenon – when a word or phrase is suggested to you, your brain will hear what is suggested. Here is a funny example - the “O Fortuna” lyrics misinterpreted as funny phrases. (Perhaps ghosts are trying to communicate through the lyrics of foreign-language music.)
There is also a second layer of pattern recognition, however – the meaning of the words. People are very good at inferring meaning, which is a useful skill in a highly social species. Like many such things, we are too good in that we tend to over-infer meaning. I see people do this all the time with their pets. They assign very sophisticated human understanding and intent to behaviors that probably have a much simpler explanation. We saw this also when researchers tried to teach apes to communicate with sign language. The researchers were very good at inferring what the apes meant even when signing essentially randomly. Sometimes, for example, the animal would try to be funny or playful by signing the opposite of what he meant.
We see the same thing in the ghost box video. The ghost hunter is good at taking the random words and phrases and inferring some meaning from them. He is then very impressed by the pattern of responses, concluding that there must be some intelligence behind them. Of course there is an intelligence at work, but it is at the receiving end of the words. Any apparent meaning to the alleged words is coming from the minds of those making the connection. In this way it is similar to a cold reading. The person making all the connections in a cold reading is not the reader but the subject. They are finding meaning in the questions and fragments (I see a letter “J”) that the cold reader is throwing out.
This general phenomenon is very common – seeing patterns in randomness and then being overly impressed at the connections. The naive premise for the believer is that if there were not a real external phenomenon going on (in this case, ghosts) then the apparent connections would not be there. This premise, however, is false. Humans are good at finding connections anywhere, and in that way we often deceive ourselves into thinking there is something there when there isn’t.
The “ghost box” phenomenon is no different than the ghost hunting tools that have gone before it – it is a method for generating positive apparently anomalous findings that can then be assumed to be a ghost phenomenon by eager ghost hunters. At no point, however, is any actual scientific research going on. The obvious control experiments are never done – we can, for example, compare the noise generated by a radio scanner in allegedly haunted locations vs control locations. We can also have blinded evaluators listen the audio and see what they hear. We can then perform inter-rater reliability testing by having different people listen to the same audio and see if they hear the same thing.
If you read the comments to the ghost box video I linked to above you will see the occasional skeptic pointing all this out. You will see more true believers declaring this stunning “proof” of the paranormal. Right there is the disconnect between the various believer groups and skeptics. Ghost hunters simply do not understand scientific methodology, they do not understand the nature of scientific evidence nor the pitfalls of generating false positive results. This is, perhaps, an example of the failure of education to teach the fundamentals of science. It is also an opportunity to do some remedial education. Understanding why these ghost hunters are not doing science is a great way to teach what science is, and is not.
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