Oct 30 2007

It’s Ghost Hunting Time Again

It’s that time of year again, the time for every newspaper and news outlet to do their obligatory Halloween story about ghosts and ghost hunting. It’s an opportunity for every amateur paranormal investigator to misrepresent science to the public, for the amateur skeptic to regurgitate a few token lines of reason, and for the grunt journalist to get their holiday fluff.

OK, I’ll admit it. I’ve been that token skeptic (and this year is no different). We skeptics collectively wring our hands, filled with angst over whether or not such token skepticism does more harm than good. The truth is, nobody knows. On the one hand, we provide at least some balance to the nonsense – perhaps we plant a seed of doubt in the occasional reader. On the other hand, we lend credibility to the bunk just by giving it our time and attention.

To my mind the real culprit here are the lazy journalists who follow the tired formula of the fluff paranormal piece. But occasionally we get lucky, we encounter a critical thinking “ringer” among the drones. Recently, I was contacted by Michael Hartwell to provide the skeptical point of view on yet another ghost hunting story. Michael is a regular listener of the SGU, so I had reason to hope the results would be better than usual, and they were. Rather than the token skepticism we are often content to accept, the article was closer to a 50/50 point-counterpoint.

Michael gave me the time to hit all the critical highlights, but even in this best-case scenario the scientific position was reduced to juicy soundbites. I find blogging to be a much more flexible medium. So let me drill a bit deeper on some of the key features of so-called paranormal investigation.

The article covers the exploits of the Unicorn Rangers Psychic Police. But don’t let the extremely lame group name fool you, they are actually super lame. Actually they are boringly typical of the weekend ghost hunters without the slightest clue about scientific methodology.

The primary error with the typical ghost-hunting methodology is that they don’t actually do any science. The essence of empirical investigation is the putting forth of a testable hypothesis and then finding some way to actually test it, to make an observation that would distinguish one hypothesis from another. It is not the mere gathering of data, making of observations, or use of electronic equipment. Those are the trappings of science only. Walking through the superficial appearance of scientific activity without actually testing a hypothesis is the very definition of pseudoscience.

So what do the Unicorn Rangers do? Well, their fearless leader, Ahura Diliza, walked through the allegedly haunted location and made random observations about energy and entities. No data were presented, of course, that would distinguish someone who is sensitive to actual spirits from someone just making stuff up, or perhaps just letting their imagination wander. We are left with only Occam’s razor to help us decide which of these alternatives is most likely.

Diliza did throw in a bit of cold reading, trying to match his imaginings with the history of the location. He claimed to see a female spirit and asked if the alleged ghost rumored to haunt the location wears glasses. He was answered in the negative, and responded that it must have been something about the intensity of her eyes that caught his attention. Nice recovery. He certainly has the “heads I win, tales you lose” strategy down.

Diliza also offered the usual assortment of anomaly hunting – looking for anything that sticks out and declaring it a ghost. Diliza made much of a cold spot in the house. Ghost hunters don’t actually postulate various hypotheses as to what might cause the anomaly, then conduct experiments to distinguish among these hypotheses. They just pronounce them paranormal – maybe with a-prior dismissal of a straw man alternative.

But my favorite was when Diliza (in the video) explains that when people are in a hypnagogic state – between wakefulness and sleep – they can actually see astral energy. Well, I see that the gullible ghost-hunting subculture has learned the word “hypnagogia,” so I guess our token skepticism is starting to penetrate. Now if we can only get them to learn what it actually means. In a hypnagogic state, dreams leak into wakefulness. It is a state that is defined by the presence of hallucinations, combined often with sleep paralysis and sometimes a sense of pressure or heaviness on the chest. Hallucinations typically involve a menacing entity in the room. This is a well known neurological phenomenon.

I pointed out that arguing that people can actually see ghosts during hypnagogia is like saying that people can see ghosts when they take hallucinogenic drugs. Pretty colorful ghosts, with swirling lights.

It seems that the pseudoscientific ghost hunting group is now an enduring subculture, as much a fixture in our society as the lazy journalists who will continue to use them to fill their fluff quota. At least us skeptics have now also made ourselves part of the landscape. And perhaps we are even going beyond the token skepticism phase. We can always hope.

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