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'Elements of a Haunting': toward a more scientific study of ghosts?


‘Elements of a Haunting’: toward a more scientific study of ghosts?

Or just more of the same?

I recently read Elements of a Haunting: Connecting History with Science to Uncover the Greatest Ghost Stories Ever Told, written by Brandon Alvis and Mustafa Gatollari. Both authors were co-stars of the short-lived reboot of the television series Ghost Hunters, which ran from 2019 to 2020. The book is 247 pages and is broken into two unofficial sections; the first 58 pages focus on each author’s origin story (how they got into ghosts) and the alleged science of ghost hunting. The second half is made up of written accounts of six episodes of Ghost Hunters in which the authors participated.

I usually avoid this type of book — ghost hunting stories told by celebrity ghost hunters. I like to focus on titles that are more on the educational side, which usually involves the sciences and investigation methodologies. But Elements of a Haunting was suggested by the viewers of a weekly video cast I co-host, Three Tortured Souls, since it promised to provide a “groundbreaking classification system for ghosts and haunting that is transforming the field of paranormal studies into a true scientific discipline.”

Brandon and Mustafa, from Elements of a Haunting

Brandon and Mustafa, from Elements of a Haunting

I should mention that I’ve previously written about Alvis when he introduced a modern version of a device called the Spiricom on an episode of the rebooted Ghost Hunters. The Spiricom was found to be a hoax perpetrated by William O’Neil, an electronics engineer and self-professed medium, who used an electric larynx to create ghost voices.

Overall, I found that Elements of a Haunting doesn’t live up to the “science” hype it self-promotes. The authors demonstrate a severe lack of understanding of scientific ideas, methods, and principles. There are a few quotes taken from science-based literature, but their meanings are twisted and unsuccessfully manipulated to fit the author’s paranormal beliefs.

For example, we read on the back cover of Elements of a Haunting, “Learn how Brandon and Mustafa gather empirical evidence of paranormal phenomena …” One of my co-hosts on Three Tortured Souls, Dave Schumacher, who has a master’s degree in molecular biology, commented on this:

Empirical evidence is gathered from experience, observation and experimentation, which can include both quantitative and/or qualitative methods. While there is no shortage of their personal experiences and observations shared in the book (based on past episodes of the TV show they were both on), there is no detailed information on the quantitative or qualitative methods and data they collected.

For example, there are numerous times that the correlation between subjective paranormal experiences and changes in barometric pressure on the EDI+ data logger are mentioned. However, there is no actual data presented on how many times it happens nor is there any formal statistical analysis presented. There are a few experiments mentioned, but no details or explanation of the methods, data, or analysis. Therefore, they fall far short of their empirical evidence goal.

The EDI+ is a small data-logging device which records five inputs at the rate of once per second: electromagnetic field strength (single axis), temperature, humidity, barometric pressure, and seismic vibration. A digital display provides a readout of each measurement (only one type of reading at a time), and corresponding LEDs will illuminate when there are changes within a specific range.

Whenever the authors of Elements of a Haunting call our attention to an environmental change they believe is due to paranormal activity, we’re only told that a change was registered and/or an LED flashed. At no time are actual measurements provided. And the authors fail to provide the parameters for the device to register a change.

The last paragraph of Elements of a Haunting‘s introduction says, “Mustafa and I will lay the foundation for a scientific approach to paranormal investigation.” My other Three Tortured Souls co-host, Tim Vickers, has been a forensic interviewer for 20 years and has a BS in psychology. He notes:

I was ready to learn. I came to chapter 2, “Ghost Science,” and found it was 10 pages long. Chapter 3, “Ethics, Protocols and Standards,” is 12 pages long. Chapter 4, “Technology and The Paranormal” is a mere 12 pages long – coming to a grand total of 34 pages (out of 247). The chapters that followed tell stories of ghost hunting, loosely integrating, and often missing, the science previously mentioned in their book. The opportunity to teach and reference previous science-based work in the paranormal was also missed in my opinion.

The promised “groundbreaking classification system for ghosts and haunting” falls far short. Taking up just two and a half pages, it provides five classes: Haunting Apparitions, Helping Entities, Restless Spirits, Malevolent Entities, and Pseudo Hauntings (note – the use of the term “pseudo,” meaning not genuine, spurious, or sham — is used incorrectly here). The five classes, along with 13 subclasses, all borrow (sometimes word-for-word) from previously published works, but are presented as something the authors developed themselves.

As Dave points out:

Pages 31 to 33 provide references to where the various classes of their system have been derived from other people and works. There is nothing novel about it. Additionally, it is not based on any formal analysis (i.e. cluster, factor analysis, Rasch scaling, etc.) that would be needed for a true contribution to the scientific knowledge base.

One final point I’d like to address is the use of citations. A brief definition: “A citation is a reference to the source of information used in your research. Any time you directly quote, paraphrase, or summarize the essential elements of someone else’s idea in your work, an in-text citation should follow.”

As I read through Elements of a Haunting, the citations were all over the place. Some correctly reference further reading materials, others were unnecessary, and many more were simply missing – such as on page 123, when the author hints at how EMF could affect the temporal lobes, causing the “sensation of being watched or followed, and the fear of something lurking around every corner.” No references were provided to support this statement.

But what I really found bothersome occurred on page 39, in the very short subchapter on ethics. The section begins with a quote:

In 1842, Julius Robert Mayer discovered the Law of Conservation of Energy. In its most compact form, it is now called the First Law of Thermodynamics: energy is neither created nor destroyed. In 1907, Albert Einstein announced his discovery of the equation E=mc² and, as a consequence, the two laws above were merged into the Law of Conservation of Mass-Energy: the total amount of mass and energy in the universe is constant.

At the end of this quote is a citation number, “15,” which corresponds to a reference at the bottom of the page: “Antoine Lavoisier, Chem Team,” and provides the website address. If you check the reference, you won’t find this quote anywhere on the page. In fact, the dates “1842” and “1907,” the name “Julius Robert Mayer,” and the term “of Conservation of Energy” do not appear at all. The authors referenced a non-existent quote to kick off a section titled “Ethics.”

In addition, the authors attribute 1907 as the year Einstein announced his discovery of mass-energy equivalence, as represented by E=mc² (energy equals mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light). Einstein published his first paper on E=mc² in the Annalen der Physik in 1905, not 1907.

Lastly, the citation attributes the author of the referenced webpage as Antoine Lavoisier. Lavoisier was a chemist who lived from 1743 to 1794, and is often credited with the discovery of the Law of Conservation of Mass. Although Lavoisier was written about on the referenced webpage, he certainly was not the author.

Some closing thoughts from my co-hosts, starting with Tim:

I read a book claiming to show the path for laying the foundation of a scientific approach to paranormal, but found it mostly comprised of stories of investigations, with only a minimal fraction of the book dedicated to discussing science. I’m worried that one could come away from reading this book and be a greater distance from performing or applying a science-based investigation to a claim of a paranormal event than they were prior to reading the book.

And from Dave:

The authors missed a real opportunity to help advance the field and certainly do nothing to “help this field step out of the shadow of pseudoscience.” The authors either at best are not aware of or at worst chose to ignore the history and field of parapsychology … I personally don’t understand how these authors, who claim to be science based and have read extensively in the field, failed to mention any professional parapsychological organization, university and/or journal. One can’t expect to advance any field scientifically without acknowledging what others have done and build upon that.

Elements of a Haunting mixes recycled pseudoscientific ideas with cherry-picked bits of science and blends them together in a way that might seem logical to an uninformed reader. The storytelling, which makes up the bulk of the book, provides the subjective validation so common in the paranormal community. In short, there is nothing in this book that can’t be found in any number of paranormal-themed books and websites. It provides no new knowledge, techniques, or understanding.

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture. 

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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