I remember when I stopped believing in ghosts. I’d been a paranormal investigator for three or four years by then, enough time to join a paranormal team and to leave it, and to start my own independent adventures for a time. From state prisons, asylums, private homes, and battleships; I’d been to some of the most supposedly haunted places around. Yet somehow, I’d never seen, heard, or been touched by a ghost in any way. Not even the slightest rattling of a chain.
I was sitting in a room at the former Old South Pittsburgh Hospital, doing an EVP session with another investigator. (An EVP session is when someone trys to record audio of ghostly phenomena, like voices, steps, etc, often done by asking questions and hoping something responds back.) The other investigator looked up to me in the most nonchalant way and said, “Hey, I think there’s a little girl there in the corner.” A few minutes later, a team came tearing through the room asking, “Which way did the shadow person go? We were just chasing it!” Not having seen anything at all myself, I’d had it. Something needed to change.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the methods used by most, if not all paranormal investigations are at best pseudoscientific and often lead individuals further from, not closer to, finding truth. The overwhelming majority of paranormal investigations center themselves on obtaining and cataloguing anomalous experiences, and then investigators often present their findings as “evidence” of ghostly encounters. At best, a few teams call these findings “data” instead of evidence, but there are still some serious shortcomings in how these investigations take place.
The problem is that self-styled investigators use equipment like EMF meters, REM Pods, spirit boxes, and all sorts of other gadgets to search for ghosts without understanding how their equipment works or what they’re actually detecting. These devices instead are often used to create false positive results, which are then interpreted as evidence of the paranormal.
In contrast, a scientifically rigorous approach to paranormal investigations would involve researching specific claims about specific things, and attempting to solve a mystery. This differs greatly from what we often see on popular paranormal TV shows like Ghost Adventures, which are often more focused on entertainment and creating dramatic, suspenseful content than on conducting a scientifically valid investigation. They rely on anecdotal evidence and personal experiences, and often ignore the possibility of mundane explanations for seemingly strange events.
So what can we do to shift the focus of paranormal investigations towards a more scientific approach? First, we need to embrace skepticism and demand evidence for any claims made about the paranormal. We should also be open-minded and willing to consider all possible explanations, even if they’re mundane, and avoid jumping to conclusions based on preconceived notions.
Here’s an example from my former paranormal investigation team. There was a house in Virginia where the owner claimed to have had all sorts of paranormal experiences, from hearing footsteps and voices, to seeing a ghostly apparition at the top of her stairs. One experience in particular took my interest — there was a “trick phone” Halloween decoration that would make a spooky sound when something passed by it. The owner claimed this phone kept going off repeatedly, apparently on its own.
Prior to the investigation, we came up with a few hypotheses on what could be setting the phone off (along with the other claims that the client made). We created experiments to test these out, including checking the phone’s batteries to ensure they were fresh, observing if one of the cats was causing the phone to trigger, and seeing if the table that the phone sat on was uneven and wobbled.
Curiously, throughout the day of our investigation, the phone would continually go off on its own. At first, our experiments were inconclusive. The batteries were fresh, the way the phone would have to be triggered and where it was sitting meant that it would have been close to impossible for a cat to trigger it, and we determined that the table was perfectly flat using a spirit level.
Sitting on the floor perplexed, I had a “Eureka!” moment when I noticed workers near the building next door moving back and forth, and sure enough, the beam that would trigger the phone was pointed straight out the glass front door toward the workers. I asked a fellow investigator, Nick Wendling, to go outside to see if we could trip the light. Nick was able to make the light go off simply walking by, almost 20 feet away, well past the workers. Case closed.
In contrast, a pseudoscientific paranormal investigation might involve arriving late at night, turning off all the lights in the house, and asking the ghosts to walk by and trigger the device. There may be additional gadgets, or a psychic empath might record what they felt during this time. How would any of those techniques have ever solved the mystery of the phone going off, much less anything else?
That night my group and I were able to solve multiple mysteries for this client, and we found no evidence of the paranormal. We did walk away with an appreciation of how sound waves could propagate through a neighborhood, how a cheap trick Halloween phone can have a powerful enough radio beam to trigger from motion 20 feet away, and how eyewitness testimony can be unreliable.
While I don’t believe in ghosts anymore, I’m still open to the idea of them, as long as some real, scientific evidence is found one day. I think it would make our world more colorful and fascinating. But even if the explanation for a particular mysterious event is mundane, solving the mystery is still a valuable pursuit and can be just as fascinating. If we want answers about world around, we can only do so by asking meaningful questions and then poking and prodding , not by sitting around with the lights off, asking questions in the dark.
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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