Ghost hunters as “really good researchers, I guess”

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Story from The Onion: ‘Ghost Hunters’ Enjoys Surprising 100% Success Rate

“What can I say? We’re just really good researchers, I guess.” At press time, despite having repeatedly resolved the most central question of human existence, the program is somehow not on the cover of every major newspaper, magazine, and scientific journal in the world.

Sure, we can all laugh at how sharp and witty The Onion is. It’s a little strange to get such accurate news (through a satirical filter). Why are the Ghost Hunters convinced of their work? Why do they think that they are doing “research”? Well, wait…aren’t they doing research? If we define research as a systematic way to collect data and information in a sustained way, then, sure, I guess they are doing research.

But their research isn’t taken seriously. It’s not scientific. There are many reasons why paranormal investigators work falls way short of being “scientific”. I’ll just focus on the primary reason – paranormal bias.

It’s easy to have a 100% success rate for finding the paranormal if everything you observe you attribute to paranormal entities. It’s little different than attributing everything nice in the world to God’s goodness. You’ve made an arbitrary connection and seek out pieces of information to add to your worldview. Bring in someone who does not have preconceived ideas about cause and they will attribute events differently. I see the orbs as dust particles, not spirit energy, for example. I’m not impressed with recorded random word-like noise. It’s too big of a leap to say it’s “ghosts” when there are a myriad of other down-to-earth explanations.

Once you attribute something to “paranormal” causes, you’ve turned your back on science and gave it the finger. A scientific view of nature (the most reliable way of intepreting nature) is based on rules – physical rules, logic, and rules about gaining reliable knowledge. Ghost hunters never consider those rules. They throw them away and make new stuff up on the fly. They interpret observations in terms of their paranormal bias. So, to say they are “scientific” is out of the question and their credibility is lost. Creationsists looking to fit the story of life to the 6-day story of Genesis do the same.

Let me clarify one thing item. While the official “Ghost Hunters” on TV have previously said they were being “scientific”, they have backed off this stand quite a bit. The word does not come up in show and it’s harder to find it used explicitly. However, the TAPS webpage and MANY other paranormal investigation groups (about half [1]) do explicitly use science or scientific to describe themselves. Yet, they co-opt many images of science, such as jargon and equipment, to suggest to viewers that they are sophisticated and precise. It’s a ploy and it works. Many people do consider ghost hunters serious researchers[2] who come up with genuine evidence for the paranormal. Now, that’s scary.

It's obviously a ghost! What else can it be?

I call what ghost hunters do “sham inquiry” because their method of investigation is flawed due to this bias. They are going through the motions, attempting to gain credibility through sciencey words, fancy equipment and (what appears to be) a serious attitude. See more on sham inquiry on this special page. And don’t be fooled.
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1. Hill, S. A. (2010) “Being Scientifical: Popularity, Purpose and Promotion of Amateur Research and Investigation Groups in the U.S.” [Thesis] Master of Education – Science and the Public, State University of New York at Buffalo.

2. Brown, A. (2008). Ghost Hunters of New England. Univ. Press of New England.

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18 thoughts on “Ghost hunters as “really good researchers, I guess”

  1. Gary B

    Well thought out post. Does it seem to you that several producers at networks we usually think of as science oriented have completely given themselves over to the paranormal? The History Channel, National Geographic, etc. seem to feature ghosts, monsters and ufo stuff more than anything else lately. I do have to admit that seeing ghost hunters scared out of their wits by images on an occiliscope is high comedy for me but, as many times as they repeat these shows, it got old quickly. My guess is that paranormal content is cheap to produce and you can use the same graphics from one show to another ala Monster Quest for example. Just my random thoughts, gotta go now and search for bigfoot in the backyard.

    • idoubtit

      Spooky sells. The rational does not (usually) but I haven’t given up hope yet. I think these mystery show were just building on a template that was working. I also think that the peak has passed. Watch for more demons and spirtual nonsense along with fictionalized monsters (gory and mean). Just speculating but I think they might up the fear factor a bit. Good luck in your search. Contact me if you find anything. :-)

  2. I agree that demons are going to be the big thing. They seem to capture the imagination of a lot of people, and many of the more pseudoscientific approaches to these things have either worn out their welcome, or are straight up imploding (see the collapse of alien abduction, especially the therapist-driven mode of it, for possibly the most egregious example; it is on its way to becoming the late 20th century version of the fairy).

    Speaking of which, I really think Stefula, Butler, and Hansen were quite right about a lot of these “fields” back in 1993 when they compared the people surrounding a famous abduction case to fantasy role playing gamers, or I suppose more specifically LARPers (or in the case of a more recent abduction kerfluffle, online chatroom RP). Here’s a question for someone who has more knowledge of ghost hunters than I do: how common was waving around hand-held EMF meters before the film Ghostbusters (I remember the parapsychologists in Poltergeist having gear, but I believe it was all stationary)? I’m not arguing that the film invented the idea of having a “ghost geiger counter” with its PKE meter. But just as in the case of the film Close Encounters taking a reported type of alien and making it much more popular, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if having a hand held meter of some sort, backed up with the older “stone tape” and similar ghostly theorizing about EM, became more of a ghost hunting cliche after 1984. I could be totally wrong about that of course.

    PS: Did you watch the TV show “Bones” tonight? It was all about crypto and the chupa, and it handed down a distinctly skeptical viewpoint, including the talking points that interpretation is different than experience, scientists go out with questions not pre-arrived answers, as well as hinting at the “don’t be a d**k” issue in skepticism. Oh, and the murder victim? One Lee Coleman. Yeah, they went there, though he’s instead a TV skeptic that has drummed a TV crypto off the air. The show has always had homages and lineage to the X-Files, and this episode (complete with similar music) played as a purposeful counterpoint in a lot of ways.

    • idoubtit

      I’m totally going to watch the episode of Bones. Looks awesome! That’s a good point about hand-held meters. I had heard mentioned that Harry Price was the first “equipment” oriented ghost hunter. Obviously, I find the idea about cultural representations influencing the public fascinating. I’m gathering info on the stone tape stuff since I have a personal interest in that, being a geologist. From my previous articles, it is super hard to pick apart the physics mistakes that people make with such things. To the non-scientist, they sound plausible.

      • Loren’s got a link to it on cryptomundo, naturally. It’s up on Hulu for a few weeks.

        IIRC, Harry Price’s equipment was simple stuff, powder, string, and the like. Maybe he used more mechanical devices, but I don’t think so. I think that his using “equipment” just means any sort of materialist investigation of ghosts, rather than mediumistic contact.

      • idoubtit

        That’s what I thought about Price too but I’ve seen the “equipment” idea originating with him on a few paranormal investigators web site. I’ll add that subject to the list of topics to research. A good one.

  3. scottc

    That’s an excellent link you’ve included from George Hansen’s Trickster website. The concept of role playing is very important in all this paranormal stuff and his co-authored paper uses a well-known abduction case to flesh out the concept. Anyone interested in this field (if that’s the right word for it) MUST understand this role playing angle, and how it can trip up almost (or is that ALL) investigations.

  4. Daniel Natal

    I’m a huge critic of “Ghost Hunters”. My disgust (and distrust) of the producers and participants is probably far greater than the author of this article. That said: He makes a huge assumption that shows his own bias. He assumes that paranormal research is, ipso facto, unscientific. It’s easy to do that when your knowledge is limited to plumbers on TV claiming to film spooks. If you keep that as your “example pool,” then yeah: It’s easy to feel superior and to make broad, sweeping statements about the whole field. If, however, you actually take the time to read books on the subject by ACTUAL scientists, then you learn that it’s not so clear-cut. Going back 100 years, I was fascinated by Sir Oliver Lodge’s research into the paranormal. He was a world-renowned physicist, someone who understood scientific method and employed it; so his conclusions are harder to dismiss than plumbers on TV. I remember in his book “Raymond” (about the death of his son). The intelligence purporting to be the late Raymond was trying to explain aspects of the Afterlife to his physicist father, and doing so in scientific terms. For instance, he talked about the sense of smell and how it’s far more significant than we realize. Raymond went on to say that there are particles in odors that are smaller than atoms, and that these sub-atomic particles behave in strange ways and actually travel between to the two planes (of the living and the dead). He went into a lot more description, whereupon I turned to my wife and said, “This book is from 1916 and, from his descriptions, he seems to be describing quantum mechanics.” I was blown away when last week in 2011, an article was published that said “Quantum Mechanics May Explain How Humans Smell”. You can see the article here: http://www.physorg.com/news89542035.html My point is this: Not all research into paranormal questions are conducted by plumbers. Not all researchers have abandoned scientific principles. The thing is: You have to take the time to actually read books on the subjects, to weed out the garbage and study the works by the ACTUAL scientists. And, no, don’t read a “professional debunking” book on the paranormal and say, “See? I took the time.” No, you didn’t. You tried to look at something through a filter. Take the filter off. Approach it honestly, be open-minded, read the original source. It’ll shock you how many tremendously intelligent (and yes: scientific) people have looked into these matters and arrived at conclusions that might surprise you.

    • idoubtit

      Daniel: Speaking of assumptions, you have assumed I was male and have no background in science or the paranormal. I am female and have researched the science of the paranormal since around 1993. I have a science undergrad degree and a masters degree in education focusing on the interaction of science and the public. The point of this article was to show that science done by amateurs does not qualify as very useful. I have lots more data on this, see reference No. 1 above. I was not mentioning the past work by scientists (that never really panned out, I mean, decades of parapsychological research and we are no closer to good answers to phenomena) or even current scientists like Wiseman and Persinger. I was talking about amateurs pretending to be scientists. That is a danger to the public and needed to be called out. It just so happens The Onion does a fine job of making the point.

  5. AnnF

    Ahem! That energy entity in the photograph is clearly a demon, not a ghost. You can tell by the way that it matches all the critera for demonistitudeness that I just happen to have written up.

    However, it might be the ghost of a demon, if you insist.

    But it’s clearly not the ghost of a demon zombie, because that would be just silly.

    • idoubtit

      Ugh. I am so inept. I need to become trained in demonology before making such pronouncements. How does one go about getting that training?

  6. Anonymous

    Interesting article, but you obviously don’t watch the show at all. First off, they automatically discount orbs as either bugs or dust particles. Second, they never claim that everything is paranormal. When they hear a claim, they try to see if they can recreate the “paranormal” event to see if it is caused by anything that is normal. They have always said that the methods that use to investigate are all based on theories that people have come up with. Maybe next time you should actually watch an episode before you cite them as an example.

    • idoubtit

      Yes. I HAVE watched many episodes which is hard for me to do because I find it very irritating. But this is why I commented that they DON’T stress the science as much as they used to. I’m not impressed by their assessment of all other causes and recreation. I think they do this to provide the half-hearted view that they are thorough and serious but it falls short. The “theories” behind their methods are unfounded speculation. They assume that what they measure is a result of paranormal activities. There is NO evidence to support such ideas. The fact that they call themselves GHOST HUNTERS presumes there are such things as ghosts to hunt.

  7. ohnoesacynical

    Shows like Ghosthunters being frauds are no more proof that “such things as ghosts” don’t exist any more than doing an expose on the local “psychic” to prove that psychic activity doesn’t exist in the human mind (which according to science, it does).

    The difference is, these things are only seen as glitches scientifically and there is no way to control, measure, or capture anything that would classify as evidence.

    Rule of thumb, anyone who claims they understand this stuff (at this point), is full of garbage. Another rule of thumb, most scientists who even stoop to comment on the subject refuse to acknowledge that in one statement they have their mind made up that any apparition ever witnessed is a hallucination, despite the fact it would be downright insanity to suggest said hallucination is “contagious” – or could be witnessed by more than one person at the same time without any prior expectation.

    It is not rational to therefore assume the multiple witnesses are automatically lying, (or fooled by some trivial point of light that only comes up in bunk photos and videos, not in eyewitness accounts) therefore end of story. Photos and videos have never been scientific evidence, yet the same logic that is *always* applied to bad photo & video non-evidence is constantly being applied to write off eyewitnesses.

    A rational scientist says “we’re not yet capable”. Reality show fraud being used as primary examples is not helpful. In fact, it’s about as helpful as ‘blowing the lid’ off of crooked third world surgeons who convince people that they are massaging out tumors by using slight-of-hand to pull out pieces of bloody raw meat to make a case against the existence of cancer (in a scenario where modern medicine hadn’t yet advanced).

  8. Mark Hughes

    I can’t believe that they have a 100% rating unless your only counting the positive ones. Please take that crap off the air! I’m tired of hearing did you hear that, something touched me or it suddenly got cold in here.
    They never prove anything!
    I will be unbelievably happy when it falls from network favor and is dropped, but then the world is full of old lady’s and idiots that believe that crap so I might have a long wait.

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