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Ask a Skeptic: What about ghost TV shows?

I’ve received the following email and was given permission to share it publicly to answer. Minor edits have been made for clarity.

My 13 year old daughter has me interested in TV shows like Ghost Adventures. I’m starting to have a healthy interest in the paranormal. I have always been a complete skeptic. I would say I still am a skeptic, but so many things are hard for me to explain in the field.

Why are there millions of people with their own paranormal stories – UFOs, ghosts sightings, Bigfoot, animal mutilation? Are all these people crazy, mistaken, have bad eyesight?

In Ghost Adventures, the three main hosts of the show seem believable as they investigate. But what seems so very believable are the witnesses. These are very common people, not actors. Their testimonials are truly believable. Are all these witnesses crazy too? They testify with great belief and conviction. Even professional actors could not be so believable.

Please email me back with your vast insight.

Thanks,
D.E.

Hi D.E.:

Thanks so much for writing to me. It’s flattering that you asked for my opinion on this. You say you are a “skeptic” and by thinking about this topic, you certainly are exhibiting some skeptical traits. But since there were a lot of juicy bits in your comments, let’s unpack them.

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Spontaneous Weirdness: Murder Houses

I come across some interested bits and pieces in my daily travels. I figured I’d start sharing them. You know, learn something new everyday…

In Fortean Times 319: November 2014, Jan Bondeson describes how historic murder houses (in Victorian London) were often left without tenants as they developed a reputation for being haunted. No one would live there. A murder house may go through three phases: notoriety, rehabilitation and oblivion. All valuable houses reach the rehab stage and are reintegrated into the neighborhood while others are forgotten and just demolished. In contrast, notorious houses today may be desirable and fetch good prices. He opines why that might be: less local knowledge of the events especially to real estate purchasers from out-of-town, decline in religious or superstitious sentiment, and one thing he didn’t mention, the rise in paranormal or macabre interest and tourism that may actually prompt people to buy certain stigmatized properties.

Bondeson’s book, Murder Houses of London, chronicles these notorious places of murder.

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America’s most hyped haunts – Book Review

America’s Most Haunted: The Secrets of Famous Paranormal Places
By Theresa Argie and Eric Olsen (2014)

ammosthauntedThere are books that people will love that others will hate for entirely distinct reasons. This is one of those books.

I categorize America’s Most Haunted as a paranormal true believer’s travel guide to “must see” places that are totally overhyped and banking on any paranormal popularity they can get. The authors count down ten locations that they have researched. There is no introduction to the book so it is not clear how or why they picked these ten, but according to their accounts and those of several contributors familiar with the sites, these are “tried and true” places for paranormal activity.

The book also has no table of contents, index OR references. No references means I can not care less about the stories inside – they are worthless as nonfiction, OK as entertainment. In that respect, the stories succeed because they are entertaining but they are often absurd in what we are asked to accept as true. The book is far more well-written than typical local ghost story collections. However, being well crafted does not make the stories any more reliable.

I have a fundamental problem with “stories”. As a collection of anecdotes, the reader has no way to assess if they are verifiable or accurate to any degree. Yet, people make serious assumptions from stories. No doubt many readers will swallow these outrageous stories of “it happened to me” without a critical thought.
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Two new videos

Recently posted are two videos from The Amazing Meeting 2013 (yes, 2013 but better late then never).

The first is me talking about the Doubtful News website and what it means to be an “honest broker”, a concept we can all utilize to present information.

The second is a presentation by Don Prothero then a panel discussion with Don, me, Daniel Loxton and Blake Smith. It’s about cryptozoology and their typical “abominable” standards for science and scholarship.

 

Rendition of unknown bear that may represent the Yeti

Sykes paper is a clarion call for higher standards for cryptozoology

The highly anticipated paper from B. Skyes regarding DNA testing of anomalous primates has been published and is, thankfully, freely accessible.

In 2012, the team from University of Oxford and the Museum of Zoology, Lausanne, put out a call for samples of suspected anomalous primates – Yeti, Bigfoot/Sasquatch, Almasty, orang pendek. The samples, if accepted, would be genetically tested using a cleaning method previously vetted in the Journal of Forensic Science that removes all traces of surface contaminants (most likely human) to get to the original DNA sequence. A specific portion of the DNA was used – the ribosomal mitochondrial DNA 12S fragment – for comparison to sequences in the worldwide genetic database GenBank.

A total of 57 samples were received. Two samples were actually not animal hair: one was plant material, the other was glass fiber. Those not trained in biology/zoology cannot always tell the difference between organic and inorganic matter or plant vs animal fibers, as we’d also seen from hunters collecting samples on the Spike TV show Million Dollar Bigfoot Bounty.
37 of the sample were selected for genetic analysis. 18 were from 8 U.S. states, including pairs from AZ, CA, MN, OR, TX. The rest were from WA, what is believed to be the prime habitat of Bigfoot/Sasquatch. 8 samples were anticipated to be the almasty from Russia. Three samples were collected in the Himalayan region of Asia and one came from Sumatra supposedly representing the orang pendek.

Let’s see what the results were.

Unfortunately, there were no anomalous primates in the lot. The sequences all matched 100%, there were no “unknowns”.

One was found to be human – from Texas. That only one matched with humans is a testament to the rigorous cleaning method that removed contamination. Sykes revealed his thinking about Melba Ketchum’s paper by noting that human contamination often “confounds the analysis of old material and may lead to misinterpretation of a sample as human or even as an unlikely and unknown human x mammalian hybrid” (Ketchum, et al.). Therefore, her claim of rigorous forensic procedures is shot down, again. Incidentally, Sykes et al. does not consider Ketchum’s paper as a “scientific publication” likely because it was self-published. The Sykes et al. study is regarded as the FIRST serious study regarding anomalous primate DNA – he cites two others that were joke papers. Recall that Ketchum cited these in her paper as genuine, revealing her professional ineptness. While the Sykes, et al. paper lists Ketchum as a reference, it is only to cite it as a poor study, not within the valid body of scientific literature, with misinterpreted results. [Burn.] The quality difference between the two papers is remarkable. The Sykes paper is readable and understandable with minimal jargon and a clear presentation of the data and conclusions. Ketchum’s paper was gobbledygook and, with this new commentary on it, albeit subtle, is another death-blow to any further serious scientific consideration.

All the U.S. samples turned out to be extant (already existing in that area) animals such as cow, horse, black bear, dog/wolf, sheep, raccoon, porcupine, or deer. There very clearly was nothing anomalous at all.

All the Russian samples, at least some of which were collected by Ketchum associate Igor Burtsev, also were disappointing. There were two anomalies, however. Samples of raccoon and American black bear were among the Russian samples indicating either a mistake in the location of the samples or individuals of these animals were imported to Russia at some point and their samples left behind.

Sadly, the orang pendek sample from Sumatra turned out to be from a Malaysian Tapir. This is not the first time tapirs have faked evidence for a Bigfoot creature. But I suspect this sample was very disappointing since the orang pendek is considered to be a plausible cryptid – likely a new species of primate. However, this test failed to provide support for that idea.

The Nepal sample turned out to be a native goat, a serow. However, the other two Himalayan samples were the most interesting of all.

Not one but two samples, those from Ladakh, India and Bhutan, matched a fossilized genetic sample of Ursus martimus, a polar bear of the Pleistocene era, 40,000 years old. Note: TWO samples! There was not a match with the modern species of polar bear. Thus, the study has discovered a new anomaly! This result is a boon to bear studies. Future research will continue to look for more evidence of the representative animal, hopefully a living one. The paper is clear, as was the documentary on this discovered which aired months ago, this previously unknown hybrid bear may contribute to the yeti legend. The look and behavior are reportedly different from the other native bears. Is the Yeti a bear? Well, the yeti is a very general term and its description varies across the huge expanse of the world where it is reported to exist. Even the orang pendek, more akin to an orang utan, is sometimes referred to as a “yeti”. Therefore, the “yeti” is likely not just one animal. It is feasible that this new bear constitutes one version of the yeti. Sykes has been open in stating that it does not mean a primate Yeti is not out there. It just means this result was not supportive of that idea.

Rendition of unknown bear that may represent the Yeti
Rendition of unknown bear that may represent the Yeti

The main thrust of this paper hits the gut of cryptozoology. As it is practiced today by amateur Bigfoot hunters and monster trackers, it is not science. This paper represents science. It’s a high bar. I’ve said as much before. To do science requires very specific training. One result of the Ketchum fiasco and the Sykes “success” has been to educate cryptid hunters about genetics and reliable tests that can give them the results they desire. This project was an excellent example of amateurs working with professionals – exactly what needs to be done to make real discoveries and come up with better answers than “It’s a squatch”.

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I’ve always disputed the claim from paranormal researchers (including cryptozoology enthusiasts) that science ignores their work. Scientists had previously been involved in the founding of the field of cryptozoology but also studies in the psychical research and UFOs. They looked, there was nothing there and they moved on. (See my thesis on amateur research and investigation groups, ARIGs)

Now, the modern field of cryptozoology has been put on notice. You need to raise the standards; you need to stop wasting effort. Blurry pictures or another FLIR recording of a warm blob is not going to constitute worthwhile evidence. We best learn about nature through a scientific process. That means amateurs must work WITH the experts, not rail against them.

I was very pleased with the results of the Sykes, et al. study. I look forward to his book release on this topic as well.

Skeptically quoted in Fortean Times

One of my favorite weekend indulgences is reading Fortean Times outside on the patio with a nice beverage. About three times previously, I was tickled to find my name or website mentioned in the issue. April’s issue #313 carried the “40 years of The Exorcist” theme – WHAT FUN! Imagine my giddiness when I began reading the story from Bob Rickard on p. 46 about the Gary, Indiana family “plagued” by demons, when I discovered my name and website began paragraph 3. Rickard made the point that I thought the Indianapolis Star story was decidedly unskeptical. He notes that I turned out to be right (no surprise, sensationalism sells), the story went from eye-rolling to preposterous with many involved seeking personal publicity. All in all, Rickard emphasized that this story was more about reinforcing belief. Most paranormal, miracle and alt med stories in the news are like this. 

The article goes on to account for the entire run in the media of the Ammons family, the purchase of the house by Zak Bagins, ghost adventurer, and the priest becoming involved in media deals. It was a great piece. 

I really appreciate being included in Fortean Times as the skeptical voice. I rarely feel belitted or scoffed at (as the mostly non-believer) reading its pages. I love these stories. I might have a different conclusion but I appreciate the work that goes into writing them up. I was happy to contribute a piece on SlenderMan to the Forum section a while back that allowed me to be far more informed about the topic when the SlenderMan stuff recently exploded.

As a cryptozoology, occult, paranormal and Fortean phenomena enthusiast, I heartily recommend subscribing. No they aren’t paying me for this. I only endorse what I really like because I believe in supporting good content. FT is where I get some prime info from people who actually know what they are talking about.

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