Long ago, my interest in paranormal topics became jaded because popular books were repetitive, full of the same information and stories as the last one. For decades, books written on cryptozoology and ufology advanced no closer to definitively documenting or explaining these phenomena. Some advocates are persuaded that the many similar stories and imaginative speculation, often tenuously tied to scientific concepts, are sufficient to make remaining skeptics (those that have not been persuaded) or rejectors look absurd. I am not persuaded.
The history of serious ghost research spans even longer than cryptids and UFOs. Scientists have been trying to figure out ghostly experiences for centuries. Scientific-sounding concepts abound to attempt to explain ghosts.
One glaring problem with ghosts is that there are many definitions of ghosts/hauntings and various ideas about what they could be from spiritual to scientific (spirits of the dead, demons or other supernatural entities, psychic transmissions, trans-dimensional receptions, time-slips, environmental recording-playback). Where understanding of the natural world via science has advanced by incredible measure, ghost investigation has decidedly not. Therefore, I am justified in being skeptical of any book that claims to use “cutting edge research” and “new theories” to explain this eternal mysterious human experience.
Older books about ghostly episodes (and hauntings and poltergeists, as well) were frequently much better. Maybe that was because it was more difficult to write a book before the 21st century. To contract a publisher, you had to have some credibility, experience, and substance. Today, you don’t need to impress anyone but yourself, so the field of the paranormal is polluted with unreadable, useless volumes from part-time or celebrity paranormal investigators. Some of these authors truly believe they are doing something new but have failed to examine what has already been done. Many attempt to do science when they have zero scientific background – these are the topic of my book Scientifical Americans. Then, there are those that do have some science background but are outside their wheelhouse. These authors use abundant scientific jargon, analogies, and experiments to push their ideas. They may publish in parapsychology-related or minor journals. Their work might be heavily referenced by others because it is positive and seemingly impressive. But it often does not get wider scientific acceptance because it is flawed and/or has failed to be reproduced. Or, it just has not proved useful in the real world because it doesn’t accurately predict anything. I recently finished two paranormal-themed books that cited one author that could fall into that category – Michael Persinger. Of note, I no longer take Persinger as seriously as I once did and now find his work relating to paranormal experiences lacking. His ideas about the effects of weak, complex electromagnetic fields may be valid but not to the extent they are promoted. And, the tectonic strain theory was very much a house of cards that could not withstand scrutiny. Persinger is so frequently cited in scientifical paranormal books that he could be on a Ghost Hunters Bingo card.
The first book I’ll talk about was advertised as using the latest scientific research and new theories to provide scientific explanations for ghostly episodes. Promises, promises… Disappointingly, the research was tenuous or out of context, the ideas weren’t new (or logical), and the scope of ghostly episodes was ill-defined and narrow. Listen, everyone: you can’t revolutionize any field with a lightweight paperback for general readers. The Ghost Studies: New Perspectives on the Origins of Paranormal Experiences by Brandon Massullo landed far short of the mark. The author admitted this is a complex subject but then writes in a breezy, affected way with stories, much reiteration, and end-of-chapter summary paragraphs (which I personally find off-putting because it was only few pages and I just read it).
Curiously, this book was written in 2017 and touches on a few topics (popular ghost theories and use of technology) that were also in my own book published the same year. I found some agreement and was hopeful, but the content was too sparse. The major turn in this book happened when the author describes his version of “ingredients for a ghostly experience”. That is, his “theory” is that the following are necessary for a ghost episode: psychological aspects, changes in internal energy, and external acquisition of information.
Depending on what is meant here, psychological aspects are a given for any ghost experience. With “changes in internal energy”, the pseudoscience flag goes flying. He describes how a ghostly experience requires the energy of a person to be involved – their electrical field, which is powered by emotions. The author puts forward the idea (based on dubious research) that our emotions cause bodily changes that alter our human electric field, which then affects the earth’s electromagnetic field allowing for the transmission of information. Finally, a receiver taps into that frequency and receives the information. None of that is supported by good evidence, logic, or math.
There is the typical misuse of the conservation of energy law that energy can’t be destroyed so something of us must live on after we die. As expected, the entire chapter on energy is overly simplistic and the concepts misapplied.
Other chapters cite work by not only Persinger, but Sheldrake. The author repeats that this is scientific research to give it credibility. Unfortunately, he accepts that this research is perfectly valid and ignores the mountains of criticism about it. Science works as a community effort over time, building on what is confirmed. Persinger’s and Sheldrake’s ideas about electromagnetic fields and morphic resonance, respectively, are not accepted as confirmed. Not even close. But they are convenient to use to promote the author’s imaginative idea and those who aren’t specialists are not going to know that. This is how many people get away with promoting pseudoscience in general as it is hard to check and sounds impressive.
This unconfirmed research constitutes the “studies” of the title and is presented as amazing new results to inform the author’s theory of ghosts. The book quickly became tedious to read as Massullo admits possible weaknesses in the explanations but then cites the few studies as confirmation that we now “know” these things are real/true. By page 51, Massullo tells the reader that they now have “a strong foundation regarding research and possible explanation for hauntings”. I cringe when those making quick and shallow arguments assume they have done a fine job of instructing the reader.
I had a problem with the narrow focus of ghostly episodes. As a parapsychologist, his view is that psi events are the cause of ghosts. This is very much “phantasms of the living” category of ghosts. But this type ignores the much broader range of experiences people consider “ghostly” around the world and through time. The huge span of ghost literature reveals that the concept of ghosts is diverse and culturally-influenced. So, this narrowness of situation is limiting. Additionally, I am not convinced by the evidence of psi as it has not gotten better over time and no reasonable mechanism has been put forward.
Throughout, he repeatedly states he “believes” this or that is happening. Science-based work has no place for “belief”. You either have demonstrated something to satisfaction or not. The author is highly intelligent and probably a fine therapist. However, the volume fails to take seriously the very real effects of social suggestion and exaggeration of experiences for storytelling purposes. People frequently feel what they are told to feel in places they view as haunted. And, those who experience the death of a loved one have unique personal responses that have nothing to do with “biological radio” transmitted via the earth’s electromagnetic field. Books are difficult to write, for sure. I support expressing opinions and concepts about mysterious things but I do not support dressing up suppositions with sciencey language. This is deceptive and confuses the lay reader into thinking the ideas have more merit than they really do.
The second book was Lightforms: Spiritual Encounters with Unusual Light Phenomena by Mark Fox. This second edition, published in 2016, has been retitled from the first. The author promotes the term “lightforms” as a description of these experiences of light. It is deliberate that it sounds like “lifeforms”. This book is also called a “study” suggesting it is original research. I enjoyed the intro and Chapter 1. It was well-written and entertaining as well as effectively framing the previous research for this topic. Fox’s work was to distill 400 personal accounts of experiences with unusual light phenomena collected by the Religious Experiences Research Centre. I was hoping the experiences and analysis would not be constrained by the religious aspects, but, unfortunately, they were. There was very little on what is called “earth lights” that I am interested in. And an argument could be made for a crossover with UFO experiences. Yet, the author did note that accounts where “angels” were mentioned, other than a reference to NDEs, were nonexistent. Since the database used included accounts that were 30 years old up to relatively recent (I assumed, it’s not clear), the cultural aspects are muddled.
The accounts were categorized weirdly by some lesser characteristic: seen by many, seen alone, lights that embrace and fill, that illuminate landscapes or people, that penetrate (beams, rays, shafts), that invoke visionary experiences, brighter than the sun. I could not make any sense of this division. I quickly got bored with short account after account, chapter after chapter. As I noted at the start of this piece, that’s what turned me off to paranormal lit in general. I admit to skimming beginning around page 115 because the text was mostly anecdotes.
The author does very little with these accounts except to count them and call that a “statistical analysis”. Then he tries to be precise with this volume of highly imprecise anecdotal data by categorizing percentages of accounts that produced positive feelings, occurred during a personal “crisis”, those followed by positive “fruits” (outcomes) – a word the author overuses ad nauseam. Because the anecdotes do not follow a set structure, this is a flawed approach. He then presents a model of these experiences by mashing all of those most noted features together. There is no detailed analysis here.
Then, the author explores some possible explanations from psychology and neurosciences. Along with a decent array of other researchers, here is where Persinger is invoked regarding his work on Temporal Lobe Transients. Again, I see the word “cutting-edge” appear to describe the research. But is it? It’s fringe, but is it expanding our understanding, pushing the limits? Is it predicting anything? Is it paving the way for more research? I’m not convinced it did any of that. Fox does not consider Persinger’s work as particularly enlightening toward an explanation he seeks because of the difference in response by experiencers – Fox’s respondents interpreted a more fulfilling experience. While the book leans fairly heavily towards a Christian version of God, Fox ultimately fails to arrive at a solid conclusion for lightforms. It remains a mystery, he says, but they are “proof that this world is not all there is”. Well, I agree that people can certainly imagine another world that isn’t this one but, again, stories and speculation alone aren’t going to get all of us on board. I finished the book a bit more knowledgeable about the variety of personal spiritual encounters with light, but that’s it.
Meanwhile, I’m always hoping the NEXT book will leave me pleasantly surprised. Am I too critical? I don’t think so. Writing a book is tough but I expect an author to write thoughtfully, logically, and to do a good job of laying out a decent argument. Those qualities seems difficult to come by.
Most people react to flat-earthers by labeling them as stupid or scientifically illiterate. A moderate effort to examine what they say will reveal that is not so. On the contrary, those who embrace conspiratorial beliefs seem to be bored with the conventional. Their active, creative brains spin more intriguing, complicated, and colorful trappings around mundane events and explanations. This was clearly in evidence in the documentary on flat-earthers, Behind the Curve.
Decider does a brief overview of the important points but the reviewer thinks the execution of the project is inconsistent. I disagree. I think it’s marvelous. But I saw it by way of my own work on Scientifical Americans. So, unlike other commenters, I was not yelling at the screen. Instead, the film connected some dots for me, and a more coherent, but still complicated, insight into fringe beliefs evolved.
The results of the 2018 Chapman University survey of American Fears have been released and they suggest that America (that is, even well-educated America) is even more accepting of the paranormal than in the past three years. You can view the entire survey here but let me highlight the major points as well as some possible explanations for the numbers and some problems with applying them.
As I wrote yesterday, sociologists and ethnographers are paying greater attention to paranormal communities. I commented on Bader’s analysis of Bigfoot seeking groups and their mix of naturalistic and paranormalist views among participants. Perhaps separation rather than mix may be more apt. The observation of different camps within a paranormal field is not new but since Bigfoot as an area of study is newer than ghosts, it’s worth a remark to explain why some will ignore or denigrate others in the same community even though they have a fringe topic interest in common. In a new essay collection related to the Supernatural in Society conference I mentioned yesterday, Marc Eaton contributed a piece describing a similar split in the ghost hunting community . Not only does this parallel the Bigfoot community in several ways but it was interesting because Eaton focuses on his interpretation of scientism as prevalent and investigators who work at “being sciencey” (my words, not his) as a way of legitimizing their work. Unfortunately, Eaton doesn’t cite my preceding work that overlaps a lot with his observations but I’ll see if I can reach him to introduce it. Meanwhile, I must reiterate a few of his observations and quibble with a few others.
Eaton begins his article titled “Paranormal Investigation: The Scientist and the Sensitive” in the compilation edited by himself and Waskul by suggesting that orthodox religious participation is dwindling, losing to the popularity of more democratic and personal spiritualism practices. This correlation seems well established and, I agree, a key component in the rise in paranormal topics in the media. He sees paranormal investigators (I use the umbrella term “ARIGs” – amateur research and investigation groups – to encompass cryptozoologists and ufologists) as located at the intersection of this individualized spirituality and the adoption of scientism.
I received a personal message from a paranormal investigator who thought it was a shame I didn’t believe in the validity of spirit communication. He pointed me to a video he made that he said was the clearest responses he’s ever received in an EVP recording. I’m always looking to either be impressed or spot an obvious hoax so I checked it out. Upon noticing that he had included subtitles in the video, I quickly put my hand up to cover the lower portion of the screen while watching so I wouldn’t be primed to “hear” what (he interpreted) the spirit voice had said. I did hear the first sound he interpreted, a very rapid “What?” in response to his opening inquiry because I saw the subtitle signalling it. It was so soon after his question, it felt out of place and I think I would not have noticed it had he not pointed it out. For the rest of the video, without the priming, I could not hear any anomalous voice, just background noise of insects or wind outside the structure. When I told him I was not impressed, he seemed stunned. To him, these voices were crystal clear.
I would not have thought much about this exchange again except it served as a great real life example of the concepts put forward in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. As I was reading it today, the well-tested observations of human perception and thinking habits he explained applied directly to paranormalists and their methods of reinforcing their paranormal worldview. Here are some examples.
On the lookout for additional examples and extra information to support the ideas I write about in Scientifical Americans, here is another example from the real world of “being scientifical”.
Peter Brookesmith’s column in Fortean Times (#357) entitled “Ufology today: all fringe and no middle” says that the modern topics on the MUFON conference agenda – like reptilians and shapeshifters and the heavy plod into exopolitics and disclosure – has as much to do with scientific investigation as his cat has to with “breeding racing snails”.
As with many cultural products, inspirations and influence for a widely-known idea originated from a variety of places and in alternative flavors. It’s unpredictable what bits and pieces will glom on to the original idea or which paths the notion (good or bad) will take that results in propelling it into mainstream popularity. Then, the idea can take on a life of its own whereby many people who later adopt it don’t know of its long history. This convoluted evolution of an idea applies to the “Stone Tape Theory” of hauntings often invoked by amateur paranormal investigators or mentioned on ghost hunting TV shows.
For years, I have heard of the “stone tape theory” as a potential explanation for residual hauntings but was not able to track it to an explicit source. It seemed to just exist in paranormal culture. The current premise of the stone tape concept is that crystalline rock (bedrock or building stone) at a time in the past captured emotional energy from a traumatic event. The preferred rock type is said to be quartz but limestone is mentioned nearly as frequently. The sound and visual representations of an event are “recorded” into the rock media in a process analogous to magnetic tape recording of data. At a much later time, a person sensitive to this stored recording can receive the “playback” or, the past event can be replayed when triggered by certain conditions. The recording/playback sequence has been used as an explanation for apparition sightings, hauntings and negative feelings associated with a location. Thus, the stone tape idea is the ultimate example of “spooky geology”.
The stone tape idea was actually the first idea I had for my Spooky Geology blog. (A condensed version of this post appears there for a different audience.) I have been seeking out references for a few years now. I found different information about the origin of the stone tape. For non-geologists, and, hopefully, the paranormal researchers, who are looking for additional information on the topic, this will be a good primer and provide a foundation for the further use (or not) of it as an explanation (or as a non-explanation). But geologists (or any scientist for that matter) will recognize the obvious flaws with this proposed mechanism to explain hauntings. Finally, I will explain why it’s still popular with ghost hunters today.
Initially, the stone tape theory (STT, since I’m going to be typing that a lot) requires the assumption that there is a real phenomenon where people repeatedly experience an anomalous event explicitly related to a certain location. The individual may perceive this event as a ghost encounter or haunting, a place-memory, a reaction to or sense about the location, or a feeling of time travel. Paranormal researchers who have assumed this location-specific phenomenon occurs look for an explanation. A popular modern explanation for this is the STT.
Let’s be clear about one more term: “theory”. A “theory” in science is not a guess or a supposition. It is a well-tested model to describe how something in nature works – evolution, gravity, relativity, etc. Therefore, the STT isn’t a scientific theory, it’s speculation and the word “theory” is used to connote “guess”. The following questions remain unanswered:
How do things get recorded? What gets recorded and what doesn’t? How does it get preserved? How does it get played back?
Therefore, we have an incomplete concept far from being a worthwhile explanation. There are many psychological and physical explanations for perceptions of hauntings and a sense of spookiness that should rationally be applied before suggesting the STT. But my goal here is to drill down into the idea of the stone tape to see where it came from and its place in paranormal discussions.
Modern paranormal media frequently states the STT originated in the 1970s. The STT proper name did, but not the concept which goes back over a century before. Ideas of events or information imprinting on the environment for later retrieval has a long history. In fact, the concept that apparitions were created in or by the human mind was part of early scientific thinking about the subject.
To fully explore the evolution of the STT idea, we must take several leaps back in time. As I said, the name “Stone Tape” was first used in the 70’s. It was the title of a 1972 BBC drama by Nigel Kneale directed by Peter Sasdy. In the movie titled “The Stone Tape”, a team from an electronics company move into an old house to work on a new project. Renovations that include busting up the paneling reveal a very old stone stairway and strange phenomena occurs in the room. Not everyone can hear the screams or see the apparition of a young woman on the stairs. The physical equipment does not record it. The playback is dependent upon another human who has the ability to perceive it in their own brains. The story centers on the only woman on the team, Jill, who has this ability. The Wikipedia entry for this film describes the plot along with the previous and subsequent connections to other entertainment products. The success of the movie popularized the idea that old stone blocks can store sounds and images that possibly could be the mechanism for hauntings.
With the popularity of the concept, the STT name was retroactively imposed on the ideas of Thomas Charles Lethbridge, a controversial and colorful archaeologist who left academia for paranormal research. Lethbridge’s 1961 book, Ghost and Ghoul (1961) is also frequently cited by amateur paranormal investigators as the origin of the STT. Lethbridge, however, never referenced the term “stone tape” in this or subsequent books. He died in 1971 before the movie aired. So, it is incorrect to say he coined the term “stone tape”. In his book, though, Lethbridge hints that some memories may be connected with inanimate objects via “a sort of surrounding ether.” He also stated that all cells resonate and he uses examples related to psychometry to speculate that this vibration frequency could explain memory transferences. His often-repeated story about experiencing an apparition near a stream is repeated in his later book, Ghost and Divining Rod (1963). For this book, he develops this idea more thoroughly. Lethbridge does not contend that ghosts are supernatural but argues they are attributable to invisible fields that recorded an image of a person. He states these various fields of energy – around forests, mountains, and streams and even from the earth – are “scientific fact”. They aren’t, but Lethbridge was characteristically arrogant in his presentation of parapsychological speculation assuming that if he said they were solid, that would make them so. Lethbridge’s ideas were around during the time that Kneale was working. It’s almost certain that they influenced the plot device in The Stone Tape but I haven’t found any direct connection.
A confounding factor in the history of the STT concept is that plenty of other people had similar ideas and it’s difficult to trace if they borrowed from each other or came to such thinking independently. Lethbridge cites the work of H.H. Price on place-memories. Price was a professor of logic at the University of Oxford and a former President of the Society for Psychical Research. In his presidential address in volume 45 of the Proceedings of the SPR (1938-1939) titled Haunting and the “psychic ether” hypothesis, Price asserts that objects carry memory traces. If a suitably sensitive person come to the place or handles the object, these memory traces will cause him to have a retrospective experience. In this loose set of ideas, Price contends that “psychic ether” is an intermediate media between spirit and physical matter where images and memory traces were held. Credited to Raynor C. Johnson, Price connects it to hauntings saying ghosts (as people describe them) are not supernatural but that they are “traces … [a] result of the emotions or other experiences of some person who formerly inhabited the room, much as finger-prints result automatically from our handling of a wine-glass or a poker.” They were like photographic negatives that would be “developed” by those who were endowed with the ability to perceive it. Jill, from the movie, was so (un)lucky.
The traces and the “psychic ether” are not independently observable, though, making them unmeasurable, a serious drawback for scientific acceptance. However, Price remarks that if these traces were real, “they must consist in some more or less permanent mode of arrangement of the molecules or atoms or infra-atomic particles, of which the walls, furniture, etc., are composed. And in that case, it ought to be possible to verify their existence by the ordinary methods of physical Science — by physical or chemical tests of some sort or other. But so far as we know, this cannot be done.”
This “residua of past experiences” was also explained by Price as a form of “deferred telepathy” as the impulse was stored (in some unknown way by an unknown method) until a person could experience the anima loci or place-memory. Lethbridge’s idea for this recording/playback was different. He rejected Price’s “psychic ether” mechanism for his own special “fields”. Lethbridge instead thought that the potential of these natural “fields” was high, and persons who had low personal “psyche-fields” of their own, would receive the existing imprints on the field because higher potential flowed naturally to a lower potential. This would explain why some could experience the imprints (those with this “sixth sense”) and others would not.
The concept of the environment or fields recording impressions from humans was elucidated even earlier by mathematician Charles Babbage in 1838. He believed that words made permanent impressions on the world and that “the air itself is a vast library, on whose pages are forever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered”.
“The pulsations of the air, once set in motion by the human voice, cease not to exist with the sounds to which they gave rise. Strong and audible as they may be in the immediate neighbourhood of the speaker, and at the immediate moment of utterance, their quickly attenuated force soon becomes inaudible to human ears. The motions they have impressed on the particles of one portion of our atmosphere, are communicated to constantly increasing numbers, but the total quantity of motion measured in the same direction receives no addition.”
The place-memory idea rolled around the early days of the SPR as a hypothesis to account for apparitions that seemed distinctly associated with a location. Eleanor Sidgwick suggested in 1888 that there was “something in the actual building itself”. Edmund Gurney, a few years later, also iterated that survival of an image, generated by the mind of a person, was later perceptible by certain other sensitive minds (also open to other anomalous mental communication). Frederic Myers and Oliver Lodge also expressed similar ideas (See Heath, 2005).
While all these suggestions sound superficially plausible, the crucial problem with the STT is that there has never been demonstrated a way to record, preserve or play events in natural environmental substances as proposed. There have been hoaxes and fictional accounts of it, however. (See the Popularity section below.) The mechanisms for the recording of these psychic imprints are diverse relating to invisible “fields”, molecular architecture of crystalline quartz, energy fields from dead organisms that make up limestone, resonant frequencies, encoded of iron oxide crystals, inductive electromagnetism, and quantum entanglement.
Unlike fossils, where a physical record is preserved as an impression in sediment, or sea-floor spreading ridges which freeze crystals in molten rock to reflect the prevailing magnetic declination of the earth, STT relies on emotional “energy”, which is non-material. Emotion is not physically recordable outside of the body because nothing related to emotion leaves the body. Emotional “energy” is a term specific to human experience of feelings. This scuttles the STT idea at square one. There is nothing to record. However, paranormalists invoke a handy trope to get around this problem – “quantum”. Paranormalists are quite fond of using Einstein’s view of “spooky action at a distance” which he used to describe quantum entanglement. They also assert (from laws of thermodynamics) that energy can be neither created nor destroyed. But the concept is grossly misapplied. I’ll refrain from delving into quantum physics here but will simply point out that there is no evidence that this concept is relatable to human events in the past being replayed in the present. Go ask your resident quantum physicist if he or she has explained ghosts.
The idea of memories captured in rock is older than the concepts of quanta and the invention of magnetic tape. As I described in my post about psychometry, it was a temporary fad to think that geology and archaeology would be revolutionized by psychically “reading” the impressions and memories of the objects. Psychometry is the kernel of the idea of STT.
As described above, Babbage thought that the particles in the atmosphere kept moving with sound forever. But as with natural substances, they don’t last forever. Molecules move away from a location or change, rocks erode, the wind blows, energy dissipates. Price relied on the psychic ether to hold the imprints later experienced as a hallucination by a lucky observer. Lethbridge assumed there were other specific fields that capture the memory. These fields were recharged by ions in the air and enhanced by additional imprints by a person’s own field (psyche-field). Lethbridge thought some places would accumulate these thoughts in sort of a snowball effect. Bad thoughts produced more bad thoughts which were then imprinted onto the field. After a while, “thought forms” would be produced at these notorious spots. Humid conditions enhanced conductance of the fields because of the benefit of conductance of water molecules. Because the imprint was on the “field” not on the individual molecules, the memories would remain at a place, even those around a flowing stream. Modern ghost hunters sometimes invoke a “water tape” idea where the water molecule retains the memory (they link this to unsupported ideas related to homeopathy). This is absurd since the water molecules in a stream flow away to be replaced by other molecules (presumably with their own memories). Rocks don’t have this problem to the same degree. Building stones can remain for hundreds, even thousands of years.
In Secret Language of Stone (1988), by Don Robins, a chemist, we find one of the most technical-sounding attempts to explain the capture and storage of memories in stone. Robins supposes that defects in the crystal lattice of minerals (the array of atoms that make up a mineral which is shaped by electrical forces) allow for reservoirs of energy. The crystal architecture creates a “vortex of energy at the heart of the crystal” where memory traces could be stored (he mainly focusing on sound). These traces could be accessed directly by the human brain later by producing a resonating sound wave or physical pressure such as walking on the ground. Robins also does not use the term “stone tape” but calls the energy network of stone a “macrochip” and associates this network with sacred places where paranormal events are said to occur.
Heath (2005) updated Price’s place-memory with a modern tech attitude by putting forth that passive place-memories were stored in the electron cloud or molecular structures. She did not cite Lethbridge even though she remarked on the importance of memories associated with water and even mentioned his early favored concept of resonance – vibration at the same frequency. However, “quantum” was applied. She stated when resonant frequencies are equivalent, then the objects can maximally absorb energy. Heath connected resonance to ESP (a commonly made connection). And, like in The Stone Tape movie, the traces can be erased, disrupted by heat or magnetic fields, or otherwise overwritten.
Persinger & Koren (2001) take the “field” ideas in a different direction by considering the earth as a photographic exposure plate. Matched inductance between geomagnetic activity and the local static field, they say, creates a representation recorded in the crystalline structure of the rock – a geologic hologram to be replayed directly to the brain when conditions are just right.
In the most extreme and metaphysical explanation for hauntings, a few parapsychologists or speculative paranormalists say that we create our own reality. Based on Roy Friedan’s (1998) invocation of the concept of “observer participancy” information can be imparted by just observing. That information can flow from one object to another.
The amateur paranormal investigator commonly cites the “recording” onto local materials such as quartz or limestone rock or building materials or rust on metal objects, like nails, screws, wires and structural components. It sounds superficially plausible that high emotion events, like violent death, can release emotional “energy” (akin to electricity) that gets recorded onto these mineral crystals or coatings as sound or images are recorded onto magnetic tape in a tape recorder. The idea of recording onto a magnetic wire (via Smith and Poulsen in 1888-9) became a usable technology with magnetic tape records around 1930.
This concept, like all the others, is severally flawed. Just because it sounds good does not mean that the proposed mechanisms are possible. There are specific technical components of these systems (like magnetic heads on recorders) that do not have a natural analog. The earth’s magnetic field may be strong enough to align the polarity of newly produced rock from mid-ocean ridges, but it is not strong enough or precise enough to imprint a distinct sound or image into random existing crystals in surrounding materials. Emotion is not an energy like electricity (a stream of charged particles we can measure.) Also, humans do not have a sophisticated response to magnetic fields (regardless of what alternative health gurus tell you), so how are we to “read” such tapes? Can we perceive the content of recording tape by running our fingers over it? Nope.
It’s abundantly clear that this concept of environmental recording of human feelings, sounds, and images that can be stored and retrieved is useful in different contexts. It’s also obvious that there is no current reasonable mechanism to accomplish it. All the “theories” are imaginative speculation or suppositions. They have not been tested or confirmed to any degree. And those that have some basis in scientific theory have not been shown to be applicable to real-world situations or the claims of hauntings reported. But because the concepts sounds sciencey and plausible to those without scientific backgrounds, they have been popular.
I contacted Alan Murdie of the SPR, expert ghost historian, to ask him about the history and popularity of the STT. He confirmed that the “tape” recording idea came far later, spurred by the movie, but the general ideas predated the invention of magnetic tape. He confirmed Lethbridge was critical to reinforcing the popularizing the notion but his ideas “have got rather muddled in being recycled over the last 45 years through various authors”. Curiously, Murdie opines that Lethbridge might have been forgotten after his death, strange ideas and all, if not for popular paranormal writer Colin Wilson. Wilson reinjected Lethbridge’s ideas into popular discussion, particularly in his book Mysteries (1978) “where he linked dowsing with then fashionable ideas about ley lines supposedly flowing through prehistoric and haunted sites.” (Lethbridge invoked his special “fields” for all things paranormal.) Wilson’s books were immensely popular with paranormal enthusiasts from the 70s to the 2000s. Thus, Lethbridge’s poorly formed speculation about location-specific fields as an explanation for hauntings was discovered by a new generation who were not going to dig through the SPR archives to find the historical precursors to it.
Psychology professor Terence Hines messaged me with a personal story of his own regarding the pop culture influence of STT. From 1955 to 1957, a half-hour syndicated TV show called Science Fiction Theatre aired. Hines recalled specifically an episode titled “The Frozen Sound” (aired July 30, 1955). The plot concerned something called “sonic saturation” used by devious Communist spies to steal our research secrets. A slow-hardening synthetic crystal recorded surrounding voices making for an elusive spying system. The story also included the discovery of an ancient piece of lava rock from Vesuvius that had recorded human voices when it hardened thousands of years previously. The opening sequence included a demonstration of the piezoelectrical properties of quartz and the emphasis on research into crystals. Thus, the idea for recording in stone and crystals was around decades before it was incorporated as a plot device in The Stone Tape.
The explosion of amateur ghost hunting groups around 2000 and continuing even today has placed the STT into the paranormal patois. It’s frequently noted on paranormal investigation websites as a “scientific” theory and one that has some evidentiary support. As I’ve documented here, it doesn’t have empirical support. Professional parapsychologists and the SPR (still considered to be the foremost investigation body of paranormal claims) do not rely on it and hardly even mention the term in their professional literature. Cornell (2002) reiterated that the STT still is unconfirmed with no plausible mechanism and the theory has not been developed any further. Murdie declared it was “a hypothesis yet to be tested”. Even though we have been talking about this general concept for over a century, we are no closer to having it make sense and it remains an unsupported, but appealing and convenient, notion to apply in paranormal discussions with the public.
STT does not make sense in whichever context it is implemented. Not only do we still not have a reasonable mechanism to record, store, and retrieve traces but there remain many vexing questions about the idea: Why is just one event recorded and not a jumble of events? Why does the “recording” last for decades or centuries instead of getting overwritten? Why do only certain places have place memories? It’s disingenuous of paranormal researchers to utilize STT as an explanation, or even to suggest it because it sounds sciencey.
Even more egregious are those paranormalists who geologize without having suitable knowledge of what they speak about and promote a pseudoscientific foundation for it. You will find several people speaking authoritatively about the properties of limestone bedrock (they have assumed exists under a location) that triggers hauntings. And there are those who publish or relate to tourists that the “quartz” and “granite” at Gettysburg, the world-famous Civil War battlefield, is responsible for preserving the ghostly phenomena that people constantly report there. To shut the door on the STT at Gettysburg, the rock there is not granite. It is diabase, which is quartz-poor. This is not in dispute. The mudstone/siltstone rocks among the famous diabase dike ridges (Seminary and Cemetery) and exposed boulders (Devil’s Den and Little Round Top) have no special properties either, with many other minerals making up the bedrock that lacks any abundance of quartz (and no limestone at all). There are other empirical factors involved in why people say they perceive spooky things at Gettysburg but I’ll leave that for another time.
There you have it on the Stone Tape theory. It’s not a theory, it doesn’t make physical sense, and there is no known mechanism for how it works at all. It was simply a good fictional movie.
Tell your friends.
Note: A different and condensed version of this piece is available at SpookyGeology.com
Babbage, C. The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (1838)
Callis, N. “Stone Tapes”. The Bent Spoon No. 7. 2012.
Cornell, T. Investigating the Paranormal. 2002. p. 391.
Denton, W. The Soul of Things. 1863.
Fleeger, G. Geology of the Gettysburg Mesozoic Basin and Military Geology of the Gettysburg Campaign. Guidebook for the 73rd Field Conference of Pennsylvania Geologists.
Heath, P.R. “A New Theory on Place Memory.” Austr J. of Parapsychology. 2005. 5:1:40-58.
Hines, Terrance. Personal Communication. May 2017.
Persinger, M. and S. Koren. “Predicting the Characteristics of Haunt Phenomena from Geomagnetic Factors and Brain Sensitivity: Evidence from Field and Experimental Studies” 2001. In Houran & Lange’s Hauntings and Poltergeists: A Multidisciplinary Perspective.
Price, H.H. “Haunting and the “psychic ether” hypothesis; with some preliminary reflections on the present condition and possible future of psychical research” Proceedings of the SPR (1938-1939) Vol 45.
In January 2013, I wrote about Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, and pseudoscience, referencing Michael Gordin’s excellent book The Pseudoscience Wars (2012). Well, I’m writing about it again, to be included in a book about amateur investigation groups “sounding sciencey” and fooling the public. I went back to some of my old sources and found a good one. It’s nice to know that even though you forgot you ever thought about this thing before, you actually wrote it down, and now realize you were on the right track.
A fascinating discussion by R.G.A. Dolby (1975) provides a case study about a popular idea that was nearly universally rejected by orthodox scientists, sold directly to the public by a non-expert, and even involved religious connections. It is a classic case of what we call pseudoscience.
This might come as a shock to the millions of ghost enthusiasts out there: The scientific consensus is that ghosts are NOT spirits, remnants of the dead, recordings of energy, or supernatural entities. Our existing knowledge about nature does not point to a conclusion that ghosts are a single definable thing, paranormal or normal, that you can find, observe, measure, or study. Yet, there are about 200 guides to “ghost hunting” in print or e-book form that lay out ways to obtain evidence of or make contact with ghosts. Therefore, we have a conundrum at step one of any attempt at ghost hunting – we can’t define what a ghost is, and we do not know its properties because we’ve never determined that they exist and measured them. No ghost handbook has ever led anyone to catch and identify ghosts, they can only lead you to interpret something as a ghost.
In that sense, all ghost hunting books are worthless. So why bother with them?
First, it’s an interesting cultural phenomena. Actively investigating reports of ghosts and paranormal activity is mainstream and a popular hobby and tourism draw. In 2010, there were over 1000 paranormal investigation groups in the US, the majority of which researched hauntings. (Hill, 2010) It’s not worthless to examine why people spend their time and money on this hobby and how they go about doing it.
Second, the idea of paranormal investigation contains important aspects of society’s attitudes towards finding out about the world, decided what is meaningful and true, using science to examine questions, cooperation and trust in a community, and taking part in a larger effort beyond one’s own small role in life.
I’m deeply interested in the second point. I’ve found that examining amateur paranormal group behaviors and output highlights concepts about science education and public discourse about belief and reality. This piece mentions 11 books on ghost hunting that I have examined. They have broad similarities and distinct differences. In the main portion, I review 4 books on the basis of the following:
Readability (language, errors, quality of writing)
Credibility (sources, supported arguments vs speculation, factual correctness)
Overall value as a cultural product (Buy it or not?)
In the course of writing, there are times when you have to either create a new word because there isn’t just the right one coined yet or you adopt a word, use it three times, and make it your own.
My research and writing for the public has often been about how activities, advertisements, and ideas might sound a lot like science, using science-sounding terms, but are not in the mode of science at all. They are false science, dressed up as science, pretending to be or imitating science. I call it “sciencey” stuff because it appears to pertain to science. This word existed but I made it my own, applying it to this construction.
You can read articles on this theme from my column for Center of Inquiry online called “Sounds Sciencey” for many and various examples.
Just because you are “sciencey” does not mean you are “scientific”. I use the word “scientifical” to describe the activities of those who deliberately pretend to act like scientists. This does a fine job of fooling the public from product advertisements to non-traditional cures and treatments and even on television where people hunt for ghosts, Bigfoot and UFOs. Keep using that word, I would love to see that get into the mainstream as well.
I hold that the reason the public is so easy to fool with sciencey and scientifical ploys is that, at least the American public, is not well-versed in what science is and how it works. We don’t have good science education in school and science as a career or even an interest is not encouraged. So, we will end up with what Carl Sagan said:
We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology. ~Carl Sagan
That’s a very bad thing not just because we can’t fix our own gadgets these days, but because we risk being snookered by a sciencey put-on without scientific merit.
I contributed a small part to the marvelous book Abominable Science by Loxton and Prothero. Daniel Loxton was thoughtful to send along a copy of a recent review of the book done by Robert Bishop for Christianity Today magazine’s Books & Culture site. The review was titled “Scientific or Sciencey? Yeti, Nessie, et al.” Apparently, the “sciencey” aspect of cryptozoology is resonating. He writes:
One possibility for why belief in cryptids is so high in America is that few Americans—even the highly educated—actually understand much about the processes and principles of scientific inquiry. Cryptozoology superficially appears to be scientific, and a number of people mistake it for scientific activity. It sounds and looks “sciencey,” to use Sharon Hill’s lovely term, but that’s it. Cryptozoologists typically don’t begin with a theory to generate a viable hypothesis, deduce consequences from that hypothesis (predictions), test those consequences, analyze the data, check for errors, critically sift assumptions, and so forth. Rather, they begin with a bias (belief in the existence of a mystery creature such as Bigfoot) and then hunt for evidence to substantiate their belief. This leads cryptozoologists to force what they find to fit into their pre-established expectations. Moreover, they accept any evidence that remotely supports their belief no matter how weak or questionable, and discount any contrary evidence no matter how strong.
YES! He gets it.
It’s my hope that what I share publicly (outside my everyday job) makes some sort of impact. That’s a goal, but a difficult one to measure. It feels so good to have those few moments where you see something you do gets understood, appreciated and passed along to other audiences. A Christian magazine? Who would have thought? But it’s great. There have been other occasions, too, where people are clearly “getting it” – a topic is not science but sciencey. It really is important to distinguish between the two.
Later this month I’ll be giving a talk at the Albatwitch festival to a crowd that, probably even more so than the general public, is inclined to believe in the paranormal. My goal for this is to not be the grumpy debunker but to explain how science has previously looked at the paranormal and why it was rejected. Then, I intend to show how these lessons can be useful for today’s paranormal investigator. In other words, don’t pretend to be a scientist, don’t be sciencey or act scientifical. Do solid work instead.
If they get it, like Bishop got it in his review, that’s a huge win for me.
What can we make of folklore tales that cryptozoologists use to support claims that an unknown animal has been historically reported and remains to be identified?
Cryptid researchers say that modern reports of Bigfoot-Sasquatch, lake monster, sea serpents, giant flying animals, and elusive land creatures are supported by the stories of native people, legends or myths and sagas. Are these stories evidence? Can we reach back in time to use old tales to reinforce and help explain modern sightings of cryptids?
I’m not well-versed in folkloric studies just with a few pop culture college electives to my credit and casual observation for many years. But I heard from respected others that a modern interpretation and application of ancient cultural tales to the cryptozoology field was problematic. I wondered exactly why. The frequently cited source for understanding this aspect of cryptozoology is Michel Meurger’s Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross Cultural Analysis which I obtained.
There is much to digest in this book, translated from French. I do note that the translation does make it difficult sometimes to decode the meaning but it’s not incomprehensible.
I intend to write a series of posts exploring the author’s treatment of this material and his recommendations of how we should consider it for cryptozoological research.
The preface and introduction alone gave a jolt to my thinking. A review of what it contained was perhaps worth sharing for those who have not been introduced to these ideas. It’s obvious that the work still applies to today’s modern TV and internet-based cryptozoologists.
One of my essential reading blogs, Respectful Insolence, has resurrected an older post on The Galileo Gambit. It was timely. It was in reference mainly to the day to day parade of quackery that passes by in the media. Orac coined the term “Galileo gambit” to describe a very common ploy used by quacks – they compare their persecution and non-acceptance to that of Galileo.
At least, I think I was the first to coin this term. I haven’t been able to find a reference to the “Galileo Gambit” dating before I wrote the original version of this post way back in 2005.”
We encountered the worst scientific bias in the peer review process in recent history. I am calling it the “Galileo Effect”. Several journals wouldn’t even read our manuscript when we sent them a pre-submission inquiry. Another one leaked our peer reviews. We were even mocked by one reviewer in his peer review.
Sorry, a lame excuse. It’s special pleading for why she had such trouble with her paper.
I looked into this topic back in graduate school after I saw it discussed in a book about the changing worldviews that occurred throughout our history. At one time, alchemy and astrology were the forebears of science. Astrology lives with us in its twisted illogic and nonsense violation of physical laws.
[…]going back to pre-scientific times, astrology was as real as it got. A precursor to astronomy, astrologers worked with facts that seemed apparent at the time. We have to give it some credit when considering the context.
Astrology sought to explain the nature of people in a time when humans were only vaguely aware of how hereditary and environmental influences affected their lives. The first concepts of astrology were based in the “facts” of the time—the universe was small, earth was at its center, the stars were part of a fixed sphere, the planets were imbued with deistic qualities, and an unknown force from these bodies certainly influenced humans at the exact moment of birth. In the sky, ancient man saw formations of animals and human figures and assigned them qualities. He split the sky into zones of the zodiac. He made attempts to define himself in terms of these assigned qualities. He zoned the sky into “houses.” The rules of astrology were (and still are) completely arbitrary, based on symbolism instead of experimentation or statistics.
Check out the article to see why astrology sounds sciencey…
There is a distinct tone of “sciencey-ness” to astrology. Practitioners will call it “scientific” based on the methodological, careful and systematic use of calculations and real astronomical position data. (Never mind the various natural laws these calculations utterly disregard.) They consider “research” to mean consulting tables and the rules.
but acts more like religion.
As always, you can send comments to email@example.com
In this one, I take to task some self-styled Bigfooters who consider speculation as “fact”. It gets pretty silly…
Self-styled Bigfoot researchers make claims that suggest they know more about Bigfoot than Bigfoot might know about himself. They can tell me what Bigfoot likes and doesn’t like, where he sleeps at night, how he avoids detection, and how he communicates. They tell the public that Bigfoot makes those sounds they hear at night. They find locations where a Bigfoot passed through or slept or built a shelter. These researchers even know about Bigfoots’ “culture”—what they do with their dead relatives, how they can fool humans. But apparently they don’t know enough to catch one.
I posted a new piece that was inspired by two Januarys in a row where weird things were in the news. Then, I found some common themes between the two. Here’s a preview:
In January 2012, the Internet was buzzing over a string of reports about strange sounds coming from the sky. It’s what Forteans would call a “flap,” meaning there is an outbreak of activity in a relatively short time span that causes a commotion. This flap reminded me of last January (2011), when another flap manifested. This one got the public all aflutter over mass animal deaths, mostly birds and sea critters.
The noises are widespread, varied in type, sometimes able to be explained and sometimes known to be hoaxed. But, because this spate of anomalies (a Fortean Flap, if you will) is in the so-called apocalyptic year 2012, the phenomena has attracted the acute attention of conspiracy theorists, End Times believers, and people just concerned that something weird is happening with the planet.
Though the sky noises phenomena is fading away – the receiving frequency of these claims are lowering like the Doppler effect – reports are still trickling in.
Followers of sky sounds were excited by the news that an actual scientist who sounded like he knew what he was talking about described the causes of strange sounds.
Reposted all over the web as being from an “acclaimed”, “credentialed” and “renowned” professor, unfortunately, this article immediately raised a slew of red flags with me and others who are sensitive to what real science looks like and how not so established ideas try to dress themselves up in sciencey getups. A cursory look revealed that this piece has hallmarks of pseudoscience and creates far more confusion than clarity.
Ever on the lookout for scientifical examples, here are two that I thought were interesting.
The first relates to my interest in amateurs being scientifical. UFO researcher Budd Hopkins presented the results of a study he conducted at a conference about UFO abductees. According to Robert Sheaffer (Skeptical Inquirer V. 35 No. 3 May/June 2001 p 25-27), he was roundly taken to task. Hopkins devised an image recognition test supposedly to determine if children were being abducted. He also conducted a Roper poll to find out how many Americans believed they have been abducted. His research lacks the basic protocol of credible research. Why? Hopkins is not a scientist. Read More »
The LA Times reports on the MUFON conference with the headline “convention emphasizes scientific methods”. The reporter then skewers this idea by showing how at least some of the attendees have thoroughly embraced the idea of alien visitation and human-alien hybridization. Oh my. (Read about a scientist’s experience in attending a MUFON conference here.
The reporter doesn’t have to go to the fringe to point out the sham of science here. It’s more basic than that – rooted in popular misunderstanding about what science is and what scientists do.
UFO researchers, including MUFON, were included in my study of ARIGs (amateur research and investigation groups). I looked at how they use the concept of science and being scientific in their activities. In this article, we see some common devices come up: they emphasize the “precision of a scientist” and the use of devices; they document reports, they are “professional”. All that is fine but certain critical components of being scientific are missing.Read More »