I am completely and utterly titillated by the paranormal. No, I have never had any personal experiences or encounters that have led me to believe that ghosts, ghouls, spirits, spectres, phantoms and other ephemeral entities exist. And no, I did not buy my science degree from some dodgy website. So, why then would I even entertain the notion that spooks exist? If science is about clean-cut, observable, measurable absolutes – and if I am a firm subscriber to science – then why can’t I say with utter conviction and clarity that I don’t believe in ghosts?
I just don’t know. I still run like hell and jump into bed when I turn off the lights. But what I DO know is that all of the documentaries dedicated to the investigation of the paranormal are annoyingly terrible for some very good reasons. So let’s take a look at an organisation that involves itself in the (bad) “scientific” exploration of spooky properties around America and whether their findings provide support for the existence of the wanton phantoms that have, for centuries, been photo-bombing family photographs.
Drip… Drip… Drip…
Photo Credit: StephanTylerIGH.
‘Ghosthunters’ founders Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson. Note their hard-core facial expressions. This is a fundamental trait for plumbers. When you’re fixing other people’s toilets, you need to prepare for the absurd and the obscene.
The Ghosthunters series is a documentary about a group of investigators from The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) who, at the request of some exasperated and freaked-out tenants, voluntarily sign up to spend the night in the bowels of some creepy-looking castle or derelict cabin in the woods. They do this in an effort to observe, measure and record physical evidence of paranormal activity.
This series was initially really interesting to me, because for the first time I thought that the possibility of ghosts, the paranormal or the supernatural, was going to be scientifically tested. The chief investigators and the guys that came up with the entire concept of Ghosthunters, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, come across as suitably sceptical and scientific about what they’re doing. But episode after episode, I was disappointed by the sheer lack of tangible evidence these guys came up with. I was even more disappointed by the complete lack of adherence to very simple scientific method!
Let’s take a systematic look at the many problems the “documentary” Ghosthunters presents as a not-so scientific investigation of the spiritual realm…
Exhibit A: You’re Real Jobs are WHAT??
One of the biggest red flags of the show is that the two lead investigators, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, are actually plumbers by trade. So while we can’t very well berate them for not knowing how to operate a scientific investigation, we can berate them for perpetuating false information, or, as the Independent Investigations Group puts it, for “peddling pseudoscience and superstition.”
My criticisms of Ghosthunters and all its many spin-off shows are not unique. The program has agitated the science community who, exasperated with the absence of real tangible evidence or proper scientific method, makes a few very valid and obvious points, including the next one…
Exhibit B: Non-Measurable Quantities Does Not a Solid Case Make
The TAPS team makes use of some really complicated-looking equipment; equipment that’s so complicated, it has to be called by acronyms, which generally spellbind the audience with their acronymic awesomeness. EMF meters, thermographic cameras, IR goggles, static and handheld digital video cameras, Geiger counters and digital thermometers are a few of the gadgets these guys make use of to try to detect and capture physical evidence of paranormal activity.
Yet in spite of the truckloads of wiring, equipment and gadgetry they use to catch ghosts in action, the most moving bits of “evidence” are almost always the personal experiences claimed to be had by the investigators:
“Wow, I suddenly got really cold, does anyone else feel that?”
“I swear I just felt something rush past my leg!”
“It feels so gloomy in here, like all the joy just got sucked out of me.”
Anyone with a scientific background will tell you that these kinds of feelings and emotions cannot constitute scientific evidence. As the audience on the other side of the TV screen, and probably the other side of the world too, we simply cannot corroborate this evidence. I mean, how do we know what they’re saying is even true?
Exhibit C: IR, REM-Pod-SDD, HTO, EMF, WTF(?)
The equipment carried around by the TAPS team is sometimes used in ways that are known to be ineffective! One of the examples raised by Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of the science magazine The Sceptical Enquirer, is the infrared thermometer. These tools can be used to measure the skin (surface) temperature of an object. So if you stuck one in your armpit, under your tongue or in some other unmentionable place, it would be able to tell you the temperature of its immediate surroundings and by inference, your body temperature. The TAPS team use these thermometers to “detect cold spots” in the middle of a room. Not an object or a body, but a wide-open space, which is a blatantly ineffective use of technology.
Exhibit D (and this drives me nuts): Sampling Issues
Something that has caused me immense frustration right from the very first episode of Ghosthunters I ever saw, is that the Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) only ever spends one night in a location. Employing a good scientific method requires an investigator to choose a decent enough sampling size and period to ensure that they (1) capture as much evidence as possible and (2) evidence that is as broad in range as possible. This eliminates the chance of any outlying anomalies skewing the results.
Okay, let’s look at an example. If you spent one hour in a purportedly haunted attic and in that hour an errant draft creaked open the door, you might entertain the notion that it was the work of a spectre’s hand, as I think we all might do if locked in a spooky house that we were told was haunted.
However, if you spent a week in that attic, you’d become very familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the house – its various sighs and creaks and movements – and you’d notice that the door often swings open slightly when a window is open. In other words, there is probably no pesky poltergeist or malignant spirit sharing that attic with you.
The point here is, the larger the size of the scientific sample or the longer your vigilance, the more the anomalies get ironed out and the better you will come to understand your subject matter. A more accurate story will emerge, which is how the axiom “good science is repetition” was born.
One Night in Hell (Isn’t Enough)
There’s another far more obvious perspective to be had on this issue. Wouldn’t your chance of finding actual evidence of paranormal activity be much greater if you spent more than one night in a location? If the landlady of a purportedly haunted house experienced the odd floating leather-bound tome, surely you should hang around for at least a week to stand the REAL chance of capturing some real juicy footage and to get the most out of the investigation? What if the ectoplasm of Sir Arthur Froglicker decided to visit the neighbouring house for a bit of nocturnal slap n’ tickle with Lady Von Ripschlitz on the night you decided to investigate? You’d totally miss him!
The TAPS team should spend more time per location. One night is just not long enough. It’s no wonder the “evidence” they come up with is almost always inconclusive.
Exhibit E: Common Bloody Sense
If the team at Ghosthunters really, really, REALLY believed that they had caught scientific evidence of paranormal activity on their equipment, or if they really believed they had even just experienced and witnessed paranormal activity, why haven’t they gone to a scientific organisation about this incredible breakthrough? Evidence of another dimension? Of the spiritual world? It would be MASSIVE news for mankind. It’s like those infuriating illusionists. If they really could levitate, scientists would be all over that and Sir Isaac Newton would be turning in his grave.
Class Dismissed: Your Take-Home Message
Not a single episode of Ghosthunters provides indisputable evidence that ghosts exist. There could very well be someone on the inside of that creepy cabin, switching the light on and off. There could very well be someone down in the cellar with the team, making that weird coughing noise. The filmmakers are in creepy situations, which immediately make them more sensitive to perfectly rational sounds and events. All it takes is for someone to fart loudly and the entire film crew is going to run from the crypt screaming like bunch of schoolgirls.
I’m not saying that all of the things we see on Ghosthunters never happened, but the “proof” they provide isn’t physical evidence and it hasn’t been acquired using rigorous scientific methods. The show is edited for impact. At the end of the day, these people need to make money and unless they provide the goods, the audience is going to get bored and change the channel over to something even more brainless, like the Jerry Springer Show or Pregnant at 15. Just remember that science and business are a volatile mix. If you ask me, making money from the perpetration of ignorance is a filthy crime of which far too many institutions (past and present) are guilty of.