Sensing Murder – Series Three

16 07 2008

It’s back!!! I am of course talking about everybody’s favourite show – Sensing Murder. Okay obviously the show is not to absolutely everyone’s taste and it certainly elicits strong responses from both side of the debate on psychic’s ability. It was one of the reasons I was inspired to start posting my views on paranormal and pseudoscience on the Internet. It is therefore a prime candidate for a dedicated article on this blog.

In reviewing the programme and new series I hope to avoid the whole argument over whether the Psychics on the show are genuine or not. All of the main contributors to this blog are hardened veterans of the many heated debates on the Sensing Murder and JREF forums around the lack of hard evidence for the claimed abilities. These discussions boil down to Believers believe because they have seen with their own eyes while Skeptics require proper controlled testing to convince them. The discussion’s generally deteriorates quite quickly into accusations of close mindedness, thrown by protagonists from both sides.

Instead I wish to look at the programme from the point of view of journalistic fairness and balance. Even if the Psychics have the ability they claim they could still be wrong or mistaken in a particular case. Does the show allow room for the audience to make their own mind up or have the makers decided to push a particular agenda and view and then reinforce that as much as possible?

The first two series of Sensing Murder quickly established the formula for the programme. This can best be summarised as Crimewatch lite with a couple of Psychics thrown in to the mix. Essentially a standard 90-minute programme is split into distinct segments. The first part of the show is focused on providing the background of the case and person who was murdered or went missing. Then a recreation of the known facts of what happened is shown, similar to recreations made for Crimewatch.

At this point the paranormal side of the show kicks off. The two psychics, (always two, but not necessarily the same two), are introduced. After a brief run down of the exhaustive search process the programme makers undertook to ensure only the best and most accurate psychics were used for the show they start doing their thing. While this article is not touching upon testing of psychic ability I must admit I would love to get my hands on the raw test data and test protocols for this to see how thorough and controlled this testing actually was.

The Psychics spend the next segment of the programme connecting with the ‘spirit of the murdered or missing person and allowing the audience to get the impression that they have indeed got some connection to a dead person. They then proffer up some possible scenarios about what actually happened. This is often accompanied by a scene visit where the psychics take a field trip to a locale where the crime may have occurred. This last bit is usually not much more than 15 minutes in and hour and a half programme.

Interspersed throughout are interviews with friends and relatives of the deceased. These confirm bit and pieces of the back-story and/or psychic revelations. All of this is held together with the super serious presenting style of Rebecca Gibney, use of eerie and sinister mood music and graphics for dramatic effect, and is topped off with the musings of a private investigator, (Duncan Holland), who the show employs to follow up the ‘leads’ provided by the two Psychics.

So how does the new series structure compare to the previous two? Superficially all the various elements are still there so it could be said that nothing much has changed. The background and recreation of the case, friends and family of the deceased, the two psychics, a field trip, Rebecca, Duncan et al. The producers of the show have obviously decided why mess with a winning formula and you can’t really blame them as it has served them well.

I did notice a few slight differences. The introduction to the programme has been ‘jazzed’ up. There is lots of flashing lights and quick cutting between shots of the Psychics and a recreation of the show tragic topic. Someone on the SM forum described these effects as if the Psychics had magic lights bursting from their eyes. There is also a bit more time ‘bigging’ up the individual psychics, (Sue Nicholson and Kelvin Cruickshank were featured in this particular episode), success outside the show, (TV shows, workshops, etc), and how much more confident they are in their ability since starting on the series. Another small variation from the majority of previous shows was the fact that it was mentioned that the family of the deceased to do the show called in the SM team.

It is probably a good idea to give some of the background of the particular case the episode was featuring. Unlike the majority of the previous shows the case in question didn’t involve either an unsolved murder, (at first glace anyway), or a missing person. The situation being investigated was the case of the death of Blake Stott, a young man who was tragically killed in his new car by a fire late at night sometime in 2006. Police and forensic/fire investigators couldn’t establish any foul motives behind the crime and the current official thinking is that his death was likely the result of an accident. The family disagreed and employed the services of Duncan Holland to investigate the case, (according to this report in the ODT). Mr Holland then recommended the family contact the Sensing Murder team.

Cases on Sensing Murder seem to me to fall into either one of two categories. The first is a straightforward unsolved murder or abduction case. The second category is one in which someone has gone missing or has been killed but there is no definitive evidence of a crime being committed. Examples of this sort of case are those involving Jim Donnelly and also Blake Stott.

On balance there is probably a lot of benefit in profiling the first category of cases on a national television programme like Sensing Murder. Even if the information provided by the psychics doesn’t reveal anything new or useful at least the extra publicity that the show provides might encourage witnesses to come forward with some additional information. The second category of cases has much less to recommend them. This is especially true if the Psychics proffer up a scenario that is controversial and at odds with the known facts of the situation. This is what happened in the Blake Stott case.

It is at this junction that I would like to start to address the shows balance. As stated the case being featured on the show was not a cut and dried situation where we could be confident that foul play of some sort had occurred and the psychics try to provide information about the perpetrator or perpetrators. The official explanation of the Blake Stott case was a tragic accident and hence no one was thought to be directly responsible. This was not what the show led us to believe however with an alternative hypothesis put forward by the both Sue Nicholson and Kelvin Cruickshank that something more sinister had happened.

The rather shocking and controversial revelations was telegraphed pretty early on in the show, in the introduction at the start of the programme, in the numerous teasers before each ad breaks, and in the various rhetorical questions made by Rebecca Gibney asking whether the Psychics had identified some other cause of his death (Hmmmmm, do you think they might have?).

How did the show handle the fact that the Psychics had come up with something seriously at odds with the Police view of the case? Well the show pretty much did all it could to support the hypothesis the Psychics put forward. Not only were the Psychics and their abilities given an awful lot of credibility during the first part of the show and presented as though they might have additional supernatural abilities (such as shooting magical lights from their eyes) but, by using of suitably eerie and sinister mood music and visuals, the audience were made to feel as though something was slightly amiss in the case.

Efforts were made to enhance the credibility of both the show and the Psychics a number of times during the programme. The most obvious way this was done was showing a great number of ‘hits’ Sue and Kelvin got and having Rebecca confirm verbally that they were indeed correct. I counted an impressive amount of factually accurate information provided by the Psychics during the show. In fact I didn’t see anything that looked remotely as though it was wrong or even a guess on their part. There was one moment that I thought they might have shown Kelvin struggling a little with describing what Blake Stott looked like however it soon became apparent that even this was turned into a hit when it was suggested that he couldn’t make out his features because they had been destroyed in the fire.

I suppose it is within the realms of possibility that the Psychics were amazingly accurate. Although I would suggest that it is highly improbably, especially considering some of the reviews their live performances get. I also accept that, given the limited time available in the programme, there is a need to edit what the Psychics are saying so that it is pertinent and fits into the shows time and format but that just highlights that the programme is an unbalanced portrayal of the facts of a case.

Unbalanced is also how I would describe the way the show handled the official explanation for Blake Stott’s death. Doubts were raised about potential accidental causes of the fire in the car. Both the car and the car stereo were brand new, (the implication being they couldn’t possibly have malfunctioned), and it was made clear that Blake did not smoke cigarettes, (Although no mention was made of whether this non smoking also included Cannabis). These rebuttals were reinforced with interview quotes from Blake Stott’s family and friends. Kelvin was especially scathing of the Police investigation of the case, basically accusing it of taking the easy road to get the case closed as soon as possible. No other evidence was proffered to support this accusation.

These may all be valid criticism of the official position but at no time did we get to see someone from an alternative viewpoint from that expressed by the Psychics. Duncan Holland did look to take on the role of presenting the facts of the official case but he was employed much more in confirming whatever the Psychics came up with. Duncan also identified there were potential ‘suspects’ that fitted the general description of the two perpetrators who had started the fire ‘as a joke’ (according to Sue and Kelvin view). Duncan helpfully advised that one of the two had subsequently left the area. The implication seemed to be that his departure and the death of Blake Stott were somehow linked.

Given the controversial nature of the Psychics accusations and the fact that two potentially innocent people were being accused, (if not actually publicly identified); did the programme makers give various parties a right of reply? In short – No they did not.

To be fair though they did mention during the programme that the Police were offered the opportunity to participate and turned it down. The makers to the programme responded to questions about this with the following reply on the Sensing Murder forum –

“Dunedin Area Command ordered Balclutha Police not to take part in Sensing Murder because, as far as police are concerned, Blake’s death was an accident. Police were informed, prior to broadcast, of the psychic’s findings and were given all of the investigator’s research and a copy of the programme in advance. We have ongoing communication with the police over the case.”

However it is not clear why there wasn’t more input from potentially neutral parties such as forensic investigators or local journalists.

I accept that the Police can be incredibly unhelpful and are probably their own worst enemy when it comes to defending their actions. I myself contacted the local Police about the case to ask them what they thought about the allegations made by the Psychics on the show. The response from the Dunedin and Clutha area command was frankly disappointing.

“Police will investigate any new evidence raised in the Sensing Murder programme screened on TV2, said Area Commander: Dunedin & Clutha, Inspector Dave Campbell.

“While this case has been investigated thoroughly, as with any investigation, we are open to examining new evidential information that comes to light,” he said.

At this stage, police have no further comment to make about the programme, Inspector Campbell said.”

What can be said with a high degree of certainty is that Police did not find the additional ‘evidence’ provided by the show compelling enough to warrant the case being reopened immediately. This is hardly a ringing endorsement for the show. So, while sympathising with the Sensing Murder team in their lack of support from Police, it doesn’t really excuse the complete lack of balance in the production of the programme, More of an effort could have been made to present the other side of the debate even without Police buy in.

When it comes down to it does it really matter if the show lacks balance and pushes the view that the Psychic ‘revelations’ are one hundred percent accurate? The show after all is classified as a light entertainment reality show and as TVNZ argued during the recent complaint to the NZ Broadcasting Standard Authority it is ‘not a news, current affairs or factual programme… there was “an expectation in society that programmes about mediums are told from a particular perspective”’.

To an extent this is a fair enough position to take however I would argue that, given the subject matter, an unbalanced show does matter. As stated at the beginning of this article, the programme does elicit strong responses. Whether the makers of the show choose to acknowledge it or not many people are going to blindly accept that a crime has been committed and two individuals in the local area are guilty. As a journalist from the Southland Times said to me the community in question is incredibly small and throwing accusations around like they did can have devastating effects.

The sensitive nature of the subject matter, they are dealing with real events and real people after all, suggests to me that Ninox has a duty of care in their production to at least inform their audience of the dangers of jumping to conclusions about the case. Even if they don’t have the time to present both sides of the debate fairly they can at least downplay some of the emotional manipulation that they engage in.

The makers obviously have a desire for the show to be taken seriously given references to steps they undertook to test and control the Psychic readings, (coupled with how they spun the whole Nigel Latta experience with the show). If they really want to be taken seriously then they should start acting a little more responsibly.

In the interests of fairness and balance I will attempt to get a response to this article from the makers of the show and will post them on the forum if I am successful.





Ghost Hunters New Zealand Responds…

13 07 2008

There have been some interesting comments made by active paranormal investigators in the comments section of the first post that examines Paranormal Investigation in New Zealand. Dave Clipson, the founder and lead investigator of Ghost Hunters New Zealand recently e-mailed me with his thoughts on the two posts and with his permission his response has been posted along with my reply:

Hi Christiaan

Thanks for letting me know about your report. I’m happy with what you have written as everyone has a right to an opinion.

To explain regarding the ‘write-ups’ issue you have with us, we all have day jobs etc and currently there are about 5 investigations which are overdue for proper write-ups but the review of footage is the hardest thing as each camera recording for 8 hours or so during an investigation makes approx 48hrs+ of video to look at, this means looking at 1 camera for the full 8hrs stopping the playback when you need to turn away or get a drink etc. Because each camera has sound that means that there is also 48hrs of audio to listen to plus audio recorders and of course then you have the digital cameras to look through each and every photo graph with different filters and of course the background work into setting up, speaking to the clients, breaking down the equipment afterwards and gathering the history of a place we are going too etc. When your day job pays the bills that has to come first as without that money I would not be able to help other people but above all other things I have a family and they take priority in my life. If I had more time I would write more on the website but currently I am working 2 jobs to make ends meet for my family and then in the time I have left I try to answer the many emails we receive from people asking us to look at pictures or asking for advice.

Helping people and trying to understand what we don’t understand is the main goal for us and I don’t really care much for Media attention but its a double edged sword as you need to promote that there are people out there who others can turn to when they are experiencing things that are beyond traditional help and we have letters from people in all walks of life, prison inmates, doctors, solicitors and many many more. In the normal world most of the people we speak to would be credible witnesses if it were a crime report but because it is of a paranormal nature then suddenly they are all crackpots?

If you want to know who the people are who do it for the right reasons those are the people who do things with no want of recognition or payment. We only show locations on the website which we have been given the ok to do so but there are also places we have been too which we do not publish as requested by the parties involved.

In regard to what equipment we use to try to detect paranormal activity the main focus is on filming. Firstly putting locked of cameras into rooms allows you to be able to have eyes watching for the whole duration of the investigation rather than just going in, looking around and taking a few pictures. Obviously if something is appearing regularly to one or more people (which there have been documented statements all over the world of whole groups seeing ghosts / paranormal activity) the question then becomes how can you measure something you cannot see, predict or fully understand? It reminds me of the old days when people thought the world was flat, now there are people creating devices to punch holes 1 particle at a time through the 4th dimension to try to travel back in time, by bending light and forcing the particle to follow the light bend. Their theory is that they quite expect when they start the machine to suddenly pickup particles that were not there which could have been sent from the future in there lab as an experiment but showing up not long after they switch the device on. Now this was science fiction not so long ago but with the growing field of quantum mechanics and technology now these scientists who could only ‘theorise’ about how to do it are now getting a chance to actually build a device which allows them to do exactly what they have been thinking about for so long. Doesn’t this then also ring true for the paranormal? It’s only paranormal when you can’t explain what it’s causing the event or what the event is, but when you can then explain it this then becomes normal.

“Paranormal is an umbrella term used to describe unusual phenomena or experiences that lack an obvious scientific explanation, In parapsychology, it is used to describe the potentially psychic phenomena of telepathy, extra-sensory perception, psychokinesis, ghosts, and hauntings. The term is also applied to UFOs, some creatures that fall under the scope of cryptozoology, purported phenomena surrounding the Bermuda Triangle, and other non-psychical subjects.”

The body in its normal way produces electrical impulses as well as chemical signals (significantly in the brain, nerves and muscles). The body has its own Electro Magnetic Field and this is Science Fact. Now we use EMF meters as it is a ‘theory’ that you may be able to pick up on something which has an electro magnetic field (i.e. unshielded electric wire, some electrical appliances or hopefully an ex-living person), cold spots are a ‘theory’ that something is drawing heat energy (endothermic process) out of the location to try to gain strength to show its self or do something that we can see / hear (exothermic process).

Now these are all theories that we ourselves have not claimed or come up with but are the consensus of many investigators, paranormal research groups & parapsychology departments at universities around the world.

This argument reminds me of the scientists not so long ago who said that “the bumble bee cant fly” and yet there it was flying around all the time for the whole world to see, it was only because they did not understand part of the mechanics of the bee flight but when they found the missing factor they were then able to scientifically tell the world that bumble bee’s can fly and this is how, but of course we all knew that before they made a statement to the world saying that the bee’s could in fact fly.

I can understand you taking a view point on what your writing but also be aware that people are out there putting everything they have into these organisations trying to find the answers, I have my own theories on certain things and I maybe wrong but I’m trying to find out and trying to help as many people as I can.

I will never tell someone that what they believe is wrong, its there right to believe in it. I only think that it’s wrong when people start hurting others in the name of there beliefs or wanting to get paid for it.

I guess I always remember the teaching from years ago when I went to Sunday school and church when I was a young boy “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” Jesus, Matthew 7:3 there was a lot of wisdom in that one comment. I personally believe in a supreme being, I just have faith that my life will have meaning and that I will die knowing that I have been the best person I could be.

After all the reports from around the world for thousands of years I would love to be able to catch something to show people, and say “look this is strange and we got it on camera”. But you’re going to be challenging all religions and even those people who don’t believe in the “mainstream” religions but they still believe that there family members past and gone are still looking over them. What harm is there for people to have that comfortable feeling that they are being looked after/over by there family members past?

As I stated at the top I don’t really care much what you say about Ghost Hunters NZ, I know in my heart and mind that I do everything I can as best as I can in order to help people and not pocket money for the privilege and for me that’s all that counts.

I would be interested to know your background in parapsychology and the study of paranormal phenomenon, or are you just commenting on a personal level in your blog report? It may be an idea to point that out so that people know that this is your own opinion and is not based on any scientific fact. That way you are being completely impartial.

Good luck in your career and kind regards from Ghost Hunters NZ.

Dave

Founder
Lead Investigator
Ghost Hunters New Zealand
http://www,ghosthunters.co.nz

My reply to Dave’s e-mail was:

Hi Dave,

Thank you for your prompt, thorough and open reply. You are to be commended on your commitment to the investigations in light of your busy life and appreciate that it a very time consuming endeavour.

As you are aware I have one more post to publish which addresses issues around the use of different equipment, and once it has been posted feel free to leave any comments on the blog as I appreciate feedback from all perspectives.

You use particular experiments within quantum physics as an analogy for the paranormal by effectively arguing that due to the counter intuitive nature of these experiments it somehow validates the paranormal due its unknown or unexplainable qualities. The principle difference is that quantum mechanics is well grounded branch of physics that has been supported by numerous observations and it has well developed models that can make accurate predictions. There has been a steady scaffolding of hypothesises, experiments, and models since its inception at the turn of the 20th century.

While there have been a range of scientific experiments conducted to detect the paranormal since the 1880’s, the results have been dubious, occasionally burdened with fraud, and positive results have very close to the point of statistical insignificance. Furthermore, not one single well established model or theory has survived any form of peer review process.

You go further and mention a couple of theories that underpin your approach namely:

1. An EMF meter will detect the electrical impulses and chemical signals.

2. That there are cold spots where something is drawing heat energy out of a location to gain strength.

I can appreciate that there is probably a lot of anecdotal evidence to support these propositions, but I have yet to encounter any rigorous and repeatable scientific experiments that have shown that spirits exist, what the qualities of a spirit are, and that the many instruments employed would be able to detect those qualities. This is why I have taken the position that I have, but my mind remains open to the possibility of spirits – in fact it would be fantastic if our consciousness continued to exist once our bodies have died. But I guess that through the application of scientific rationalism it sets a high standard of proof, and therefore I currently am not convinced of most paranormal claims.

I agree with you that as long as you are not harming anyone else that you are free to believe in what ever you want and I know that there are many people in the community who are peddling paranormal abilities at the expense of others both emotionally and financially. But I am also interested in why people believe what they believe, as people can be irrational and allow a variety of emotional and/or psychological factors influence what they believe. From what I have observed in the area of paranormal investigation there does appear to be a number of unstated assumptions or premises that currently do not hold up to scientific scrutiny such as the existence of spirits and the ability of certain instruments to detect spirits.

If you are interested in my background you can click on the about the authors button on the website. The contents of the blog are my opinion, but it is an opinion that I try and have informed by a scientific and rational approach.

Regards,

Christiaan.





How Perception can be Biased

10 07 2008

Perception Experiment

There has been new publication reported at Science Daily where researchers at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee have found that mental images can subsequently effect a person’s perception. The example provided in the news report was that when people see a mouse, they may continue to catch glimpses of imaginary mice for some time afterwards:

“…imagery, in the absence of any incoming visual signals, leads to the formation of a short-term sensory trace that can bias future perception, suggesting a means by which high-level processes that support imagination and memory retrieval may shape low-level sensory representations.” – Abstract

Such research into perception can be applied to some of the more bizarre things observed by people. If a person has an event that they interpret as paranormal or unusual such as a moving shadow or a UFO, the imagery of this event may subsequently cause them to reinterpret or alter any subsequent perception they may have in a similar environment. This could provide some explanations why some people may experience a number of similar paranormal or unusual incidents.

The study did find considerable variability in how it affects different people over time, so there will be underlying psychological characteristics that influence how people perceive images and interpret them. Some people will be more predisposed to the imagery influencing their perception than others and it would be interesting to for a study to look at people who regularly experience minor incidents of the paranormal to see if they are more predisposed to such a psychological phenomenon.





Australia’s Search for the One.

7 07 2008

The OneWhile New Zealanders will be subjected the first episode of season 3 of Sensing Murder, our skeptical friends across the Tasman Sea will be waiting with baited breath for tomorrows premiere of The One: Search for Australia’s Most Gifted Psychic.

On the face of it the format appears loosely similar to Uri Gellers Israeli show The Successor, which spawned an American version called Phenomenon where an heir was sought for Geller’s throne of woo. An important difference in the American version was that only one of the ten contestants actually claimed psychic abilities (namely Jim Callahan) , the remainder were mentalists.

What will make the show interesting will be the presence the well known Australian skeptic Richard Saunders as one of the two members of the expert panel. The other person is a witch by the name of Stacey Demarco. Skeptics all too often in the media are only provided with a short sound bite at the end of a feature or documentary, or if they feature prominently, it is not uncommon to cast them in a negative light. Hopefully this will not be the case with this show.





Paranormal Investigation in New Zealand Part Two

4 07 2008

In part two of this three part series of posts Christiaan critically reviews some of the investigations that the paranormal investigation groups have undertaken.

GhostbustersFrom a rational perspective, the starting point for any inquiry is the setting of an open ended aim that is neutral and it does not suggest a particular conclusion or finding. As shown in the previous post, it is apparent that many members of each of these investigative groups have some form of paranormal belief. Do they have the objectivity to be able to put these beliefs to one side while conducting their investigations?

‘Spooks Paranormal Investigations’, Strange Occurrences‘, ‘NZ Paranoromal‘ and ‘Ghost Hunters‘ conduct participant-observer investigations where they travel to the site of alleged haunting and then spend one or more nights there with their instruments.

Ghost Hunters:

All the groups except Ghost Hunters state on their websites that their investigations are confidential and they have not published their findings, Ghost Hunters are kind enough to put write ups of their inquiries on their website. They are somewhat brief and provide limited information on their practices, but they do provide an insight into the way that they form their conclusions based on the evidence they have collected.

Like the other groups, Ghost Hunters like to employ high tech equipment in their investigations and in January 2007 they conducted an investigation at Fairfield House in Nelson. During the night they picked up on their night vision camera what they described as inexplicable black objects, and a knocking sound picked up on audio recording. However, they are somewhat reserved in this write up and do not conclude that this phenomena is sufficient evidence of the paranormal.

They were not quite so reserved in their conclusion after their investigation at Wakapuaka Cemetery, Nelson where they said that there was probable paranormal activity on the basis of an orb photo and a temperature anomaly around one of the graves. Orbs are well established artefact’s of photography and there is no scientifically supported evidence or theories of orbs being spirits. Furthermore, while temperature changes have been traditionally associated with ghosts there has been no demonstrated empirical data to show a causal link between temperature and spirits. The conclusion of ‘probable paranormal activity’ is somewhat of an overstatement based upon this limited evidence.

Spooks Paranormal Investigations:

As previously mentioned, Spooks state their investigations are confidential, but they are eager for media exposure and as a result their investigations have featured on New Zealand shows such as 20/20, Campbell Live, and Pacific Beat Street. One must be careful about the fairness of an evaluation given the editing process during the production of such segments , but as you will see it is a worthwhile process analysing these investigations.

The feature on Pacific Beat Street is an investigation conducted by Spooks of an undisclosed location. The group, led by Adam Lancaster, looks impressive with their matching clothes and tools of the trade, which include EMF meters, infrared cameras, and temperature gauges.

Once the group set up their cameras a noise quickly attracts the attention of Spooks and six of them (including the reporter and cameraman) rush to the basement of the building with their temperature gauges and EMF meters. There is some quick editing that bring together some technical sounding and excitedly stated quotes such as “reading 6.9 [degrees]” – “that’s a huge drop” and then the reporter slips into the role of the investigator and based on a temperature reading from an infrared temperature gauge he gravely determines that something is happening in the corner.

The following segment provides an interesting insight into the ‘scientific’ manner that the group use. An excited investigators says ‘Woah did you feel that’ presumably she has felt something (like a breeze?) go past her. At that time a camera battery goes dead and one of the Spooks immediately concludes that these events mean that “there is something here”.

For the first time in the piece some investigative journalism creeps in and the presenter suggests that the battery may have just died and the response he received was a mish mash of woo:

“Its always getting energy, that’s why sometimes you feel cold because its draining your body energy, and whenever you know, you feel a presence that is the feeling you get it is very cold.”

So that clarifies things…because we know that spirits exist, we know that they suck up our ‘energy’ (and as a classic sign of pseudoscience they have a misunderstanding of energy, but that is the subject of another post), and that sucking up of energy is what makes you feel cold.

We are then subjected to an investigator waving around an EMF meter that resembles an out of control Gieger counter with its loud bleeps and flashing red light saying that there is definitely something walking around them. He obviously did not read the section in the EMF meter instruction booklet that says that unless he keeps still while taking the reading he will get a false readout.

After all that excitement they return to the base where the Spooks team is briefed about something strange that had been picked up on a monitor while they had been running around scaring each other. An infrared camera had picked up a shimmer on the monitor to which one member of the group comments that it is going down the stairs and around the corner.

On the face of it, it does appear to be ghostly, but an indication of what it may have been is seen when the shimmer disappears. An insect, possibly a moth, can be seen flying across the monitor. It would appear that the shimmer was caused by the insect flying very close to the lens of the camera. Some butterflies and beetles can see in near infrared and could be attracted to the light, or it could be an insect that has been disturbed by the torch lights in the building. Another possibility is that it could have been one of the Spooks unwittingly waving a torch around near the camera. As previously pointed out they were split up into pairs, in all of the excitement of running around did they know where the other members of the group were?

Discussion:

When looking at the practises of these groups there are some important considerations. Firstly the impact of the investigators on the setting needs to be considered. These examples demonstrate that while these investigators attempt to remain objective, there is a sense of confirmation bias that taints their work. Adam Lancaster of Spooks has said that he has been scared on every investigation he has been on, this frame of mind combined with being put into a position where they may be subject to events they cannot immediately explain it may have an effect on their objectivity that is required for such an investigation.

There is no mention anywhere of any attempts to take baseline measurements. For example, if the ghostly phenomenon occurred at night, then one would hope that temperature and EMF readings would be taken during the day for comparative purposes to establish the existence of any hot or cold spots.

There is no evidence of any systematic recording or note keeping either between investigations or between the members of the groups. Obviously if the manner in which an investigation is recorded has no set format or is constantly subject to change it will make it difficult to compare evidence obtained from different investigations.

The impact of the investigators beliefs and values is an important consideration. Haunted houses are very much infused into our cultural beliefs. We are raised on scary stories about ghosts, they feature prominently in works of fiction on the television, the movies, and books. Like many other mythical creatures a group of common characteristics have developed that is based upon anecdotal experiences combined with the cultural memes.

It is these characteristics that inform the paranormal investigations conducted by these types of groups. In recent years there has been a massive self reinforcing of the mythical characteristics of ghosts through the increasing popularity of paranormal investigation, which can largely be attributed to the US show ‘Ghost Hunters’ which has seen a surge in popularity of groups devoted to paranormal investigation. To summarise these characteristics they include:

  • Ghosts are comprised of energy.
  • They influence electromagnetic fields.
  • Ghosts affect the temperature of a room.
  • Ghosts attempt to communicate by talking.

There is not a shred of scientific support for these beliefs, yet somehow paranormal investigators have identified instruments that they believe will assist them to identify these characteristics. These instruments will be examined in the final post in this series.





100 Years Since Tunguska Blast

3 07 2008

Photograph from the Soviet Academy of Science 1927 expedition led by Leonid Kulik.The 30th of June saw the 100th anniversary of the Tunguska Event in Russia.

For those of you not familiar with this event it was a massive explosion near the Stony Tunguska River in Siberia that knocked down 80 million trees in a 2,000 square kilometer area and it triggered seismographs around the world.

Over the years many wacky explanations have been put forward to explain it including a small black hole passing through the Earth, antimatter striking the Earth, and of course a UFO that crashed. Imagine that, navigating your way for hundreds, possibly thousands of light years, only to make some error or have a catastrophic mechanical failure right at the last moment…bugger!

The most likely explanation for this event is still something that is very cool and a phenomenon that one day may have a massive impact (mind the pun) on human civilization. In this case a meteor a few tens of metres across exploded in the atmosphere 6 to 10 km above the Earth’s surface with an explosion of about 15 megatons. Speculation about what it could be was driven by the a lack of understanding about meteors in the early part of last century and an apparent lack of a crater that would have provided an immediate indication that it was an object that had fallen from the heavens.

So then, what evidence is there to support that it was a meteor? Well to summarise:

  • Witnesses observed a bright object moving across the sky prior to the explosion, one witness said they watched it descend for 10 minutes.
  • Meteorites usually contain large amounts of nickel and studies of the trees in the vicinity of the explosion were found large amounts of nickel relative to iron. Other studies found that they also had other unusual ratios of metals when compared with samples taken from outside of the blast area that were consistent with meteorites.
  • When the 1908 layers in the bogs were examined in the blast area they were found to contain a number of elements whose isotopic signature did not match the normal decay of elements found elsewhere on Earth.
  • This layer was also found to contain the rare element iridium and similarities were noted with the K-T boundary at the dinosaurs extinction.
  • The ongoing monitoring of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere has determined that airbursts are a common occurrence.

So in all likelihood rather than it being little green men who have fallen asleep at the wheel after a long trip, a meteor is a more likely explanation. Tunguska is another excellent example of a mystery that with time and careful study it can be explained.





Paranormal Investigation in New Zealand Part One

1 07 2008

This is the first of a three part series of blogs where Christiaan examines Paranormal Investigation groups in New Zealand. In the first of these three articles he introduces four such groups and outlines their overall approach to the paranormal.

Ghostbusters

When there’s something strange in your neighbourhood who are you going to call? Well aside from the police or your mum, there have been a number of new groups who have formed in New Zealand in recent years that are committed to the investigation of unusual activities that may occur in and around your home or business. One group, Spooks Paranormal Investigations, conveniently lists on their websites some of the signs of a haunted house such as cupboards and doors opening and closing, weird noises, unusual animal behaviour, and temperature variations just to name a few.

Perusing the websites of four such New Zealand ghost hunting groups (Nelson’s ‘Ghost Hunters‘, Christchurch’s ‘Spooks Paranormal Investigations’, Wellington’s ‘Strange Occurrences‘ and ‘NZ Paranoromal‘) there are common themes. Principally they claim to use a rational approach to their investigations and they try to gather as much evidence as they can through the use of various scientific instruments. Sounds like a recipe for the solid use of the scientific method? Let’s take a closer look!

I should point out now that it is not my intention to discuss whether or not spirits or ghosts actually exist, that is a lengthy discussion unto itself. As you will see these investigative groups work under an assumption that spirits exist. Yet before using the techniques these groups employ to investigate ghostly phenomena you actually need evidence that these ghosts exist to start with. Like any extraordinary claim, ghosts (or spirits or apparitions or whatever you want to call them) they will require extraordinary evidence to prove that they exist. I must admit that currently I remain skeptical of the paranormal.

So before examining the groups investigations lets take a look at what the different groups say about their beliefs in the paranormal.

Ghost Hunters says that most hauntings are hoaxes, which implies that they believe that a small number are not, and they are seeking proof of the paranormal through the use of their instruments. It follows then that if you are going to be using instruments to detect ghosts, then you will need to be able to demonstrate the qualities of a spirit and how an instrument is going to detect or interact with them. The use of instruments by these groups will be something that I will look at in more detail in part three of this series of posts.

Both Spooks and Strange Occurrences are a coy in implying whether they believe in the paranormal on their home page, but elsewhere Spooks claims to have encountered most of the signs of a haunting that they provide on their site. One of the members, Mandy, claims to have minor psychic abilities and uses dowsing as an instrument to assist with their scientific investigations of the paranormal. Dowsing has been shown to be unreliable due to the ideomotor effect and the tendency for people who dowse to employ post hoc reasoning. During a 20/20 feature on Spooks, when asked if he believed in ghosts the lead investigator Adam Lancaster said that scientifically he believed in ghosts and then sheepishly retracted the comment and said that he did not. Like Ghost Hunters, Strange Occurrences say that they can detect the paranormal through the use of special equipment, and this appears to be a tacit admission that they too believe in some form of the paranormal.

NZ Paranormal say that they are more than capable of debunking claims of the paranormal, and they have claimed to have occasionally determined that a place is actually haunted.

So to summarise the four groups, they all believe that most cases can be explained through non-paranormal means, but they appear to all have some type of belief in the paranormal. They also all claim to be able to use a rational approach to their investigations that will identify the real hauntings from other non-paranormal occurrences.

Do these groups have the objectivity to put their beliefs to one side when embarking on investigations. Stay tuned for the next post where I examine some of the groups investigations.








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