In part three of this three part series that examines paranormal investigation groups, Christiaan checks out some of the instruments used to detect the paranormal.
Now having read the first two articles you may have at this point dismissed some of my rationalisations of the ghost hunters claims. Why? Because these investigation groups use all of these scientific instruments like EMF detecters, infrared cameras and temperature gauges (and in the case of Christchurch’s Spooks Paranormal Investigations – dowsing) to detect ghosts don’t they?
There does appear to be variability between the different groups in the emphasis placed upon instruments in the detection of the paranormal. Brad Scott at the Wellington Based NZ Paranormal has stressed that his investigations do not rely upon instruments, whereas looking at the Spooks Paranormal Investigations videos, they do appear to place some importance on their use.
What is it that these instruments do? What do they measure? And how does this relate to ghosts? Lets look at some of the more popular instruments:
Night vision cameras are often employed at various locations around the premise in question. Active infrared cameras are the most likely cameras to be used, probably because they are the cheaper (NZ$125 – $350) compared with thermal imaging cameras (NZ$400 – $1000’s). Active infrared cameras have near infrared lights fixed to them, so they illuminate the vicinity of the camera in infrared spectrum rather than actually detecting warm and cold areas of the room, which is what a thermal imaging camera does. With this in mind it would probably serve the investigator no better if they were to invest in a normal camera with a light attached to it. What they appear to assume is that a ghost may not be detected in the visible light spectrum, but it can be detected in the near infrared spectrum. Why is this when traditionally ghost photos have been taken using normal cameras? There is also often an assumption that ghosts effect the temperature, so if paranormal investigators are operating under this hypothesis then a thermal imaging camera would be more appropriate.
Thermometers (Both laser and local). As previously seen in the Spooks video, they used infrared thermometers to measure the temperature to look for hot and cold spots that may indicate the presence of a ghost. Once again the issue arises that there is no scientific link between temperature and spirits. Furthermore, every time they take a measurement with one of these devices they are measuring the temperature of what ever they are pointing at, which in most cases would be the walls. The thermometers cannot measure the ambient air temperature. If there happened to be hot water pipes running behind a wall, or the other side of the room contained a wall that was heated, or if the house was cooling from the days warmth, there is going to be variation in the various surface temperatures in different parts of the buildings. With that in mind if you are constantly moving and pointing a thermometer at different parts of the room the reading will be variable. This in turn could be misinterpreted as evidence of the paranormal.
EMF meters are often seen being waved around a haunted location. Once again there is no scientific evidence to suggest that ghosts will emit or interfere with electromagnetic fields. Most EMF meters on the market are designed to measure in the 50/60Hz range as this is usually the range of mains electricity, although due to the unsupported fear of electromagnetic radiation causing cancer a range of meters are on the market. Spooks appear to use a product called ‘Cell Sensor’ which is an EMF meter that can measure a wide range of electromagnetic radiation and for added effect it has a red light and beep that is reminiscent of a Geiger counter from the movies. However, there are a vast range of electrical products that may emit electromagnetic fields and you are likely to detect a phenomena such as a ‘ghost’ kettle (or in the case of paranormal investigators a ghost infrared camera). A range of sources would need to be eliminated before you could then conclude that there was a field from an unknown origin – but then it would just be that – a field of an unknown origin. You could not then conclude it was a ghost. If one believes that the soul/spirit/ghost emits electromagnetic fields, then taken to its logical conclusion, if you were to agree that a soul was contained in a person when they were alive that subsequently became a ghost, then paranormal investigators could try to detect their own soul with an EMF meter. Would it be possible to differentiate between the small EMF field that the body emits and the soul that is floating around inside? If ghost hunters were looking for one way to provide evidence to validate the claim that paranormal entities emit EMF’s then that could be a hypothesis worth testing.
Electronic Voice Phenomenon (EVP’s) are often touted as evidence for the supernatural and paranormal investigators are no stranger to their detection. Only a tape recorder is required. This subject is lengthy and complicated due to the multiple environmental, psychological, and perceptive variables involved. But simply the most likely explanation of EVP’s is auditory pareidolia, which is where the brain incorrectly interprets random patterns as having being a familiar pattern , or apophenia, which is the brains tendency to find meaning in random patterns. To demonstrate the brains ability to make meaningful representations out of random patterns listen to this sine-wave speech (make sure that you listen to this one first!):
Click me first (Requires Quicktime)
What did it say? If you have not heard it before it probably sounded like a whole lot of random noises.
The following is the original speech prior to it being degraded:
Click me second (Requires Quicktime)
Now go back and listen to the first recording again. It just seems so clear now doesn’t it? (For more examples check out this Sine-Wave speech website and this website). Research into sine-wave speech has found that the more a person is exposed to it, the better they get at identifying the voices. A paranormal investigator who spends hours listening to the static and background noise of their audio recordings are unconsciously training themselves to improve their ability to construct meaning out of random noise. They in turn can then isolate these random noises and then communicate the meaning to another person who will immediately ‘hear’ the voice.
The general theme of these instruments is that the underlying assumptions for their usefulness are not particularly compelling. Even if one was to accept that there were spirits or energies that existed after death, none of these instruments have a scientific basis for their efficacy.
People all over the world believe that their homes are haunted or subject to paranormal influences. They often do seek explanations for the phenomena that they experience, so to just write off paranormal investigation groups is not a constructive approach. However, like any field there is always room for improvement based upon constructive criticism. So how could such groups improve the robustness of their investigations?
An open mind is important and one should start at the position of not knowing what has caused the phenomenon rather than going in as believing the location is haunted or being a hardline debunker.
The background research of the address is very important. Interviews with witnesses need to be detailed and only open ended questions should be used. It may be very tempting to use leading questions (particularly if you are trying to angle towards a preconceived bias). Ideally they should be interviewed as soon as possible after an event, and the facts of the event should be focussed upon, not the witnesses opinion. Interviews should be recorded with an audio device and then transcribed. If appropriate, the witness should be questioned about any medication they are taking and also whether they are suffering from any medical or psychological illness.
There are a number of psychological considerations when interviewing that relate to the tainting of memory through the repeated telling of the narrative, the impact of ones worldview, and how an event fits into the popular culture. Corroboration, where possible, of a witnesses account is important as it provides a little more weight to their anecdotal account.
If particular myths are identified then they should be thoroughly researched to establish their veracity. It is not unusual to find in cases of alleged hauntings where the person who was supposed to be the ghost either never existed or did not live at the location in question.
The investigation needs to focus on replicating as closely as possible the environment and circumstances that a paranormal event was witnessed. Then the goal of the experiment would be to see if the paranormal phenomenon as described by the witness occurs as they described it (i.e. replication is being sought). This is where items like cameras or temperature gauges could come in handy depending on what is to be observed. For example if it is alleged that there is a cold spot in a certain location, then this could actually be measured.
If a phenomenon is identified, then ideally it should be independently replicated (where possible) to boost the probability that there was an unexplained event initially observed or measured.
Depending on the paranormal event being measured, baseline measurements should be taken. Continuing with the cold spot example, then the temperature should be measured at a range of times throughout the day and night, not just at the time of the replication of the environment.
There should be standardized note taking to assist with the comparison of investigations.
When weighing up results, do not fall into the trap of deferring to a paranormal conclusion simply because it cannot be explained. If a phenomena cannot be explained, then the conclusion should be that it is unexplained. The conclusion that a phenomena is paranormal is going to require positive proof or evidence.
Finally, do away with EMF meters, dowsing rods, EVP’s, infrared cameras, and temperature gauges, unless they are going to be used to assist with measuring or recording of the replication of a previously described environment.
Happy ghost hunting!