The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Convergence/Skepchicon Day 2: Ghost Hunting & Evidence Review

Posted by mattusmaximus on July 3, 2010

On the second day of Convergence/Skepchicon, one event especially caught my eye – a talk titled “The Other Side: Ghost Hunting & Evidence Review” given by Dave Schrader, the host of Paranormal Radio. Almost immediately I was skeptical, as I have analyzed the claims & methods of various ghost hunters before and found them to be quite dubious.  In addition, many of my skeptic colleagues cringed a bit when they heard his name and my mention of his talk.  Thus, in the spirit of learning more for myself I attended his talk and took many notes – in the end, I was both a bit impressed with Dave but also quite disappointed.  Read through my notes, which is a transcription of his talk, and please see my specific comments in italics. Also please make sure to read my closing question to Dave Schrader and his response…

The Other Side: Ghost Hunting & Evidence Review

How to investigate the Paranormal, from setting up a team to reviewing evidence.  Presented by Dave Schrader, host of Paranormal Radio and author of The Other Side: A Teens Guide to Ghost Hunting and the Paranormal.

Dave is walking around handing out info TAPS, ghost hunting, and talking about a local [Minneapolis] show called Ghostbustin’ 911 (lolz).

How many people have ever gone on a ghost hunt before? [a few hands raise, including my own]

I’m going to show you a bizarre, demonic picture from a possible demonic haunting.  The lady of the house claimed she was smelling weird smells like rotting meat or poop along with strange cries.  While there I was taking photos and got a shot of a demonic, and here it is… [shows photo of a little kid in a costume – laughter]

Title: A Common Sense Look at Paranormal Investigating and Evidence Review…

Ask questions at any time if you have them.

The presentation was developed to do the following things:

1. Common mistakes that can cause false positives.

2. How to become a more thought-filled and responsible investigator.  There are too many thrill-seekers as opposed to serious investigators.

3. Give you another perspective on the paranormal.  95% of stuff I see is easily debunked.

4. Give me a chance to talk to you about what a wonderful paranormal radio show Darkness Radio  is – on KTalk100.3

Statistics

According to a Gallup poll, 32% of Americans believe in ghosts.  How many people in this room believe in ghosts? [about ¾ of hands in room go up] – I think the real number is higher and there are a lot of people in the paranormal closet.

Only 7% of Americans surveyed don’t believe in some form of the paranormal – UFOs, ghosts, etc.

Note: These arguments are irrelevant, as they are little more than an argument from popularity. Just because a lot of people believe something doesn’t make it true, whether it be ghosts or a Flat Earth. Science is not done by voting – evidence & experiments trump popular opinion.

What is a Skeptic? (and can it cause embarrassing rashes?)

A skeptic is a person who questions the validity or authenticity of something purporting to be factual.  We need more skeptics in the field.

Note: I wholeheartedly agree.  Unfortunately, as you will see, while Dave seems to do a pretty good job in many respects, he cuts the skeptical analysis short in his work & doesn’t follow the critical thinking to its logical conclusion.  I think this may be because he really wants to believe in ghosts.

A skeptic is also someone who maintains a doubting attitude, as toward values, plans, statements, or the character of others.

Things to Use on a Paranormal Investigation [shows photo of ladies wearing tinfoil hats🙂 ]

Get a good video camera, including one with night-vision if possible.

A normal camera, digital or film works.  Digital may be better because there are lots of ways film can be screwed up when developed.

Audio recorder – one of my favorite forms of ghost-hunting.

Note: Why would a ghost show up on any of this equipment?  What is the physical mechanism by which a ghost, if such a thing existed, would interact with the rest of the world?  Do any ghost hunters have an answer to this question?  Nope.

Also, note Dave’s love for audio recordings.  He especially gets into something called EVP – electronic voice phenomenon, which is little more than an audio version of pareidolia.

Flashlight – you don’t want to fall down the stairs.  Don’t where the head-lights, because they can generate false positives due to shadows being cast.

Notepad & Pencil – keep notes for later evidence review.

Eyes, Ears, and Nose – use your basic senses.  Look around!  Don’t get so technology driven that you forget to use your senses.

Common Sense! – makes comments about “matrixing” which is pareidolia and refers to all kinds of photos where there is some kind of pattern recognition.

Note: Here he hits the nail on the head, but while he applies good critical thinking (via referencing pareidolia) in terms of photography, he fails to apply that same critical analysis to his pet method of EVP.

There are some more expensive kinds of equipment… that comes later.

What NOT to use:

Ouija Board – the problem is that these could be doing bad things (demons / portal to hell).  These are potentially evil things that could cause trouble.  I also wouldn’t recommend things like pendulums and whatnot – leave that to the psychics & mediums who know what they’re doing.

Goat’s Blood [laughter]

Virgin Sacrifice [more laughter]

Rectal Thermometer [ha ha ha]… Magic 8 Ball [lolz]

Note: I agree that one shouldn’t use a Ouija Board, but not for the reasons Dave suggests.  Don’t use one because they’re useless – they don’t do anything at all!  Also note how Dave biases the talk by making implicit references to spirits, ghosts, and demons, as if these entities really exist despite having not provided any evidence to this effect.  This is clearly a version of begging the question, a common logical fallacy.

Tips Before Beginning an Investigation:

1. Have permission to investigate.

2. Know your surroundings.  Come to look over it in full light so that you can assess possible problems during investigations (broken windows can cause breezes, missing floor boards can be dangerous, exposed wires can cause stray EMFs).

3. Wear comfortable clothing.

4. Be well hydrated, well fed, and well rested.  Dehydration, hunger, fatigue can cause experiences attributed to “paranormal activity”.

5. Always have a teammate with you (for both safety reasons and to validate or deny any supposed “ghost activity”).

6. If panic sets in always remove yourself from the situation immediately to avoid a mass hysteria situation.

7. Make sure you have extra batteries.

8. Don’t drink alcohol or take drugs (unless you bring enough for everyone [lolz]).

BIG DON’Ts of a Paranormal Investigation:

1. Don’t wear reflective or glow in the dark clothing.

2. Avoid wearing or remove all shiny jewelry, watches, dangly earrings, necklaces, pins, broaches, decorative rings – partly because IR light is reflected from this stuff even though you can’t see it.

3. Avoid shoes with hard soles or heels.

4. Don’t smoke, wear perfumes or colognes.  They smell and can cause false positive “stenches”.

5. Turn off or do not bring your cell phones because EMF output has been known to “irritate spirits” and can cause false positive readings on equipment.

6. Don’t rely solely on divination tools (???)

Note: Again, in reference to point #5 above – why would spirits or ghosts even interact with EMF at all?  What is the mechanism here?  Hand-waving?

EVPs:

1. Have each member of the team speak their name and “GET OUT” as both regular voice and in whispered tones for controlled base line.

2. No whispering during your investigation!

3. Announce ANY noise you may make or another team member may make, so as to avoid false positives.

4. Understand the place you’re investigating, the history and who is haunting.  If it is a child or abused woman, taunting may not be the best way to get responses.  Don’t “taunt the ghosts” because it’s bad juju.

5. Be polite, ghosts were people too.  How would you like to be spoken to?  Introduce yourself and explain what you are doing and why.  Don’t use big words or fancy terms, be basic and to the point.

6. Try two methods: have someone run a recorder the whole time, have one do no more than 2-3 minute intervals with an immediate review.

7. Test and see if you can record and use headphone at the same time.  Sometimes an EVP can be caught in real time using headphones.

8. Ask simple questions.

9. Feel free to speak and have conversations, too.  Sometimes the spirits interject into a conversation they are interested in.

10. Don’t talk over each other during scheduled EVP sessions, and allow time for a response.

Note: In reference to points 4, 5, and 9 – again, why is he begging the question by implicitly assuming that these things exist when it hasn’t been proven?  This obviously biases the discussion.  Not to mention, once again, what is the mechanism by which a ghost can interact via EVP?

Photos:

1. Understand your camera and its settings.

2. Make sure it is set to the best parameters for the investigation.

3. Remove any straps, jewelry that may hang in front of the lens.

4. Don’t smoke or exhale when taking a picture to avoid smoke or condensation from breath.

5. Take multiple pictures of an area because sometimes it takes time for a spirit to manifest.

6. Take pictures of each room from multiple angles so later you can compare any anomalies which might occur.

7. Bring extra batteries and stay away from generic batteries.

8. Ask permission to take their [the spirits] pictures.

9. Take pictures of each teammate in light and in dark for comparison later when reviewing evidence.

10. If you take film in to be developed make sure to request that they give you all the pictures back.

Note: #8 is more of the same begging the question as before.

Video-taping:

1. When setting up cameras in a room, try to set them so that they can see each other without disturbing lenses with the light.

2. Place stationary camera in a corner of the room so that you know that nothing is behind the camera.

3. Understand the working of your camera.

4. Make sure the setup is secure & stationary.

5. Lockdown rooms that cameras are set up in, and announce when you leave and when you enter.

6. ??? [I missed this one]

Should We Use a Sensitive?

1. Sure, this is another way to validate actual evidence that you collect.  They can direct you to a possible effect to help corroborate evidence.  Do not rely solely on the “feelings” of a sensitive.

2. It may be a better use of a sensitive to have them take notes in a notebook of what they say, when, where and how they experienced it so that during evidence review you can check to see if their findings correlate with hard evidence you may collect.

3. Do not give any information to the sensitive on the history, etc. so that they aren’t biasing the situation.

Note: By “sensitive” I assume Dave means psychics and/or mediums. Here he again begs the question by assuming some kind of validity where it isn’t deserved.  In addition, he appears to want to have it both ways – he gives the impression that there’s something to these sensitives, while at the same time cautioning potential investigators that they could screw things up due to their subjectivity.  On this point he’s right, but he also fails to note his own subjective biases.

I should also mention at this point that Dave spoke about charlatan John Edwards, the cold reader who supposedly “talks to the dead” on TV & radio. Dave spoke as if what Edwards was doing is genuine (it isn’t – here’s how his trick works) and cast nary a critical eye upon it.

Reviewing Evidence:

1. Digital cameras can come up with double exposures.

2. Always review evidence in teams, compare notes, and try not to bias each other.

3. Do not share what your thoughts are on an EVP – avoid matrixing.

4. Be objective and look through your evidence and try to come up with a good, solid reason as to why that happens.

5. Plan a return trip.

6. Don’t show the evidence to your client until after the investigation is concluded.

7. Don’t be afraid to ask outsiders to question you.

Note: I really want to point out #3 above, because within a few minutes of Dave making this very important point of not sharing one’s thoughts in advance on an EVP, he did just this thing in sharing a “ghost voice” EVP recording with us.  He first played a sound clip for the audience, and many people heard something but had no clue what it was; he then said it was a voice that said a specific phrase and played the clip again, whereupon many in the audience gasped in shock as they heard the “voice”.  So while Dave talks a good game, he needs to walk the walk – I think he doesn’t necessarily apply the very methods he discusses, and this leads to sloppy work as with his EVP demonstration.

Something else he discussed which really showed his bias towards belief in ghosts was his account of his investigation of the supposedly haunted Queen Mary ship. He told us that his team had heard stories that the ship was haunted by a little girl’s spirit and they investigated – upon reviewing the evidence, his team found all kinds of stuff confirming the existence of the little girl’s ghost.  But after that, his team learned that the stories of the little girl’s ghost were fabricated… what happened then?  Their belief in the paranormal is so strong that his team concluded not that they had perhaps been fooling themselves by being biases, but that they had discovered a ghost that no one previously knew was there.  Wow – can you say blatant confirmation bias?

I also want to point out that in large part Dave’s “evidence” (that 5% he seems to focus a lot on) amounts to little more than a big argument from ignorance. He seems to fall into the trap of thinking that if there’s something that he cannot explain, then that is evidence for a ghost.  This is as opposed to putting forth a working hypothesis and making positive assertions for what we should expect to see from a spirit or ghost, should they actually exist.

Which brings me to my final point: the question I asked of Dave Schrader at the end of his talk.  I basically told him that as a hard-core skeptic on this stuff, and as a physicist, I was not impressed because he and other ghost hunters need to do the following three things:

1. They must provide a specific, quantifiable, operational definition of what is a ghost.

2. They must provide a hypothesis for what physical mechanism would allow ghosts to even interact with the world around them, including the various forms of equipment used by ghost-hunters.

3. They must provide a set of protocols by which a “ghost signal” can be distinguished from a signal which is generated by other well-understood physical phenomena.

I further pointed out to him that I’ve never seen any ghost-hunter (including him) address any of these questions.  Until then, they won’t be taken seriously by skeptics & scientists.

He actually agreed with me!  He said that he doesn’t have an operational definition of what is a ghost, and he’s never heard of one (strike one).  He further stated that part of the problem is that the ghost-hunting community cannot agree on any protocols and that they all tend to do their own thing (strike two).  He said that he’d be interested in talking with people like me and those at JREF about these things, because he does want to learn more.

I approached Dave after the lecture and gave him my card.  He told me that he’d like to have me on his radio show some time, and I agreed that it would be a good discussion to have.  We’ll see if he follows through.

My closing thoughts: Dave is a very funny & engaging guy.  More than once me and the other skeptics present found ourselves lolzing because of his sense of humor.  I think in many ways he is a real believer in ghosts, and while he does have much good advice for potential investigators on not fooling themselves, he falls short on really applying his critical analysis to his own biases, and this creeps through.

Follow-Up: I ran into Dave earlier today (July 3rd) at another panel, and we talked some more.  In the near future, within the next few weeks, we’re going to have another discussion for his radio show, Paranormal Radio.  Stay tuned🙂

15 Responses to “Convergence/Skepchicon Day 2: Ghost Hunting & Evidence Review”

  1. […] Convergence/Skepchicon Day 2: Ghost Hunting & Evidence Review … […]

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  3. bug_girl said

    Great job writing all this up!! Thanks for documenting this. Can’t wait for you to explain the physics of ghosts ;p

  4. Congratulations! You made it into The Babbler!

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  9. […] all detailed on a blog called The Skeptical Teacher. There was, for instance, Skepticism 101, Ghost Hunting and pseudoscience (“We watched ‘Conspiracy’ with Jesse Ventura and it’s the […]

  10. […] Comments News from the long w… on Convergence/Skepchicon Day 2: …PhillyBurbs.com: … on How I Use a Card Trick to Teac…KMA on “Mysteries of the […]

  11. Ben Edmond said

    I can recall some unexplained things happening to me as a kid, but now I question if

    they were supernatural or created by youthful ignorance.

    Anyhow, here’s a rather provocative and hilarious article my friend wrote about Ghost Hunting:
    http://thingsthatshouldntstillexist.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/01-ghost-hunters/

  12. […] associated with them – range from addressing claims of low-frequency EMFs inducing cancer to ghost-hunting woo (and the companies that promote such […]

  13. […] blogged here before about “professional” ghost-hunters and their woo.  And in many cases I have taken such “professionals” to task for not really following […]

  14. amazing tips…A good ghost hunters article right here. will have to link to it…

  15. […] almost two years – about a very interesting discussion I had with paranormal investigator Dave Schrader at Convergence 2010 on the topic of “ghost hunting”.  Despite the fact that Dave’s a believer in […]

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