Tag Archives: electromagnetic field

The logical paradox of ghost hunting

Source: The Logic of Science

Many people believe in the paranormal, and a great deal of time and effort is spent searching for evidence of it. Indeed, shows like “Ghost Hunters” are extremely popular, and the notion of using scientific equipment to detect the supernatural is well ingrained into our literature, movies, and culture more generally. The reality is, however, the ghost hunting is a perfect case study in pseudoscience, and it is based on a series of logical fallacies and amusing paradoxes.
ghost ElmerGhost02_350pxMost obviously, ghost hunting (along with related pseudoscientific ventures such as UFO spotting, searches for Big Foot and Nessy, Creation Research, etc.) suffers a serious flaw which automatically removes it from the realm of science. Namely, it starts with a conclusion (i.e., ghosts exist), then tries to prove that conclusion. In contrast, real science always starts with the evidence, then forms a conclusion based on that evidence. This distinction is extremely important, because  if you start with a conclusion, you will inevitably find a way to twist the evidence to fit your preconceived view, even if it results in ad hoc fallacies. For example, suppose that ghost hunters go into an abandoned building and detect electromagnetic energy (EM). They will view that as evidence of a supernatural presence, but to those of us who aren’t already convinced that ghosts exist, that energy could be a bad wire, a faulty transformer outside, the cameras, lights,and other equipment being used by the ghost hunters, etc. You see, the explanation that the energy is coming from a ghost is only convincing if you are already convinced that ghosts exist. This is why real science always has to start with the evidence, then form a conclusion. If you set out to prove something, you will always find a way to do it (at least in your mind).
ghost hunt emf_200pxGhost hunting also suffers a serious paradox which is somewhat unique to it, and which I find highly entertaining. Ghosts are supposed to be paranormal, supernatural, metaphysical, etc. yet ghost hunters try to document their existence by looking for physical clues. This is problematic because, by definition, science is the study of the physical universe. It is inherently incapable of answering questions about the supernatural. So anytime that you are looking for the metaphysical, you are automatically doing pseudoscience, not science.
To put this another way, you cannot prove the existence of the metaphysical by documenting the physical. Let’s say, for example, that a ghost hunter goes  .  .  .

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Remember the 90s Panic That Power Lines Caused Cancer?

By Sarah Zhang via gizmodo

“The potential danger from EM fields is making millions of human beings into test animals,” Ted Koppel solemnly intones in a 1990 Nightline report on electromagnetic fields from power lines. But two decades and hundreds of studies later, there has been no great cancer epidemic caused by power lines. Why did we get so scared in the first place?

The latest video from Retro Report, a series reexamining the breathless news coverage of yore, delves into the late 80s and 90s panic over electromagnetic fields. A small number of suggestive—but inconclusive—studies showed a possible link between the presence of power lines and cancer in children. With power lines threading through every neighborhood, parents naturally panicked.

Retro Report tracks down David Savitz, one of the first epidemiologists to find a link between power lines and childhood cancer. Savitz now disavows that link, dismissing those early studies as aberrations in what is now a huge body of literature that finds no risk from electromagnetic fields. This is just how science works— with contradictions and in fits and starts.

The evening news may no longer be yammering about power lines and cancer, but the same story is still playing out with GMOs and cell phone radiation. [Retro Report]


10 Strange Tales About Paranormal Research

By Pauli Poisuo via Listverse

Everyone likes a good paranormal tale. However, often the really interesting stories are not about ghosts and UFOs—they’re about the people who run after them with a notebook in hand.

The world is full of tireless paranormal researchers who spend countless hours in a never-ending attempt to understand the incomprehensible and find the truth behind the legends. These are their stories.

10 • William Hope And Spirit Photography

Williamhopehoax5_250pxWilliam Hope (1866-1936) was a famous British medium and paranormal researcher. He gained fame with his amazing “spirit photography,” a seemingly uncanny ability to capture the images of ghosts and spirits on camera. Although this technology is commonplace today (and, more often than not, known as “photoshopping”), Hope was the first man to produce these type of images. As such, his popularity as a medium exploded.

Hope took many precautions with the plate cameras he used in order to rule out any possibility of fraud. However, this itself turned out to be a scam. In reality, the complicated rules he claimed to follow were little more than smoke and mirrors. Hope’s pictures were actually the product of skillful photo manipulation and advanced superimposing techniques. Still, although we can’t respect him as the herald of the supernatural world he liked to present himself as, we can at least give him a nod for his work as a pioneering photography artist.

9 • Independent Investigations Group

The Independent Investigations Group—or IIG for short—is a famous paranormal research organization that was founded in Hollywood, California in 2000, but now operates across America. They’re the largest and best known group of their kind in the US, and their founder, Jim Underdown, is a common sight at panels and discussions around the country.

IIC takes a decidedly skeptical stance in its investigations, but it always strives to give its subjects a fair chance to prove their mystical powers. They have an ongoing offer to pay a large cash prize to anyone who can demonstrate scientifically verifiable paranormal abilities. The sum was originally $50,000, but was recently bumped up to $100,000, possibly thanks to their collaboration with the James Randi Foundation, another famous skeptic organization.

Be warned, though: It’s not easy money. The video above shows the IIC investigating Anita Ikonen, who had claimed to have the power of “medical dowsing” (in this case, telling if someone is missing an internal organ).

It didn’t go well for her.

8 • EMF Meters


Photo credit: paranormalghost.com

EMF (electromagnetic field) meters are one of the most common tools in the working kit of a ghost hunter. There is some confusion as to why they are so important. Some say it’s because ghosts actually emit electromagnetic radiation, others claim they merely disturb the area’s existing electromagnetic field. It doesn’t really matter which of the theories is true—either way, the ghost hunting community often accepts the idea that ghosts and other spirits can be detected with an EMF meter.

Obviously, the use of the device presents many problems. No one really knows how to interpret the readings—whether or not ghosts are right behind them. Certain researchers have even speculated that EMF anomalies might actually cause hauntings, rather than the other way around.

Some of the more enthusiastic paranormal researchers find their way around the problem by creating complicated sets of fine-tuning instructions for their EMF meters. However, it’s pretty safe to assume that most researchers just carry their meters around and if the needle starts moving, grab their cameras and hope for the best.

7 • Viktor Grebennikov

460495603_250pxViktor Grebennikov was a Soviet scientist and naturalist with a very strange interest in supernatural—or, rather, supremely natural—methods of transport. Grebennikov’s day job was as an entymologist (insect researcher), but he liked to dabble in the paranormal. Before his death in 2001, he had amassed a large amount of research on the art of levitation, and even claimed to have built a platform able to levitate a fully-grown man.

Grebennikov’s alleged levitation techniques were based on a specific, arcane geometrical structure he claimed he had built from insect parts. This bug machine was supposedly able to lift him for over 305 meters (1,000 ft) and could easily reach speeds of over 25 kilometers (15.5 mi) per minute. He was protected from these high speeds by an energy grid all around him.

Well, that’s his story anyway. When you actually look at the video material he left behind, it looks a lot like the few bug parts he’s able to move without touching them only do so because he’s creating static electricity by rubbing the surface under them.

6 • Ovilus


Photo credit: ghostoutlet.com

The Ovilus is a “ghost box” that has gained notoriety among paranormal investigators in recent years. It’s essentially the ghost hunter’s equivalent of a text-to-speech program. The Ovilus detects the subtle changes ghosts, demons, and other incorporeal entities make in their surroundings, and converts these messages into spoken words. It’s a dowsing rod, EMF meter, and a recording device, all in one machine. Ovilus III, the most recent model, is said to have a vocabulary of 2,000 words, along with a thermal flashlight, multiple operating modes, a recording function, and other neat extras.

As amazing as the Ovilus would be if it really worked, at least one reviewer is certain that the product is actually a fraud. Although it does have all the sensors and functions that it claims to, they do nothing to detect—let alone communicate with—ghosts. The Ovilus merely scans your environment and, when the conditions are right, the machine gives you a preset speech response from its memory.

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Ghost Meters: I Can Name that Ghost in 5 Milligauss

Sharon_hill_80pxBy Sharon Hill via The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry – CSI

Why do paranormal investigations use EMF meters? Turns out, they don’t even know why. This is what happens when the paranormal gets sciencey. It isn’t pretty but there is beeping and flashing lights.

What's behind this hanging quilt? The ghost meter is pegged. (Photo by author)

What’s behind this hanging quilt? The ghost meter is pegged. (Photo by author)

I got a package in the mail from Amazon around the time of my birthday. It was light, not a book, something from my Wish List. I had my very own ghost meter! I started roaming my house looking for sources of electromagnetic fields.

If I just let my ghost meter sit there, it does nothing. But if I find a known source of electricity, then the analog meter bounces upward or, in some cases, pegs all the way to the right causing a flashing light and beeping sound. Around the house, here is what sets it off—the circuit box, the electronic displays on the oven and dishwasher, my digital alarm clock, the microwave, toaster oven and dehumidifier when turned on. No surprises there. My cell phone didn’t trigger it. I tested it outside with an approaching lightning storm. It was slightly greater than 0 milligauss outside compared to inside, and varied slightly from front of the house to back of the house. The storm never got close enough for me to record electromagnetic fields (EMFs) fluxes from lightning discharges. That probably was a good thing because I would have been standing out there in a rather dumb position, you know, for science.

A circuit box generates high EMF readings on the ghost meter. (Photo by author)

A circuit box generates high EMF readings on the ghost meter. (Photo by author)

My questions about this device were many and varied. What was it really measuring? Was it telling me anything? And, most importantly, what does this have to do with ghosts?

ElmerGhost02_250pxEarlier this summer, during a ghost hunt in which I was an observer, I saw paranormal researchers each with their own kinds of EMF meters. Some meters registered a change in the surrounding field at the same time. Some individual meters would fluctuate with no apparent electrical sources. The researchers considered these fluctuations to be indicative of responsive entities or paranormal energy around us. It was assumed that these anomalies were paranormal.

Where did this idea come from—this connection between EMFs and ghosts? It looks sciencey and objective. But something is not on the level. I consulted more knowledgeable people and the parapsychology literature to get some clarity on this issue.

There is Science Behind These Devices

My meter was cheap but was noted by reviewers as being a “good beginner device”. Just don’t wave it around too fast, they said, because that makes it go off.

ghost hunt emf_200pxI asked former physicist and one-time paranormal investigator on the Queen Mary “haunted” ship, Yau-Man Chan, what the deal was with these devices. He said they are simple to construct, very straightforward. They are an inductor coil and an amplifier. They pick up “impulsive” EMF signals, like a large inductive load turning on and off—an appliance with a motor, for example. Elevators, he notes, are a huge source of EMF signals like this. But because these hand-held meters are not specific enough in direction or frequency, they aren’t very useful for much and not at all precise enough to conclude what is detected if it’s not obvious. Electricians don’t use these meters. They use more advanced equipment.

There are many other kinds of EMF meters used in paranormal investigations. GhostGadgets.com’s has a discussion about the different types and how they work. I attempted to contact the owner of that site with more questions but got no response.

They do capture seemingly anomalous and transient EMFs during paranormal investigations as I observed. An EMF anomaly is an interesting phenomenon regardless of the paranormal association. It is a recording of an environmental variable that shows an unexpected flux. Yet, ghost hunters are rather convinced of their cause. I found this type of statement often: “When you find an unexplainable field, normally between 2 and 7 milligauss, it is associated with spirit activity”. (Source) This statement is problematic. There are too many leaps in logic and no evidence to support that conclusion. The connection between anomalies and spirit activity is assumed. The best we can rationally say is that we found an anomaly. Concluding “I don’t know what is causing this” (often without even a modicum of effort to find out) does not equal “paranormal”. But that is indeed what happens. According to many in paranormal investigation, it’s the default conclusion.

EMF meters “… detect fluctuations in electromagnetic fields and low strength moving EMF fields that have no source,” says Ghosthunting 101. How do you know there is no source? Has every potential source been eliminated? It is improbable that the investigator has been able to do that. There IS a source. You just didn’t locate it.
“It is a common theory that spirits disrupt this field in such a way that you can tell one is present by higher than normal readings with [an EMF] meter.” (Source) I found that “common theory” assumption in several places – stated that it is “generally accepted” by paranormal investigators that spirits emit an ELF (extremely low frequency) field and this measurement is indicative of their presence. (Curiously, the quote above appeared verbatim and unattributed on many ghost group sites which is evidence that these websites readily copy and paste from each other.) Researchers are often far too conclusive in their baseless assertions: “Nine times out of ten, if a mysterious field is constant and stable, it’s artificial; if it fluctuates wildly, it’s paranormal.” (J.P. Warren, How to Hunt Ghosts, p. 145) Oh, really? Citations please! Show your work! Another possible interpretation of that statement is that the concept of paranormal is too broad and vague to be of any meaning whatsoever.

Messy and Vague Data and Language

K2 Meter

K2 Meter

Not all paranormal investigators get that excited over EMF spikes because they will admit it’s clearly not a consistent observation. The data are all over the place. Paranormal investigator Kenny Biddle conducted experiments with the widely used K2 Meter made popular due to its appearance in the equipment array of television ghost chasers. He found the readings were inconsistent, the device was very sensitive and also easily manipulated with small electrical devices like cell phones, cameras and camera flashes. [The Bent Spoon magazine V1 p 17-22.]

Some have noted that they had a “paranormal” moment yet the EMF device did nothing. That’s actually a data point that is unsupportive of the theory of EMF=ghosts, but they have not recognized the importance of that. But they would admit that no device conclusive detects ghosts.

There are a few studies that are suggestive that haunt phenomena is correlated to local EMF variances. However, others that have not found this correlation. Much more solid work is needed before we can definitively link EMF anomalies to experiences described as “hauntings”. Yet, the link is widely touted by paranormal researchers.

Vagueness is a problem in this field. We have an unreliable reading of questionable accuracy, positing an unknown source or the source is that which we have not yet conclusively determined to exist. We can’t even get an operational definition of a “ghost”! Science is particular about defining terms and using supporting references. Not so with 99% of paranormal “research.” You can’t do anything resembling science is such a state.

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Nocebo Mass Delusion

by via NeuroLogica Blog

Nocebo_150pxExpectation bias cuts both ways, for positive and negative expectations. Expectation bias, the tendency to perceive and accept data that reinforces your expectation, is one of the many contributors to placebo effects (the illusion of a positive benefit that derive from something other than an active treatment). It is also, however, part of nocebo effects  (the illusion of negative side effects from something other than active treatment).

Expectation bias can be powerful enough in some people to lead not only to the perception of a benefit or side effect but to a frank delusion. When this happens on a large scale, that can lead to a mass delusion. There are many episode that demonstrate this effect, but now there is also a controlled experiment that also confirms it.

A recent study looked at sham exposure to wifi signals in 147 subjects. They were first exposed to either a documentary about the dangers of wifi, or to a documentary about internet security. A total of 54% of the subjects experienced

“…agitation and anxiety, loss of concentration or tingling in their fingers, arms, legs, and feet. Two participants left the study prematurely because their symptoms were so severe that they no longer wanted to be exposed to the assumed radiation.”

wifi ouch_300pxFurther, the group exposed to the wifi documentary experience significantly more symptoms.  This is a small study but it matches prior research showing that those who believe they have electromagnetic sensitivity will experience symptoms when exposed to sham EMF. The difference with the current study is that it used healthy volunteers and controlled for media exposure.

Systematic reviews of the research on EM hypersensitivity show that those who self-identify as having EM hypersensitivity (which has now been renamed in the technical literature as “Idiopathic environmental intolerance attributed to electromagnetic fields”) cannot tell the difference between real and sham EMF. This review concluded:

“ No robust evidence could be found to support this theory. However, the studies included in the review did support the role of the nocebo effect in triggering acute symptoms in IEI-EMF sufferers. Despite the conviction of IEI-EMF sufferers that their symptoms are triggered by exposure to electromagnetic fields, repeated experiments have been unable to replicate this phenomenon under controlled conditions.”

The new study suggest that this nocebo effect can happen on a large scale due to media reports, and cautions the media about sensationalizing such reports.

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via The Skeptic’s Dictionary – Skepdic.com

electromagnetic-radiation 1005Electro-sensitives are people who suffer from various physical and psychological ailments that they say are caused by electro-magnetic radiation (EMR) from ordinary household appliances, radios, televisions, cell phones, Wi-Fi, computer monitors, overhead power lines, and many other sources. The term is self-descriptive and not a medical term.

Double-blind, controlled studies have repeatedly shown that electro-sensitives can’t tell the difference between genuine and sham electro-magnetic fields (EMFs).1, 2 For example, a research team in Norway (2007) conducted tests using sixty-five pairs of sham and mobile phone radio frequency (RF) exposures. “The increase in pain or discomfort in RF sessions was 10.1 and in sham sessions 12.6 (P = 0.30). Changes in heart rate or blood pressure were not related to the type of exposure (P: 0.30–0.88). The study gave no evidence that RF fields from mobile phones cause head pain or discomfort or influence physiological variables. The most likely reason for the symptoms is a nocebo effect.”

A systematic review of 31 experiments testing 725 “electromagnetically hypersensitive” participants concluded:

The symptoms described by “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” sufferers can be severe and are sometimes disabling. However, it has proved difficult to show under blind conditions that exposure to EMF can trigger these symptoms. This suggests that “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” is unrelated to the presence of EMF, although more research into this phenomenon is required.

cell phone no_200pxTwenty-four of these studies found no evidence supporting biophysical hypersensitivity. Seven reported some supporting evidence. “For 2 of these 7, the same research groups subsequently tried and failed to replicate their findings. In 3 more, the positive results appear to be statistical artefacts. The final 2 studies gave mutually incompatible results….metaanalyses found no evidence of an improved ability to detect EMF in ‘hypersensitive’ participants.1

Some electro-sensitives believe their cancer was caused by EMR. It is very unlikely that the kinds of things that electro-sensitives fear actually cause cancer. All electromagnetic radiation comes from photons. The energy of a photon depends on its frequency. “Roughly one million photons in a power line together have the same energy as a single photon in a microwave oven, and a thousand microwave photons have the energy equal to one photon of visible light” (Lakshmikumar 2009). Ionizing radiation is known to cause health effects; “it can break the electron bonds that hold molecules like DNA together” (Trottier 2009). “The photon energy of a cell phone EMF is more than 10 million times weaker than the lowest energy ionizing radiation” (Trottier 2009). Thus, the likelihood that our cell phones, microwave ovens, computers, and other electronic devices are carcinogenic is miniscule.

Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence against the view that our electronic gadgets are causing our headaches, nausea, Alzheimer’s, or stress, there are organized movements in several countries to enlighten the world about the dangers of EMR.

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Hutchinson hoax

via The Skeptic’s Dictionary

Given that Hutchison’s claims are outlandish and his credibility damaged by admitted fakery, it is likely that the effect named for him is complete claptrap. —Alan Bellows


“John Hutchison has not been able to convince the scientific community that he is anything more than a crackpot.”

The Hutchison hoax is named after an eccentric Canadian, John Hutchison, a fan of Nikola Tesla and Tesla coils. Hutchison claims to have discovered a number of weird things, such as the levitation of heavy objects and the fusion of metal and wood by forces heretofore undetected by normal scientists. Hutchison calls these weird things “the Hutchison effect.” Some of the things he calls weird seem to be explainable in terms of electromagnetism and other known physical forces, but he has more mysterious explanations, such as zero point energy and electromagnetic fields that cancel out gravity. Unfortunately, he seems to be the only one who can produce the effects, but not even he can replicate them—at least not in the presence of unbiased observers. His evidence consists mainly of his word and his videos.

One suggestion made by skeptics is that Hutchison uses an electromagnet on the ceiling, and places hidden pieces of metal inside objects so they will be attracted to the magnet. He could then film the objects with an upside-down camera as he powers down the electromagnet, making the objects on film appear to float up and out of the shot when in reality they are falling down to the floor. Many of the videos include conspicuous objects in the scene which do not move (such as an old broom), which could be deliberately attached to add to the illusion that the camera is not upside-down. Critics also point out that the videos do not show what happens to the objects after they levitate.*

His laboratory is his garage, kitchen, and other rooms in his apartment. Much of his apparatus seems to have come from military surplus stores.

Hutchison came on the scene around 1979, but he has not been able to convince the scientific community that he is anything more than a crackpot.

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Are Ghosts Real?

Science Says No-o-o-o

By Benjamin Radford via LiveScience

GhostGirl_250pxIf you believe in ghosts, you’re not alone: A 2005 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses, and about one-third believe in ghosts. Tens of thousands of people around the world actively search for ghosts as a hobby. Researcher Sharon Hill of the Doubtful Newsblog counted about 2,000 active amateur ghost-hunting groups in America.

Ghosts have been a popular subject for millennia, appearing in countless stories, from “Macbeth” to the Bible, and even spawning their own folklore genre: ghost stories. Ghosts are perhaps the most common paranormal belief in the world. Part of the reason is that belief in ghosts is part of a larger web of related paranormal beliefs, including near-death experience, life after death, and spirit communication.

The idea that the dead remain with us in spirit is an ancient one, and one that offers many people comfort; who doesn’t want to believe that our beloved but deceased family members aren’t looking out for us, or with us in our times of need? Most people believe in ghosts because of personal experience; they have seen or sensed some unexplained presence.

The science and logic of ghosts

ghostly_173Personal experience is one thing, but scientific evidence is another matter. Part of the difficulty in investigating ghosts is that there is not one universally agreed-upon definition of what a ghost is. Some believe that they are spirits of the dead who for whatever reason get “lost” on their way to The Other Side; others claim that ghosts are instead telepathic entities projected into the world from our minds.

Still others create their own special categories for different types of ghosts, such as poltergeists, residual hauntings, intelligent spirits and shadow people. Of course, it’s all made up, like speculating on the different races of fairies or dragons: there are as many types of ghosts as you want there to be.

There are many contradictions inherent in ideas about ghosts. For example, are ghosts material or not? Either they can move through solid objects without disturbing them, or they can slam doors shut and throw objects across the room. Logically and physically, it’s one or the other. If ghosts are human souls, why do they appear clothed and with (presumably soulless) inanimate objects like hats, canes, and dresses — not to mention the many reports of ghost trains, cars and carriages?

Ghosts1001_200pxIf ghosts are the spirits of those whose deaths were unavenged, why are there unsolved murders, since ghosts are said to communicate with psychic mediums, and should be able to identify their killers for the police. And so on; just about any claim about ghosts raises logical reasons to doubt it.

Ghost hunters use many creative (and dubious) methods to detect the spirits’ presences, often including psychics. Virtually all ghost hunters claim to be scientific, and most give that appearance because they use high-tech scientific equipment such as Geiger counters, Electromagnetic Field (EMF) detectors, ion detectors, infrared cameras and sensitive microphones. Yet none of this equipment has ever been shown to actually detect ghosts.

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New Age Energy

via InFact Video

Do you ever hear people talking about energy fields? What does that mean?

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