Science Says No-o-o-o
The Pseudoscience of Ghost Hunting
By Benjamin Radford via livescience
If you believe in ghosts, you’re not alone. Cultures all around the world believe in spirits that survive death to live in another realm. In fact, ghosts are among the most widely believed of paranormal phenomena: Millions of people are interested in ghosts, and a 2005 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses — and nearly half believe in ghosts.
Ghosts have been a popular subject for millennia, appearing in countless stories, from the Bible to “Macbeth,” and even spawning their own folklore genre: ghost stories. 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.
People have tried to (or claimed to) communicate with spirits for ages; in Victorian England, for example, it was fashionable for upper-crust ladies to hold séances in their parlors after tea and crumpets with friends. In America during the late 1800s, many psychic mediums claimed to speak to the dead — but were exposed as frauds by skeptical investigators such as Harry Houdini.
It wasn’t until the past decade that ghost hunting became a widespread interest around the world. Much of this is due to Syfy cable TV’s hit series “Ghost Hunters,” now in its 10th season of not finding good evidence for ghosts. The show spawned several spin-offs, including “Ghost Hunters International” and “Ghost Hunters Academy,” and it’s not hard to see why the show is so popular: the premise is that anyone can look for ghosts. The two original stars were ordinary guys (plumbers, in fact) who decided to look for evidence of spirits. Their message: You don’t need to be an egghead scientist, or even have any training in science or investigation. All you need is some free time, a dark place and maybe a few gadgets from an electronics store. If you look long enough, any unexplained light or noise might be evidence of ghosts.
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 RMS Queen Mary, a ship of enormous historical import, has been transformed into a roadside attraction whose owners profit off the allure of “ghosts.” Her glorious factual history has been brushed aside in a bid to pander to eager ghost-hunting tourists who aren’t thinking critically about the claims.
“For me, it is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.”
—Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World
I’ve had a fascination with classic ocean liners for most of my life. In particular, I have had a sincere awe for the RMS Queen Mary (QM) since I first stayed on board in the early 1980s—well after her retirement in 1967 and subsequent conversion into a hotel. She is a thing of beauty—a near-perfect expression of the industrial design aesthetics of the era (conceived in 1929, launched in 1934, maiden voyage in 1936). To say that we don’t make them like we used to is an insulting understatement.
Anytime in the last few years that I have even mentioned the Queen Mary, the immediate reaction from people within earshot is, “Ooh! I’ve heard that she’s really haunted!” My first reaction is a kind of amusement: how could one even tell the difference between something being really haunted as opposed to fakely haunted? My next reaction is usually a sigh of, “Here we go again,” and my final reaction more recently has been a kind of offense taken on behalf of the ship. I suppose that since an entire generation has passed since the Queen Mary was in service, the popular understanding of her has morphed into something a little weird and otherworldly rather than something that was a practical means of (elegant) travel. I write this article to express my own dismay but also to try to piece together why the QM has this persistent aura as the “haunted ship” and to make a plea to emphasize the real history of the ship as part of her future.
What Is a Haunting?
I suppose the first thing to do is to make a concise case for the problem of claiming that anything is “haunted.” No, I do not believe in ghosts, and at the same time a truly skeptical position must concede that this is not an outright rejection of the possibility that ghosts might exist, only that they haven’t been discovered yet. The problem is that there is no agreement among ghost believers as to what they actually are. If I had to aggregate just from popular ghost-hunting stories, I could paint a picture that ghosts are: sound-producing, light-producing, simultaneously corporeal and noncorporeal representations of “energy” (Electric? Chemical? Nuclear? Magnetic?) that can manipulate electronic devices, temperature, and physical bodies—except for when they don’t. There are so many definitions and assumed qualities of ghosts that it is impossible to come up with a working definition. In science, I would call that a “hypothesis.” Once there is a hypothesis or a working model explaining the properties of ghosts, then one could go about controlled experimentation. No one is at that stage though—because, again, ghosts have no known properties. So, no, the things that are claimed as “evidence” of ghosts (orbs in photos, mysterious sounds on a tape, a creaky door) can’t hold up as scientific evidence until a working hypothesis is established.
Furthermore, of course, anecdotes are not evidence. An anecdote is a personal story of a personal experience. It’s not a reliable way to make a judgment about the validity of a claim. Our minds are subject to bias, misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and conflation. The more anecdotes that accumulate don’t lead to the credence that the claim is true; it’s simply more “noise.” Personal experience is usually the absolute worst way to make a judgment about the veracity of any claim.
So that’s a little taste of why I don’t buy it when people make the “ghost” claim, but there are far better sources to brush up on your scientific understanding, such as Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe Weird Things, and 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True by Guy P. Harrison. While you’re at it, check out Brian Dunning’s excellent (and short!) dismantling of ghost claims in “Do Ghosts Exist?” on his blog at www.skepticblog.org/2012/08/30/do-ghosts-exist. There’s much more that can be said here, but I want to get back to the Queen Mary.
The Queen Mary was one of the crowning achievements of the art and industry of shipbuilding. She was created and sailed in an era after the Edwardian opulence of ships like the Titanic and Lusitania and just before the jet age had arrived. She’s a blend of old hand-craftsmanship with the speed and technology of modern industrial achievement. To put it in twenty-first-century terms, she was a marvel of art and design in the way that the space shuttle amazed onlookers thirty years ago or the 787 Dreamliner and Airbus 380 do today. She held the speed record for crossing the Atlantic for nearly two decades and carried more troops at a single time than any other vessel during World War II.
After an exceptional service history (and with the speed and economy of air travel relegating ocean travel to vacation cruising), the QM was set for retirement in Long Beach as a hotel/conference center/tourist attraction. Since 1967, tourists have visited her in dry dock and gotten a small taste of what travel was like when the “Queens” ruled the seas.
Retirement, sadly, would be anything but peaceful. As soon as she pulled into port for the last time, the Queen Mary was subjected to numerous “renovations” and conversions that would forever mar her interior. Entire sections have been gutted, rooms and artifacts lost to history, artwork destroyed, and other blunders of huge proportion. The ship’s operations and ownership have changed hands numerous times in the years since, and she has struggled economically. In many respects, the experience has been “dumbed down” with subpar restaurants (with some notable exceptions), chintzy events, and history taking a backseat to exploitative tours—the most prominent and most egregious of which is the “ghost” tour.
In the early 2000s, the “Ghosts and Legends Tour” was installed. It makes use of some very interesting (and otherwise off limits) spaces of the ship. Fantastical tales of the paranormal are woven into the ship’s actual history and presented with a theatrical flair and some low-rent special effects. Tourists see the magnificent first-class pool area but not in any state resembling its days at sea. This version is fading, cracking and filled with fog. The real-life accident with the Curacao—in which 239 sailors perished—is played out for maudlin drama in a former mail hold that plays the part of the “bow.”
The Problem with the ‘Haunting’
On any night at the Queen Mary, groups of tourists who are interested can also take a guided tour from a “paranormal” expert guide. They bump around waving electronics of dubious utility in the air hoping for some “evidence” of an apparition. They can explore otherwise off limits sections of the ship and really take their time exploring while asking each other, “Did you hear something?”
- The Most Haunted Places in America (nittanypride.wordpress.com)
- Come aboard the Queen Mary for a Halloween fright night (fameandwanderlust.wordpress.com)
- The Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor (ktla.com)
- The VERY Haunted HMS Queen Mary Luxury Liner – Long Beach, CA (wheretheghostslive.wordpress.com)
Watch the video below to see the strangest cloud phenomenon you will ever see! Guaranteed.
Then click the link below the video for the explanation from the good people over at Ghost Theory. Cool stuff.
- Ghost Picture of the Day: Light Anomaly (ghostsnghouls.com)
- The Friendly “Ghost” (rethinkingtheology.com)
- Ghost investigation at Fort Desoto (tampataxihack.com)
- Ghost hunters check Tasmania’s Franklin House for bumps in the night (abc.net.au)
- Ghostly Pics: Hampton Court Ghost (newsfromthespiritworld.com)
More humans have died than you will ever meet, see, or learn about. Since our split from the apes, Earth has been littered with the detritus of human demise—nearly 110 billion bodies. If spirits did live on after death, most of the people you meet will have already met their end.
Every single house on Earth would be haunted by default.
If becoming a ghost were the next stage of life after death, our planet would be absolutely packed with ectoplasm. Earth currently harbors over seven billion human beings, all very much alive. We pack them in skyscrapers and in endless suburbs. But adding another 110 billion souls to the population would make everyone a neighbor. If ghosts could interact with matter, they would need space to haunt, and in the United States, we value our space. If the seven billion humans alive today wanted to live like Americans, they would need over four times the landmass currently available on Earth. By extrapolation, all the haunting space required by ghosts would push that number to 185 times all the landmass on Earth. If ghosts existed, you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one (or it passing through one). Ghost hunter’s thermal cameras would see a blur of reds and blues wherever they looked.
Famous for being able to pass through matter, ghosts might simply pack together instead of being neighbors to everyone on the planet. Just how much space these phantasmal people would require is impossible to determine. How many ghosts could fit on the head of a pin? How many Ghostbusters’ ecto-containment chambers would you need to hold them all?
A new view of death accompanies real-life ghosts. When the body is just a vessel—a way station for the eternal spirit—life is a race to your best self. If ghosts manifest themselves as a picture of the person at the instant they died, old, grotesque ghosts would evaporate. Like how most animals strive to raise their children to reproductive maturity, all humans would occupy this material plane only until they looked however they wanted to look for eternity. Droves of twenty-somethings would commit suicide, seeking to remain young for all time. Billions of Dorian Grays make their pacts with death. Why live until you are old if you are bound to exist in that form forever? “Live fast, die young” is sound advice in a world where ghosts exist.
Carrying on as a ghost taking the last form of the deceased still would be spooky.
- CEO testifies that a friend spoke to Michael Jackson’s ghost (illuminutti.com)
- Paranormal Corner: Four types of hauntings (nj.com)
- What are ghosts. (apparitionsandmore.wordpress.com)
- Michael Jackson’s Ghost Testifies in Trial (weeklyworldnews.com)
- The original Ghostbusters: The English Society for the Extermination of Ghosts (1908) (freakyfolktales.wordpress.com)
- Girl Weds A Ghost: 1900 (mrsdaffodildigresses.wordpress.com)
Paranormal investigators say they look for evidence of paranormal activity. That phrase always confounded me. I don’t quite get it. What does it mean when someone says they have evidence of “paranormal activity”? And, how do you know it’s not normal activity that you just couldn’t ferret out?
There is a problem with how the word paranormal is used because it is often utilized in a way that is perhaps not consistent with the original intent.
Language evolves. Let me take a shot at unpacking some of these definitions about unexplained phenomena. See if it makes sense.
“Paranormal” and other terms for strange goings-on have changed over time. The word paranormal was coined around 1920. It means “beside, above or beyond normal.” Therefore, it’s anything that isn’t “normal” — or, more precisely, it is used as a label for any phenomenon that appears to defy scientific understanding. Ok, right there is a tripping point. Whose scientific understanding? The observer who is calling it “paranormal”? If so, that is problematic as a theoretical physicist sees things a lot differently than a dentist or a police officer. So, it appears too subjective to be precise. Each person may have their own idea of what constitutes “paranormal activity”.
The term “paranormal” used to just mean extrasensory perception and psychic power but, since the 1970s in particular — thanks to TV shows and proliferation of the subject in popular culture — the term expanded in scope to include all mysterious phenomena seemingly shunned by standard scientific study. It was a convenient way to bring many similarly peculiar topics under one heading for ease of marketing. So today, it can include everything that sounds mysterious: UFOs, hauntings, monster sightings, strange disappearances, anomalous natural phenomena, coincidences, as well as psychic powers.
Not everyone agrees that fields of study such as UFOlogy or cryptozoology (Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster and the like) should be considered paranormal but, if we think about the fact that after all this time, we have yet to document what these things actually are, that is beyond normal. Therefore, paranormal (arguably).
What appears as paranormal could essentially one day become normal. This has happened before with meteorites and still mysterious but likely explainable earthquakes lights and ball lightning. Or, we might not have developed the right technology or made the philosophical breakthrough yet to provide an explanation for some seemingly paranormal events. Perhaps we may find an instrument that can measure whatever it is that results in “hauntings” of a particular type. (Notice that I didn’t say an instrument that detects ghosts — an important distinction.)
Contrasted with paranormal is “supernatural.” To say something is supernatural is to conclude that the phenomenon operates outside the existing laws of nature. We would call such phenomena . . .
How many times have you heard a paranormal investigator claim to see faces and images of the deceased in everything from a cinnabon swirl to a waft of smoke rising from a candle? Are they seeing the deceased? No. What they’re experiencing is a nearly uncontrollable urge by our brains to seek out and identify patterns. Especially human faces. This phenomenon has a name . . .
«A psychological phenomenon involving a vague and random stimulus (often an image or sound) being perceived as significant. Common examples include seeing images of animals or faces in clouds, the man in the moon or the Moon rabbit, and hearing hidden messages on records when played in reverse.» – Wikipedia
«. . . a type of illusion or misperception involving a vague or obscure stimulus being perceived as something clear and distinct.
«Under ordinary circumstances, pareidolia provides a psychological explanation for many delusions based upon sense perception.» – The Skeptic’s Dictionary
How powerless are we to our own brains? Look at the image to the right and try to NOT see a face in the shadow cast on the garage door. Bet you can’t!!!
See? Our brains are hardwired to seek out and find faces.
Just HOW hardwired are we to see faces where none exist? Look at the following montage of photos and try to NOT see faces. Prepare to lose control of your mind to the power of pareidolia!!!! Bwahaha!!!!!!
Mason I. Bilderberg (MIB)
- Paranormal Corner: What is matrixing? (nj.com)
- Cloud Watching….or Pareidolia education for the young (twodifferentgirls.com)
- 21 Happy Faces Hiding in Your Stuff (mashable.com)
Via The Bent Spoon
Once upon a time, there was a wannabe ghost hunter. She watched TV shows featuring paranormal investigators going into haunted locations and capturing real ghost voices on their recorders. Finding this incredibly cool, she visited websites where ghost hunters from all over uploaded creepy recordings of spirit voices. She bought a recorder like the ones she saw on TV and did her own EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) experiments. She lived in a house where a previous owner died on the dining room floor. Lights went on and off by themselves, faint disembodied voices and footsteps were heard and unexplained shadows were glimpsed out of the corner of the eye. So obviously, it had to be haunted. She wanted to prove to others that the ghosts were actually there, and she also wanted to hear what they had to say. Why were they there? Were they “stuck” from unfinished business? Were they attached to the house or something in it? So, just like the investigators on TV, she held her inexpensive recorder and asked questions. On playback, she was excited to hear responses. It was hard to make out the words, but as some ghost hunting experts will explain, sometimes the spirits just don’t have enough “energy” to speak clearly. One night, she got a reply which sounded more like a snarl. It scared her, and after stinking up the house with burning sage, she stopped doing sessions in her own home.
Yep, that was me several years ago. Back before I took the time to learn about recorders, recording techniques, what environmental factors can affect recorders, and what physiological and psychological factors affect how a person can misinterpret sounds. Luckily, I can laugh at myself now. But what isn’t funny is the fact that there are paranormal investigators going into people’s homes or businesses and, because they are making the same mistakes I once made, presenting frightened clients with false positives and calling them ghost voices. As I mentioned in my article “The Evocative EVP” (http://carolynscreepycorner.blogspot.com/2012/06/evocative-evp.html) while more ghost hunting groups are finally acknowledging that there are natural explanations for orb photos, many of these same people are still clinging to their EVPs with a death grip. I believe this might be because listening is more subjective; you can easily see how orbs are recreated, but replicating false positive EVPs may be more complicated due to various factors. There have been reliable scientific studies showing that people hear things that are not there. One study, discussed in Mary Roach’s book Spook, illustrates this and is relevant to EVP review. Subjects were asked to transcribe a poorly recorded lecture. Many were able to hear words and even complete phrases. However, in reality, the recording was nothing but white noise. Ambient sounds can easily be misinterpreted as voices especially with priming, and when they are within certain frequencies and rhythms causing the brain to automatically switch to speech mode. Personally, I’ve participated in many audio reviews where people swore they heard a meaningful response when all I heard was something akin to “Glarmpht”. So even if something sounds like a voice or a phrase, it doesn’t mean that it is. And even if it is, you still have are left with the task of proving that it belongs to a ghost.
Priming and expectation influence what we hear. If we expect (or really want to) hear a voice or certain response, it is likely we will, because our brains are wired to make random information fit into patterns. Understanding speech is much more involved than just our ears hearing what sounds are being produced by vocal cords. We perceive speech by using other senses and the brain processing the combined sensory information, as well as drawing from our memory. One interesting example of how other senses can influence hearing is the McGurk Effect. Subjects watch a video of a person saying one phoneme while the audio is playing another. Subjects see the person say, “Fa fa fa”, and they hear, “Fa fa fa.” However, the audio is actually playing “Ba Ba Ba.” When the subjects close their eyes, they hear “Ba ba ba”, but interestingly, when some open their eyes again and watch the video, they again hear “Fa fa fa” even though they now know that’s not correct.
Bobby Nelson, co-founder and contributing writer for The Bent Spoon Magazine, has conducted experiments demonstrating how priming and expectation influences what we hear. In one experiment . . .
- Report: Things Get Spooky While Ghost Hunting at The William Heath Davis House in San Diego (dreadcentral.com)
- Paranormal Corner: Do you believe in ghosts? (nj.com)
- Spirit Bilocation: Is it possible? (bigseance.com)
- Paranormal group reports signs of ghosts (newsnet5.com)
- Thoughts on Ghost Hunting the Crawl Space (phergoph.wordpress.com)
- The people who think they tune into dead voices (sott.net)
- EVP – Speaking With Dead (vineoflife.net)
- Back to the Basics – How to Record EVP (thehauntedvoice.wordpress.com)