“Idiot lights” (K2 meters)


In an episode of King of the Hill, the no-nonsense titular character chastised juvenile cut-ups for placing a trash canister on its side, positioning a board diagonally across it, then using this as a makeshift launching pad for skateboard antics. Hill sternly pronounced, “That is not its intended use.”

I could go for a crossover show between King of the Hill and the glut of ghost hunter shows that infest the airwaves. For most of the latter employ a K2 meter that purportedly serves as a conduit between the TV hosts and the poltergeists they are chasing. However, the K2’s purpose, or intended use in Hank vernacular, is to locate sources of electromagnetic radiation, such as magnetic, electric, radio, and microwaves. The meters also provide a reading of the strength and direction of the field being detected.

Skeptic leader Kenny Biddle did a series of experiments, with ghost hunters on hand, to demonstrate how the K2 can be manipulated, and also showed how responses from the device are no evidence of a haunted locale.

First, the basics of the K2. Biddle wrote, “The K-II meter is a simple, single-axis electromagnetic field meter. A pressure-sensitive switch on the front turns the device on, using your thumb to maintain pressure.  It was designed to read a small part of the electromagnetic field from household devices and give a general measurement of strength.”  

Most meters consist of five light-emitting diodes that indicate the strength of the signal being detected. When powered on, the K2 performs a self-test, twice flashing the diodes in succession and back again. Per Biddle, the device “can detect Extremely Low Frequencies and Very Low Frequencies,” these two together covering the range from 50 to 20,000 Hertz.

However, there is no proof ghosts exist, much less that they have the desire and ability to communicate via the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum. Some spirit chasers claim their K2 devices have been calibrated or altered to perform paranormal hunts, but Biddle’s investigation found this was limited to adding a toggle switch to the instrument. But regardless of how much a K2 is altered, there is no reason to deduce that the changes turn it into an apparition apparatus.

Ghost hunters normally ask questions of the spirits and interpret any dancing signals as a result the hunted is answering. They may stipulate that it should be one flash for yes and two for no, or something similarly simple. But this is just the K2 detecting the low end of the electromagnetic spectrum and performing as it is supposed to. If the ghost hunters asked the spirit to speak though the lights in Morse Code and this occurred, that could be worthy of further investigation, but the K2 performing as designed requires no supernatural explanation.

Often, even the K2’s standard performance can be manipulated by the ghost hunter. Biddle explained that this is done by “applying just enough pressure on the switch so that it appears to be fully depressed even though the switch is making the slightest contact. This allows the operator to manipulate the device, causing the LEDs to dance crazily or flash twice” because he is forcing the K2 to perform the self-test mentioned earlier.

In his experiment, Biddle met with a group of paranormal investigators who had staked out a hotel it suspected of housing ghostly guests. Biddle first determined what implements he could get the K2 to respond to, and he had positive results from the powering on of a video camera, the turning on of a camera flash, and the presence of two-way radios. Next, all these devices were removed and the ghost hunters allowed to attempt dialogue with their prey. The two parties agreed to bypass the standard “two beeps for yes, one beep for no” protocol to avoid mistaking normal operation for a ghostly chat.

Under these controlled conditions, the hunters were unable to get the device to respond. This contrasted sharply with the rainbow of supposed proof that highlights paranormal shows. Of course, these shows have the advantages of editing, multiple takes, toggle manipulation, two way radios being present, and there being no skeptic on hand to monitor the situation. Under conditions much more friendly to the investigators, the K2 lights up regularly and this is presented to a credulous audience as a deceased spirit crazily trying to communicate. This fuels more shows doing the same premise, boosts the ratings, and keeps the advertisers rolling in. And that, for the network, is the K2’s intended use.

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