“Idiot lights” (K2 meters)

GHOST

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 and 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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“Free spirits” (Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Expo)

FAIR

Each year, the Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal Expo rolls into town. Another tradition is me having 86 cents in my expendable income account. That has kept me from paying for any paranormal products or psychic services, but I have some magic of my own and always come away from these events having gotten something for nothing.  

My first stop this year was at an essential oils table, where I was assured the merchandise was “100 percent certified pure therapeutic grade, with nothing synthetic.” When it comes to the only oil I ever buy, motor, synthetic is a good thing, so I’m curious what this is all about.

I asked the two women what they could tell me about the oils and they inquired if I had any aches or pains. Indeed, my head was hurting so they referred to their chart that recommended peppermint. Later, I checked other essential oil businesses and websites for their headache cures and among those listed were lavender, eucalyptus, rosemary, spearmint, roman chamomile, magnesium, turmeric, frankincense, wintergreen, birch, jasmine, sage, marjoram, bergamot, ginger, and basil. By the time I tracked all those down it would be way past the four hours my headaches normally last and it would be gone anyway.   

As to these ladies’ recommendation, per their instruction, I put a couple of drops on my fingertip and lathered up my forehead and the back of my neck. This caused a pronounced burning sensation, meaning the pains on the inside of my head were now matched by ones on the outside, so I at least had symmetry going for me.

Brushing off the unpleasantness, I asked if the oil had healing properties. Assured this was the case, I asked if they knew the science behind it.

“There’s lot and lots of science. Our company is all about science.”  What they lacked in specifics, they made up for in enthusiasm and assurance, so I continued.

“If there’s an active ingredient in it, is there a chance you could use too much of it?”

“Other companies, yes, but not ours. This is 100 percent pure.”

“But if it has healing properties, I would think there would be a danger of overdose. If you take a bottle of Excedrin, you’d be dead.”

“But that’s not all-natural.”

“Natural could still do you in. Hemlock is natural, too. So with the peppermint oil, is there a way to determine the proper dose?”

There is a look I get from psychic and paranormal fair merchants when I start lobbing anything beyond remedial inquiries at them. They are used to being asked, “What can craniosacral therapy do for me,” not, “Can you explain the mechanism behind craniosacral therapy?” Questions about the science are answered with “lots and lots” as opposed to providing examples of peer-reviewed articles and double blind studies.

I got that look, which they then turned on each other. They traded stammers before one of them offered that I should start with a drop or two and work up to what works for me. Of course, if no amount worked, I would keep going until I overdosed, which is what I was trying to avoid.

I was about to make this point when one of them changed the subject by offering me oil-infused chocolate chip cookies. I can’t ask probing questions if I’m chewing on confectionaries. To wash it down, they handed me water with lemon oil added.

“What does this do for you?”

“It helps with dehydration.”

Water helps with dehydration. Really glad I’m not paying for this information.

Glancing at the comparison chart that recommends oils in lieu of over the counter medication, I asked, “So for body aches, instead of Tylenol, I should take chamomile?”

“That’s right.”

“Why not just take Tylenol?”

“Because ours is pure.”

Oh, that’s right, you told me that. I need to look and see what oil helps with memory.

I then made my way to another table, where I asked a middle-age woman bespectacled woman with shoulder-length blond hair what she was offering.

“Readings, Reiki, and energy clearing.”

“What’s a Reiki healing?”

In a dreamy voice she intones, “Oh it’s wonderful. I love it. It holistically heals you from the inside. A week ago I got arthritis real bad and had Reiki done and I haven’t had it since.” There have been about 10 million such anecdotes in Reiki’s favor, none of them accompanied with an explanation for the mechanism behind it.  An eternal optimist, I hoped to be the first to track this down.

 “How does it work?”

“It’s spiritual. It’s the universe. It’s the angels. It’s the spirit guides and all the energy they use to heal you.”

“What type of energy does it use?”

“Well, we’re all made of energy. The Earth is made of energy, you, me, all living creatures, that type of energy.”

So someone would take my energy then give it back to me. Again, glad I’m not paying for these services.

Turning the subject to another of her offerings, I asked, “What’s energy clearing?”

“That clears away the energy we pick up from other people as you’re walking around or you’re living with them.”

“But that kind of contradicts the Reiki healing. Wouldn’t the energy clearing cancel out the Reiki energy you received?”

“No, it’s not connected. The energy that’s been cleared is low level. Depression, for instance, does not have a high vibration. The session helps to clear the clutter that builds up from negative thoughts and actions,” she told me. “Have you ever been talking to someone that just makes you sad for what the world has come to?”

Boy, she nailed that one. Why isn’t she manning the mindreading booth?

Moving on, I found a merchant who focused on a haunted house south of Buffalo, N.Y. He owns the house, he told me.

“Do you live in it?”

“No.”

“Does anyone live in it? Besides the ghosts, I mean?”

“No, I’m fixing it up.” He’s probably using sub-contractors for the various tasks, like remodeling, wiring, and ghostbusting.

He further explained, “I’ve researched the spirts in this house and its history. There was a failed exorcism there, another guy died there. Some people left after two months. Another family got out quickly and left all their stuff behind. People have tried to live there but it’s hard.”

I tried living in upstate New York for a while, I know what you mean.

“How do you research it?”

“There’s lots of scientific ways of researching it. Then there’s the personal, the feelings you get when you’re there.” So he bases it on science and feeling, and I have a feeling he’s exaggerating the science part.

This fellow was giving a free (there’s that key word again) presentation about this, so I followed him into the speaking room. Wonder if all this makes me a paranormal investigator investigator.

Once there, he enthralled audience members (well, with one exception), telling tales about these spooky surroundings. He assured us, “There’s definitely a dark entity there.” I imagine that’s called nightfall.

His talk contained the phrases, “something’s holding the spirit there,” “there’s a portal in that room that can’t be closed,” and “spirits are crossing a threshold.” There was talk about “an Indian chief” and “a woman in white at the pond,” both of whom he reported capturing on film. He also related a story about how a K2 meter stayed lit when he attempted to contact a former resident. “There was no explanation for it,” he said.

That’s because he didn’t ask me. The K2’s purpose is not to enable the dead to communicate via beeps and flashing lights as you walk up creaking stairs. Its function is to detect electromagnetic radiation and indicate the radiation’s strength and direction. There is there is no evidence deceased homeowners have the ability to leave this radiation behind.

When I asked if the K2 meters he were designed to chase ghosts, he said no but added, “When your body dies, energy can’t be created or destroyed. There’s still that energy somewhere. If you ask a question and it flickers, perhaps it’s paranormal.” And perhaps it’s from the cell phones, video cameras, and computers you brought in.

Other audience members asked questions like, “Are you worried about driving off the friendly ghosts and leaving only behind the evil entities,” and “If the house burned down, would the spirits go back out the portal?” Meanwhile, I got in a second question, about why ghosts in his photos would still be wearing clothes. He answered that they did that somehow, some way, so that people in the present could recognize them. By this point, I realized the peppermint oil wasn’t helping any and my headache had gotten worse.

 

 

“Remember the data” (Anecdotes vs. evidence)

ONE MAN

While “Don’t knock it until you try it” is the cliché, skeptic leader Brian Dunning thinks a better suggestion is, “Don’t try it until you knock it.” He was being somewhat sarcastic, as no opinion should be formed until all available evidence is considered. But his point was that personal experiences are inferior to data.

When it comes to favoring personal experience, this mistake is most frequently committed with regard to alternative medicine therapies and products. People often trust their perceptions more than any other source. But clinical test results provide a much better assessment of efficiency than someone’s word that it worked.

Our senses are prone to error and not everyone’s are as pronounced as the next person’s. Further, we all carry preconceived notions, biases, and expectations. Then there are mood swings, good days, bad days, and medium days. Hence, the assessment of a person grabbed off the street will be filtered through his or her prejudices, biases, preconceptions, preferences, and forgetfulness. It is impractical that their anecdote will be proof that the product or procedure will work (or fail) for everyone.

That’s why scientists use controlled, randomized trials. These will overcome the biases and other weaknesses addressed in the previous paragraph. As Dunning explained, “If you want to know whether listening to a binaural beat will make you fall asleep, a science fan knows not to try it to find out. She knows her sleepiness varies throughout every day and she knows that the expectation that it’s supposed to make her sleepy skews her perception. Instead, she looks at properly controlled testing that’s been done. Those subjects didn’t know what they were listening to, they didn’t know what it was supposed to do to them, and some of them unknowingly listened to a placebo recording. She knows the difference between real, statistically-sound data and one person’s anecdotal experience.”

Trying an untested product compromises a person’s ability to objectively analyze testing data about that product. This is also true in areas beyond alternative medicine. It can come into play while reading a horoscope, seeing an alleged ghost, or attending a psychic seminar. A cousin of mine did the latter and afterward, she excitedly posted there was “NO WAY” the psychic have known what she did, save an esoteric ability.

This is known as subjective validation, where an experience being personally impactful is considered evidence that the phenomenon is authentic. But with psychics, there are issues regarding cold reading, selective memory by audience members, and the lack of confirmatory testing. In my cousin’s case, the experience resonated with her because she had an intense experience, but that is not controlled data. A test could be designed, and in fact have been carried out, and no medium has ever consistently performed better than chance.

Still, persons will insist they know something works because it did for them. But this is not necessarily what happened. During the 2016 Olympics, athletes tried cupping and elastic kinesio tape, two alternative therapies completely lacking in evidence and with no plausible working mechanism behind them. Desperate for the extra edge against fellow world-class athletes, Olympians tried them and their personal experiences convinced them it worked. Yet these swimmers, runners, and gymnasts also had access to personal trainers, excellent nutrition, regimented rest periods, massage, icing, and other attentiveness that guaranteed they would perform at their peak. Giving the credit for victory to cupping wins the post hoc reasoning Gold Medal. Michael Phelps, after all, had collected plenty of first place finishes before he started overheating, misshaping, and discoloring his back. There’s also the issue of those who tried these techniques and came in 17th.  

Now we will examine another instance in which personal experience is treated as preferable to tested evidence. An Answers in Genesis chestnut is “Were you there,” which they genuinely consider a solid retort to proof about the age of the universe, Earth’s earliest days, and the development of homo sapiens. This is a vacuous, absurd reply. No one questions if Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence by asking historians if they were there when he dipped his quill into ink.

This supposed “gotcha” question reveals Young Earth Creationist’s substantial ignorance about how science works. As Dunning explained, “Scientific conclusions are never based simply on personal reports, but upon direct measurements of testable evidence. Nobody’s been to the Sun, either, but we know a great deal about it because we can directly measure and analyze the various types of radiation it puts out.”

Likewise, chemists can’t see quarks and astronomers can’t see dark matter, but these entities can be measured and their attributes analyzed. The answer to a time-honored riddle is that a tree falling in forest does indeed emit soundwaves whether anyone is there to perceive them. Likewise, Earth formed, heated, and cooled regardless of whether this was being witnessed. Researchers understand the science behind the various dating methods that are used to determine this. In the same way that DNA is preferable to a witness at trial, radiometric dating, carbon 14 dating, and the speed of light are more important than the fact that no one from Earth’s earliest days is alive to recall it.

From those that deny something has happened, we move to those who assert that something has happened despite lacking concrete evidence for this claim. Specifically, some persons will wonder what’s the harm in using a product or technique if it makes a person feel better.

The harm can come in such forms as using Therapeutic Touch instead of antibiotics. Such methods not only waste time and money, but the patient may bypass legitimate medicine that would work. And in certain cases, such as with colloidal silver, black salve, and some essential oils, active ingredients are being ingested and overuse can be dangerous.

Another way in which personal experiences are trusted over clinical evidence is to claim, “I know what I saw.” Yet senses are prone errors, deficiencies, and bias. A popular video asks viewers to count the number of times a basketball is passed between a group of persons. When most respondents are asked to give that number, they usually give the correct response. But they also fumble when asked the follow up question, “What walked through the group while the ball was being passed?” It was a man in a gorilla suit ambling by, yet most viewers missed it because they were so consumed with keeping track of the number of tosses.

“Our memories change dramatically over time and were incomplete to begin with,” Dunning wrote. “And who knows how good was the data that your brain had to work with was to begin with? Lighting conditions can come into play, as can movement, distractions, backgrounds, and expectations of what should be seen. Possible misidentifications and perceptual errors all had a part in building your brain’s experience.”

That’s why Bigfoot sightings are not considered to be “case closed” proof of the beast’s existence. Anthropologists would need to look at testable evidence, which in the case of Sasquatch, is utterly lacking.

Out of frustration, aficionados of alternative medicine, conspiracy theories, cryptozoological critters, and a Young Earth, and will sometimes label scientists and skeptics “closed-minded.” But closed-mindedness includes refusing to change ideas no matter how much contrary evidence one is presented with. Since phone calls from 9/11 hijack victims described Islamic terrorists, Truthers concocted an evidence-free ad hoc assertion that those victims and the family members they telephoned were in on the government’s plot.

Meanwhile, being open-minded means changing your position when you discover you’ve been mistaken. I balked when I first heard that race was a social construct instead of a biological one. Using some of the reasoning addressed earlier, “I knew what I saw,” and clearly race had to be biological since I could see the difference between someone from Canada and someone from Nigeria. But as I learned about alleles, gene frequency, migratory routes, blood types, and the Human Genome Project, I changed my mind.

There are mounds of evidence that disprove such notions as chemtrails, chiropractic, a Flat Earth, vaccine shedding being the cause of disease, and the first man being spoken into sudden existence 5,000 years ago. Yet hardcore adherents to these ideas consider the skeptic or scientist to be the closed-minded one.

People who assert this think of science as an unbending set of dictates from dour men in crisp lab coats or arrogant academics perched in ivory towers. However, science is a process that continually adapts, refines, improves, adds to, subtracts from, and alters data, according to where the evidence leads. And that refinement is subject to still further peer review, examination, and testing. That is why scientifically controlled data on the ability of a eucalyptus rub to cure rheumatism will always be preferable to what Aunt Tillie says.

“Picture of stealth” (Ghost photos)

GHOSTPIC

This spring an alleged ghost photo made the social media rounds, with even USA Today taking a somewhat credulous view of the apparent apparition: mcaf.ee/2obpau

While most supposed ghost photos feature vague or distorted imagery, this one looks like a girl romping through the woods in upstate New York. The photo is clear and what’s unclear is why anyone was thinking it was a ghost.

There was some mention of a local legend about a girl having been killed by a train in the area, though no name was assigned, nor was there even confirmation such a tragedy had ever taken place there. The USA Today story also reports that a caller claimed the girl was his visiting granddaughter. This claim was anonymous so cannot be corroborated, but that still leaves us a long ways from any confirmation the youngster has risen from the netherworld. And why are ghosts are always said to be sticking around the farmhouse, asylum, or palace where they lived and died? They are seemingly freed from the laws of physics and could presumably travel the world for free, not even needing food money, yet they remain under a self-imposed house arrest.

While this was a case of a clear image with a fuzzy claim attached it, many ghost pictures are the other way around: A fuzzy image accompanied by a strong declaration that it is someone who met an unfortunate fate in the area. Sometimes their names are offered, at other times it is just referred to as a nurse, soldier, maid, or other designator. In any case, the images are proffered as evidence we prance about in the afterlife, still fully clothed. These assertions are sometimes augmented with speculation that photography captures an intermediate dimension not visible to human eye. This claim remains void of any proof or an explanation of how this process would work, and is an instance of Tooth Fairy Science.

Whatever changes photography undergoes, ghostly images continue to be inferred. In the field’s earliest days, before film, photographers worked with glass plates which were cleaned after each photo and used again. If the cleaning wasn’t done thoroughly, faded remnants of the previous image might show up in subsequent photos. This would make for a freaky appearance to the uninitiated, which when it came to photography, described 99 percent of the country in the 1850s.

Also of consequence is that the advent of photography was simultaneous with the birth of spiritualism. Adherents of this faith felt the dead continued to exist as conscious spirits and could communicate with the living. To spiritualists, death was viewed as another realm of existence as opposed to being merely the permanent cessation of vital bodily functions. Interaction with these spirits was considered more likely thorough avenues like mediums and séances.

William Mumler fused photography and spiritualism, ironically mixing a scientific advancement and a religious regression. He created ghost photos and presented them to a gleefully gullible consumers eager to exhibit subjective validation and confirmation bias.

Alas, he was a 19th Century Peter Popoff. Mulmer conspired with mediums, who would collect details about a dead person from relatives in exchange for half the profits Mulmer made from grieving family members. When he repeated these tales to the relatives, they were convinced he was in touch with the deceased’s spirit. Besides information about the dead person’s achievements and idiosyncrasies, mediums also provided Mumler with photos of the deceased. He then scoured his collection for someone whose appearance was similar and he dropped a faded image of that person into a second photo.   

His most famous client was Mary Todd Lincoln. I suspect finding images of this customer’s dearly departed would have been easier than in most of his cases. Mumler was eventually busted for his fraud, and while he was acquitted, he had been exposed and his career tanked. But the idea he promulgated lived on, and persons to this day continue to champion the idea that spirits are captured in pictures.

Many alleged ghost photos from the early 20th century resulted when someone inadvertently moved through a scene photographers were capturing with long exposure settings. This early photobombing created images similar to the multiple exposures on poorly-cleaned glass, but they also featured blurred motion or a repeated figure.

The double exposures continued with film-based cameras if the photographer forgot to advance the film. This was usually instantly recognizable as a mistake, but it infrequently would make it appear that a ghostly face or figure was looming.

These apparitions were consistent with an era of Dickens and Poe. Today, with the notions of auras, chakras, and an undefined New Age energy, orbs have replaced Victorian gentlemen and wailing damsels as the most popular poltergeists. An orb is usually explicable as being dust particles bathed in a camera’s flash, as opposed to it being Great Aunt Erma in aurora form.

Another frequent misinterpretation focuses on insects flying in front of or landing on security cameras. Probably the most-known instance of living six-legged creatures being mistaken for dead bipedal animals took place at an Ohio gas station in 2007. A blurry, mostly transparent image seemed to be hopping and darting around the cars and customers, and was the result of insects walking on the lens.

Even a camera strap partially obscuring the lens and being out of focus from the rest of the photo can appear ghostly, whatever that is. It’s hard to say precisely whether something is a ghost when we have never captured one, despite a decade of Ghost Hunters and hundreds of professionals engaged in precisely this pursuit. 

Such hunts are almost always done at night even though there’s no reason to suspect ghosts are nocturnal. It’s done for effect and to increase ratings. But if also done during cold nights, the visible breath can be combined with camera flash to create something spooky looking. This is where pareidolia comes into play, especially in photos that aren’t hoaxes. Hoaxes involve inserting an image of a real person into a second photograph. But with the orb, insect, camera strap, and cold-breath photos, the images are impossibly vague and in many cases it’s unclear what a viewer is supposed to be seeing until it’s pointed out. Even then, what is supposedly revealed is nothing more than half a face or part of an arm, and is often covered by smoke, mist, trees, or stairs. 

While a few ghost photos might be of a form resembling a human figure, the scarcity of these pictures works against the idea that spirits of the dead are being captured on film. If these really were ghosts, and photography captured an in-between land of the not-quite-living, not-quite-dead, one would expect to see ghosts every day on every hospital camera. This is not the case. Similarly, photos of battlefields and mass terror scenes are conspicuously apparition-free.  Photos taken at Waco, Oklahoma City, the World Trade Center, and Pearl Harbor should show a booming poltergeist population.

Instead, we have no ghosts from those locales, and the ones that supposedly show up in other places are the result of the effects of shadows, fog, exposure, sunlight coming through cracks in a forest, and similar factors.

For those who engage in deliberate deception, hoaxes are much easier to pull off with PhotoShop. At the same time, such advancements also make it tougher to fool multiple experts. Finally, it no answer can be found, that only means the photo is unexplained. It doesn’t mean that the default explanation is that it’s a ghost.

“You ooze, you lose” (Ectoplasm)

ECTO

Séances were once performed in hushed, darkened rooms, but those locales have been supplanted by wowed audiences and stage lighting. A field once reliant on intimacy now favors auditoriums. The stereotypical foreboding Gypsy has given way to congenial men in tailored suits and women with impeachable manicures, ideal for television.

Most of this is done to make mediumship more appealing, but one change made out of necessity was the exorcising of ectoplasm. This was any substance said to have spewed from a medium during a séance, and it was usually touted as having been draped over the sprit’s body before being imparted to the medium. It was supposed to be the deceased letting us know it was there.

Ectoplasm was offered as an explanation for the levitation, table-turning, and floor-tapping that was observed during séances. But this was Tooth Fairy science, where the reasons for a phenomenon are examined before the phenomenon has been shown to exist. It was described as vulnerable to light, so séances were conducted in the dark, providing convenient cover for those sneaking the materials in or removing them from their hidden location, such as the medium’s clothing, a body orifice, or under a trapdoor.

Manifestations were common during the séance heyday from the late 19th Century until the Great Depression. But after investigators exposed the ruse, ectoplasm fell out of favor with séance practitioners, and it had practically gone extinct by the middle of the 20th Century. I am aware of no medium today that claims to be producing this netherworld substance.

Normally, an ad hoc rationalization is fabricated when psychic fraud is exposed. Uri Geller instantly lost his power when Johnny Carson offered Geller spoons and other items to demonstrate his ability during a Tonight Show appearance. Since Geller had been unable to manipulate the objects beforehand, he was unable to ‘bend’ them and was left meekly attributing his failure to “not feeling strong tonight.”

Another time, James Randi was conversing with three Russian alternative medicine practitioners who claimed to be in possession of some type of psychically-charged water. They claimed they could identify this magic water through a dowsing tool. Randi challenged them to go into separate rooms while he placed the magic water in a container, then filled two identical containers with tap water. The three would then enter individually and try to identify the magic water. At this point, the experiment abruptly ended, as one of the Russians said the magic properties would seep out and infiltrate the regular water, making them all indistinguishable. In these cases, Geller and the Russians had to come up with a hasty rationalization, lest their entire ruse be upended.

Similarly, I checked out a Flat Earth page and one of its claims was that a north-south circumnavigation has never been accomplished. This was in error, as Ranulph Fiennes and Charles Burton did it from Dec. 17, 1980 to April 11, 1982. I posted this, but the Flat Earther who maintains the page will not have an epiphany and become a globalist, so to speak. Despite the Fiennes-Burton journey being verified by the likes of the Guinness Book, the Flat Earther will dismiss the circumnavigation as fraudulent. And I may be outed as one of the tens of thousands of world government agents the page insists monitors the Internet 24/7 to spread the spherical Earth myth.

East-west navigation, of course, also proves a round Earth, but the Flat Earthers  have somehow convinced themselves this is untrue. From flateaerthsociety.org: “Circumnavigation is achieved because on a compass East and West are always at right angles to North. Thus traveling Eastwards continuously takes you in a circle around the North Pole.”

Actually, traveling east takes a mariner east, not north. But Flat Earthers have their rationale and they’re sticking with it. However, a north-south navigation would punch holes in their own theory, so it has to be dismissed out of hand.

Ectoplasm, then, is sort of the east-west circumnavigation of séances. Mediums can be OK with it going away since the central point of communicating with the dead remains. In fact, it makes it less messy.

Around the time that skeptics and researchers were exposing the ectoplasm ruse, other physical manifestations of séances were also coming undone. Hereward Carrington, a James Randi forerunner, revealed how slate writing, table turning, sealed-letter reading, and spirit photography were accomplished. Exposés like this largely eliminated physical props in in mediumship, but again, this was not a fatal blow to the field because the props were superfluous yakking with the dead.

The research showed ectoplasm to come from a variety of sources, none of them supernatural. This included cheesecloth, chewed paper, cotton, cloth, gauze, egg whites, soap, muslin, starch, handkerchiefs, animal livers, and newspaper and magazine photos.

Despite a general idea of what ectoplasm was supposed to be, its appearance, consistency, color, elasticity, strength, and constitution varied by whichever medium was producing it. It could be dry or wet, viscous or gelatinous, opaque or transparent. None of this would not have been the case had ectoplasm been genuine. That would be like blood changing in type, texture, appearance, and color depending on which nurse was drawing it.

In 1924, Mina Crandon, one of the country’s most celebrated mediums, was tested by Scientific American and Harry Houdini, and was unable to replicate her ectoplasm powers under controlled conditions.

Another well-known psychic of the era, the mononymous Carrière, flunked a similar challenge. She had claimed, through ectoplasm, to have produced an image of a man. But this was revealed to have come from a magazine. She said, yes, she knew that. She had read the magazine and that’s how the image of the man came to be imprinted in her brain and later excreted as ectoplasm.

With all due respect to Geller, Russian quacks, and Flat Earthers, that gets my vote for the all-time greatest ad hoc reasoning.

 

 

 

“Spooky Truth” (Ghost hunting equipment)

ghoststuff

There are three primary explanations for supposed ghost photos. They could be the result of a defect, a hoax, or a ghost.

In the case of defects, the image normally looks like whatever ghosts are said to look like in a given time and place. Photographs of allegedly inexplicable bright orbs are sometimes said to be a person’s spirit, and such shots are frequent consequences of today’s technology. By contrast, the orb would merely have been a distraction in 19th Century photos since ghosts were then thought to be transparent, floating apparitions who kept their clothes on when they passed to the other side.

Hoaxes are easy to pull off today, but it is also easy for PhotoShop experts and other professionals to detect them. Before the ubiquity of cell phones and camcorders, still film images were allegedly the primary means for spirits and souls to manifest themselves. In truth, the science behind photography could always explain the anomaly. Even if a case ever came along that baffled the foremost photographers, it would not be proof of a ghost. It could be a world class hoax, an innovative photography technique, or something else. Passing it off as a ghost because we aren’t sure what it is would simply be negative evidence. If ghosts could be captured in still or moving pictures, we would see many instances of this, especially in morgues, hospitals, and scenes of fatalities. Photos and videos taken during and after 9/11, Oklahoma City, Waco, D-Day, and natural disasters are all ghost-free.

Which is why the final explanation is by far the least likely. Also, how a ghost would manifest itself on film or video has likely never been tested via the Scientific Method, and these ideas have certainly never been confirmed. Believers have likewise proffered no explanation for the process by which a person becomes a ghost. Even undertaking these challenges would be to embrace Tooth Fairy Science, which is when the specifics of a phenomenon are investigated before the phenomenon is confirmed to exist.

This shortcoming has been no issue for paranormal investigators. Ghost hunting has been around for at least two centuries, but séances with mediums have largely been replaced by a glut of programs on third-tier TV channels, YouTube, and other mediums. Besides small video cameras and phones, the hunters are invariably wielding an assortment of other electronic gizmos and doohickeys.

Most of these pieces do indeed function as detectors, as they are intended to detect light, heat, movement, or electromagnetism. The substantial problem arises when one interprets those readings as ghosts as opposed to readings of what they are meant to measure. There is no science to suggest that ghosts emit anything in measurable amounts.

So when ghost hunters uses an infrared thermometer or motion detector to pinpoint a cold spot in a room, they might find such a location. While there is no reason to think ghosts are responsible for temperature changes, those chasing them might be causing it since more persons in the room will raise the temperature. Changes are also caused by heating, air conditioning, insulation, studs, wiring, pipes, radiant heat, sunlight, and wind.

Another item, particle detectors, make infrequent appearances in ghost hunts. But as Brian Dunning at Skeptoid put it, “For a ghost to emit ionizing radiation, it would have to be an awfully sick ghost or be composed largely of unstable radioactive metals.”

EMF meters are said by hunters to detect ghosts, though this claim is never augmented with any suggestion of what the deceased wonderer’s power source is. Also, Dunning wrote that, “Given the massive amount of EMF pollution on a TV ghost hunting set, the idea of being able to detect the EMF field of a ghost who’s not carrying any batteries is ridiculous.”

Skeptic Kenny Biddle found he could set off an EMF detector with just a computer mouse. But what should be seen as a major flaw is seen as a plus by ghost hunters. Their devices are erratic, highly susceptible to false positives, and have blinks and beeps that make it seem to believers like something ghostly is happening. Throw in some strange sounds that seem even more frightening in a darkened castle or mansion and you’ve hit poltergeist pay dirt.

Though they haven’t been used much since being brushed aside by electronics, dowsing rods are still utilized by a few ghost chasers. Whether the rod moves, and in what amount and in what direction, is determined by the hunter, who also interprets and announces what this movement means. His claimed ability cannot be tested, measured, or duplicated by another person, nor has any dowser proposed a plausible hypothesis for how this would work.

Usually touted as the spookiest fruit from hunts is ghostspeak on audio. These mystic missives might seem unsettling, but that’s only because they are so garbled and distorted. They are drenched in static, vary in pitch, and produce an unpleasant sound that can come across as someone who is pained, scared, or angry. In the many thousands of hours of these recordings, we have yet to have a ghost articulately announce in plain language, “Here I am. I am the ghost of King John’s tailor.” Ghost hunters claim that their prey speak on a plain that can only be captured by recording devices, providing another example of how they fundamentally misunderstand what these items are for and how they work. The proof of ghostspeak is so tenuous it has  included rationalizations that the same ghost is speaking in different languages within the same sentence, or that it will speak backwards only some of the time.

The Atlantic related the tale of what was likely the first ghost story of the photography age. In 1861, William Mumler noticed the shadowy figure of a young girl on a plate he was developing. He knew the cause was that he had inadvertently reused a plate that had been insufficiently exorcised of its previous image. He showed it to his spiritualist friend as a prank, which the friend gullibly swallowed. When Mumler tried to explain what had really happened, the friend refused to believe it and even had the image printed in spiritualist publications.

This started a trend that continues today, as almost any new recording or electronic device can be used to further the ghost hunter’s agenda. Beginning with Mumler’s double-exposed photo, telegraphs, telephones, cassette recorders, radios, televisions, camcorders, the Internet, iPhones, and Fitbits have all been seized on by believers as a means to access the paranormal realm. The only medium they haven’t penetrated is a peer-reviewed journal.

 

 

“Con and Quartered” (Ghost hunt)

ghostjail
I prefer when possible to immerse myself in the subject of my posts, so I was disappointed to be out of town when a local paranormal group offered the chance to spend the night in a house brimming with ghosts, ghouls, and goblins.
For one thing, the cost was $20, which is the best bang for your disembodied spirits buck. Similar evenings run $150 or more in other locales. Plus, I’ve never been able to experience one of these first hand, nor are the hosts used to having the questioning within their midst. It could have made for an interesting mix.
 
It was set for two four-hour blocks, beginning at dusk. These are always held in the dark, even though there is no reason to think spirits of the deceased are more active at these times. The times are chosen to create more mood and drama, which is fine if it’s being presented as entertainment, such as with campfire stories. I love a good ghost tale and have a huge collection of black and white monster movies and watching these during the daytime is mostly a waste. With this ghost hunt, though, the promoters were suggesting the sinister spirits were real.
 
The locale also plays on stereotypes, as the evening is spent in a four-story, 19th Century mansion. Along with castles, huge antique homes are the favored locales for ghosts, who always seem to bypass split-level ranch homes, subdivisions, and Dillard’s.
 
Attendees were promised they “will learn how to use equipment as well as how to review audio and visual. We will have our 16 camera systems hooked up as well as some other gadgets and gizmos.” Presumably some nitnoids and doohickeys as well. The hosts were none too specific about what these are, but none of them are manufactured for the purpose of capturing Casper and less-friendly apparitions. For that matter, no ghost hunter ever offers many specifics as to how their equipment works to find their prey, or how we can know the results are indicating a poltergeist presence.
 
The evening took place on Rock Island Arsenal’s Quarters One, which is the second largest federal residence behind White House, and which contains 51 rooms of potential ghostly malevolence. The hunt’s promotional literature lists three military officers who died there. It refrains from explicitly saying their spirits roam the halls, but it does follow that list by announcing, “There are SEVERAL claims of activity.” This is the one part I’m inclined to believe, as I have no doubt many persons think something spooky happened. It’s the confirmation of those claims that I find lacking.
 

Claims such as this: “There is a man in the basement who constantly calls one of our investigators the B-word. He frequently uses fowl language.” I guess they mean he’s either profane or howls like an owl. In truth, it probably does sound more ornithological than human. Alleged ghost voices are usually the result of electronic interference, wind, whistling pipes, cracks, and floors settling, and it requires conditioning, expectation, and suggestion to turn these sources into a misogynistic missive from the netherworld.

Other assertions are that a maintenance man who hung himself lurks about Quarters One, and that there are unexplained opening and closing of doors, pacing of floors, flashlights flickering, doors locking, men chatting, furniture moving, shadows darting, and children leaving footprints in the dust. This is proof of haunting as long as your criteria is unverified evidence instead of data collected under controlled conditions and that is subject to falsification and replication, and which uses defined terms.

The hosts noted that “Weird EMF spikes can be found in certain areas on 2nd floor.” This is probably true, and there are many reasons beyond ghosts that can explain with. The mansion rests on the banks of the Mississippi River, where ships and their electronic devices incessantly pass. EMF sounds that resemble speech are the result of flaws in the equipment and those handling the equipment and was addressed  in an earlier post: goo.gl/fYr308.

Additional claims include:

“Visitors experience hot and cold spots.” This is very common for huge homes that have seen their sesquicentennial.

“Mists have been photographed.” None that cannot be explained using the terminology of photography. Shots taken in dark by amateurs will likely feature these flaws.

These items all highlight the key problem with ghost hunts, which is that every feature that seems out of place is inferred to be poltergeists. This in an instance of Tooth Fairy Science and magical thinking, plus it usually requires a great deal of imagination and desire to reach these conclusions.

I would have loved to have experienced it first hand to see what tricks were being used and to try and determine if those putting on the production believed it or were just selling it. I would have let my fellow customers have their fun and would not have pissed on anyone’s poltergeist parade. But I would have engaged the hunters privately and would have been most curious about what they would do with a ghost if they ever caught one. 

Ghost hunting is not in the same category as the anti-vaccine movement that inflicts newborns with Whooping Cough. It is not equivalent to activists who convinced two African governments to deny genetically modified food to famine victims. Nor are the hunters comparable to conspiracy theorists who torment victim’s families.

Rather, ghost hunters share terrain with proponents of a Flat Earth and ESP, in that they mostly are only impacting themselves. Still, they promote unproven ideas, encourage post hoc reasoning instead of critical thinking, and assume anecdotes are of more value than the Scientific Method. It is sad to see 21st Century adults gobbling this up and I would have liked the chance to confront it. My schedule did not allow for this, but that’s OK.  The Quad Cities Psychic and Paranormal fair is next week.