A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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Skeptimedia is a commentary on mass media treatment of issues concerning science, the paranormal, and the supernatural.
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Skeptimedia replaces  Mass Media Funk and Mass Media Bunk. Those blogs are now archived.

Using ghost stories to teach critical thinking

January 22, 2008. Instead of complaining to editors and producers about media stories that promote belief in the paranormal, we might try turning those stories to our advantage by using them to teach critical thinking skills. Complaining to newspapers and television networks is probably a waste of time, anyway. The thinking seems to be, even among traditionally news-oriented newspapers, that to compete with the Internet and hundreds of cable TV stations they have to pander to the public's strong attraction to stories about the supernatural and the paranormal. Such stories make life seem interesting or give hope that there might be a next life where things are interesting. Whether the media is correct in their dismal assessment of the general public's desire to be entertained and amused while not having to think too deeply, I can't say. We can always hope that there are enough people out there who really want to know the truth about ghosts and spirits to make it worth our while to try to help them deconstruct some of these stories. We don't need to go into the depth of, say,  Neil Postman's How to Watch TV News or John Allen Paulos's A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. We can let the story and our situation dictate how deep we choose to go.

Today, my local newspaper, the Sacramento Bee, published a story about an allegedly haunted hotel in a town called Volcano, a village of about 100 people in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in northern California. The story is accompanied by a photo of a couple of ladies who call themselves "paranormal investigators" or "ghost hunters." Television programs featuring such people are popular on the SciFi Channel and A&E. There are dozens of groups around the country that identify themselves with these labels.

We might start our investigation of ghost stories by examining the tools of these investigators and the nature of the object of their investigation. What is a ghost and what tools would be appropriate for detecting such things? If you're looking for gold, for example, which many people did in years past in the Volcano area, you carried with you certain tools. You knew what you were looking for, how to find it, and how to identify it as real once you found it. Do the ghost hunters know what they're looking for or how to identify a ghost once they think they've detected one?

I think we can all agree that whatever else you think a ghost is, a ghost is not now a living person but once was one. What else do we know? Here's what the story tells us. There are several ghosts in the hotel. Two of them, surprisingly, don't appear to differ much from how living people appear. "A young girl, an apparition dressed in white, is said to roam the halls of the St. George Hotel here, startling guests and housekeepers alike. She comes and goes, as does the equally mysterious, well-dressed gentleman who skulks through the three-story inn with a cane." The little girl apparition is said to be blonde. So, we can say that ghosts have colors, wear clothes, can move about through space, and use physical objects. Though we might wonder why a spirit would need to lean on a cane or even how a spirit could lean on anything. Such descriptions make it sound like there is a parallel universe with non-physical doubles of dead people. These ghosts are described as holographs without any source of causation like light and mirrors and physical objects. How do these ghosts differ from hallucinations?

The sense of sight is not the only one that ghosts affect. According to the story, "voices, footsteps and otherworldly creaks" have been heard. How do these voices, footsteps, and creaks differ from those produced by the living or by natural objects?

There are also physical phenomena that are taken as signs of a ghostly presence. "Lights are said to fade in and out. Beds, fresh and crisp one minute, are in disarray the next." These non-physical beings can somehow (magically?) affect physical things, either for their amusement or to call attention to themselves or ?

Some of the evidence collected appears in journals left in hotel rooms. One guest says he spoke to a little girl in white. Another wrote: "Enjoy the ghost. We did. … Knock on the walls – you will get a knock back." Apparently, ghosts can hear sounds and produce sounds.

Another guest "swears she felt a presence in her room ... walking behind her tracing her steps as she moved." This same guest reports that she discovered during an earlier visit that "door latches seem to release themselves." Apparently, these ghosts are not fearsome enough to keep guests away. One guest drew a picture of ghosts that looks like three little floating sheets with eye holes and a mouth hole

If we stop and reflect on what we know about these alleged ghosts, we should quickly see that the gold miners who roamed these hills long ago had a much clearer idea of what they were looking for and what tools would help them find it. These poor ghost hunters are at a great disadvantage. Gold has some specific properties by which it can be identified. These ghosts seem to be indistinguishable from living people and the inferences we make from sounds or physical events are drawn from sounds or events that are indistinguishable from those made by living people or natural forces. For example, lights in the hotel fade in and out on occasion. The lights in my house do too on occasion. It's called a power surge. Doors you think you locked are unlocked because your memory's failed you. I've returned knocks on walls but I don't think anyone mistook me for a ghost. Is it surprising to find creaky floors in an old building? You may hear footsteps because somebody is walking down the hall or some animal is running across the roof or hopping on something outside a window, as squirrels, rats, mice, and birds are wont to do in my neighborhood.

Those who searched for gold were sometimes fooled by iron pyrite (fool's gold) but there are ways to test what the miner found and determine if it was gold and how pure it was. Does the ghost hunter have the tools to tell a ghost from a non-ghost?

There doesn't seem to be any tool that would help the ghost hunter determine whether sounds or feelings and the like which could come from a ghost actually do come from a ghost. They could be due to non-ghostly sources.

But what about the apparitions. Maybe they could photograph the little blonde girl in the white dress or the old man with the cane. If you can see a spirit then you ought to be able to photograph one. That seems logical but it's based on two assumptions: that people did in fact see a spirit and that spirits can be photographed. How do we know they saw a spirit? They said so. But  they could be mistaken or making it up. Could they have hallucinated? Yes. Can hallucinations be photographed? No. Could they have been induced to see just this kind of apparition because it was suggested to them and they strongly desired to see it? Yes.  But there is another, more serious, problem. A ghost is not a physical being so how does it wear clothes, have hair, walk about, and hold onto things like canes? By definition a ghost is not in space, does not have a shape, size, weight, color, etc. If a spirit has no weight how can it make footsteps or cause floors to creak? How come it acts just as if gravity were affecting it, if it has no mass? If a spirit has no body how can it hear and speak? Just as our senses can deceive us into thinking we have seen or heard something when we haven't, any device we use to detect ghosts that we might use to detect the presence of another human being will be a waste of time.

To argue, as some do, that spiritual bodies have spiritual hair and wear spiritual dresses, etc., is to talk in contradictions. Spirits are incorporeal by definition and incorporeal means 'not physical.' So to speak of spiritual hair is to speak of a non-physical physical thing, which is nonsense.

What do the ghost hunters use to detect the presence of ghosts? One thing some ghost hunters use is a so-called psychic, a person who claims to have a special sense for detecting the presence of the spirit world. This seems to be cheating, though. The psychic says: "I feel so very emotionally and physically drained. It was like something grabbed me by the shoulders." He may be telling the truth but how do we know his feelings have anything to do with ghosts? Sometimes people recovering from methamphetamine use have tactile and visual hallucinations. If the psychic strongly believes in ghosts, for all we know it is his belief that is driving his experience. Unfortunately, we have no independent way of testing the connection between the psychic's experience and the existence of ghosts.

Imagine a gold prospector who is told by a "gold sensitive" that she can feel the gold in the hill the miner is considering spending his money and time excavating. With no way to independently test the connection between the sensitive's feelings and the presence of gold, why would he use such a tool? One reason is that many people seem to need something, anything, to help them make a decision. They'll flip a coin, draw a card from a deck, and use other chance events to help them at times. Anyway, at best the sensitive or psychic is irrelevant  in our quest either for gold or ghosts.

What other tools did the ghost hunters use? They brought a Geiger counter. These devices detect radiation involving the conversion of atoms or molecules into ions. Ghosts are not made of atoms and thus are not emitting sub-atomic particles unless they are physical beings, in which case they are made of the same stuff we are. There is no reason to believe a Geiger counter would be useful in detecting a spirit.

The ghost hunters also brought dowsing rods. These are wooden or metal sticks that dowsers use to find water, gold, oil, golf balls, etc. These devices have been studied and the evidence is that they are of no use in locating any physical object, except perhaps to lift a rug or curtain. So why would anyone think they would be useful in detecting non-physical objects? I have no idea. Bee writer Bobby Caina Calvan indicates to the reader the questionableness of these tools by referring to their use as "science" in scare quotes.

The ghost hunters also brought with them video cameras and sound recorders. Any "data" captured by these devices at least avoid the problem of hallucination, but they have to be interpreted. This is especially problematic with sound, as anyone familiar with EVP (so-called electronic voice phenomena) knows. You hear something vague and nebulous and identify it as a voice of a ghost. Or you hear something clear and crisp and you identify it as a ghost. But how do you know the sounds were made by a ghost? The investigators of the St. George hotel claim they captured  a "sing-songy voice of a little girl" on tape during their ghost hunt. They acknowledge, however, that the sounds are open to interpretation.

How you videotape a non-physical being wasn't explained by the ghost hunters, but it seems like a very inappropriate tool for the job, even though they use an infrared camera. We're back to the old problem of how a non-spatial, non-physical entity can be detected by tools designed to detect physical properties of objects. Infrared ("below red") wavelengths are longer than red light, the color of visible light with the longest wavelength, but there is no reason to suspect that anything picked up by an infrared camera isn't caused by a physical object.* Infrared detectors are used in night vision cameras. As those of who have such cameras know, they allow you to see things in the dark that you can't see with the naked eye (unless you turn on a light). They don't allow you to peek into the spirit world. (A picture of the infrared camera that these ghost hunters used seems to be a picture of a motion detector. They hooked it up to a monitor and watched from a remote location. Anything affecting such a device would have to be physical, so why would this tool be useful to a ghost hunter?)

Ghost hunters from another group, called California Paranormal Investigations, use "an EVP (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) monitor [which I suspect is a tape recorder], EMF (Electro Magnetic Field) monitor, infrared cameras and a Ouija board."* The Ouija board seems idiosyncratic and particularly pointless, but the EMF monitor is probably the most frequently used tool by ghost hunters.* EMF meters detect electromagnetic radiation. You can get a pretty sophisticated one  for about $150. Although you can get a standard ghost hunting kit for under $50:

Any hand-held EMF meter has a limited range. It can only detect objects in the physical world that produce an electric or a magnetic field within its range. Ghosts are not physical. If they produced an electric or magnetic field they'd be indistinguishable from non-ghosts. So, unless the ghost you are looking for is also a cellular phone, a microwave oven, or a lightning bolt, you are not going to detect it with an EMF device. However, if you wear a white lab coat while carrying an EMF device in a haunted hotel, you might impress some people that you are indistinguishable from a real scientist. Though you'd probably be more impressive if you just used the one tool every investigator should rely on: logic.

Ghost stories, on the other hand, are lots of fun, as long as you don't take them too seriously, which seems to be what the ghost hunters are doing. Amy Bruni, one of the St. George hotel ghost hunters, produces "Beyond Reality Radio," a program popular with those who play at being paranormal investigators. "Ghost hunting is almost a belief system," she says. "It's about trying to figure out what happens when we die. People want to know what happens when we die, and ghosts are a lot more tangible for a lot of people. In the paranormal, there are a lot of people who aren't naturally religious, but they believe in ghosts." If Ms. Bruni really thinks that ghost hunting will reveal anything about what happens to us when we die, then she is definitely taking this stuff too seriously. You'll be a long time dead, Ms. Bruni, and there will be plenty of time then to figure it all out. Of course, then it won't matter, but I'll wager you'll be just as successful then as you are now in your investigations.

In the meantime, children, can we think of any other explanations for what's going on in the St. George hotel?

Skeptimedia archives

More ghost hunter stories you can apply your critical thinking skills to

--Everyday Paranormal in the library

--Louisiana Spirits in a house

--UK Paranormal Society told to bugger off

--Atlantic Paranormal Society in a hospital

--Ashfield Paranormal Society chasing great balls of fire

--Paranormal Site Investigators

--Southwest Paranormal Information Research and Investigation Team (SPIRIT) in a hotel

--Granite State Paranormal Society hunt Bigfoot

--Spirit hunter Shane

--Salem Paranormal investigates fairgrounds

--Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society

--Paranormal Investigators of New England

--The Paranormal Society of Quincy

--The Missouri Paranormal Research Society

--Show Me investigators ("an evidence-driven paranormal research group")

--The Maryland Paranormal Investigators Coalition

--The New England Ghost Project

--Penn State Paranormal Research Society

--Mahoning Valley Paranormal Society

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