Friday, May 9, 2008

On ghosts, goblins, and credulous journalists - from the Standard

Sir, there is a distinct difference between having an open mind and having a hole in your head from which your brain leaks out.

-James Randi

The following appeared in my column fro the St. Catharines Standard on May 8.

We should stay open-minded, Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins sometimes says, but not so open-minded that our brains fall out.

In an age when we are trying to cure cancer, protect the environment and make sense of increasingly powerful tools of genetic manipulation, Dawkins' point has a particular and urgent weight to it.

But, alas, the titanic challenges of today, which can only really be grasped with a degree of scientific literacy, aren't good enough for some who would rather retreat into the mush-headed world of angels, ghosts, goblins, the Fort Erie cougar and gasoline under a buck a litre.

Consider, for example, stories about a local teen competing on YTV's Ghost Tracker. It blurs the line between real science and new-agey nonsense as teens are judged on their "skill" at tracking ghosts. The producers even use made-up technobabble to make it all sound scientific. (The Keefer Mansion apparently rates high on the "paranormal index," whatever that is.)

Even more insulting to the intelligence are recent reports about the efforts of the Niagara Area Paranormal Society. They don't have positron gliders or the ECTO-1, but like the Ghost Trackers, they have a heap of impressive-looking equipment. You know, microphones, cables, cameras. The entire Radio Shack-does-Ghostbusters ensemble.

So these, uh, "investigators" recently visited the Welland Museum to hunt down some ghosts. No one was slimed, but they claimed to have recorded mysterious voices emanating from the ether - evidence, they say, of the kin of Casper lurking in the museum.

I don't want to vent about this, but given the uncritical reporting on these things, consider this column the rational response.

Ghost hunting as a scientific endeavour is on par with holistic dentistry, tarot card reading, past-life regression and intelligent design. Fortunately, amid the throngs of the credulous are those willing to strike back with a dose of scientific skepticism. Like James Randi by way of a for instance.

Randi, a Toronto native who lives in Florida, is North America's top gun when it comes to debunking the claims of paranormal, um, "detectives."

He doesn't say the supernatural is impossible, but rather there isn't a shred of evidence to back up claims of seeing dead people or UFOs or reading the future in tea leaves.

"If these people want to make claims about paranormal phenomenon, they have to prove it," he told me in a recent interview.

Randi put forward a million-dollar prize to anyone who can prove it using rigorous scientific testing. To date, every attempt has failed miserably.

So what about these "voices" recorded at the museum? It might seem impressive at first blush. A faint murmur emanating from the dark. But when it comes down to it, either they are the voices of spirits or they are not. Period. And Randi says there is nothing supernatural in what the society found.

We live in a soup of electro-magnetic signals, he says. Cellphone traffic. FM radio stations. Disembodied messages are literally all around us all the time.

Randi said ghost hunters adjust their audio gear to the upper range of its sensitivity and because they do not shelter their equipment from the EM racket, they record strange sounds.

"You don't need to be near a powerful signal to pick this stuff up," he says. "It's everywhere. Any good soundman knows how to filter it out."

Even the equipment these, er, "sleuths" use is suspect. Many like to use the Panasonic RR-DR60 audio recorder that was discontinued because it is particularly vulnerable to FM radio transmissions.

(Just Google that model number with the phrase "ghost hunter" and you'll see how coveted a prize it is.)

So the voices they record could be real - but they belong to radio DJs and cellphone users, not Sir Isaac Brock complaining about a sharp pain in his chest. Ockham's Razor wins again.

Of course, it doesn't help that news outlets often report the claims of these Edgar Cayce wannabes without so much as a critical thought, giving them undeserved credibility.

" 'There are no ghosts' doesn't make a very good story," Randi says.

But that is the story. As Carl Sagan used to say, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If the local paranormal society had actual evidence of spirits they would have uncovered an entirely new field of science. I'm sure the Nobel folks would be interested.

At the very least, they could get a million dollars. So to the folks of the Niagara Paranormal Society and Ghost Trackers - Mr. Randi is waiting.


Psychodiva said...

Briliant:) I had images of ghostbusters running through my head all the time I was reading this- now I can't get that song out of my head- thanks lol
I did google the panasonic equipment- amazing how many people really do covet that thing - the best one being a site listing the ghosthunter's toolbox :)
Living over here in the UK we are inundated with stories of ghosts and spirits - all that history you see- and the worst offender is that bloody programme 'Most Haunted'- a load of hogwash but worth watching for the giggle factor or for a bout of 'shout at the telly' if you ever get a chance

ctaylor said...

Re: The article on the Niagara Area Paranormal Society group by Grant LaFleche.

I am the founder of Niagara Area Paranormal Society and one thing that I have learned a long time ago is that you can’t make someone see something when their eyes are closed and this is the case with the person who wrote the feedback about our group. Luckily, there are people out there like us otherwise we would still be running around thinking the world was flat!

Having said this, we do not investigate for people like the author of this article. We investigate for ourselves and for those who are wishing to find answers to currently unanswered questions in this field.

So to clear up a few misconceptions about our group I will begin by saying that when we are called in to investigate a place or area we do so with an OBJECTIVE mind, something that the author of this article seems to lack.

(Dictionary Definition - Objective – Being the object or goal of one’s effort’s or actions; Not influenced by personal feelings, interpretations, or prejudice, based on facts, unbiased.)
Hmmm I don’t see where it says believe everything you hear/see/feel, as the author of this article would suggest we base our investigations upon.

We look for NATURAL explanations and do not run into a place like someone off of a Ghostbusters movie armed with some made up gadgets! We use equipment such as Infrared thermometers to help us examine temperature fluctuations, infrared cameras so we are able to see the IR fields that are not perceivable with our eyes. We use EMF meters to RULE OUT the possibility of high EMFs being a contributing factor for the client to experience something that they perceive to be paranormal. We always look for natural explanations rather than paranormal explanations when investigating any place or area. We know from being in this field that high EMFs caused by old wiring for example, could cause a person to believe they are experiencing something paranormal when they are not. We know that high enough EMF levels can change a person’s brain chemistry and in turn cause all kinds of things such as the feeling of being watched, hearing things that are not there and even hallucinating. So this would only be an example of what we would rule out while investigating an alleged haunted location.

As for EVPs, the chances of us obtaining 1000’s of audio pieces throughout the years with answers to our questions from random sound waves bouncing around is probably a billion to one. When you receive names of individual investigators or answers to questions that were currently not known until later, the odds are probably even higher. Even when examining sound waves we are well aware of the existence of infrasound and how this can play a role in paranormal phenomena. We use a variety of audio equipment none of which is a Panasonic model mentioned in the article. I personally use an unmodified Sony digital recorder. All of the audio we have on our site is unedited. We do not blindly go into an investigation and through our evidence including audio.
We are not a bunch of kids that this author has seen on some TV show competing to get a prize. Nor are we gaining anything from our research but the desire to find answers in this virtually unanswered field. We do not charge for our investigations and have gained nothing monetary by doing what we do. Just speaking for myself I have personally invested $1000’s of dollars researching over the past 25 years. This does not include the 1000’s of hours that I have invested researching and going over evidence. We are obviously not in this for the money.

The protocols we have in place are comparable to those that are used in other scientific fields of study. Just because this is a virtually unexplored field does not make it less valuable than scientific research in some other field. If we all had this mindset we would never find cures for diseases, or answers to anything for that matter.

As for James Randi, he has been taken up on his offer several times over by well respected institutes with overwhelming evidence. .... Besides magic tricks what has he legitimately contributed to society? I don’t even have to answer that one. As his statement says, "If these people want to make claims about paranormal phenomenon, they have to prove it."
I am still waiting for him to prove it DOESN’T exist and I don’t mean by his protocols we already know they are biased.

Just because what we do does not seem to fit the “Norm” it does not make what we do any less valuable than any other field of research.

All of our evidence is free to view and be examined by ANYONE in the scientific community should they want to. We have nothing to hide. As a matter of fact a lot of our evidence is made public on our website for anyone who wishes to see it and is entirely unedited.

Seeing that the author’s article started out with a quote I think it seems fitting that I close mine with one of my favourite quotes. “I would rather have a mind opened by wonder than one closed by belief”
~ Gerry Spence ~

C. Taylor

Grant LaFleche said...

Mr. Taylor;

Well lets put all cards on the table. You are not doing science or any kind of proper investigation of any sort.
The fact of the matter is that you go into these things with the assumption that ghosts MUST exist. Ghost hunters are rather like UFO buffs who see something in the sky they cannot personally explain and so decide it MUST be a craft from an alien civilization. Similarly, you work backward from an unsupported conclusion, select what you think is "evidence" and declare you have proved something.

Consider that you did not say "here is something that sounds like a voice. I don't know what it is, but I will seek expert opinions to find out." What you said was, in effect, "here are voices of ghosts." That is utterly poor science and poor investigative methodology. You don't have anything resembling evidence to make that conclusion. At best you have an unexplained audio anomaly upon which you can make no definitive conclusion. (In reality, all you have is a well understood EM transmission.)

Nor, even by the description you provide above, have you don't anything to shield your recording equipment from EM background transmissions. Your "protocols" as you call them are completely insufficient, far to open to manipulation and you are simply not seeking alternative explanations. If you were truly engaged in a scientific investigation you would be following the dictators of Ochkam's Razor. You are not. It is VERY telling that you are not even open to the idea that what you have is cell phone traffic for example. You say its ghosts and that is that. If you understood the scientific method, you would understand how faulty your entire process is.

This isn't about your "field" begin the "norm." It's about extremely poor knowledge, poor methods and even worse conclusions being drawn on, at best, very scant evidence.

I also don't buy this implication that you don't want a million dollars. Perhaps you don't want it for yourself, but I am 100 per cent certain you could think of a charity that could use that money. Why not claim the money that donate it to a hospital or school board or to the local food bank? I'm sorry but the claim that you are doing this for the sake of knowledge and refuse any money for your work is preposterous. At the very least, if your evidence is so good, you could use it to provide money that could help your community in real ways, couldn't you?

Your poor understanding of science is displayed clearly in the following statement.: "As his statement says, "If these people want to make claims about paranormal phenomenon, they have to prove it. I am still waiting for him to prove it DOESN’T exist and I don’t mean by his protocols we already know they are biased."

For your own education, what you are asking for is a logical fallacy called "proving a negative." I've written about this in the Handbook recently and I invite you to read it. In effect, you cannot disprove a claim for something that does not exist. For example, I would like you to demonstrate to me that Shiva, Thor and Zeus do not exist. Go on, try it.

You are asking Mr. Randi to disprove a declaration that ghosts exists. There is no evidence to back up such a declaration, but you want to be treated as true until it is disprove. Well, guess what? That is NOT how science works. If you want to make a claim about the nature of reality, then you have to have provide the evidence and research for it. In science it is ALWAYS up to the person making the claim to prove it, not for others to disprove their claim. Otherwise, scientists would spend all their time disprove nonsense.

The fact that you are apparently unaware of the fallacy of proving a negative demonstrates a very weak understanding of scientific reasoning and method for someone who claims to be engaging in science.

As for what Mr. Randi has accomplished: Well he stands in the tradition of Harry Houndi, who also spend years debunking the kind of pretend science nonsense you are peddling with your "courses" on "ghost hunting." Like Houndi, Mr. Randi has used science and evidence to debunk claims of the paranormal whenever people like you venture forward to have your claims tested by real science. Just as Ure Geller, who was cut to pieces by James Randi.

His "protocols" - a word you toss about pretty lightly - are not determined by him alone. The rules state that claims will be tested by an independent body using criteria agreed upon by both parties. In most cases, folks like you retreat from this, because your flimsy methods will be challenged using controlled scientific experiments. In science, claims are tested over and over, subjected to every possible method of examination. Every scientific theory is tested this way and no scientist fears that process. Only those making dubious claims about the supernatural are. If you methods and evidence were as good as you claim, they would hold up to scrutiny.

The bottom line is that like all Ghost Hunters, your methods and evidence is not anywhere near rigorous enough to support your claims. You are engaged in pretend science no different than astrology or intelligent design.

If you were really honestly interested in doing real scientific or forensic investigations of these things, you would far more careful you in methodology, and would be regularly submitting your "findings" to experts on audio technology. And until you do so, and until those kind of methods produce real evidence, you conclusions won't be taken seriously and I will continue to challenge them.

Grant LaFleche said...

That should be Ms Taylor, not Mr.

ctaylor said...

Again, your own fixed belief system is trying to justify the statements presented without any real knowledge of the topic at hand. For someone who is so bent on scientific means and "The truth," proving things of this nature DON'T exist, your own beliefs just get in the way of searching out any REAL truth either way.

You just proved my point that you have no clue as to what you are talking about in regards to this field. You are merely ASSUMING what we do and the way in which we conduct an investigation is how YOU think it is without even having any prior knowledge about our group or the methodology we use.

You are taking something you saw once on a TV program or "googled" online and lumping everyone in this field in a generalized manner.

You don't know what my knowledge is in this field, my methods or what my conclusions are pertaining to this field as you make those statements out of pure opinionated ignorance. For if you even had an inkling of what we do, our methodology or how we conclude upon any case we have worked on in this field, you would know how ludicrous a statement that is.

As I have stated, I have nothing to hide and anyone in the scientific community is free to analyse our findings. I can't say the same for you as you seem to only base your opinions on something you once read or "googled."

I would think that someone in your own field who has a presence in media would be more responsible to report facts instead of letting their own biases get in the way of the truth. Again the word OBJECTIVE comes to mind. Something you seem to lack.

With so many misconceptions out there in the media, I am appalled to see this sort of ignorance firsthand from someone within my own community. It's no wonder there are so many misconceptions in this field, and people think the way they do. With people like you reporting it I can see why they do. I think it is quite sad that you would bring about more misinformation in this field because you "googled" a few things online and then took whatever you found as being the truth for ALL of this field in order to fit in with your own belief system. It's this basic generalization that hinders this field of study.

Fortunately, I choose to research and find answers for myself and not believe the first thing that I come across online or on some TV show. This is the BIGGEST difference between you and I.

If your opinion is such that you don't beleive anything in this field, then by all means base your opinion upon tangible things (Same as what you asked me to do) and not on something you "googled."

Even James Randi who skeptics seem to worship as some sort of God for all things skeptical, has researched this field. So his opinion is based upon his OWN experiences. That's more than I can say for you. Even then I know the difference between finding my own truth, hearing someone else's truth and knowing that things in the world are not black and white they are often times grey. So just because I don't or can't find the answers to something doesn't mean that the answer isn't somewhere I haven't looked.

As I said in my other post, I have learned a long time ago that you can't get someone to believe in something if their mind was already made up before they even started. This is the same reason I continue to forge forward and to find answers for myself and to NOT base my beliefs on something I read, someone else's beliefs or googled online. I am proactive and find answers for myself. I challenge you to do the same.

Shannon said...

I am also a member of Niagara Area Paranormal Society.

I find it sooo convenient that in your article, which apparently you know nothing about the scientific field forgot to mention to the readers that you are an ATHIEST,,hence your closed minded views.

Maybe you should actually look into the topic that you are going to write about instead of taking quotes from others and not being able to come up with something of your own eh?

Why dont you post Carol's point in your newspaper?! You probably wont because it would make you look like the closed minded bigot you are wouldnt it?

Theres absolutely no point in taking this topic any further with you. You want us to show you proof that it is real? Why dont you prove it ISNT!!

Shannon said...

oh, and by the some research into the group you are going to slander! Like what experience they have to be in this field, what equipment they actually use...instead of your "radio shack" quote. And look into the fact that the group are also skeptics. And finally...don't say we are in this for the money, when in fact we are helping people FOR FREE, that ask for help... while furthering the research aspect! We are not out to convince people that they should believe,... we are there for the one's that do!!

Grant LaFleche said...


I see from your facebook page you also promote "healing crystals," so I am not terribly concerned about your claims for scientific validity. However, it appears you need to be schooled on a thing or two.

First, is this statement: "Theres absolutely no point in taking this topic any further with you. You want us to show you proof that it is real? Why dont you prove it ISNT!!"

What you are asking for is for someone to prove a negative. It's a logical fallacy, well known to anyone with a scientific education or versed in logic. You are clearly neither. I discuss this in detail here:

In short, you cannot claim X is true because you cannot prove X is false (in this case X being ghosts). By way of example Shannon, PROVE to me that Thor is not real. Prove that Zeus or Shiva or Allah are not real. No seriously, do it. Prove it.

You cannot. The point is that it is up to the person making the claim to prove their case, not for the rest of us to disprove it - although ghost hunters have been completely debunked since Harry Houdini was taking your credulous types down.

Second, my views on religion are well known and publicly acknowledge both here on my blog and in my columns for the paper I work for. This is not a mystery. You clearly, from your posts here and on facebook, offended by atheism.

Finally, you don't "help people for free." What "help" you offer by peddling a bunch of psuedo-scientific clap-trap is pretty dubious. And it is also interesting that if you were really interested in helping people for free you would not charge people money for a "ghost hunting" course. Even if the money Ms. Taylor makes is a but a pittance, money is still being charged and she wants a full deposit in advance of the "course."

The fact is you are peddling mumbo jumbo long since discredited that has less than nothing to do with science.

Grant LaFleche said...

Miss Taylor;

You seem pretty confident in your statements about procuding real, scientifically verifiable and falsifiable evidence.

So here is a challenge for you: present your "findings" to a scientific journal - perhaps Nature for instance. Have it go through the usual scientific peer review process and see what happens.

If your methods are as sound as you say, if your evidence is as solid as you claim, then you should have no problem getting published. You could be sitting on the biggest discovery in history right? So step up the plate and expose your "work" to the rigors of scientific review and see what happens.

Grant LaFleche said...

Oh and Shannon - if Carol wants to submit a letter to the editor she is MORE than welcome to do so. This "close minded bigot" has nothing to do with the editorial page. So please, encourage her to do so. Have her send her letter in, I am sure it will be printed. She even send by email to this address:

As it stands, she only sent in comments to the paper's feedback item on the website.

So before you go spouting off about what is going on, you should check your facts. You know, people who live in glass houses and all that. I wonder, did you bother to check to see if a letter to the editor was sent to the paper, or did you just look into a crystal ball or something?