Why "Ghost-Hunters" Belongs on the SyFy Channel

By Naamah Plotzker
On March 6, 2012

The co-lead investigator Grant Wilson recently announced his retirement from the TV show "Ghost-hunters" after eight years. If you never heard this news, don't feel out of touch; you're probably just not into the paranormal.

"Ghost Hunters" is a TV show on the SyFy Channel in which Wilson and his cohort, Jason Hawes, conduct "scientific" investigations of sites that are believed to be haunted. While Wilson and Hawes have done much to promulgate the idea that ghosts and other paranormal phenomena are very real, including launching a TV show and founding The Atlantic Paranormal Society (TAPS) to educate about and enable investigation of the paranormal, skeptics abound and have founded their own societies to counter what they call as-of-yet unsubstantiated claims.

One such critic is Benjamin Radford, a vocal member of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI). The premise for Radford's argument against "scientific" paranormal studies can be illustrated by the following example: If one were to claim that he or she "found" the cure for cancer, a huge body of powerful evidence would be required to support such a claim. So it is with ghost-hunting, if not more so, because here we are dealing with the supernatural. The evidence far too weak to support such fantastic claims.

Why is it that "feelings" and faulty scientific methods seem to be enough to prove that there are ghosts when such evidence would be laughable in other fields? Do Wilson and Hawes even believe their own claims, considering that their show is viewable on the Sy-Fy Channel and not a more factual network, such as Discovery?

According to Radford, paranormal research is as respectable a scientific inquiry as any, and as such, does not deserve to be treated with the "pseudoscientific" methods of typical ghost-hunters. On the CSI website, Radford exposes all the things that are wrong with the "scientific" ghost-hunting of today.

First of all, he argues, all you need to do is just take a look at the people who are ghost hunters to see that ghost hunting is a hoax. Ghost hunters are nearly always "amateurs;" they rarely have scientific training in the study of the paranormal and therefore are unqualified to apply scientific methods to research. According to Radford, in order to carry out an effective investigation, a reasonable amount of background in the areas of investigation, logic, critical thinking, psychology, science, and forensics is required.

However, the problem is much greater: Many ghost hunters do not consider natural explanations for ghostly phenomena. They automatically conclude that phenomena such as orbs or electronic voice phenomena (EVPs) are "unexplainable" and therefore are evidence of paranormal activity, while really they are due to other causes.

Orbs, which are considered manifestations of ghostly presences and are usually found only in photographs, are most likely caused by the flash illuminations of dust, insects, rain and many other objects by the camera flash, as Radford demonstrated in a series of experiments. EVPs, which are strange noise, are also attributable to static, wind, human voices, radios, and auditory pareidolia (the interpretation of random sounds as speech in one's own language). Although the TAPS website discourages inquisitors from immediately ruling out natural circumstances, their proposals that true orbs can be distinguished by features such as trails of movement behind it and white, blue, or green color is not enough.

"Scientific" ghost-hunters recognize that it is not enough to claim that there are ghosts because of weird, creepy, or sad feelings or sensations because a person's emotions are not necessarily connected to anything specific in his or her environment. Richard L. Smith, a ghost hunter and guest poster on the TAPS website claims to investigate clients for mental instability, phobias, delusional behavior, and depression before he agrees to conduct investigations with them, perhaps decreasing the possibility that sudden "inexplicable" feelings or sensations are due to causes other than ghosts.

A further problem is that searches for ghosts are almost always conducted in the dark. Logic dictates that a search ought to be conducted in light, even for ghosts. It is true that some ghosts are described as emitting light, and in that case, a search in the dark would make sense, but often ghosts are described as being shadowy and dark, and in those cases a search in the light would be the more logical approach. Searching for the paranormal in darkness exacerbates normal feelings of fear and paranoia in the hunters. Most of the time, a search will be more successful if you can see what you are looking for. 

There is another significant problem with ghost-hunters. Control groups are a fundamental principle of scientific research. A scientist cannot just assume that when he does an experiment and sees the result that he wanted that it is because his experiment "worked." The system by which the causal relationship is experimented is by establishing an independent variable which alone is responsible for changes in the dependent variable. This means that A must cause B, so that if the conditions of A change, B changes too, and scientists need to be sure that the dependent variable does not exist without the independent variable (because this would imply that B is not caused by A). When ghost-hunters carry out overnight investigations of a haunted location, they do not have a large enough time-frame to take the hundreds of samples necessary to establish the control state of the location, that is, the natural state of the location without paranormal activity and the haunted state. 

Lastly, much of the equipment used in "scientific" ghost-hunting is faulty.  Several high-tech machines are used to find ghosts, such as Geiger-counters, which test for nuclear radiation waves, EMF detectors, which measure changes in electromagnetic fields, ion detectors, and infrared cameras, which take pictures that sense the presence of energy in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Yet there is no evidence that the phenomena that these tools measure have any connection to the presence of ghosts.  

Furthermore, even the equipment that can be used to test for ghosts is not used correctly. Sound recorders and microphones can test for strange noises, but it is not enough to just record these sounds and study them later, as ghost-hunters do. If you place microphones around a room, you can test where the sound is coming from by which microphone has the highest signal strength, and then analyze what the source of the sound is. For example, if the microphone picks up a strong signal near a radiator, the sound is probably coming from a furnace or boiler. If a sound is strongest near the center of a room, especially an empty one, this may be a sign of paranormal activity, but of course, much more extensive investigation would be required to be sure. 

Though science has not yet given us strong evidence in its favor does not mean that the idea is dead. Perhaps science will eventually succeed in proving the existence of the paranormal, for as shown in this article, the problem with ghost-hunting is faulty methods, not a faulty hypothesis. On the other hand, science may not lead the way to this elusive world. Perhaps we are supposed to have forgotten the way of the ancient and dark powers of times gone by. 

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