Wednesday, 7 May 2014

More than a feeling? An example of some common errors in a paranormal investigation.

Since I began looking into the methods various groups use to investigate the paranormal, I've found more and more that there are some very common (and very annoying) errors that crop up frequently. These are aside from groups claiming to be "scientific" in nature whilst still using fundamentally unscientific practices such as ouija boards and table-tipping. Both of which I'm sure I'll tackle at some point. The mistakes I'm highlighting here are far less pronounced and far more common.

 I've taken an example from Facebook of a brief report from a paranormal investigation group based in South Africa called Paranormal Research Investigations of Pretoria. I am at pains to first point out, this is in no way a personal attack on PRIP. I have no animosity towards them, I simply wish to offer some constructive criticism.

Part 1

First let's look at the information they offer about themselves on their Facebook page:

 The immediate problem I see here, is while its clear that PRIP are trying to help people, and they are at least offering their services for free, they make irresponsible claims about the techniques they use. To clarify no paranormal investigation technique has ever been "proven"  because none have ever provided conclusive evidence that ghosts actually exist.

I'm not sure that PRIP are actually clear what would actually constitute "evidence" of the paranormal. This is something we'll return to a little later.

PRIP declare a concern with their client's well being that is admirable, but I have to wonder if they have fully considered the consequence of stating categorically their homes are haunted.

One last problem I have with his opening statement is that there is no reference to what methods PRIP actually use. Sure, we are told they are proven, but we can't check this for ourselves can we? This then has to be considered a completely unsubstantiated claim, and fundamentally misleading.

Anyway, on to the actual report. Now in fairness, this is admittedly a very brief account. But it fundamentally lacks a lot of vital information and contains much which is completely irrelevant and tells us absolutely nothing of value.

1 Ok, so we start with an overview of what the client's have been experiencing, that's great. Here's the problem with what is given. It's mostly all subjective. There may be a multitude of reasons why a location may "feel" unwelcoming that are in no way paranormal in nature. Terms like a "dark" room, and a "room of revenge" aren't helpful, for a start, what the hell to they actually mean? And how exactly does one go about measuring these things? The answer is, you can't. Therefore they have no bearing on the actual investigation. What would of been more helpful, is the time, dates, locations and conditions at the property when the sightings of experiences occurred. Basically as much information about these times as possible. Where is this information? Was it even collected at all?

2. This is pure speculation. There is no supportive evidence that paranormal activity increases  in proportion to proximity to a grave-yard. To have evidence of such a causal link would require evidence that ghosts exist in a measurable quantity. We simply don't have this as of yet.

As for the speculation about the old-man with the oxygen tank. Where has this come from? If its part of the history of the house then that isn't mentioned. Is it a apparition that has been seen? It seems plucked out of thin air.

The idea of collecting history of a location may seem like a good idea prior to an investigation, but it can actually be counter-productive. This is because it gives the team an idea of what to expect, with the more suggestible members of the team there is a fare chance this will directly effect what they experience.

3. Here we return to the idea of suggestibility. So the investigators had a "feeling" of being "unwelcome" the conclusion is clearly made that this is a result of some presence in the house, but could it be a result of members of the team being aware that this is something the occupants of the house have experienced? Could it be a result of the conditions which the investigation is conducted in? Is this a result of suggestibility on the part of the investigators?

Lights out?

 One thing I was able to glean through the above Facebook comment was that the investigation was conducted in the dark. This is something that irks me. I see no reason to conduct an investigation in the dark, most ghost sightings don't occur in the dark, teams should be looking to replicate the exact conditions in which a particular sighting occurred, also operating purely in the dark is impractical and often dangerous even with a decent torch. The only reason I see for the propagation of this practice is the number of groups merely seeking to replicate what they see on ghost-hunting TV shows. In these the only reason for the practice is to artificially heighten the sense of drama and create an air of suggestibility.4. This comment really annoyed me. Thus far there is nothing to suggest that the occurrences in this home are supernatural, to go further than this and suggest that the house has a history of occult practice is ludicrous!  Based upon what grounds? This is especially vexing when you consider this groups supposed sensitivity to their clients! Clearly these are people who believe in such things and are scared of them, to put this on them is deeply irresponsible. Especially when it is based on pure speculation!5. Who made these claims of a "definite" dark presence? Again this seems worryingly subjective, with nothing in the way of corroborative evidence. Further more, it gives the definite conclusion that the team has already decided categorically what form of supernatural entity inhabits the house.Part 2
6. As you can see there is no contemplation of a rational explanation here. This is a face and that is all there is to it. One might expect a stunning piece of photographic evidence to accompany this assertion. Unfortunately this is what we are offered in a later post. 


That isn't really convincing is it? Its not even a great example of pariedolia. A magnification doesn't really add anything either. In fact, look at that cup. Did it possibly contain hot liquid? Is it possible we are looking at steam here? Or possibly condensation? Surely this needs to be ruled out before we conclude "demon"?

7. So the team go into possible explanations for this activity now. But there isn't one single rational explanation offered for any of the proposed phenomena. Every single explanation is based in the supernatural. Its almost as if this team hasn't considered for a moment that this ISN'T something supernatural! I've got to ask them. do you ever go into an investigation with the null-hypothesis in mind? Also the team clearly made up of members who are extremely vulnerable to suggestion and atmosphere. Why else would they leave without attempting to find rational explanations. I'd say this strikes me as a team that aren't particularly professional, but that maybe a little unfair without assessing any of their other work.

8. Again the history offers very little perspective to what is going on presently, especially when its post-hoc speculation based upon current events.

9. See above. What is the casual link between grave-yard proximity and paranormal activity, can we rule out that this proximity isn't causing an atmosphere of suggestibility to the clients. The propagation of other tales of hauntings and the like is only going to amplify this suggestibility.

10. These things simply can't be considered evidence of something supernatural when there seems to have been no attempt to even address perfectly rational explanations.

These mistakes, assumptions, failure to consider rational explanations, non-acceptance of the null-hypothesis, an over-reliance on subjective "feelings" and attempts to replicate the faulty methods of TV show ghost hunters are not the exception in the paranormal investigation community. They are the norm. That is why a system of peer review is desperately and urgently needed. Standards won't get better until the resistance to this is eliminated.