SCIENCE FOR GHOST HUNTERS
By Ghost Safari
Entire contents copyright © 2001 Video Hammer Productions LLC
I realize it’s a cliché to begin this paper with a dictionary definition of the paper’s subject, but due to the subject, “science”, I think it’s appropriate. After all, part of being “scientific” is being precise. The following definition comes from www.dictionary.com:
sci·ence (s ns)
- The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.
- Such activities restricted to a class of natural phenomena.
- Such activities applied to an object of inquiry or study.
- Methodological activity, discipline, or study: I've got packing a suitcase down to a science.
- An activity that appears to require study and method: the science of urchasing.
- Knowledge, especially that gained through experience.
- Science Christian Science.
For purposes of this paper, we’ll use definition 1:
Science is the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.
So, if we want to form a new field of “ghostology”, and we want to be considered a science, we need to:
- Conduct experimental investigation
- Formulate theoretical explanations for all the phenomena we wish to study
*Note that the field of “ghostology” can be a science under this definition, rather than the inevitable “pseudo-science” as many uninformed skeptics claim. The key phrase is “can be a science”. “Ghostology” can just as easily be pseudo-science, so we must be careful.
Observation, Identification and Description
I grew up hanging around what many would now call “nerds” during my early school years. One particularly smart kid I grew up with (he’s a flight surgeon now!) remarked to me one time while asking me to look at something (I don’t remember what now),
“You see, but you do not observe!”
Now I don’t know if this was original thought on his part or not. Frankly, I didn’t care. This statement made an impact on my thinking for years to come. One example I use to illustrate this point is anecdotal, but interesting nonetheless. I ask people “how many of you have ever seen someone empty the money out of a pay phone?” I’ve never found ONE person who has answered “yes” to this question. I find this intriguing, because you just know the telephone company has to empty the change from these machines occasionally, but apparently no one ever sees this happen. We see but we do not observe! Another example is the story of the “purloined letter” I’m sure many of you had to read somewhere in your grammar school years. The “Purloined Letter” tells the story of a murder and how the murderer was so easily overlooked by everyone -- the postman did it! You see, but you do not observe!
Observation skills may be one good reason why paranormal research groups just love to sign up a member who was, or currently is, a private investigator. By nature of their profession, these people have above average observation skills. They’ve conquered at least one part of the “science” equation – observation.
As we observe, we also need to describe and identify. This sounds simple and I suppose the description part may be simple. For example, I know of one respected paranormal investigator who observed (along with several other people) a very strange, pinkish mist traveling about in the cellar of an old building. Now, she observed this phenomenon, and described it to me, but she did not identify what this phenomenon truly was. The reason is, being a good scientist, she simply did not know the identity of this foggy mass. I must say I was impressed with her observation skills as she described the phenomenon most vividly, and even knew it’s precise path from one room to another. She also described, fairly precisely, the smell of lilacs emanating from the mass. I admired her reluctance to say she had seen a “ghost”, because labeling the phenomenon a “ghost” required identifying the mass, which she simply could not do.
As paranormal enthusiasts, we all know that identification of phenomena can be problematic. Although it sounds simple, I’ll borrow an example from the UFO field. The acronym “UFO” as most everyone knows stands for “Unidentified Flying Object”. The problem with labeling something a “UFO” is that it has come to mean “flying saucer” making the assumption that everything identified as a UFO is an extraterrestrial flying machine containing little gray people. The fact is “UFO” does not mean this at all, but this has become the connotation. What has happened is we’ve combined “identity” with “theoretical explanation”. The truth is if you observe a flying object, and you can’t identity it, then it is a UFO! This doesn’t mean it’s a flying saucer. It could just be a helicopter or a bird.
We have much the same problem now in the “ghostology” field. Let’s pick on the term “orb”. There are literally thousands of still pictures of “orbs” posted on web sites these days. Now the problem is that, to many people anyway, “orb” equates to “ghost” which simply may not be the case at all. I’m not saying identifying a white colored, circular blob in your photo as an “orb” is wrong. However, I can just as easily identify the same white colored, circular blob in your photo as CPC (Close Proximity Contamination, as in dust, lint, water droplet, etc). Now, whose identification is correct, your “orb” or my “CPC”? You’re claiming your “orb” is paranormal, or at least an object more than a few inches from the lens, where I claim it is not. This is where “formulate theoretical explanation” comes in.
Formulate Theoretical Explanations
Most of us probably have a good intuitive grasp of what it means to formulate a theory. We deal with this on a daily basis, sometimes in the most mundane ways. For example, we’ve all had the experience of rushing out to drive to work only to find our car won’t start. After our initial consternation, we generally begin to formulate theories why our car won’t start:
- The battery is low
- The starter is going bad
- We’re out of gas
Of course, there are other possible theories why our car won’t start.
In the field of “ghostology” we formulate theories all the time. Returning to our orb photo example, let’s formulate some theories:
- The orb in our photo is simply CPC (dust, lint, water droplet, etc) very close to the lens, hence out of focus. It appears large because it’s so close to the lens. It appears white because light from the camera flash reflects off the CPC.
- The orb is an object whose apparent size is accurately represented in the photo. Since it appears to be a foot in diameter, it actually is that large. It’s white because it consists of an invisible mass that is only made visible by the camera flash.
Note that we’re carefully avoiding any paranormal implications at this point in theory number 2, because this would just complicate our theory making it difficult to test. This theory will be difficult enough to prove without introducing additional constraints.
Theory number 1 should be relatively easy to test. All we have to do is test various CPCs under the same conditions as the original photo was taken.
Both of these are, of course, just theories at this point. We should have no prejudice at this point as to which one is the correct one if we wish to be truly “scientific”. Beliefs have no place here. We have to test our theories using experimental investigation.
At this point we’ve observed, described and attempted to identify by formulating theories. Note that in science, formulating a single theory is generally frowned upon, because although the evidence we collect may support one theory, it may also support other theories. For our orb example, we’ve formulated two theories and there may be others. It’s generally better to have more theories than not enough. We don’t want to miss something important (after all, we’re scientists!).
For each of our theories in the orb example, we have to test each through experimental investigation.
For the first theory, we need to identify common CPCs that might be present on the location where the photo was taken. Dust, bugs, lint from our sweater, rain, etc are all possibilities depending on where and when the photo was taken. To test our theory we have to recreate conditions as closely as possible when the photo was taken, then introduce the CPCs we’ve identified into the air in front of the camera lens, and possibly on the camera lens and take test photographs. If we can reproduce something that looks very much like our orb, then we have provided supporting evidence for our theory.
For the second theory, how are we going to prove the orb is actually a physically large object of some sort, floating in space several feet from our lens? For this, we devise an experiment:
- We’ll set up two cameras and try to capture the orb on both cameras at the same time.
- If we are successful in capturing it in two photos simultaneously, at different angles, we can triangulate its location in space, and hence determine it’s real size and distance from the cameras.
The second part of our theory that “It’s white because it consists of an invisible mass that is only made visible by the camera flash” will be tough to prove but at least supported by the experimental evidence if we can show that “the orb is an object whose apparent size is accurately represented in the photo”.
So, what we’ve done to be “scientific” is to devise experiments to test both of our theories about the orb in our photo, and ultimately orbs in general. Note that it is NOT sufficient to simply formulate a theory, then ASSUME the theory is true. We have to TEST our theory with experimental investigation. Note also that the design of the experiments we devise are also very important, since they are intended to support one or more of our theories. The worst case is that we design bad experiments and come to the wrong conclusion about the nature of our orb, and even worse propagate bad information about orbs in general. For example, it’s critical in the first experiment to make sure we use contaminants that would be likely to be found under the conditions in which the real photograph was taken. Taking pictures of glitter, for example, is probably a bad experiment unless the location is in a Las Vegas showplace. Glitter is NOT a common contaminant found in an abandoned house, for example. Toilet paper probably is a good CPC to test, however, because it’s very common and is even found in women’s purses, used frequently to blow one’s nose, wipe away sweat, clean off makeup, etc.
So That’s Science!
Well, you should have a good grasp on what science is now. We observe, we describe and we identity. To identify, often we must formulate theories about what we observe and then test those theories.
Of course, this is all a very simplistic explanation, but it’s a start. One big problem I’ve observed in the “ghostology” field today is the use of circumstantial evidence to support a theory. For example, I’ve had people argue with me that since they KNOW they’re in a haunted location, and they KNOW they have orbs in their photographs, this is proof that the orbs are paranormal. I hope you now see the fallacy in this argument. You first must prove your assertion that “orbs are paranormal”, not use the assumption to prove another theory. You have to prove the first theory “orbs are paranormal” first! After you’ve proven this, you can then, and only then, argue that the presence of orbs in photos supports the theory of a haunting.
Being a Good Scientist
Note that you can choose to be a ghost “hunter” or a ghost “scientist”. The choice is yours based on your approach to the subject. I’ve never understood ghost hunters who simply don’t, or won’t, at least try to devise tests that support their (often outlandish) theories. If you’re going to propagate your theories without providing experimental evidence, at least be honest and label them as simply “theories” and not “fact”. For example, I’ll pick on “vortices” briefly. I’ve seen all kinds of theories out there about vortices such as “portals to another dimension”, or “orb portals” or even “dimensional warps”. There’s not ONE thread of experimental evidence that supports these claims, yet some of these theories are presented as “fact” on many web sites. As a matter of fact, there’s not ONE thread of experimental evidence to even support that vortices exist except for CPC causes, let alone that they are paranormal portals of some kind. Have you ever seen a “vortex” in a photograph where the vortex appears anywhere but very close to the lens? Think about it! Believe me, as a paranormal enthusiast myself, I’d love nothing better than for some enterprising ghost “scientist” out there to prove me wrong about supposed “vortices”.
IANAS (I Am Not A Scientist)
I have to confess that I am not a scientist by profession, so I’m open to stand corrected on any of the points in this paper. However, I believe I’ve presented at least the basics of “being scientific” as a good start. I’d love to see additional, follow up papers from “real” scientists to compliment this one. Consider yourself “challenged” by a fellow ghost hunter!
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