Frustrations with the Southwest Ghost Hunter’s Association on skepticism (yet again)

Technically, I could name this blog “How the ghost hunters on TV messed up the hobby” because since they first aired in 2004, maintaining a decent membership is simply a pain in the ass. People now join the group with certain expectations and closed minded belief systems. Sometimes it feels like I am constantly trying to teach people what skepticism is and quite frankly it feels like driving your car into a brick wall.

The latest round occurred about a year ago when a member posted a video from YouTube about ghost hunting and skepticism in the group’s private forum. It was met with a broad response from the members, most criticizing the views in the video and calling the guy “closed minded”. A big conversation ensued, along with a bit of drama, before one of the forum’s moderators deleted the entire post “to chill out the situation”.

Earlier today, I found my notes that I used to make my response to that conversation. I tried to locate the video that was being discussed but I have not been able to find it. However I have decided to post my notes here in the hope that someone else might find it useful. The drama has already started here, so some of my comments are directed at that. So when things go off topic, that is the cause.

<quote racer>

First of all, his points are extremely bias.

I disagree. All of his points are very much on target and have been commonly identified as issues within the ghost hunting community.   Let’s look at them.

  1. Excitement over nothing
  2. Basic misunderstanding of science
  3. Feigned Skepticism
  4. Misused or worthless equipment
  5. Flat out fakery

His argument comes mostly from watching TV shows. That is relevant since that is what most people have been exposed to. It is now the common “stereotype” that is given to all ghost hunters.

I agree with all of the statements but what I have an issue with are his supporting comments for a few of those statements.

<quote racer>

I understand being skeptical, but without scientific inquiry, method and research there is no way to come to the conclusion he has.

Actually, his conclusion is based on scientific inquiry in all five of the “reasons” he mentioned. There is no sufficient evidence that ghosts do indeed exist, so trying to counter his argument with “your bias” is not going to work very well. He could also ask you what your “scientific qualifications” are to even speak on the subject.  However, you can nitpick his supporting arguments.

I would like to talk more about the first three on his list as I think we can all agree on the last two (misused or worthless equipment and flat-out fakery).

  1. Excitement over nothing

Very true, especially with the TV shows. When Greg and I were filming “Ghost Country” when the medium supposedly channeled a demon.  He fell backwards onto the ground and starting “talking in tongues”.  We were standing there looking at each other (and were probably both thinking “What the fuckkkkk?) when the crew started telling us “Bigger Reactions! Bigger Reactions!!”  Apparently, our disbelief was not very good for television.

However, there is a bigger point to bring up here and it is very important. The guy in the video launches his first shot against the biggest weakness ghost hunters have, confirmation bias. This is important to understand so I’m going to give you a couple of examples that have happened to members of SGHA and myself. Hopefully you can learn from our mistakes.

So, let’s travel back in time to the year 2000. We were doing a ghost hunt at the Bottger Mansion. The crew was divided up into two teams. Team A was upstairs, and Team B was sent into the basement.  Now at the bottom of the stairs the hallway immediately turns to the right. Illuminating this spot is a single light. When Team B went down, they noticed that the light flickered. One of the ghost hunters asked out loud “Are you trying to communicate with us by messing with the light?”.

The light flickered on and off again.

“Are you a male?” was the next question.

Nothing happened.

“Are you a female?”

The light flickered on and off again.

For those who do not know the stories, the ghost is supposed be female. They call her the grandma ghost. So of course, the team downstairs started getting a little geeked and continued asking questions. Sometimes the light flickered in response to their questions, sometimes it didn’t.

Meanwhile, Bob, who was on the ground floor, was walking by the stairs and noticed what was going on. So, he turned and walked down the stairs and moved right up to the light. He paused for a moment and then reached up and screwed the light bulb back into the socket. The flickering bulb was quite loose. So much in fact that we eventually had to consider the possibility of a hoax.

With the light bulb fully seated the flickering completely stopped. The flickering light was debunked on the spot. So, were the ghost hunters on Team B embarrassed? Probably. They definitely got allot quieter after that.

I can understand the embarrassment because that has happened to me too.   During our first trip to Anson, Texas to investigate the ghost light which was reported there, I got a little “geeked’  as well. The story of the Anson light follows:

When entering Anson, turn right at the Allsups and travel until you come upon the graveyard just outside of town. Turn right down the dirt road that travels along the cemetery. At the crossroads, turn your car around so it is facing back towards the main road. Turn off your engine and flash your headlights three times. Within a few minutes you will see the light appear.

Most describe it as a slow-moving white light that travels down the road towards your car. Some have seen it swing wildly from side to side, and others have seen it dance among nearby treetops. It is never accompanied by any noise. Sometimes it changes colors––some say that if one disrespects the light by taunting or cursing at it, it turns red. It usually ranges in size from appearing to be a flashlight to being the headlight of a motorcycle. Some have seen it start at its regular size then grow to immense proportions as it travels down the lonely unpaved road. However, if one travels towards the light, it fades away and disappears. Sometimes it appears not as one light, but as several small lights.

The lights, stories say, are caused by the ghost of a woman who lived in Anson in the 1800’s. She is forever wandering the area, looking for her sons. They had lived together on the road where the lights now appear. The three boys were sent to chop wood one night, and were told that if they encountered any trouble, they should flash their lantern three times. They did so, but by the time their mother managed to get to them to find out what the danger in question was, all three boys had been killed. When visitors flash their car lights, the woman’s spirit emerges, carrying her own lantern, hoping to find her boys. The location was even featured on an episode of “Unsolved Mysteries”.

So, we parked at the crossroads to check it out. When we flashed our headlights three times, the light appeared and all of us got excited. FINALLY, we had discovered something tangible! The problem is that if you try to drive up to the light you must go up a small hill. While doing this you lose sight of the light. When you reach the top of the hill, the light is gone. So, this ghost was turning out to be quite elusive!

So, we started devising all sorts of ideas on how to “sneak up” on the light.  The first involved Buck trying to hide in the cemetery. The rest of us would then drive back to the crossroads to flash the headlights. When the ghost light appeared, we would radio Buck to jump out and take a picture of it. Well, that didn’t work however Buck was frightened by something moving around in the cemetery (in retrospect, it was probably an animal). Regardless, more attempts continued including one that involved trying to use a bush that we had dug up as camouflage in an attempt to approach from another direction.

In the end, the Anson light was explained. However, that first “recon” was captured on in its entirety on video! Was it painful to watch later? Yes it was. Was it embarrassing to watch?  More than I could possibly express. It was horrible. A few years later, the house that I was living in burned down. One of my friends at that time actually tried to console me by saying;

“Look at the bright side bro. That fucking Anson video burned up with that bitch!”

Strangely enough, it did actually make me feel a little better. So, what we have here is a very good example of Confirmation bias. It is one of the major weaknesses of ghost hunting and I’m a very firm believer of learning from your mistakes.

Cody: “Wow, that was embarrassing. We need to put something in place to prevent that from happening again!”

Carlton: “We do. However, you chose not to use it.”

So, it was definitely a case of “my bad”.

This is why our Standard Operating Procedures require that the investigations are done first. The point of the investigation is to eliminate all possible natural explanations, alternative explanations and to scrutinize the testimony of the witnesses. Only after the investigation is COMPLETED do we perform a ghost hunt. The ghost hunt is the LAST STEP!

Ghost hunting is a strange beast. It requires belief. However, it also has many flaws. It is like hiking through the Everglades. There are allot of alligators out there just waiting to bite you in the ass. The purpose of the investigation is to get rid of most of the alligators before the hike begins. With the alligators out of the way, you can focus your belief in a fashion that will be more conductive to what ghost hunting is really about.

<Quote racer>

People should be able to communicate with one another without the fear of feeling stupid or not valued.

I agree. However, this has a high chance of happening when the SOPs are not followed. I understand the “thrill” of the hunt but if you launch one before the investigation has wrapped (or has even started) you are setting yourself up for this. This is why we do things in that particular sequence. If you get the facts first, you are not putting yourself in a position to feel stupid. Everyone is valued. We all have our unique talents and worldview but you really need to follow the process.

  1. Basic misunderstanding of science

Again, a very valid and good point which the majority of ghost hunters exceeding fail at. In its simplest form, it is all about the variables.

A variable is any factor, trait, or condition that can exist in differing amounts or types. These are monitored by controls. Since the investigator wants to study the effect of one particular independent variable, the possibility that other factors are affecting the outcome must be eliminated.

In Observational science (which is what we do) there is no independent variable. So, the variables become alternative hypotheses or alternative explanations.

The formation of hypothesis is a creative process of the imagination and is not a passive reaction to observed regularities. A scientific test consists in a persevering search for negative, falsifying instances.

If a hypothesis survives continuing and serious attempts to falsify it, then it has “proved its mettle” and can be provisionally accepted, but it can never be established conclusively. This is called the principle of falsification. The experiment should be designed to try to falsify the hypothesis.  You’re actually aiming for a fail.

This is where some of the confusion lies. SGHA is a “science based” group, so it follows that methodology. Yet we are often seen as an overly skeptical or debunking type of group because people do not understand how science actually works. So again, this emphasizes the need for the investigation to come first, not the ghost hunt.

  1. Feigned Skepticism

Greg’s reply really hit the mark on this one.

<quote Greg>

We should be able to explain 90% or more of what we find by normal events. It’s that last 10% where the true mystery lies. And if we investigate that last 10% properly, with good controls and a skeptical outlook, that’s where the true gold lies.

Okay, so we should be solving 9 out of every 10 cases. But where does this information come from? The answer is those who came before us. I’ll quote one example:

“The SPR member Tony Cornell spent over 50 years investigating the paranormal. Cornell estimated that of the 800 cases that he investigated, only twenty percent were difficult to explain and only a handful were paranormal. “

Now Tony was not a hardnosed skeptic. He was a psychical researcher (ghost hunter) who dedicated 50 years of his life to the field of paranormal research. Wouldn’t it be wise to learn from those who came before us, so we do not repeat their mistakes?

So yes, the reputation of a good a ghost hunter relies on how many cases he/she has solved. Yet how many ghost hunting groups are actually doing this? Sadly, VERY few.

Just as people have a misunderstanding of science, they also have a misunderstanding of skepticism.

The true meaning of the word skepticism has nothing to do with doubt, disbelief, or negativity.  Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. There are four important points to emphasize here.

  • Skepticism is not a position; it’s a process. In other words, it’s not about belief (or disbelief) True skepticism requires a neutral position.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary investigation
  • Evidence: Fulfills the burden of proof
  • There is no proof that ghosts exist, therefore you cannot met the burden of proof. Thus you cannot have “evidence”.

Now let’s get back on track with the topic of the group discussion. How would you handle someone like the guy in the video if he showed up to one of our lectures or talks?

Imagine having to talk with not just one person (like the guy in the video) but literally dozens  of them at once. This is exactly what happened on March 13, 2002. SGHA was invited to speak at the monthly meeting of New Mexicans for Science & Reason (NMSR), the biggest skeptical group in the state. Even Bob was nervous as we drove to the UNM law center for the lecture.

Bob: Dude, are you sure about this? We have nothing prepared. These guys are going to rip us apart!

Me: It is okay. Keep the conversation “neutral.” (In other words, keep belief out of it and do not make any claims that we cannot back up.) I suggested that he start by talking about the research of Michael Persinger.

I was more confident because I understood what the weakness of ghost hunting are.  As President, I have tried to either eliminate or control those weaknesses with our group. So, I knew how to address those issues if they were brought up.  The first thing on my agenda was to make a point that we were not like the other ghost hunting groups that were out there. You see, they showed up prepared to take on “those guys”.  So, if SGHA is not like “those guys” then what are they about? This effectively disarmed them.

We arrived at the UNM Law Center conference room to find the room packed full (capacity was 125). Quite a few people had nowhere to sit and were standing up against the back wall.  Most of the crowd was probably there to watch the enviable train wreak that would occur when ghost hunters and skeptics started debating the paranormal. There was just one problem though. The train wreck never happened. We kept the conversation neutral and discussed facts. We never made any extraordinary claims.

We talked and answered questions for 45 minutes and then it was over. The people in the front row, who looked like they wanted to kill us an hour earlier, were all smiles and were not trying to belittle or ridicule us. They were offering their help (which we kindly accepted). So, what did NMSR think of us? Here is the summary of the talk from their website.

March 2002 Meeting: Cody Polston & Bob Carter on Ghost Hunting

by Dave Thomas

New Mexicans for Science & Reason (NMSR) heard Cody Polston and Bob Carter of the Southwest Ghost Hunters Association ( speaking on “Hunting for Ghosts” on March 13th, 2002.

Bob Carter kicked the evening off by saying that the SWGA group is interested in finding out what causes ghostly visions, even if there is a prosaic explanation. One of the possibilities they are looking at is that visions of specters might be caused by abnormal electromagnetic fields, as has been hypothesized by Michael Persinger. Cody Polston noted that photographs alone cannot prove ghostly visitations, and that even negatives can be faked. Cody mentioned that the group’s bylaws prevent them from using psychics in their investigations, as you cannot use one paranormal phenomenon to validate another. This attitude has earned SWGA criticism from other ghost groups, which routinely employ psychics in their investigations. He described a curious incident they investigated in Texas, where cars left parked on a train track are mysteriously “pushed” out of harm’s way, with small handprints visible in flour particles dusted onto the rear of the car. However, it’s a gravity hill, and the motion of the car is no real surprise. Furthermore, the group found that when the flour is put on the car, it reveals handprints that were already there, made visible because of oils and residue left behind. This did not make them popular with the Texas ghost group.

The group does “investigations” once or twice a month and employs some low-tech magnetic field sensors to look for odd fields. They typically measure from 5 to 40 Hertz only. Cody and Bob described some of the curious events they have observed, such as glasses blowing up at Maria Theresa’s restaurant, flashing lights at La Placita, weird knocking at the Church Street Café in Santa Fe, and sliding chairs at Los Ranchos de Corrales restaurant. Cody noted that even if the group could prove that photographed “orbs” were real phenomena, it’s still a big leap to prove they are ghosts.

All in all, it was a friendly encounter.

Cody and Bob do think there may be something to ghost stories, and that’s what keeps them going. But they don’t declare that every fuzzy blob in photographs is a “ghost,” either. The group could use help with basic electromagnetics and ideas for sensors, if anyone wants to help out. Their investigations are open to those who want to tag along.

NMSR thanks Cody and Bob for an interesting talk.

So in closing, I want to emphasize that those “skeptic guys” are not the enemy. They have doubts and their questions will push you to become better investigators and ghost hunters.Listen to them and be genuinely open minded.

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