10/29/2013 03:34 pm ET | Updated Dec 29, 2013

Ghost Busters Was a Movie, Not Reality

Oh wow. This is the time of year that my news alerts for "paranormal" are bloated with links to media stories about local ghost hunter/paranormal investigation groups giving presentations at local libraries and community centers, running evening ghost tours around town or historical locations, and generally promoting their services. They are busy, busy, busy, telling ghost tales. I encourage paranormal non-believers to go to these events to experience this pop culture phenomenon for themselves. You should know what is being presented to the public as "real." It's eye-opening how seriously a decent proportion of the population takes this topic.

I'll be blunt. I am not a fan of today's typical paranormal investigation groups because they are promoting an unsupported belief in the paranormal instead of focusing on what, if anything, is causing people to report unnerving anomalies. Their intent is often clearly to "PROVE" paranormal activity, so Halloween is a prime time for them to act like experts in ghostly goings-on to receptive audiences. I apologize in advance to my friends who are sincere people but who fall into this trap. This is NOT meant to be personal, but paranormal investigation, as is typically practiced by hundreds of thousands of amateurs, is unsound.

If you attend a paranormal presentation, here are some things you will see:

  • Serious and smart people with good intentions promoting a passion for their favorite subject;
  • Examples of evidence such as EVP recordings, photos of mists, orbs, shadows or light blurs that are called anomalous;
  • A sense of "scienceyness" with emphasis on the objective nature of equipment to record environmental anomalies;
  • "Facts" about how spirits behave which are delivered in an authoritative way.

If you know a bit about science and the history of the paranormal you will also notice:

  • Poor knowledge of the history of paranormal research;
  • Misunderstanding and misuse of scientific words such as "energy", "quantum", and "scientific method";
  • Use of equipment for purposes which it not designed to serve or equipment that spits out random data interpreted as meaningful;
  • A research team consisting of people with no scientific background;
  • Heavy reliance on anecdotes and personal feelings;
  • Over-confidence in personal perception and interpretation;
  • Inability to recognize how easily people can be and ARE fooled or mistaken;
  • Lack of understanding about coincidence and probability;
  • Proneness to magical thinking (religion, occult, psychics, divination);
  • A preexisting belief in the paranormal as genuine with only lip service, if that, to finding "normal" explanations for anomalies.

My attitude toward paranormal investigation is mixed and nuanced -- it's fun, you can learn a lot about all sorts of things (history, culture, sociology, psychology, etc.) and maybe even help some people along the way. ("Hey, you have a infestation of bees you might want to have removed.") But when an individual or group does any of the following four things, the line has been crossed and you open yourself up to criticism:

1. Declare expertise in the paranormal;
2. Say you are being scientific in your investigation;
3. Counsel people about removing spirits or demons;
4. Promote yourself to the public as being experts, scientific, or ghost/demon busters.

There are no experts in paranormal activity except those who have searched and searched trying to find solid evidence for it and come up disappointed. An expert is one who has made all the mistakes that can be made and LEARNED from that. (I cite Susan Blackmore as an example, look her up.) I dare say paranormal investigators following the Ghost Hunters protocol of "anomaly hunting" are making serious mistakes and have not learned much of anything from that.

If there is no one trained in science on your team, you almost certainly have no idea what it means to be scientific. Science takes specialized training and quite a different mindset that does not come easily. Subjectivity must be removed. Assumptions must be questioned. Supernatural excuses are disallowed. Scientific does not mean "careful and systematic," it does not mean using technology and equipment. It means knowing the ethos and practices of science and why they are important. Science is an evidence-based system, not a belief-based system. So as soon as you admit belief in ghosts as a causal explanation, that is unscientific and the baby (your conclusions) can be thrown out with the bathwater (your investigation).

Those who say they can diagnose or treat demon infestations should be chased out of a house with a large stick. This is the 21st century! That's over 2,000 years of societal progress without the need to invoke demons in the world. Spirits have not been demonstrated to exists outside of a fictional plot device. Since solid evidence such things does not exist, attempts to remove them are pure theater.

Many self-styled paranormal experts get a rush out of presenting to a crowd, being lauded, and treated with respect. From my perspective, you are confusing the public, misleading them into thinking there is a unique and definable cause for what might be called "paranormal activity". This is untrue. The scientific consensus is that the paranormal is not a viable, testable field. No one is observing ghosts in a controlled environment. One person saying "I know!" without solid evidence helps me not at all.

I'd like to reiterate just in case paranormal participants have found this to be too harsh. I do not begrudge people on a personal quest regarding a belief they hold sacred. I would never say stop doing what you are doing, but as a public advocate of good science, I do request that you modify your public presentation in order to be less committal and less self-aggrandizing. I get justifiably ruffled only when you declare something is certain that is certainly not. It's your interpretation, not a fact.

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