Over the years I’ve come across a plethora of both so-called “ghost hunting equipment” and “methods” that boldly claim to detect, communicate with, or capture spirits. If a device or method catches the interest of a para-celebrity (a well-known individual within the paranormal community, usually with a TV or internet show), such things usually become accepted into the culture as the new standard practice. Recently, a new method claims to be “groundbreaking” in its approach to communicating with spirits, and more groups are beginning to take notice and copy it. Let’s take a closer look at it.
I’ve written previously about many ghost hunting gadgets and methods, such as the Xbox Kinect (Biddle 2017), and also made some videos of others, such as the Flashlight Trick (Biddle 2019). Along the way, many ghost hunters have tried to incorporate science into their methods and experiments to prove the existence of an afterlife. Despite many good intentions, these attempts continually fall short of conforming to valid scientific standards.
This “minor” detail doesn’t stop many paranormal enthusiasts from describing some of their methods and/or devices as “innovative” or “groundbreaking.” These enthusiasts—ghost hunters, UFO hunters, and cryptid hunters—wholeheartedly believe they are being scientific in their endeavors. In reality, they are being scientifical. As Sharon Hill describes it, the term scientifical refers to “when a person or group adopt what they think is a scientific method but fail to adopt the established practices and ethos of the scientific community that makes it so strong; they are not being scientific, but scientifical” (Hill 2011).
It was the pairing of the terms groundbreaking experiment with the SB7 spirit box that really drew my attention to the original article. A good friend of mine, Mitch Silverstein, sent me a link to an online article titled “The Estes Method: How the Groundbreaking SB7 Spirit Box Experiment Is Changing Paranormal Investigation” by Greg Newkirk, a ghost hunter who operates the “Week In Weird” website. Silverstein and I had worked on a study (which included an experiment) involving the SB7 a few years ago (Silverstein, Bohn, and Biddle 2015), so he convinced me to take a closer look.
The “Estes Method” claims to be a new form of extrasensory communication method involving an SB7: a modified radio that sweeps AM/FM frequencies and plays snippets of radio broadcasts over the built-in speaker (or an external speaker plugged into the device). Many ghost hunters tend to believe these partial radio broadcasts are responses or messages from spirits, even though they are indeed radio broadcasts any radio receiver can pick up. Ghost hunters interpret the noises—words, phrases, partial words, random noise—as direct responses to questions being asked of the alleged spirits. The SB7 radio is extremely popular within the paranormal community for these so-called “ghost box sessions.”
With the SB7 radio in hand, this Estes method has one person, called the Receiver, put on a blindfold and noise isolation headphones with the idea that it puts them in a state of sensory deprivation. The Receiver then listens as the radio sweeps through the available radio broadcasts and calls out words he or she hears through the headphones. While this is going on, others in the group ask various questions of the spirits and wait to hear what comes from the Receiver. The words/phrases the Receiver calls out are accepted, at face value, as genuine responses from the spirits.
Newkirk claims “the brilliant part about the Estes Method is that effectively removes the ‘group bias’ of spirit boxes, a side effect which taints their usage” (Newkirk 2019). In fact it does no such thing. A bias is a tendency, inclination, or prejudice toward or against something or someone (Psychology Today 2019). This “Estes method” is basically the same exact process ghost hunters have been using for years; asking questions out loud (to the alleged ghosts) and listening intently for any noises that come out of the speaker that not only can be interpreted as a word or phrase, but ones that can be interpreted as meaningful answers to their questions. Instead of ghost hunters hearing the noises from an electronic speaker, they now hear a fellow ghost hunter’s interpretations (an organic speaker?).
As is often the case, the interpreted “responses” don’t have to answer the questions that were asked. I’ve watched, both on television programs and in person, as a noise interpreted as an unrelated word is accepted as a response and changes the direction of questioning. For example, during a ghost hunt I attended at the White Hill Mansion, an attendee asked the question “What year did you die?” As the SB7 radio swept through the available broadcasts, another attendee claimed she heard the word “stairs.” This wasn’t a meaningful response to the question (which one would expect to be a number), yet the group of ghost hunters accepted this idea and began stating “Oh, so you died falling down the stairs? The basement stairs or the main stairs?”; its was a total change in direction, dictated by a random radio broadcast.
As I mentioned, the only difference in this method is an added step to an already highly-flawed process. As my colleague Mitch Silverstein noted, “the added measures add nothing to the useless SB7 and still leaves everything to interpretation.” There is no improvement or variable controls to guard against biases. If it does anything, it adds an additional layer of confirmation bias to the process, which is the tendency to search for and focus on information that supports what someone already believes, while ignoring facts that go against those beliefs, despite their relevance (Psychology Today 2019). The Receiver is one of the ghost hunters—someone who already believes that ghosts exist, that they communicate through such nonsensical methods, and that such ghosts are at the location they’re “investigating.” They are biased toward the stories and history of the site they are present in. If they suspect a man was murdered at the location, they will likely be listening for a man’s voice and words related to the “story.”
Even if the Receiver is not one of the ghost hunters, the rest of the people asking questions and then finding relevance in the relayed interpreted responses are still demonstrating the same “group bias” Newkirk believes is removed. As seen in Newkirk’s own cookie-cutter style paranormal series, Hellier, where the “Estes method” is demonstrated, the ghost hunters listening to the relayed “responses” actively interpret and force-fit the relayed words into their narrative; they fully believe they’re communicating with spirits regardless of what they hear (a solid example of confirmation bias).
Newkirk does attempt to advise the Receiver to avoid interpreting the noises they hear, but contradicts himself in the very next sentence. He states, “Try not to be an interpreter, but rather a megaphone for the sounds. When I’m doing the Estes Method and I’m the Receiver I’ll even say portions of words, syllables, or occasionally complete a word if what I hear is very close” (Newkirk 2019). In one breath he tells you not to interpret what you hear, and in the next he’s telling you he will “complete a word” if it’s close—interpreting what he hears. The very act of listening to a sound and choosing how to express that sound to others is by definition a process of interpretation.
This opens the situation up for even more bias; he can change a word he hears into something that he thinks is more appropriate. Keep in mind that the radio is sweeping these stations quickly, without muting the sound … this allows you to hear the static between stations, as well as different broadcasts blending together. If Newkirk were to hear a sound such as “swim” or “the side” during these conditions, it’s not a stretch to think he might “complete the word” as “suicide”—especially if there is a suspected suicide at the location being investigated. This practice of completing words is quite common within the ghost-hunting community.
Newkirk also gives us a specific set of equipment to use during this method. One is a blindfold, the other is a pair of noise isolation headphones. These items are presumably to help put the Receiver in a state of sensory deprivation. In fact, in an episode of Hellier (Newkirk 2019), we are told “We created this method in order to cut off the Receiver from the more anticipated responses in the hopes that our conversations that you (the Receiver) couldn’t hear would line up with responses you (the Receiver) have given back.” He further explains that the blindfold is used “so there’s no environmental sensory influence about what the conversation is.” This has brought up comparisons by some with the well-known Ganzfeld experiments.
The Ganzfeld experiments involved a Receiver and a Sender. The Receiver was put in a soundproof room and fitted with headphones playing either white or pink noise; white noise is the combination of sounds of all different frequencies, pink noise is white noise that filters out the higher frequencies. Halves of ping pong balls are placed over the Receiver’s eyes with a red light shining on them. The Sender is in another room and a target (an image or short video) is randomly selected, and the Sender attempts to telepathically transmit the target to the Receiver (Carroll 2016). This “Estes method” is simply not the same as the Ganzfeld experiments. The Receiver is not in a state of sensory deprivation, nor is there a Sender attempting to transmit an image from another room; it’s just a person listening to random radio broadcasts through headphones and repeating them.
I’d like to focus on the headphones recommended by Newkirk and crew: a pair of Vic Firth S1H1 or S1H2 Stereo Isolation Headphones (which the article has a convenient link to them on Amazon). According to Newkirk, “these are vastly important. If you aren’t using these headphones or an equivalent, throw out all of your evidence. These cans were made for studio drummers and block external noise up to 25 decibels, ruling out unintentionally hearing the Operator’s questions or outright fraud” (Newkirk 2019).
According to various sources, normal conversation (human voice) is about 60 to 70 dB, which is well above what the suggested headphones can “block” (Healthwise 1995; Alpine 2019; Engineering Toolbox 2005). However, when looking into the Vic Firth Stereo Isolation Headphones, we find that that the headphones “reduce overall noise levels by 25 decibels” (Vic Firth 2019) via the pads that create a seal around your ears. This is important to note, since a poor seal reduces the effectiveness of the headphones purpose; for example, long hair or a beard will prevent a proper seal and allow sound to pass by. In the Hellier episode where they demonstrate the Estes method, the man acting as Receiver (Randell) has a full beard and head of hair, making it highly unlikely he had a proper seal.
I was curious about how much one could actually hear with various noise isolating headphones, so I headed off to Best Buy to test out the headphones on display (they are much too expensive to buy just for this test). Keep in mind that the recommended headphones are noise isolation and not noise cancelling headphones—which have a “miniature microphone in the earpiece that picks up ambient noise. Electronics in the ear piece create a noise-cancelling wave that is 180° out of phase with the ambient noise. This wave acts like a noise eraser: it cancels out the annoying sounds that surround you without diminishing the audio you want to hear” (Audio-Technica 2019).
Once in Best Buy, I tried on every pair of isolating headphones they had. Guess what? I could still hear what was going on around me. Although they muffled the sound a bit, I could still clearly hear conversations going on in other aisles, including a saleswoman talking to a customer. I could also still hear the music the store was playing over the speaker way above me. When another salesperson asked if they could help me, I explained exactly why I was there. This sparked a debate between six employees, their manager, and me on which headphones blocked the most sound (they all seemed the same).
However, the real test was whether I could hear someone talking while the headphones were on and plugged into an SB7 radio as it scanned through the various frequencies. So, I did just that: I acquired a pair of noise isolating headphones, plugged in my sweeping SB7 radio (yes, I own one too), had my wife sit next to me, and start a conversation. I could hear her talk and could hear what she was saying—especially in the static-filled gaps as the device cycled through the stations.
Newkirk closes out his article with this statement: “With this information, you’re off to the races, and able to perform what is genuinely one of the most groundbreaking experiments to hit the paranormal investigation community since the EMF meter” (Newkirk 2019). This doesn’t make sense, on many levels. For one, an EMF meter is a device, not an experiment. Second, the “Estes method” is more of an exercise in confirmation bias rather than anything that could be considered an experiment, let alone a “groundbreaking” one. The quote exemplifies the scientifical thinking from, and promoted by, Newkirk and others like him. He and his crew (apparently) believe they are adhering to valid scientific methods but instead demonstrate a deeply flawed understanding of research methodology.
Newkirk goes on to boast that the Estes method has already been featured on several episodes of Travel Channel’s Kindred Spirits (who relied on multiple flashlight tricks to provide evidence) and Nick Groff’s show (Paranormal Lockdown), demonstrating how easily these types of ideas can spread among the community. Much like Gwyneth Paltrow promoting useless pseudoscience like vaginal eggs (Wang 2018), para-celebrities tend to use their semi-famous statuses to promote nonsensical methods and devices as science (when they are not), duping fans into accepting claims without question, without valid data, and without actual science.
- Alpine Hearing Protection. 2019. 5 Sound Levels in Decibels. Available at https://www.alpinehearingprotection.co.uk/5-sound-levels-in-decibels/.
- Audio-Technica. 2019. How do active noise-cancelling headphones work? Available at https://www.audio-technica.com/cms/features/b3ef06fca462fcad/index.html.
- Biddle, Kenny. 2017. The Xbox Kinect and Paranormal Investigation. Available at https://www.csicop.org/specialarticles/show/the_xbox_kinect_and_paranormal_investigation.
- ———. 2019. Flashlight Trick. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XQp3syfKddE&t=2s.
- Carroll, Robert T. 2016. Ganzfeld. Available at http://skepdic.com/ganzfeld.html.
- Engineering ToolBox. 2005. Voice Level at Distance. Available at https://www.engineeringtoolbox.com/voice-level-d_938.html. Accessed March 9, 2019.
- Healthwise, Incorporated. 1995. Harmful Noise Levels. Available at https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/Pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=tf4173.
- Hill, Sharon. 2011. Scientific or Scientifical? Available at https://sharonahill.com/2011/06/21/scientific-or-scientifical/.
- Newkirk, Greg. 2019. The Estes Method: How the Groundbreaking SB7 Spirit Box Experiment is Changing Paranormal Investigation. Available at http://weekinweird.com/2019/01/24/estes-method-sb7-spirit-box-experiment-paranormal-investigation/?fbclid=IwAR3rPZR9nClB4lO4E9yBxnbx4kYizjcLD4SDg4OPTgitpGg04pmehg42LrI.
Psychology Today. 2019. What is Bias? Available at https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/bias.
- Silverstein, M., Bohn, S., and Biddle, K. 2015. Testing the Validity of the Ghost Box as a Tool for Paranormal Investigation.
- Vic Firth Company. 2019. Stereo Isolation Headphones 2. Available at http://vicfirth.com/products/accessories/hearing-protection/stereo-isolation-headphones-2/.
- Wang, Amy B. 2018. Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop touted the ‘benefits’ of putting a jade egg in your vagina. Now it must pay. Available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2018/09/05/gwyneth-paltrows-goop-touted-benefits-putting-jade-egg-your-vagina-now-it-must-pay/?utm_term=.8b6d001cf3a4.