In the Spring 2016 issue of the Skeptical Briefs, Sharon Hill brought you the first part of her Guide to Ghost Hunting Guidebooks. Here is another installment. — The Editors
Ultimate Ghost Tech, Vince Wilson, 2012
This book was also published with more or less the same content as another one of Wilson’s books, Ultimate Ghost Hunter. Wilson informed me that he did not care for the term ghost hunter and has recently pulled that book from publication. Different title or not, the book follows the typical ghost hunter guidebook. In one of the forewords (one is correctly spelled “foreword,” the other “forword”), Wilson is described as the “foremost expert in the technological aspects of paranormal investigation.”
In the other foreword, a rather well-respected parapsychologist reveals the blatant truth about ghost hunting technology: “Let’s face it: ghost hunters love their tech—even if they don’t know how to use it or to assess the data from it in light of the reported phenomena.” Indeed, I agree with that.
The rest of this book is an example of sounding science-like but falling short of representing anything like scientific investigation. Wilson focuses on technology, of course. An earlier book, Ghost Science—which I saw as a must-read since I am deeply interested in ghosts and science—was atrocious. It was sloppy, formatted terribly, and at the very least, desperately needed an editor who could spell and eliminate awful turns of phrase. That book begins with the premise, “One of the main purposes of this book is to show that, not only do ghosts exist but also that the laws that govern reality allow them.” Neither that book nor this one will demonstrate that stated purpose to anyone who understands how science actually works. Wilson’s array of books is essentially self-published. But according to Wilson, he has progressed past that first book, yet he still stands by the work he did in this one. I cringed at many aspects of Ultimate Ghost Tech and how readers will be misinformed by much of its content.
- Wilson states “random energy particles may hold the essence of consciousness…” There is no basis for such speculation. Shall we talk homeopathy?
- “Ghosts will be proven to exist one day and so will psychics…” What is the basis of this claim? What will that effort entail? Why, after 100 years of trying by actual professionals, will things change now with amateur researchers?
- He uses several phrases that are painful to read, such as “just another theory” (where “theory” is used to mean a “guess” instead of the scientific meaning of an evidence-supported overarching model of explanation), “science is absolute” (What does that even mean?), “sorry about the math” (if you have to apologize for the language of science, you should not be reading or writing such a book), and “blah blah blah” (I cannot think of any excuse to write that).
- He refers to “stuffy scientists” and takes a disparaging tone toward skeptics. In Ghost Science, he called skepticism a quasi-religion.
Several statements rankle me as revealing a disturbingly superficial and inflated attitude of ghost hunting hobbyists. He says Ghostbusters (the movie) changed paranormal research with its lingo and gadgets: “Paranormal research just became really cool overnight.” He suggests science is a way to pump up your credibility—not real science but faking it—saying you should answer questions from people with science-like words to sound “professional and cool” and a little “nerdy.” People are too embarrassed to ask what you mean.
Not me. I ask. And science-pretenders skirt the uncomfortable questions.
Wilson relates all the ubiquitous (and wrong) assumptions about ghosts starting with the belief that they exist (thus scuttling any unbiased investigation of what might really be happening to people). The paradigm of today’s ghost investigation is reflected: changes in the environment can be related to ghost behavior and hauntings; technology can provide objective evidence—more and different data—than just human experience. For example, he suggests (through an explanation of energy transfer) that a cold spot could be created from an entity moving through dimensions. This type of rhetoric (apparent in nearly all ghost hunting guides) gives hope but very flimsy justification to other ghost hunters that they will discover something scientifically incredible: “You can be an amateur parapsychologist and usher in a new era of paranormal research. Wow! That’s pretty deep for me!” (p. 160).
Cringe-worthy and specious.
Wilson, like many of these guide writers, seems well-meaning but also willing to learn new things, expand his horizons, and is fairly literate in science ideas—just enough to sound knowledgeable to people who aren’t scientists, which is most of the population. He is not a scientist but a science enthusiast. It’s a widespread trend for ghost hunters to quote scientific buzzwords and name-drop famous scientists. They attempt to apply very complex physics concepts and theories, such as quantum mechanics and Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance,” to inappropriate situations. There are no scientific sources cited or referenced and explained. There are basically no sources for the various claims or even the quotes. The recommended reading list contains references that repeat these unverified speculative claims and include pop science sources such as The Handy Science Answer Book. This is just not acceptable if you claim to be doing science.
Wilson understands that TV ghost hunters are playing a role and that many paranormal investigators are “fooled by an intense need to believe.” Hoaxes are rampant. So, there is a kernel of truth in much of what he writes. However, that is trumped by his own faith that equipment can detect anomalous energy of some sort. The processes he suggests leave out critical considerations about confounding factors and alternative explanations. Wilson has lectured as a ghost tech expert in the past. He suggests giving workshops to teach people about this topic is a good way to fundraise for your group. I find this playing pretend professor/scientist to be profoundly distasteful.
I accept that Wilson will be unhappy with my take on his publications as an unfortunate consequence. But if anyone attempts to make such extraordinary claims that are so off the mark, unjustified, and can misinform society, you open yourself to such harsh criticism. I will call you on bullshit and hope you will consider ceasing its propagation.
How to Hunt Ghosts, Joshua P. Warren, 2003
This volume was produced by an affiliate of Simon and Schuster publishing, so the basic elements of a book—grammar, punctuation, spelling, and formatting—is superior to small or self-published efforts. But I can’t say we get better quality in the content. The same unsupported model, built on speculative paranormal assumptions, is applied.
The first words “Ghosts are real” show us this is not about investigation but about finding proof to support a preexisting conclusion. These opening words oddly contrast with the last words of the book, “Never pretend to know all the answers. All the answers are not known.” In between, we get a mish-mash of silly claims and scientific misrepresentation. Warren’s résumé does not include science. He writes fiction and worked in filmmaking. Like many who appear on TV shows as talking heads, he touts these appearances to bolster his credibility. It works for those who get their facts from TV, I imagine.
Warren wins the prize for the most science-like name-dropping in a ghost hunting guide—Descartes, Newton, Einstein, Sagan—none of whom had anything positive to say about spirits. Nonscientist Warren says, “Let me tell you what static electricity is…” No, thanks. I’d rather get my science information from some place other than in a book about entities that have not been demonstrated to exist. If we are to take these ghost hunters seriously, they should explain why physicists aren’t writing books about the paranormal but nonscientists are.
Here are some illustrations of the ideas presented:
- Spiritual manifestations are hidden from us. Our technology is not good enough. There is scientific evidence that ghostly manifestations are real, he says. Warren provides no hint of why physicists can detect subatomic particles and the tiniest releases of energy but our technology is not adequate to identify ghosts. What scientific evidence is he talking about? It’s not cited or mentioned in any journals, as is standard with scientific protocol.
- Mainstream science is bad because they need to limit their work to activity of a certain category. “Most scientists are busy enough researching the activity they already know about.” This reveals a core ignorance of how knowledge can progress and is a self-evidently dumb claim. From the early days of the scientific endeavor, knowledge became specialized by necessity. To say science is flawed because of this is like saying medicine is bad because too many doctors specialize in distinct areas of health or surgery. Specialization is advantageous for advancing deep knowledge. Astronomers aren’t collecting and evaluating the same data as biologists or sociologists.
- If a person dies young, especially violently, “it is likely that a ghost will remain.”
- Ghosts wrap themselves in ions in order to interact physically. If this is correct, he adds, we can use this to predict and manipulate the phenomena. There is a kernel of science in there, but the assumption that ghosts exists, utilize ions, and interact physically are all grand assumptions.
- “Virtually any location can prove to be haunted.” You should experiment to decide if the Ouija board, automatic writing, pendulums, etc., work for you.
- Warps are areas were the laws of physics seem to be distorted. These may create natural portals. “Warps exemplify the most complicated issues facing science today.” They can be filled with “hundreds or thousands” of entities. Warren gives the Bermuda Triangle, a myth that was exploded decades ago as sensationalized fiction, as example of a warp. Take note that Warren runs a “Bermuda Triangle Research” site in Puerto Rico.
- There is a “correlation between ghost manifestations and standing (acoustical) waves”—it may make the ghost appear. This is in contrast to the well-known research of Vic Tandy who demonstrated that an inadvertently created standing wave was responsible for behavior of materials (metal fencing foil) and possibly the fluid in our eyeballs that could lead to ghost-like reports. Unless I’m missing something (there are no citations to check), Warren has this concept completely backward.
We’re way out on the fringe here. Such incredible claims should have equally incredible documentation provided. Nope. Nothing. It’s practically lying.
Warren knows some science basics—that’s clear—but like many other ghost researchers, he applies them wildly incorrectly. There is an overuse of the term energy without a reasonable definition provided. Warren claims that there is energy of attraction, energy that comes out of our eyes when we look at someone. He says we have auras around us. Dowsing rods that you can make yourself can detect energy fields. His research group (of which he is founder and president) is called the League of Energy Materialization and Unexplained Phenomenon Research (LEMUR). I first heard of Warren through his investigation of the ghost light phenomenon. He also thinks this is energy produced by the Earth. On the whole, this is one of his lesser outrageous ideas, since such lights are actually documented in several places around the world, but the methods of amateur research are unlikely to produce any results of value. The answer to what causes ghost lights is certainly complex and multivariate.
Warren refers to many fictional movies for examples—he is, after all, a fiction novelist. I question at what level ghost hunters can distinguish scientific facts from pure fictional license. And their lack of attention to examination of very normal, reasonable explanations, providing foundationless claims instead that might as well be fiction, dooms them to failure in any effort to advance worthwhile conclusions about ghost experiences. It also leaves them wide-open targets for derision by scientists working in legitimate research endeavors. Warren exhibits paranormal pretentiousness. Since he’s moved into the realm of hawking “wishing machines” and lucky charms, he’s lost all credibility. Scientific? Credible? Not in any senses of the words.