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Ghost-Hunting Mistakes: Science and Pseudoscience in Ghost Investigations – CSI

Millions of people are interested in ghosts. One 2005 Gallup poll found that 37 percent of Americans believe in haunted houses, and even more believe in ghosts. The “reality” TV show Ghost Hunters has been a huge hit for the Syfy channel, lasting six seasons so far and inspiring other shows. The show’s ghost-hunting methods have been adopted by thousands of amateur ghost investigators across the country and around the world.

Just about every ghost-hunting group calls itself “skeptical” or “scientific.” Many investigators believe they are being scientific if they use electromagnetic field (EMF) detectors or infrared cameras-or if they don’t use psychics or dowsing rods. But the best way to know whether an investigator or group is scientific is to examine methods and results. Does the investigator use the pseudoscientific methods described here? What is the group’s track record of solved cases? Does an investigation end with inconclusive and ambiguous results or a solved mystery?

Ghost investigations can be deceptively tricky endeavors. Very ordinary events can be-and indeed have been-mistaken for extraordinary ones, and the main challenge for any ghost investigator is separating the facts from a jumble of myths, mistakes, and misunderstandings. It can be very easy to accidentally create or misinterpret evidence: Is that flash of light on the wall a flashlight reflection-or a ghost? Are the faint sounds recorded in an empty house spirit voices-or a neighbor’s radio? It’s not always clear, and investigators must be careful to weed out the red herrings and focus on the verified information.

The most famous ghost hunters in the world, Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson (co-founders of The Atlantic Paranormal Society-T.A.P.S.-and stars of Ghost Hunters), agree that using science is the best way to approach investigations. They have always claimed to use good scientific methods and investigative procedures, for example writing that “T.A.P.S. uses scientific methods to determine whether or not someone’s home might be haunted,” and “We approach ghost hunting from a scientific point of view” (Hawes and Wilson 2007, 270).

Yet in their 2007 book Ghost Hunting: True Stories of Unexplained Phenomena from The Atlantic Paranormal Society, Hawes allots a grand total of four paragraphs (within 273 pages) to a chapter titled “The Scientific Approach.” He doesn’t have much to say about science or scientific methods, and in fact it’s the shortest chapter in the book. Hawes is wrong in his belief that he and his T.A.P.S. crew are using good scientific investigative methods. After watching episodes of Ghost Hunters and other similar programs, it quickly becomes clear to anyone with a background in science that the methods used are both illogical and unscientific.1

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