Friday, November 9, 2007

Ghost Hunters

Maybe I'm aiming at a soft target, but this has been bothering me for a while. If you don't know about it, Ghost Hunters is a series on the Sci-Fi Channel, with new episodes currently airing on Wednesday nights. It centers on a group of likeable New England blue-collar fellas, plumbers by day, who spend their off-hours poking around in supposedly haunted places, looking for evidence of ghosts. What began as a hobby has now blossomed into a fairly well-organized group they call TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society). It's at least as much a reality show as a supernatural show, since the episodes are often more entertaining for the interactions between the team members as they are for any actual paranormal activity.

A caveat before I proceed.

I'm an atheist. Not because I dislike religion (although I do) but for the simple reason that I won't assert a belief in anything for which sufficient evidence cannot be produced. Richard Dawkins is fond of pointing out what he call the "teapot atheist" idea. Essentially it says that no one believes, as an article of faith at least, that there is a ceramic English teapot in orbit around the planet. There might be one. Science doesn't rule it out. But no reasonable person would proclaim their belief in such a thing absent some evidence that it's actually there.

As a person with no religious beliefs, therefore, I have no notion of an afterlife. There might be one. It might actually turn out to be very nice, but without some evidence that something of us survives after death, I'm not going to say I believe in that particular teapot.

Now, back to Ghost Hunters.

The TAPS crew appears to be a dedicated, sincere bunch. They travel just about anywhere that people claim to have seen a ghost and they use all sorts of equipment to study the places they visit--including devices that measure electromagnetic radiation, infrared scanners, and both digital video and audio recording devices. And they're not flaky. They're basically the kind of guys I grew up with in Jersey, beer & a shot guys who get their hands dirty at work. They don't employ creepy-looking "psychics" who claim that the dead "speak" to them, and who do little more than spout meaningful-sounding vagaries seasoned with a few period-authentic details (like some other ghost-chasing shows that aren't even worth a mention).

In fact, the TAPS guys actually spend more time debunking the potential hauntings they investigate than uncovering evidence of ghosts. Which is good, because the vast majority of the time their investigations produce nothing of note. I'm not being critical though. That's a good thing, in my opinion.

But I am critical of TAPS in other areas. And I'm astounded that no one else seems to be.

My first gripe: every time TAPS investigates a haunted house, the very first thing they do (after setting up their equipment) is to go "lights out." Yes, they turn out all the lights in the building and walk around for several hours in the dark, looking for ghosts.

What's wrong with that?

For one, can we all agree that if there are actual disembodied spirits who have managed to transcend physical death and are now somehow clinging to the Earthly plane, their primary concern simply cannot be a fear of indoor lighting. How seriously can you really claim to possess a mind geared toward skeptical, science-based inquiry if you insist (for no good reason, as far as I can tell) that ghosts only come out in the dark?

The premise itself is the worst kind of foolishness. And no one, either connected to the show or beyond, ever seems to point this out.

But the "lights out" thing is troubling for another reason, and this is a much more serious charge. Doing something like that undermines both TAPS' scientific bona fides, and it severely limits what they can actually uncover.

All the information any human can ever obtain about the world has to come to us through one of our five senses. Everything. That's all there is. You're reading this, which means you're seeing it. We can construct devices to expand our perceptions, to "hear" ultrasonic frequencies and "see" infrared light, but none of these things are actually accessible to us unless we translate the information into something we can actually see or hear. And here's the rub with Ghost Hunters.

Plunging the house you're investigating into almost total darkness deprives you of the most important of all the senses, and the one that (for most of us) provides the lion's share of the information that you can obtain. Sure, you can scan the place with heat sensors and EMF detectors, that's great. But the bottom line is this: if ghosts can be seen, then they either radiate their own light (and therefore produce energy of some sort--which is a physics problem that I've never seen a decent solution to) or, like us and everything else we see, they reflect light. If they actually do generate their own light then it probably doesn't matter (to them or us) whether the living room light is on, but if they simply reflect light, then turning everything off makes them just as invisible as all the other things TAPS members regularly bump into in dark houses.

The kind of investigation TAPS conducts is essentially an attempt to observe as much about a given location as possible. How can you claim to be serious about investigating anything when you insist on hobbling your powers of observation?

A final note on the "lights out" thing before we move on. A lot of what TAPS "discovers" as part of their investigations involves team members hearing "strange noises" and catching sight of "something moving in the shadows." This is nonsense, and is a direct result of walking around in the dark. Turn on the cameras, leave the lights on and see if anything happens. Then, if you hear footsteps where you think no one is walking, try to at least get a look at what might be making the noise.

Second issue: duration.

Despite the self-imposed problems I just outlined, TAPS has come across some really tantalizing pieces of evidence. I've seen some things on this show that have either been rigged by the producers (and I'm going to dismiss that notion for now, and assume that everything is on the up & up) or might very well suggest something unexplained. In other words, they do occasionally find something.

And then they leave.

This is also bad science. Scientific inquiry means making observations, formulating a hypothesis and then testing it. It means that even when you achieve a result that appears to prove your theory, you repeat the process, you repeat the observations, over and over and over until you've either ruled out your idea or you're convinced that it's probably a correct explanation of what you're seeing. Then you tell other people, and they try to replicate the same result, and the process goes on. Something isn't considered proven until the result it describes can be reproduced consistently, wherever it's attempted under the same conditions. Then you have something.

But TAPS never does that. They hang around for a few hours, gather some data and then leave. Even when they find something, they just throw up their hands and say "Gee, maybe the place really is haunted."


Go back. Stop wasting your time with every Tom, Dick and Harry in Red Sox Nation whose kids don't want to sleep in their bedroom because they think a ghost lives in their dresser. If you find something like the apparition in the prison, or the black shadow slinking around in the pool hall basement, or the child's toys that appear to answer your questions on their own, or the closet door opening and closing by itself in the hotel room--with a glass breaking by itself, for Christ's sake! -- then take your fancy equipment, set it up and leave it there. For weeks. Or months. And then see what you have.

I would rather see one single, solid piece of evidence supported by hours upon hours of repeated observation and testing of every conceivable sort than a thousand pieces of possible somethings with little or no follow-up. TAPS has gone back for follow-up to several locations, I know, but not the way I'm suggesting.

Finding something that established conclusively that human life does not always end when the heart stops beating, that some kind of intelligence survives death, would rank as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of human history. Instead it's the premise of a reality television show that sometimes does as much to frustrate legitimate inquiry as it does to further it.

It doesn't have to be that way. It can be good TV and serious science at the same time. Maybe TAPS can start by taking a page out of the Motel Six handbook -- next time, leave the light on for them.

1 comment:

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