In 2005 New Gravity Media set out on what would become a two year journey to document the history and modern methods of paranormal investigation. Having traveled over 6000 miles across the northeastern U.S. recording nearly 120 hours of footage, they spoke with some of the fields most popular and respected researchers, mediums and skeptics and compiled the footage into an award winning film called “14 Degrees – A Paranormal Documentary”.
Now ten years after the films release they are back on the road, reaching out to the very same people in a quest to learn what (if anything) has changed in terms of their perspectives, beliefs or approach.
Join the NGM team once again for an unprecedented and never before seen look into the world of paranormal research.
1Audio, Video or Photos will NEVER serve as conclusive proof of “paranormal” phenomena
Oh I know that statement is bound to launch a thousand debates (and a few more hate mails), but let’s be honest here… media is not only easily misunderstood, it’s easily manipulated. Everything that is submitted as evidence on media carries with it a silent requirement to “trust” the source (a.k.a. the person who submitted it) and therein lies the problem. If you present me with an incredible video of a ghostly being traversing the stairs of some old home, my acceptance of this as evidence now presents me with an obligation to believe you didn’t fake it, misinterpret it or misrepresent it. I have to believe you that the conditions were as you say they were when it was captured and that everything else you present me with in support of that video is ALSO legitimate (i.e. photos, meter readings, experiences etc.).
That’s a lot of trust… Slow down, we hardly know each other.
It’s this unstable variable that prevents any media based evidence from being considered conclusive (or even in some cases suggestive). So what DOES constitute conclusive proof? I’m glad you asked. There is only one factor that will ever conclusively prove the existence of any unusual phenomenon and that is “demonstrability”. Yep, you need to be able to demonstrate or repeat it to a degree that it can be studied with some element of reliability under strict controls.
You see the scientific method suggests that a concept or idea is more credible when it can be repeated. Even if only through long and tedious means. Repetition and control are key. If it’s a phenomena (and not just an event), it will or can be repeated.
2No matter how “in control and grounded” you claim to be, your brain can and DOES continue to fool you… you are not immune.
Oh people say it all the time. “I’m not crazy.”, “I know what I saw”, “I wasn’t hallucinating”, “I wouldn’t lie about something like that.”, “She told me she was 18”. Well maybe not the last one, but the point is people are exceedingly hard to convince when it comes to doubting their own perceptions. We all want to believe that our senses are relatively infallible, that our brains are not easily fooled and that our rationalization skills are in great working order. But the truth is utterly disappointing.
For decades numerous scientists and researchers around the world have documented the astounding fallibility of our perceptive process. Television shows, games, carnival attractions and even art have been created that specifically take advantage of the holes in our cognitive faculties. We are ALL born suckers and there’s really nothing we can do about it other than understand that the condition exists and honestly consider these shortcomings in our analysis of unusual events.
3 Your shining credibility does not make your experience more believable.
Groucho Marx once said, “There’s one way to find out if a man is honest: ask him. If he says yes, then you know he is crooked.” – That statement was only funny because it’s true.
Everyone – you, me, your spouse, children, siblings, co-workers, best friends, teachers, employers and even your sweet old grandmother have told lies. By age four, 90% of children have grasped the concept of lying (Osmols 2011), and it just goes downhill from there. According to a 2002 study conducted by the University of Massachusetts, 60% of all adults can’t have a ten minute conversation without telling a lie at least once (UMASS 2002). and according to the study those folks who did lie actually told an average of 3 lies during their short discussion with the researchers.
I know you’re sitting there right now insisting that you would be part of the 40% that didn’t lie but that’s what the liars in the study thought, too. When they reviewed their own conversations, they were flabbergasted at how many lies they had actually told.
Unsurprisingly, we also sometimes lie about important aspects. According to one estimate, 40% of people lie on their resumes (Forbes 2006). A shocking 90% of people looking for a date online lie in their profile. (Scientific American 2007) So no matter how honest you believe you are, no matter how accurate your rendition of a paranormal event is (even if it truly happened to you), the majority of the world will never simply “accept” what you are claiming with complete certainty… They just won’t.
4 Any equipment that requires the “interpretation” of non-repeatable results is complete bullshit.
Yep , I went there….bullshit. In fact pretty much all of the marketed devices used in “ghost hunting” today require a personal interpretation of the results in order to determine the significance of their output. (Yes I’m looking at you spirit box, Ovilus, Paranormal Puck, Vortex Dome, Para-Scope, V-Pod, Rem Pod, Ghost Ark, Dowsing Rods, Pendulums, Ouija Boards, KII Meters, Geo-Pods and yes…EMF Meters)
So what’s wrong with personal interpretation you say? I will explain…
Scenario 1-In a hospital, a doctor uses a heart monitor to determine if someone is having heart trouble. He / She interprets the readings of the heart monitor to make or assist in a diagnosis.
Scenario 2 –In an old home a paranormal investigator uses a specialized device (choose any from the list above) to determine if the home is haunted. He/ She interprets the readout/response of the equipment to make a determination.
So what is the difference between Scenario 1 and 2? They seem relatively the same right? Well not really.
In scenario 1 the doctor is measuring a tangible object – the human heart. It’s proper function has been well documented and how a healthy one should appear on a heart monitor is academic as is the comparison between the live readings and the expected readings used to help indicate a problem. The interpretation the doctor makes is based on known and “demonstrated” information.
In scenario 2 the investigator is simply looking for any unusual reaction, especially one that ties into his / her expectations or the context of the location or perhaps even one that correlates with other experiences. This is done because he/she doesn’t know with any certainty what a paranormal experience “should” read. There is no documented historical data for a paranormal occurrence. So responsible comparisons cannot be made and interpretations are based entirely on subjective opinion. Hardly factual.
“Nobody has EVER linked EMF to actual localized paranormal occurrences in any reliable or predictable fashion….EVER.”
Question: So if that’s the case how can manufacturers of paranormal gadgetry even begin to design a device that works?
Answer: They can’t.
(They are all bullshit in my opinion):
5 There has never been any credible, demonstrable research to even suggest the plausibility of life beyond death.
Sure there have been “sciency” people in history who have attempted to prove the existence of a soul, others who tried to establish communications with those who have passed and still others who have insisted they have been to the other side and back, but in spite of the numerous attempts and claims that flood the internet, we are not any closer to officially proving life after death than we were 5000 years ago.
Don’t get me wrong, who wouldn’t love the idea of a second chance? To see your departed loved ones again, to be free of the mortal bonds that plague our existence, to have learned from a lifetime of experience, free of illness, free of strife, free of pain. It sure is a comforting thought, but unfortunately, right now, it’s only that… a thought. The fact is that the research conducted over the past two centuries in the hopes of proving “life after death” have chalked up a big fat zilch in terms of results. If it’s there, we haven’t proven it yet… no one has.
So for those in search of human souls, ghosts and spirits… to officially claim that you have contacted the dear departed, you must first establish with complete certainty (not just with opinion) that life does go on beyond this mortal veil. That there are dis-incarnate “beings” there to contact. Do this and the rest will go down the scientific gullet like a candy coated gumdrop. Until then… well… you know.
So here we have it five hard to swallow facts about Paranormal Research. I’ll finish by saying that this in no way proclaims that unusual, undiscovered phenomena doesn’t exists. In fact, I’m inclined to believe it does, but once again that’s just my opinion, and you know what they say about those.
The Ghost Box is a widely used device for paranormal investigating. We question the level of objectivity by those using this device. Respondents were sent a one minute recording from a Shack Hack Ghost Box and asked to respond to a questionnaire. We analyzed the results and explored the workings of these devices. The findings tell us that the interpretation of results by those who use this tool is very biased and subjective. The results collected in the field should not be put forth as evidence of paranormal activity.
Although a larger sampling of participants would strengthen the support of our hypothesis, we conclude there is enough information to state the Ghost Box is not a proper research tool for paranormal investigating due to the strong bias involved in the use and interpretation of the responses in the field. The intended use of the Ghost Box lends little or no control over the many inherent variables and it solely relies on subjective opinions as to what results are considered valid. The units are flawed in the sense that it will generate syllables by default which guarantees a user with belief in the device will interpret it as a spirit response. We do not present this research to suggest to people what to believe in, we merely support the facts and evidence that perceived results from the ghost box should remain a personal experience and should not be presented as supporting evidence of paranormal activity nor be included in any scientific methodology. Those presenting evidence based on Ghost Box recordings will bear the burden of proof that their findings support their beliefs.
Over a decade ago, when I first began my foray into the enigmatic and often entropic world of paranormal research, I found myself in the unfortunate (but common) situation of being reliant on the knowledge of those who came before me. During this time I recall hearing a lot of mixed messages from various groups and investigators about the proper way to conduct a paranormal investigation. A few of those messages turned out to be good advice, some were highly questionable and others (most) were just outright outrageous. But like many inquisitive people who start out in this research, I would ultimately have to learn the truth (or at least a portion of it) for myself.
I too was once excited by photo orbs, enthralled by the pareidolic effects of white noise and easily taken in by every creak, bang and footstep I would hear in the darkened rooms of numerous “haunted” locations. I once believed that “ghosts” were intelligent, energy hungry electro-magnetic beings that could be discovered with the proper application of time, cameras and a good EMF meter. Yea I was in the dark alright (in more ways than one).
However, For me, what I have learned in the past ten years is not so much about what has been “discovered” through field investigation but more so about what has been “revealed” through proper research. I have found that much of the information that is often professed by multiple researchers as standardized knowledge is typically based on speculation, misinformation or basic belief. A great example of this can be seen with the application technology in research.
For example, devices such as EMF meters have been historically touted for their usefulness in detecting “spirit presence” through the identification of anomalous electro-magnetic activity. However, aside from the obvious logistical holes in that concept, a little research will reveal that the meter itself is riddled with limitations that render it a very poor choice for scientific exploration. The non-frequency specific design presents an inherent inability to properly identify a true signal source leaving researchers to speculate or falsely identify anomalous phenomena as the cause of the unusual readings (and that’s just not good science).
Additionally the concept of measuring EMF to identify or locate anomalous beings or activity is scientifically unfounded. To date there has been no significant published research to support the concept that fluctuating electromagnetic signals are indicators of an undiscovered phenomena, let alone a dis-incarnate being (which is in itself unproven). However, there is supporting research to suggest that these electro-magnetic fields may play another role in the “haunting” experience.
The modern practice of measuring EMF signals in “haunted” environments became highly popularized following research conducted by Dr. Michael Persinger at Canada’s Laurentian College during the early 1980’s. Persinger’s research demonstrated that electro-magnetic fields could be responsible for perceived paranormal phenomena (Persinger 2001) and so paranormal researchers began measuring the intensity of these fields on location for the purpose of identifying natural causes to unusual claims. (i.e. if the fields are excessive in a home perhaps they are causing induced delusions)
While the specific signals that Persinger used to induce these delusions were never officially identified as the source of paranormal experiences in a home environment, the purpose of searching for fluctuating EMF signals got lost to history and eventually researchers simply began to associate high EMF readings with paranormal experiences.
FACT: In the world of physics the acronym ‘EMF’ represents Electro-Motive Force not Electro-Magnetic Fields. Two very different things. An EMF Meter is more correctly identified as an Electro-Magnetometer or Magnetic Flux Density Meter.
The adoption, misrepresentation, misuse and failure of electronics devices in paranormal research certainly doesn’t begin and end with EMF meters. Over the past 50 years alone researches have attempted to employ a large variety of pre-made, non-paranormal devices for paranormal research purposes. Gadgets such as thermometers, polygraph machines, cameras Barometers, multi-meters, baby monitors, radio receivers, televisions, telephones, tape recorders, computers, oscilloscopes, motion detectors and even flashlights were (and are) used by groups proclaiming a scientific methodology to find evidence of a ghostly presence, all with the same level of applied conjecture and anticlimactic results.
But what about original equipment? When I first started out in this area of study the popular research community consensus was that “no equipment exists that was specifically designed for the purpose of paranormal research”. In fact I heard this statement many times at several conventions I visited in 2007. Of course a little research shed some much needed light on the subject and, not surprisingly the information was simply not true.
The fact is many people through-out the 20th century had created equipment with a specific paranormal purpose in mind. In the early 1920’s the American Psychic Institute claimed to have over one hundred specialized scientific instruments many of which were purported to measure the intangible “soul force” or “psychic energy.”
Here are just a few of the mystifying devices:
The “psychic ululometer (or howler)” – A highly sensitive coil of 3000 finely tuned copper wires that were intended to reveal the presence of any energy, living or disembodied that comes within six feet of the coil. (Appleton [WI] Post-Crescent 28 March 1922: p. 4 – http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/76243876/)
The “lastrometer” – An apparatus containing a zinc sulfide screen, which glows when a person approaches. The glow varies according to the psychic energy of the person, and it is reasoned that a spirit or dis-incarnate being might reveal its presence through this glow. (Pittsburgh [PA] Press 23 April 1922 http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/76243876/)
Of course while none of these devices were ever successful in officially registering the presence of the dead, those seeking contact through this type of technology (a method known as Instrumental Trans-Communication – ITC) were certainly not discouraged by the accumulated failures. In fact every generation has had its brand of “inventors” hoping to break the universal code and unlock the door to the other side. Many, though misguided, are sincere in their efforts while others are simply in search of fame, fortune or both.
The 21st Century Research
With advances in semi-conductor technology and lower component costs, one might expect the twenty first century to play host to the most progressive attempts at spirit communication technology to date. However reality paints quite a different picture. A good portion of the modern technology used for anomalous investigation relies heavily on an age old form of spirit communication known as divining (i.e. toperceivebyintuitionorinsight). Much like the Ouija Board, rune stones, tarot cards and pendulums the results produced by these devices manifest large amounts of conjecture and present pathways for numerous cognitive biases and misconceptions that can impair the users ability to process information objectively.
Ghost in the Box
Leading the way in modern divining technology is a highly controversial device known as a Spirit Box (also known as Frank’s Box, Ghost Box or Shack Hack). The basic principle behind this device is to automatically scan radio frequencies within the AM and FM band. This is done with the hope that ethereal beings will communicate messages over the barrage of scanned signals.
As fascinating as it may sound there are some fundamental issues concerning the logic behind the spirit box functionality and these concerns lie within the principles of radio broadcast and the design of the radio itself. I will explain…
How Radio Works:
The frequencies that make up music and human speech are simply not powerful enough to travel great distances on their own and the amplification of these low frequencies would require tremendous power at a great expense, two things that are not very appealing to the broadcast industry. Additionally, broadcasting primary frequencies this way would also allow for unwanted interference from other radio like devices and that means unhappy listeners.
To overcome these obstacles radio broadcasters developed a method of packaging the signal with a much higher and more easily transmitted frequency to broadcast their messages. To accomplish this they simply combine the voice or music signal they want to send (called an input signal) with a much higher frequency (called a carrier signal). This process is called modulation and the result is an easily transmitted hybrid of the two signals (see image below).
The new modulated signal is then broadcast through the air and picked up by a radio receiver (i.e. a spirit box). Once it is received, the higher carrier frequency is then filtered out and we are left with only the original voice or music we were intended to hear. The process of removing the carrier frequency is called “demodulation” and because the radio or spirit box demodulates every signal it receives, stray radio waves are not heard. That includes the purported ghost of aunt Sally or even Robin Williams.
For stray radio waves to be heard on a radio (spirit box or otherwise) they would need to be part of a modulated signal carried by man-made frequencies that were chosen specifically by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Because the Spirit Box scans a new frequency every second or so (depending upon the settings) the communication by a dis-incarnate being would need to change the modulating frequency for every portion of the ghostly statement it’s trying to convey. A feat that would not only need to coincide with the frequency limits of the AM or FM radio band but also with the scanning speed of the Spirit Box (as set by the user). An exceedingly unlikely scenario.
While all of this seems pretty damning in terms of logistical support for such a device, proponents of the Spirit Box argue that the vast unknowns about the spirit world may place these exceedingly unlikely scenarios (and many others) within a realm of possibility. Supporters also contend that it’s not uncommon to receive intelligible, relevant communication when the using a spirit box and argue that traditional logic may not apply when researching such an unknown subject.
Still, in spite of the unrelenting support of believers, no reliable research has ever been presented (controversial or otherwise) to support the idea that a spirit box can foster communication with any world beyond our own. According to research conducted by Dr. Lynne Nygaard, professor of psychology at Emory University, the concept of extracting what appears to be intelligent communication from random speech segments (such as those produced by a spirit box) is not uncommon. In fact the experience can be attributed a cognitive function of our brain that processes speech information from the top level down (Nygaard 2005).
In other words, our brain first works to listen for the sounds of words as a whole without paying specific attention to the vowels, consonants or syllables that may be missing. When the fragmented speech contains enough frequencies to closely resemble a word (or words) we then anticipate any missing segments using a variety of biases to adapt the communication to the context of the current conversation or environment. Essentially, what this all means is that the identification of non contextual speech is based largely on anticipation and personal cognitive biases (belief).
It’s no surprise that the approach to such a broad, widely intangible subject requires the incumbency of an open mind. After all, history has demonstrated time and time again that limited thinking or the resistance of new ideas plays poorly with the concept of discovery. But it seems that far too often researchers find themselves misguided by the practice of nonrestrictive thinking so much so that they tend to often ignore the apparent boundaries of the very tangible, logical, real world elements that can present a viable practical answer to most questions.
Sometimes the most enlightening discoveries are the ones that prove us wrong.
Nygaard, L.C., Pisoni, D.B. (1995). “Speech Perception: New Directions in Research and Theory”. In J.L. Miller, P.D. Eimas.Handbook of Perception and Cognition: Speech, Language, and Communication. San Diego: Academic Press.
Nygaard, L.C., Cook, A.E., & Namy, L.L. (2009). Sound to meaning correspondences facilitate word learning. Cognition, 112, 181-186.
Persinger MA: The Paranormal. Part I: Patterns. New York, MSS 16. Long T, O’Donovan C, Cabe C, et al: Relationship of daily geo- Information, 1974 magnetic activity to the occurrence of temporal lobe seizures
Persinger MA: Psi phenomena and temporal lobe activity: the an epilepsy monitoring unit (abstract). Epilepsia 1996; 36:94 geomagnetic factor, in Research in Parapsychology 1988, edited 17.
People overestimate their knowledge, at times claiming knowledge of concepts, events, and people that do not exist and cannot be known, a phenomenon called overclaiming. What underlies assertions of such impossible knowledge? We found that people overclaim to the extent that they perceive their personal expertise favorably. Studies 1a and 1b showed that self-perceived financial knowledge positively predicts claiming knowledge of nonexistent financial concepts, independent of actual knowledge. Study 2 demonstrated that self-perceived knowledge within specific domains (e.g., biology) is associated specifically with overclaiming within those domains. In Study 3, warning participants that some of the concepts they saw were fictitious did not reduce the relationship between self-perceived knowledge and overclaiming, which suggests that this relationship is not driven by impression management. In Study 4, boosting self-perceived expertise in geography prompted assertions of familiarity with nonexistent places, which supports a causal role for self-perceived expertise in claiming impossible knowledge.
If there’s one thing the paranormal community has no shortage of, it’s self-proclaimed experts. Many have suffered under the long winded, unsupported meandering claims of these “Para-Con artists” (See what I did there?). Their hastily co-written self-published books, t-shirts, television shows, convention appearances, quack gadgetry and promotional photos represent them to a naive crowd of adoring fans while their unwillingness or ability to offer peer reviewed support for their fantastic (and often absurd) claims clearly defines them to the true thinkers of the community.
In June of 2015 research published in Psychological Science a journal of the Association for Psychological Science revealed that the more people think they know about a topic in general, the more likely they are to allege knowledge of completely made-up information and false facts. This is a phenomenon known as “over-claiming.” Part of the experimentation contained in the study involved testing whether individuals who perceived themselves to be experts in personal finance for example would be more likely to claim knowledge of fake financial terms. One hundred participants were asked to rate their general knowledge of personal finance, as well as their knowledge of 15 specific finance terms. Most of the terms on the list were real (i.e. Roth IRA, inflation, home equity), but the researchers also included three made-up terms such as (pre-rated stocks, fixed-rate deduction, annualized credit). The participants who saw themselves as financial experts were most likely to claim knowledge of the bogus finance terms (even when they were warned about them). The same pattern emerged for other domains, including biology, literature, philosophy, and geography. (Atir, S 2015)
While the study did not include paranormal research (for obvious reasons) it’s not hard to imagine the effect “over-claiming” has on those professing knowledge in this community. The world of paranormal investigation and research is filled with broad claims and ideas that have exceedingly little to no demonstrable support and those with a tendency to magically adopt expertise on these ideas can fill in the blanks and sell with confidence whatever conclusions make the most sense to them… and they certainly do.
Year after year thousands of people pay outrageous prices to fill the seats of convention halls and theaters, eager to listen to the latest and greatest players in the paranormal field. Unfortunately, quite often, the information they receive contains little to no substance in terms of research quality. Statements such as “Spirits can attach themselves to an object” or “Some spirits don’t like their photos to be taken.” are presented as fact with the presenter offering little to no research to support the claim.
I remember several years ago, sitting in an audience listening to a well-respected (and quite famous) demonologist/investigator. During the presentation the presenter told a story about a woman who was plagued by tremendous activity in her home. He went on to say that the woman had fallen into a deep depression and plainly stated “This malevolent spirit had attached itself to her and was slowly draining her energy, trying to take control”. I was astounded by what I was hearing. When the presentation was over the floor was opened up for questions and that was my opportunity to better understand.
I promptly raised my hand and spoke “I was wondering what research has been done to suggest that not only spirits exist, but that they can attach themselves to people and drain their energy?” without missing a beat the presenter replied “There have been a lot of documented cases over the years showing this, but unfortunately the scientists don’t want to take the time to learn for themselves.” Sensing a bit of agitation and an opportunity for clarity I countered “Well can you recommend a few published, peer reviewed cases that I could read?” Thinking for a moment, the presenter replied. “Well there are a few in my book. The case I spoke about today is a classic example.” It was clear that this “professional” researcher had no idea what published, peer reviewed research actually was. Realizing the futility of the conversation, I asked one final question. “How do you know that a spirit was causing that woman’s depression and not some other issue?” Unfortunately the reply I got was shocking, but not surprising. “We had already ruled out every other issue before coming to this conclusion. Psychologists gave her a clean bill of health… What else could it be?” And there it was… the smoking gun response “I don’t know what it is so it must be a demon”. How any psychologist worth his salt could give a woman with depression a clean bill of health beyond me, but then I wasn’t there and there is no properly documented record of the case.
The Earned Dogmatic Effect
What astounded me the most about this experience was that the audience was undeterred. After the questions were through, dozens of people lined up to buy his books and have their photos taken with this legendary investigator who’s self-proclaimed expertise has misguided people for decades. I can think of no other domain where such a fast path to notoriety is possible based on such an insubstantial foundation. However, many supporters of paranormal experts like the one mentioned find it easy to forgive a lack of scientific foundation in their claims. Many people approach paranormal study from a decidedly spiritual perspective and tend to seek experiences more than a foundation of knowledge claiming that hard Science often lacks an open mind.
Anyone would think that those with expertise (self-proclaimed or otherwise) in an area of study that deals with so many unknowns would at the very least offer the presence of an open mind, but a recent study presented in the November issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology tells quite a different perspective.
The research conducted at Loyola University in Chicago suggests that being an “expert” in anything can actually make you more closed-minded. The study found that people who perceive themselves to be experts tend to be less open to new ideas and alternative viewpoints. A character trait that does not sit well with a vocation in paranormal study (or the scientific community).
According to the study, social norms entitle experts to be more dogmatic. This Earned Dogmatism Effect was observed in five experiments. It emerged when using success (high expertise) and failure (low expertise) manipulations of test performance both within and outside the political domain. It also emerged when comparing participants who occupy a “high expertise social role”. (Ottati,V 2015)
It seems that in our society, we tolerate more forceful and dogmatic expressions of opinion when the speaker is an expert as opposed to a novice. Therefore when the situation makes us feel like we are an ‘expert,’ it activates these role expectations in our mind, and we feel more entitled to think in a dogmatic manner – in other words, we feel more entitled to dismiss, ignore, or disparage opinions and viewpoints that differ from our own opinion.
I have no doubt that we all have experienced (from both sides of the fence at one time or another) the effects of over claiming and earned dogmatic behavior. We are after all human. However, going forward as we continue our search of the unknown, either as teacher or student, it might not be a bad idea for everyone –especially these self-proclaimed kings of esoteric knowledge — to read up on what it means to show intellectual humility.