Thousands of eyewitnesses report ghostly encounters from ancient history to modern times. Contact with the dead is very much part of our modern culture. With the expansion of television content and the internet, stories about hauntings have surged in popularity.
Ghost hunting is a popular hobby for thrill seekers. It’s fun to be scared. The official community of ghost hunters, including those of popular reality TV programs, are non-scientists. However, they invariably tout the scientific nature of their activities.
The basis for their science is high-tech equipment and jargon. The term “ghost” has been replaced with “psychic energy” in reference to the explanation for data collected. All the science-like dressing is designed to portray seriousness about the reality of the subject. Colleges have sponsored seminars and non-credit classes about ghost hunting. The hobby appears to have taken on a decidedly pseudo-professional aspect. As with cryptozoology, some young people consider this a potential career choice!
An investigation by a troop of ghost hunters is prompted by anecdotes of a haunting. So-called paranormal investigators will systematically approach an investigation with a fixed set of equipment and a plan. They claim to be objective and to attempt to rule out non-paranormal explanations. But, since one calls the activity “ghost hunting” it is fair to conclude that there is a preconceived notion about how they will interpret whatever they find.
Ghost hunters will use high-tech equipment including electromagnetic field meters, thermometers, tape recorders, Geiger counters, ion detectors, infrared cameras, and ultra-sensitive microphones. (These devices do a fair job of measuring and recording whatever they were designed to detect around the location. The investigators gather no background data to determine baseline readings at a site. The instruments are not calibrated and there is only a token attempt to eliminate obvious explanations (such as drafts or electrical current in wiring). The reliance on anomalies reveals that the users do not understand what they are measuring, how the equipment works, and the scientific principles that explain how it works . The giant leap made by ghost hunters is that any anomalies detected by this equipment are paranormal. Clearly stated: there is no evidence whatsoever to conclude they are detecting ghosts. To be fair, some professionals have acknowledged this .
The popular ghost hunter group, TAPS, has a diverse article collection containing writings on religious mythology (demons and angels), folklore (different types of hauntings and spirits) and unsubstantiated claims (haunted objects and electronic voice phenomena). None of the work has references or has been published. Sprinkled in are misrepresentations of physical laws, dark matter, psychology, consciousness, solar events and lunar cycles relating to ghostly phenomena. There is no coherent theory that explains what is allegedly observed. Peer review consists of a public discussion board frequented by fans of their TV show.Using a scientific instrument, citing “Bose-Einstein Condensate” or Maxwell’s equations, and talking in acronyms and jargon does not indicate that you are practicing science.
Since ghosts are non-physical, they won’t often produce physical evidence. The strongest physical evidence for ghosts are photographs. The history of paranormal phenomena is riddled with frauds and hoaxes and, in the modern age of do-it-yourself photo manipulation, every photo is suspect and is very weak evidence. Like personal stories, photographs can be very persuasive. Lens flares, camera straps and dust reflections are interpreted by the public as evidence of captured spirit manifestations.
The ‘science’ of hauntings is missing clear, agreed upon definitions, objectivity, controlled research and scholarly experiments . After centuries of study into spirits and life after death, we have no better knowledge about it – an indicator of pseudoscience. The ghost hunters and psychical research community can be contrasted with that of Wiseman, et al. (2003) who does controlled experiments in supposedly haunted locations based on the psychology of humans. M. Persinger conducts laboratory experiments into how the human brain is influenced by applied magnetic fields. These types of research are showing satisfactory, yet still controversial, explanations for the experiences of hauntings.
Perhaps we have yet to discover the means to truly detect transient phenomena like ghosts. Or, perhaps we have been overlooking more down-to-earth causation.
Radford, B. (2006). “The Shady Science of Ghost Hunting.” Retrieved April 28, 2009, from http://www.livescience.com/strangenews/061027_ghost_hunters.html.
TAPS: The Atlantic Paranormal Society. http://www.the-atlantic-paranormal-society.com/articles/articles.html#general.
Warren, J. (2003). How to Hunt Ghosts, Fireside.
Wiseman, R., C. Watt, P. Stevens, E. Greening, C. O’Keeffe (2003). “An investigation into alleged ‘hauntings’.” British Journal of Psychology 94: 195-211.
 Radford, 2006
 Wiseman, et al.