There are so many ghost hunting groups wandering around in the dark that they trip over each other. I attempted to count paranormal investigation groups and gave up at around 1500 without even searching Facebook. We all have our opinions about what they try to do – find evidence of life after death. Those of us aware of how scientific methodology and answering a question works in practice are critical of their equipment, and, dare I say, pseudoscientific, activities.  However, I might surprise some of you by saying that they also do a lot of good.

Many paranormal investigation groups will state explicitly and foremost that their goal is to aid people who have had a frightening, confusing experience. I’ve concluded that most do think they are doing a positive thing by either validating an experience for someone or by explaining it through objective (and more often subjective) evidence.

They also support causes such as historic preservation and cemetery preservation/restoration. They enjoy teaching people about cultural landmarks and memorable characters of the past. They encourage curiosity and imagination. Can’t say those aren’t worthy efforts; let’s give them that.

Then, they venture into classrooms or make presentations in front of civic groups or organizations, perhaps as invited guests of the local university’s student activities committee. Here’s where I get queasy regarding the concept of “doing good”.

I’ll make my point clear. For well over 100 years of research, observations and experiments, humans have not been able to establish ghosts as genuine entities.

Yet, with little hesitation and firm conclusions, the paranormal investigators standing in front of a crowd of interested listeners are stating their equipment can detect anomalies that represent “spirit energy”, this picture of an orb is a manifestation of the energy, this indistinct whispering extracted and enhanced from an audio recording is a voice from beyond. Do you see the giant leap they have made?  It’s a leap of sheer hope and belief. It has no basis in anything we know about the world and how it works. Yet, it convinces the listeners.

I found this article about a presentation made by a ghost hunting group in the town in which I grew up. Their talk and tours of self-proclaimed haunted locations benefit the local historical society, which is great. Ghost tours are fun, the stories are entertaining.  But the last line of the article is sobering. “I was never a believer in [ghosts], but these people are sincere and what they showed us was very frightening,” an audience member says. “Now, I have to wonder.”

They have succeeded in convincing at least one. How many others have fallen under the imitation sciencey-ness of Ghost Hunters and the Paranormal State crew? They have an audience of millions. If you do not understand exactly how the measuring and recording devices work, how variable the environment is, how people can fool themselves and how the process of really doing science works, you will probably use a shortcut instead and judge the truth of the story by the people telling it, just as this audience member did.

The paranormal investigators are indeed sincere. They capitalize on this innate sincerity, the trust of the audience and the public’s low levels of science literacy.

If people can be so easily swayed on so scant of evidence, without questioning, it is not hard to figure out why we are a country of Creationists and global warming deniers. That is truly frightening.  Sometimes what you think is doing good is really grievous harm in the long run.

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