Paranormal Phenomena

Friday, May 19, 2006

Are 'orbs' hiding a real phenomenon?

There is little doubt that the vast majority of 'orbs' are photographic artefacts caused by the move to digital cameras (requiring lenses with a vastly increased depth of field). The orbs are out of focus bits of dust that were invisible in film cameras.

Before the advent of orbs there were always reports of light anomalies, both in interior hauntings and in various locations outdoors - sometimes associated with UFOs. The major difference between these lights and orbs is that these lights were SEEN by witnesses. It was extremely rare to get a photograph of one but it did happen sometimes. Whether some, or all, of these lights have a mundane explanation, is yet to be determined. The big point is, with so many people getting excited about spurious 'orbs', these light phenomena are being overlooked or even dismissed as mere 'orbs'.

It would be fascinating to know what these light phenomena really are. Some might be fireflies or even reflections but it is unlikely this accounts for all of them. The trouble is, we may never know.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Scientific study of the paranormal

While science is a strict discipline involving logic, debate, evidence and theories, it is practised by scientists who are people. They can sometimes have inspirations and beliefs that go far beyond the available evidence. They just 'know' the answer, even though they can't prove it. For instance, it was long been 'obvious', from maps of the world, that Africa 'fitted' South America and were once connected. And yet, when the idea of continental drift was first put forward there was no scientific evidence and it was dismissed by critics. Still, some people just KNEW it was right - almost a form of faith!

It is not mentioned much but science often involves such a leap of faith. A scientist will know instinctively that their idea is right even though they don't have the solid evidence to demonstrate it. Often it means waiting until suitable technology is developed to test the idea.

So what's the difference between a scientist's hunch and someone believing that minds can communicate with ESP, for instance? It is that the scientist must build up a body of good evidence to test their theory. They will also face criticism from fellow scientists. This is not aimed at them personally but at their ideas. If an idea is to be accepted, it must be tested by logic as well as evidence. Further experiments then take place taking the criticism into account. Also, the experiments should be replicated by other scientists. This is in case there is some unknown systematic error in the original experiments. If the theory survives this process then it will be accepted as new science, despite the fact that it started out as no more than a hunch.
So there is no scientific problem with someone believing that minds can communicate with ESP provided they can demonstrate it and are happy to have their work examined, criticised and replicated by others. This is the scientific process.

Many scientific theories have started as unprovable thoughts in direct contradiction to the science of the day. The paranormal always stands in that position. If you have a weird idea, don't be afraid to share it but be prepared to test it.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Are you open minded?

Is anyone really open minded about the paranormal? I really doubt it! Many people claim they have an open mind but I suspect they claim this just to be sociable. In reality, I suspect everyone has an opinion, whether informed or not, it's just that some choose to keep it quiet.

People who claim an open mind say they would be persuaded by new evidence. But how many people are really persuaded by new evidence? If it goes against their unspoken beliefs, I think they will challenge the evidence (and why not?). If it supports their unspoken beliefs I think they will feel quiet satisfaction. To be truly open-minded I think you would have to know nothing about the subject (which I don't believe anyone can realistically claim with regards to the paranormal). As soon as you start to look at the evidence, I'm pretty sure you start to make judgements, albeit privately.

Are YOU really open minded about the paranormal? Really?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Building work and ghosts

Have you ever heard of the ‘new house effect'? Many stately homes and castles are said to be haunted and regularly stage vigils. What is odd is that, often, the regular inhabitants of the buildings do not report any unusual events. It is usually visitors, new employees and, particularly, people attending vigils who tend to report strange goings-on. So what's going on? Shouldn't the people who have lived in the place the longest have the most experiences?

When people live for a while in a building, they get used to all its idiosyncrasies. They know about the creaking floorboards (that do an impression of someone walking by), the weird shadow cast on a wall by passing cars if the curtains are left open at night, the door that draughts blow open, the reflections from windows on dark evenings, etc. They are used to these things and know what they are.

On the other hand, when someone visits a building for the first time all these things are new. If they have been told that the place is haunted they are quite likely to interpret things that the owners take for granted as paranormal. This is the ‘new house effect'. You should look for it when doing a vigil at a place you've never visited before. It would be useful to have a regular inhabitant of the house with you to explain things and stop you jumping to the wrong conclusion.

An interesting variant on the new house effect concerns building work. It is often said that building work can start hauntings in previously unaffected premises. Such building work may alter the structure of a house and introduce new idiosyncratic noises and other effects. Of course, even the owners will be unfamiliar with such new effects. The result is that they may, sometimes, feel they have an unwelcome ‘guest' in their house.

The new house effect is not an explanation for all ghosts, it is simply the reason for some spurious reports. It is why it is important to try to do more than one vigil at a particular location. It explains why first vigils at a site frequently produce more (and sometimes more dramatic) reports than follow-up visits.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Decontructing a 'haunted' room

Once a room is labelled as ‘haunted', almost anything unusual that happens in it is likely to be attributed to ‘the ghost'. This sometimes applies even if there is an obvious natural explanation for the phenomenon in question.

Suppose, for instance, that someone sees a shadow cast on a wall in low light and interprets it as a figure and hence a ghost. Once this becomes well-known, anyone else visiting the room who knows about the report is likely to be in a heightened state of awareness, either eagerly anticipating or anxiously dreading some ghostly encounter. So when they see a door open by itself, it will often be interpreted as ghostly rather than a draught. And if someone else hears the noise of a creaking floorboard, that too gets added to the list of ‘phenomena’. All these things, including the original shadow, may have a natural explanation but once the room has developed a reputation for being haunted they are seen in a different light. People may start going on vigils there, no doubt adding further ‘phenomena’ to the list. And yet, this room is not haunted at all, despite its reputation!

Of course, scientific investigative methods will track down natural causes of apparently paranormal phenomena. The problem is that, once additional ‘phenomenon’ have become attached to the original one they form a sort of synergy where the haunting reputation becomes bigger than the sum of its parts. Even if all the separate constituents of the ‘haunting’ are explained, some people will continue to believe the room is haunted.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Do you believe in ghosts?

Most people will answer 'yes' to this question. I usually say that I believe people honestly report ghosts and that it is a real phenomenon.

That sounds like I'm hedging my bets but the problem is with the question. Most people who are not paranormal researchers believe that ghosts, if they exist, are spirits. Many serious experienced paranormal researchers, however, can find no evidence that ghosts are spirits at all.

There is certainly a phenomenon to explain. There are too many similar reports from reliable witnesses to dismiss ghosts as fantasy. The question is, what are they? Typically, a haunting will consist of a group of reports of odd happenings from a single location. These happenings might be unexplained noises or lights or smells. Object movement, including doors opening by themselves and things found in different places from where they were left, is common. A feeling of 'presence' is also a frequently reported phenomenon. Ghosts themselves, as in human (or sometimes animal) figures are much rarer.

It generally turns out that, on investigation, many of the reported phenomenon can be explained individually. An odd noise could be a creaking floorboard or the wind in a chimney or central heating cooling down. Lights might turn out to be stray reflections. A feeling of presence might be psychological (or even induced by a particular variety of weak, complex, varying magnetic fields). Misplaced objects can be a memory lapse and doors can be opened by draughts (see recent thread!).

If all of these things can be explained separately, where does it leave the haunting? If a witness becomes convinced, through one or more of these phenomena, that a place is haunted, they may start to interpret all odd events that occur subsequently as ghostly. They might even see a distant shadow, that happens to resemble a human figure, as a ghost.

It is important to note that all these phenomena are real! They are not figments of anyone's imagination. It is just that they are being misinterpreted in a ghostly context. That is why I believe ghosts are real. I just haven't found any evidence that they are spirits.

So why do people jump to the conclusion that a strange noise or light is ghostly?

Many years ago, paranormal researchers were impressed by witnesses who claimed no experience or knowledge of the paranormal. They were seen as unbiassed, enhancing their credibility. However, this claim can hardly be taken seriously, particularly nowadays. Everyone is subjected to a barrage of stories (fictional and 'true') in the media about ghosts. I find it difficult to believe there is anyone in the UK who does not know SOMETHING about ghosts (albeit wrong, if they got their facts from the media). Hence the widespread belief that ghosts are spirits! And hence the tendency to see anything 'odd' as possibly paranormal.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Equipment failure in haunted locations

It is often reported that equipment mysteriously goes wrong at haunted locations. Cameras that normally work fine suddenly stop working for no apparent reason. Batteries are found to be completely drained even though they were recently recharged.

This might be a paranormal phenomenon in its own right but no one seems to have formally studied it yet. When they do, the following questions need to be answered:

a) are equipment faults REALLY any more common at haunted locations or are they just NOTICED more because of the occasion? In other words, is it a question of suggestion rather than the paranormal?

b) how much is the equipment used normally? How often do you use an EMF meter? Probably only on ghost investigations! If that's the case then how do you know the meter is reliable normally?

c) how do cold, damp, dusty conditions (typical of some haunted locations such as castles and stately homes) affect equipment reliability?

d) have rechargeable batteries been abused? Many people do not follow the instructions on rechargeable batteries. The result is batteries that discharge much more quickly than they should.

e) what is normal battery performance? Digital cameras get through batteries at a frightening rate, even in standby mode. Equipment may be left on much more during an investigation than would happen in everyday use. Always take spare batteries!

f) is equipment checked at the start of investigations? Equipment should always be tested at the start of an investigation. In particular, wiring connections should be checked as they can be affected by damp and dust or might just be loose. Also, some equipment doesn't react well to being knocked around in transit to the venue.

Only once these questions have been answered can we really say that there is anything unusual about equipment failure at haunted locations. I've seen equipment fail at such places but the reasons have always been obvious, natural and the fault fixed easily on site.

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