Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ghost hunting season

So now, a couple of guys in England are offering workshops in how to hunt ghosts.

I'm not making this up.  Here's the advertisement:

Unique study days for all those who have an interest in Ghost Hunting; whether seasoned veteran, beginner or sceptic. Run by two of the country's leading ghosthunter and parapsychology experts. Study days take place throughout the year at some of the most exciting haunted UK (and European) locations.

The two "parapsychology experts" in charge of this training opportunity are Steve Parsons and Ciaran O'Keeffe of the School of Parapsychology, and their contact information (should you wish to rush right over and take part in this) can be found on their Facebook page, here.   Amongst the unique workshops offered are:

1) Ghosts & Gadgets: equipment for the ghosthunter, including how to use devices for measuring temperature, electromagnetic fields, and "psychophysiology."

2)  Paracoustics:  using acoustical equipment to gather data on ghosts.

3)  Paravision:  using cameras (including UV and infrared) to take pictures and video footage of ghosts.

And, my favorite:

4)  Ghostology:  what is a ghost, and why should we investigate them?

I wonder how on earth you run a training session in how to do something, when you never get any results.  Of course, I'm discounting the possibility of Parsons and O'Keeffe being outright charlatans -- i.e., I am assuming that they don't fake evidence themselves to hoodwink their students.  Let's start from the charitable assumption that they're sincere and honest, and whatever evidence they garner from their gadgets and cameras and all is fairly obtained.

How, then, to explain to the students that they just spent twelve hours in a house at night running a digital recorder, and picked up... nothing?

I mean, consider if someone was a deer hunter, and was running a workshop on how to hunt deer.  Wouldn't their students begin to get a little suspicious if the people who ran the workshop went out week after week, and never once saw, much less shot, any deer?

Of course, by that time Parsons and O'Keeffe would have your £30 each, so it's likely they'd just say, "That's the breaks, dude.  Sometimes you see a ghost, sometimes you don't."  But you have to wonder how they could continue to pitch the workshops, which they sound awfully excited about.

Obviously, I'm starting from the perspective here that there isn't anything there to study, as I've never seen any evidence of ghosts that's convinced me personally.  All of the photographs, videos, and anecdotes I've come across have struck me as either (1) fakes, or (2) the recollections of someone who was misinterpreting what happened.  As I've mentioned before, the human brain and perceptual apparatus is simply too easily fooled for me to believe what someone thinks they saw or heard.  And all of the claims of ghostly presences registering on mechanical devices -- you can actually buy ghosthunting apps for your iPhone -- are too easily explained by said devices picking up interference from entirely natural, earthly sources.

What would convince me?  Hard to say.  Being a skeptic, I strive to keep an open mind.  A direct personal experience would probably go a long way in that direction, although I know that my own brain is just as easily tricked as the next guy's.  A personal experience, while accompanied by other unbiased observers, and a simultaneous measurement of something -- an EM signal, auditory signal, disturbance in The Force, whatever -- would do it, I think.  But that seems pretty unlikely, given that people have been hunting ghosts for ages, and no one's come up with much.

In any case, if you will be in England this fall, I encourage you to sign up.  Anyone who reads Skeptophilia would be an excellent choice for participating in this class.  You can consider yourself appointed to the position of Official Skeptophilia Field Reporter.  After all, Parsons and O'Keeffe need a few skeptics in their flock, just to keep them honest.  So if you're there and have the £30 to shell out, give it a shot -- and make sure and report back here to tell us what happened.


  1. As one of the aforementioned I should like to cordially invite anyone who is sceptical & open-minded to attend one of the Study Days. Of course, there is a fee (hiring locations has it's costs) but I believe you may discover it's money well spent
    Steve Parsons

  2. hahaha for someone who reckons he is a skeptic you certainly have a very closed mind in my opinion.

    Have you actually bothered to research who the 2 people running the course actually are and have you actually bothered to read their research? Out of interest is the writer of this blog a published researcher that has been formally published by any university or credible peer reviewed academic journal?

    If you have then you wouldnt have written what you have and if you havent bothered to research them and the courses how can you possibly criticse what they are offering in the way of education?

    Sceptic? I dont think you are.

  3. You're entitled to your opinion, of course, but I think the fact that I (seriously) wrote about what it would take to convince me -- hard evidence, with witnesses -- and simply stated that I have as yet seen no such thing, means that I am exactly what I advertise myself to be: a skeptic. I am not particularly swayed by whether a person is (or is not) the holder of a degree, because I've found that having "credentials" is no guarantee of open-mindedness.

    While I was to some extent poking fun at the whole ghost-hunting phenomenon -- which I still maintain has generated nothing that I would accept as evidence, and yes, I've read quite a lot of the research on this topic -- I have nothing against people continuing to research, and I was (again) serious in suggesting that interested persons should sign up for the workshops.

    And no, I'm not a published researcher. Take that for what you will. My opinions are my own, and as I stated before, you're free to agree or disagree, depending on how convincing YOU find the evidence to be. To me, that's the only criteria that matters -- not what I say, or what anyone else says -- but whether the evidence supports the conjecture.


  4. Many skeptics have a tool box of critical thinking skills and logical fallacies memorized for cases when running into people that like to unknowing use them. Many of these I learned in the class this author teaches at school. This one is called appeal to athority fallacy.

  5. Hello, as much as i disagree (my opinion) on several of the angles your words take in its description of the people and your perception on their motivation. I'm pleased that we don't see a load of BS posts claiming either real or unreal. As a former police officer, investigation and evidence is something for which i have studied for many years, the court of law however is the deciding factor not the prosecution and defence no matter how compelling they feel their evidence is.

    what i feel that Ciaran and Steve are doing is educating people to be more critical and better informed on what they capture and claim as evidence , lets face it we are all tired of seeing ORBS reading 2000 word statements about somebody felt a cold spot and this being presented looking for credible accolade.

    There are may sides to this debate, science, sceptic, spiritual, believer, non believer, etc etc i doubt it will be proved anytime soon however i do believe in there being a if you like justice system that examines the majority of opinion for evidence (that goes against both camps science and spiritual)

    of course theres a place for Experts to give their opinion however its also about making the views real to all camps.

    i think that the whole mess of many people making silly claims can benefit for a small fee by taking part in this course (although i haven't done it) i do appreciate the down to earth nature of the ambition. to educate people on the possibilities that not every creak or knock may be a ghost



  6. Hi Tim,

    That's it, exactly. While it seems we don't necessarily agree in terms of the conclusion, it's obvious that you & I have very similar attitudes toward method. Like I said in my post: my disbelief is rooted in the fact that I, personally, haven't seen what I consider to be convincing proof. That said, I'm open to it if it's out there. In fact, despite being known in my school as the resident skeptic, I have a big poster on my classroom wall (from The X-Files, if you know the show) - a UFO with the caption "I Want To Believe." I would love it if some of this stuff turns out to be true -- how cool would that be? But my perception of it as cool isn't enough -- and unfortunately, as you point out, for some people it is. And they make everyone's job more difficult, by clouding the issue with poor research.

    I was absolutely, completely serious in recommending that people sign up for these workshops; if I were in the UK, I would do it in a heartbeat. And not to scoff -- but to be there if, as they claim, something discernible & measurable is actually out there. So despite the criticisms I've received today, I am, honestly, a skeptic in the true sense of the word -- someone who's content to wait, indefinitely if need be, for hard evidence.

    Thanks for your thoughtful & considerate post... and if you do ever find convincing evidence, please post it here!



  7. As someone who has done many of Steve and Ciaran's courses and also the on-line Parasychology course Ciaran runs, I personally can highly recommend them all to anybody who has an interest in the subject matter. They are fun, very informative and promote critical thinking and good practice.

  8. I have a personal dislike for Steve Parson but won't go there but Ciaran is a different matter. I have met him a few times...been to his talks and he is a very knowledgeable person on the subjects he deals with! And he is very honest!!
    As an historical researcher and a Paranormal Investigator myself I know how hard it is starting out to Investigate when all you have is an interest in the subject but no experience!
    People need an expert to tell them how to use all the equipment available today..what to look for...and what NOT to be taken in by!
    £30 is very reasonable to learn about all those subjects! If you went to the cinema these days you would spend that in an evening. better to spend it on gaining knowledge in a subject you are interested in that will give you a lot of pleasure in the future and that you can pass on to others who want to learn!

  9. Hello,

    I'm a belgian skeptic who follows the Facebook page of The Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and I must say you didn't make lots of friends there with your blogpost. LOL

    I just want to say that I can understand your reaction after reading the class description. I think it would be interesting to actually check that training before making a definitive judgment on it. Ciaran O'Keffee is an interesting guy, who did his PhD with Richard Wiseman.

    Anyway, even if I'm not sure what will really be taught in that training, the advertising his made to attract Ghost Hunters, so of course from a skeptical point of view it sounds really fishy.

    Skeptically yours,

  10. I am a researcher, I utilise many pieces of equipment. I could just as easily go into an environment with a book and pencil. But I know that certain pieces of equipment can document frequencies as to which I can not sense.
    Do I then sit within my own physical range of sensors and document to paper what I experience?
    Of course not, I utilise everything and anything I can in order to gather a muti-frequencial picture of that environment. I can then analyse that documented information and attempt to come to an open conclusion.
    Many people do not know which equipment to use, how or why. The need all the information they can get in order to do what people like me do. So I'm fully up for training courses of this kind. Should people get paid to run them? Of course that is a silly question, work is paid for. Knowledge is power, to question is why we learn. Just bacause there is little proof, doesn't mean its not there. It just means we need to look harder.
    Iain Lawrence.