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.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The dubious science of the "Spirit Story Box"

Those of you who are (1) ghost hunters, and (2) into high-tech gadgetry, have a new tool to try out.

It's an app for your iPhone called the "Spirit Story Box."  Its creators, Roger Pingleton and Jill Beitz of StreamSide Software, summarize its operation as follows:
Spirit Story Box works by examining values within the device that a spirit should theoretically be able to manipulate. An algorithm tracks and measures these values while at the same time selectors are constantly updated, which are then used to determine what words should be output.
Simply put, the app allegedly is taking readings from the "energy field" of an area, and outputting words on the screen.  Marvel at its features:
  • Exclusive story engine may allow spirit energy to communicate with multi-word answers
  • Mesmerizing energy swarm visualizations
  • Built-in sharing support for social networks, email, or iMessage.
  • Stuning, realistic graphics create the impression of an actual piece of equipment
  • Functional meter indicates impending single-word answers

Stories about this app have been popping up all over, and I bet Pingleton and Beitz are making a tidy little sum of money from their creation.  Just yesterday, Fox 8 of Cleveland, Ohio ran a story about a couple of their reporters who went out with a "paranormal investigator" to test the thing at a café that was the site of an alleged haunting.  Here are the results:
We wondered what it might say at the café, and it didn’t take long to find out.

Within minutes of turning the app on, it began spitting out words and phrases including but not limited to: shin, engineer, using chisel, crow bar and harm neck.

“The random phrases all seemed like they related to someone being injured,” said Roberta [the café owner].

Was it a coincidence or something else?

There is no way to know for sure but both the ghost hunter and business owner agreed that the 99¢ app, which took only minutes to download, was super easy to use and a whole lot of fun.

“Sort of like the Magic 8 Ball. It’s more for entertainment but it is possible for a spirit to communicate that way so I wouldn’t rule anything out,” said [paranormal investigator] Carissimmi.
Okay.  So, where do I start?

One of the most common comments I've heard regarding stuff like this is to the effect of, "isn't it great that the psychic investigators are now approaching things in a scientific way?"  Somehow, the fact that the data -- if I can call it that -- is being generated by a little box, the internal workings of which most of us don't comprehend, makes it "scientific."

The problem is that whether something is science or not has nothing to do with what tools you're using.  The fact that, in this case, the tool is something that's high-tech and works in a complex fashion (and has "stunning, realistic graphics [that] create the impression of an actual piece of equipment") is entirely irrelevant.

A key feature of science is falsifiability.  If you make a conjecture about something, there has to be a way of knowing if your conjecture is wrong.  If I, for example, said that birds navigate during migration because they are in touch with a Psychic Energy Field that is inherently undetectable by anyone or anything else, that is not a scientific statement, because by definition there is no way of determining if the statement is right or wrong.

The problem with Spirit Story Box is a little more subtle, but amounts to the same thing.  Consider the question, for example, of what kind of word output the app could produce that would show that it wasn't in touch with spirits.  You're holding the thing, standing in the haunted café, and watching the words appear on the screen -- and it still remains for you, the user, to interpret what you see.  And as we've seen over and over, features of human cognition like dart-thrower's bias (not to mention more insidious ones like confirmation bias and the Texas sharpshooter fallacy) make it almost inevitable that people will spin the output to make it appear to be relevant.

There's the additional problem that Pingleton and Beitz aren't telling anyone any details about how the app actually works.  "It's proprietary," they told the Fox 8 reporters.  So, couldn't they just have come up with a list of a thousand vaguely suggestive words that the app cycles through, all the while showing an image of brightly glowing dots and a flickering needle?  Most importantly, how could we tell if this was all it was?

Now, let me emphasize here that I don't know that this is what is going on.  My problem with this app is that there none of the "experiments" I've read about thus far would allow me to differentiate between its actually picking up the presence of spirits, and just popping out random words and leaving the humans to interpret how they're relevant.  If the creators of the app, or the people who are using it, want to move this up to the level of "science," either set up a scenario where we can apply the principle of falsifiability, or else tell us how the thing works.  Preferably both.  Until then, paranormal investigator Annie Carissimmi was unintentionally accurate when she compared the app to a Magic 8 Ball.

It could be that Pingleton and Beitz really have a device that allows you to communicate with the spirits of the dead.  My sense, though, is "Outlook Not So Good."

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