Monday, 31 January 2011

Ghost lab or ghost sham?

Sam is a student of mine. He's the son of two medical doctors and when other kids are playing with toys or blowing their pals to pieces on some online computer game, Sam is usually busy reading about the latest advances in science. At the age of nine, this boy can name all the layers of the atmosphere (how many of us can do that?), explain the components of a molecule or describe the differences between an amphibian and a fish, all in a foreign language. You see where I'm going here - Sam is a genius.

One recent morning I was discussing a fairy tale with the class. The topic of magic came up. "Do you believe in magic?"; I asked the class. Some of the kids said "yes", which will be no surprise to those who read my previous article. Sam said "no". "What about ghosts Sam, do you believe in them?" I ask; "Sometimes" says Sam. "Really? I'm surprised. Why do you believe in them?" I ask; "Because I saw something on the TV about them" says Sam. My heart sank. I already knew the answer to my next question but I had to check: "What show was it Sam?" I ask; "Ghost Lab" he replies.

For the uninitiated, "Ghost Lab" is a regular show that airs on National Geographic (in Asia, anyway) that purports to document a team touring the United States and examining familiar "haunted" areas with a variety of equipment and a mobile lab. The obvious implication being that it's all done scientifically.

The problem as I see it is that the show does nothing of the sort. From the very first episode there's a spin being put on events that would make a politician envious. We're shown a clip from Gettysburg supposedly taken by 'Ghost Lab' member Brad, of a group in military dress walking across a field. We're then told in the most sensational terms that the group just "disappeared" in broad daylight! How frightening! What we're not told is that the area of Gettysburg is - for obvious reasons - famous for re-enactment groups acting out old American battles. Oh, and the actual part where the mysterious group "disappear" just happened to be missed off of the film cut, the cameraman was busy running after the group you see, because he was so far away to begin with.

That piece of nonsense really sets the tone for the whole series where minor or non-events are treated as climaxes. A door opening "by itself" in a concert hall is accompanied by lots of screaming and is edited in with dramatic music. The "Ghost Lab" team's scientific analysis of the whole thing is that: "The door was shut hard and there's no breeze here".

Ghostly EVP voices are frequently played back to the camera. They're presented as fact, yet are so indecipherable that the viewer is given subtitles to make sure the ghost's message is clear. Again, the grand sum of scientific analysis offered is one person trying to recreate the voice message. When the volume level is found to be different, that's offered as proof that it was a spirit doing it the first time.

Both the aforementioned events happened in episode one and at the end of the investigation the team leader tells us the building is: "definitely haunted". His evidence? I just gave it to you.

The series continues in the same vein. In episode three - shot in some old 'wild west' town - a photo taken in a suitably notorious area was found to display a shadow. The team leader's immediate response was: "Hmmm....perhaps we should get this analaysed by Joe Nickell or some other expert so we can rule out natural phenomena before jumping to conclusions." No, I'm kidding of course, his real response was: "That's a shadow person right there!" jumping for joy as he did so. I could give further examples of the way it's all spun but I think you get the picture.

What gets my back up about all this is not that it's so cheesy. I understand TV shows need viewers and a truly scientific approach may have less appeal, but it's all presented so deceptively. It's not just my genius but young student Sam who has been taken in by this, it's a whole group of young people. I recently tried debating with a few fans of the show on Facebook and their defence of their favourite show was truly passionate. I almost felt mean for trying to dissuade them.

Those who value truly scientific principles and wish to peruse a better way to perform research than the 'Ghost Lab' crew could do worse than consult a published article on the Rochester University website (I'll link to it below) that explains how we can truly collect, measure, present and validate data in all types of scientific research.

One of the rules is that we should aim for a series of experiments. If we catch a "shadow person" on camera once, can we do it again, ever? If not, how does this contribute to scientific research? Another vital area is "controlled variables". In our 'Ghost Lab' show, a controlled variable might be something as basic as a door, for example. Keeping it locked, inaccessible and observed would make it much more impressive when it allegedly opens "by itself". Certainly it would be more convincing to scientists than simply stating "there's no breeze here".

One last rule discussed in the article and one I always keep as my own golden rule is also known as 'Occam's Razor'. It states: "Things need not be multiplied beyond necessity". What this means of course is that when we have a multitude of explanations for an event or occurrence, we should always choose the one that requires the least amount of assumptions and stays the closest to what we know to be true. So when a "shadow person" appears on a photograph, does a good scientist immediately conclude "Shadow person" - for which there exists zero evidence - or a probable error in the camera lens - an event that happens daily? When presented with creaky audio that may have a faint voice on it , does a good scientist first try to rule out living people or other natural noises, or immediately conclude that dead people are communicating via audio recorders with non-sequitur messages?

Again, I could go on but I'm sure you get the picture. Perhaps some readers could find an enjoyable hobby in reading the article and then watching the show to see how the whole team completely ignore scientific principles. All I ask in return for introducing such a fun filled thirty minutes is that the reader ensures any young viewers accompanying them are shown what nonsense it all is.

Rochester University's guide to the scientific method:

More on 'Occam's Razor':

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