Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ghost Hunters; or, That's not how science is done!

As I wait to hear from a client, I figured it was time to finally write my long awaited rant against Ghost Hunters and other shows of its ilk.  Those who know me personally know I have a seething hatred for it, but since my problems with it are many, I've never been able to succinctly express exactly why I hate it.  I figure that it's likely easier to put my thoughts down on 'paper', so here we go.

1. Assumptions

Let's first talk about the assumptions GH makes in order to have the viewer buy into what they're selling:

A. It is assumed that these people are professionals.  After all, they have a TV show.
B. It is assumed that ghosts exist.  This assumption is reiterated every time one of the people attempts to describe what they're scanning for.
C. It is assumed that the show is being truthful.

The two founding members of TAPS (the GH group) are Grant Wilson and Jason Hawes.  Before the show, they were part-time plumbers and co-owned a NH hotel.  They did ghost hunting on the side.  Neither of them, nor any other members of their crew have any formal scientific training.  They are, by all definitions, normal people without formal training.

We are told many times that the paranormal can do any of the following:

Emit an EM field.
Emit cold.
Can speak/make noise.
Manipulate matter (footsteps, things thrown, etc.).
Temporarily become visible.

The Ghost Hunters don't offer any explanation aside from their experience.  That leads into....

Despite the show airing on cable TV, paid for by advertising and merchandise, the crew is being honest in their pursuit of the truth.

2. Faux Science

What the GH crew does is not science.  For one, real science doesn't assume that the thing its testing for is real.  Second, science is testable.  Third, science is repeatable.

The way GH works is that they find an interesting/spooky place whose owner is already predisposed to believing in ghosts.  They interview the owner, paying close attention to particular details of the supposed hauntings.  They then spend the night in the location while filming/recording.  At dawn they stop, go over the hours of media they produced, and then present their findings.

One night's worth of observations is NOT scientific.  It's the very definition of small sample size.  A real scientific endeavor would take far longer (weeks, if not months or even years) in order to weed out all the variables (seasonal changes, atmospheric conditions, etc.).  The data itself would be analyzed by professionals.  Secondary (or even tertiary) observations may be required if the initial data sets were inconclusive or raised questions.

But, what of the data itself?  Unsurprisingly, everything TAPS records is digital.  That means it can easily be altered.  Add to that the abilities of an on-site production crew, and the fact that, again, this is being done for profit, and the data has to be considered suspect at best.

"Wait!  The GH crew itself debunks things all the time!"  Ah, well that plays into....

3. The Trick's the Thing

Ghost Hunters is one of the only shows where the majority of the action takes place off camera.  Think about that for a moment.  9 times out of 10, the camera is focused on one of the member's faces when the inevitable (and there's always at least two per case for advertising breaks) surprise happens.  And, really, that's the key.  The focus on the show isn't about the place they are or even ghosts at all.  It's about the crew.  They're the stars.

Now, there are shots of EMF meters blinking their lights, and various FLIR images, and even the occasional stationary camera shot.  I go through them individually.

The EMF meter shots are always filmed the same way: a tight zoom on the device itself as its lights blink in accordance to the off-screen instructions of a team member imploring a ghost to make the device light up.  EMF meters do exist (, but they don't generally look like what the GH crew uses.  So, it's questionable as to whether the GH prop is legit in and of itself.  Being charitable and assuming it is, why is the camera zoomed in so closely?  There's no need for the device itself to take up the majority of the frame, especially given how often things 'happen' off camera.  I have the suspicion that since the lights ALWAYS behave on cue, someone to the side is manipulating them.

The FLIR images, being digital, can easily be manipulated in post-production.  Some, like the far-off humanoid images, likely ARE people (producers, assistants, etc.).

The stationary camera shots usually pick up some physical movement that's off to the side, in the distance, or with a small object (desk clock).  Usually something moves, slides, rolls, or opens/closes suddenly.  This kind of thing has been used to great effect in movies like Paranormal Activity.

The same sort of thing can be said about the sounds obtained from EVP sessions (Electronic Voice Phenomenon) when one of the crew sits alone in a room and attempts to talk to a potential ghost while recording audio.  Since the recording is digital, it can be easily manipulated.  More on EVP:

What about the GH crew debunking things?  That all adds to the air of authority and truthfulness.  It's simply a way to get people to trust them.  It's really no different than a snake oil salesman plucking a 'random' member from the audience.

4. Conclusion

In the end, Ghost Hunters is not scientific.  It's not even remotely believable.  It's merely a combination of likeable everymen visiting spooky places at night while using camera tricks and post-production editing to sell a story.  There's no truth here.  Rather, it's just the continuation of a brand that's more interested in DVD sales than knowledge.

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