Archive for December, 2009

Pay to Investigate?

Posted in Commentary with tags , , , , on December 26, 2009 by S. P.

Pay Up?

Should money ever exchange hands for an investigation?  On the surface, I believe most ethical investigators would emphatically answer, “No!”  Is this always the case or are there any exceptions?  Here are some of my thoughts on the subject.

I can see no situation in which it’s appropriate for researchers to receive payment for an investigation.  Perhaps if someone specifically invited researchers from out-of-town, it might be appropriate to help pay some travel expenses, but this might still be shaky ground ethically and I’m not very comfortable with it.  Despite what some claim, paranormal research is not a “profession” in the sense the word is generally accepted.  There are no agreed upon standards as in other professional fields.  Everything is just a theory – certainly some theories are better founded than others, however they do remain opinion and not fact.  Clearly there’s no basis for researchers to expect payment by claiming they offer a “professional service.”

What about researchers paying to investigate a location?  I believe most ethical researchers would likewise agree it’s not appropriate for investigators to pay to investigate a location.  This especially holds true for private residences, locations where the owner invited the researchers to investigate, and businesses hoping to document activity in order to advertise their “paranormal” activity.  Unfortunately, thanks to certain TV shows and “paranormal thrill seekers” (as opposed to true researchers), more and more people see charging researchers as a way to make an easy buck.  I believe this is generally an unethical practice and thrill seekers paying out exorbitant fees ruin it for people who are interested in serious research.

I don’t have a problem with “paranormal” or ”ghost tours” in general.  However, a group of twenty or more people tromping through a location does not constitute an “investigation.”  It might prove a very interesting historical tour and certainly doesn’t preclude the possibility of activity occurring during the tour; however it does remain just a tour.  If the tour charges a reasonable fee (in other words, small), I don’t mind – and in fact have gone on a few of them and enjoyed them; but I do question the ethics of “celebrity ghost hunting investigations” which “feature” a “celebrity” from one of the “ghost” TV shows and charge several hundred dollars for a couple hours “investigation.”  When those TV “ghost hunters” are conducting actual investigations, do they bring along twenty or more investigators?

Should serious, ethical researchers ever pay to investigate a location?  About the only time I think it might be appropriate is to help cover the cost of a caretaker to remain on hand at a location such as a museum or historic site.  I think this is particularly appropriate if researchers ask to investigate the location as opposed to being invited in to investigate.  Even in this situation, I believe the fee should be reasonable.

What are your thoughts?

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Ghosts and History: Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together?

Posted in Commentary with tags , , , , on December 24, 2009 by S. P.

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas ghost hunters, paranormal researchers and anomalous phenomena investigators!  Nothing says “Christmas” like a Ghost Hunters marathon all day today on SyFy.

The topic of today’s post has to do with the relationship between interests in history and “ghosts.”  Someone recently brought up an interesting observation.  It seems many, if not most, people interested in the paranormal also have a strong interest in history.  In my experience, I find this observation holds true.  Most researchers I know are also history buffs.

For example, I’ve had an equally long interest in history as I’ve had in studying anomalous phenomena.  I enjoy learning about history and visiting historic sites; in fact I’m completing a master’s degree in history.  For me, one of the most rewarding aspects of an investigation is time spent in the archives leaning about the history of the location and the people.

In terms of application, I think the interest in history makes us more “in-tune” with a location.  We’re more aware of the history and the people.   This makes us better observers.  It also allows us to separate the wheat from the chaff.  We’re able to get through the urban legend to the historic truth.  Many times the historic truth puts to rest the urban legend and “paranormal;” however sometimes the historic truth proves even more intriguing than the urban legend…

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Houdini and Doyle: Two Extremes of Belief

Posted in Commentary with tags , , , , on December 20, 2009 by S. P.

Houdini and Doyle

When it comes to the paranormal and unexplained phenomena, many people fall into one to two unfortunate camps.  Some people unquestioningly and uncritically believe every unusual occurrence has a paranormal explanation – most have not met a kook theory they don’t accept.  On the other hand are people who fall into cynicism, generally while claiming they’re “open-minded skeptics.”  However, they are cynics and flat out refuse to accept paranormal explanations for any situation, no matter the circumstances or the evidence.  They refuse to believe anything with equal vigor as those in the first group willingly believe everything.  Neither position represents a true open-minded, skeptical attitude.  Two famous men represent each of end of the belief spectrum – Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Harry Houdini was a highly accomplished magician in the early twentieth century.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician and writer – the creator of Sherlock Holmes.  Both men were highly respected and both considered highly intelligent.  Given their notoriety, it’s interesting to look at the difference in their beliefs regarding the paranormal.  Least any reader get the wrong impression, let me say right up from that I hold both men in high regard.  However, I think it’s enlightening to look at how each of them fell into opposite ends of the belief spectrum.

The Fox Sisters

“Spiritualism” flourished in the mid to late 1800s, however it slowly faded from popularity due to the exposure of many mediums as frauds and the confession of fakery (later retracted by one) of the Fox sisters who’d touched off the movement in the 1840s.   It’s insightful to note spiritualism gained much acclaim in the United States during and shortly after the Civil War as grieving relatives hoped to contact relatives killed in the war.

World War I Cemetery

Spiritualism found a revival, particularly in Europe, during and following World War One.  It’s almost impossible for us to understand the devastation brought on by the war.  We think the US death toll from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are a big deal.  It’s nothing compared to World War One.  During the Battle of the Somme alone, from July to November 1916, over 164,000 were killed or missing.  On the first day of the Battle of Somme, over 19,000 British soldiers were slaughtered in a matter of hours.  We simply cannot fathom the impact – nearly everyone had a relative killed or had a neighbor whose relative was killed.  As in the American Civil War, grieving relatives desired a means to communicate with lost loved ones, mostly young men cut down in their prime.  Unfortunately, many charlatans, claiming “mediumistic” powers, took advantage of the situation purely for financial gain.

Houdini

Into the situation stepped Houdini and Doyle.  Houdini had a long interest in the paranormal.  As a highly accomplished illusionist, he was very adept at spotting trickery.  In fact, at one point early in his career, he held staged séances as part of his act – he made it clear it was an act and didn’t claim possession of any special powers, yet due to his skills, many came away convinced Houdini was a medium.  However, this was precisely his point – to show how easy it is to trick the believer.  Houdini’s interest in the spirit world took on a new importance following the death of his beloved mother on July 17, 1913.  Houdini went in search of a medium who could help in get in touch with his departed mother.  Instead, he only found trickster after trickster.  As he found one fraud after another, Houdini quickly turned from honest, open-minded skeptic to die-hard cynic.  His personal goal became “exposing” all mediums as frauds.  His attitude clouded his judgment to the point when he encountered something he couldn’t explain, he still denounced the medium, claiming the person was simply using some kind of trickery he wasn’t yet able to explain.

Cottingley Fairies

Like Houdini, Doyle shared a long-time interest in the paranormal.  While Doyle initially believed much activity was due to trickery, he lacked Houdini’s skills as a magician to spot the tricks.  As Doyle continued to study spiritualism, he took an opposite path to Houdini.  Whereas Houdini became less accepting, Doyle became more accepting.  Even when mediums Doyle claimed were authentic were proven frauds, Doyle continued to support the mediums.  It seems Doyle’s desire to believe overrode his critical judgment.  For example, Doyle championed as authentic the Cottingley fairy photographs of 1917, even though they appeared to be photos of cardboard cutouts (which is exactly what the sisters who took them admitted they were in 1981).

Houdini and Doyle actually developed a close friendship in the early 20th century.  The two men clearly respected each other and shared a genuine interest in exchanging thoughts on spiritualism.  For some time, they exchanged good-natured arguments.  However, as Doyle continued to accept as true even claims clearly shown as fraudulent, the friendship became strained.  It finally ended in bitterness when Doyle publically claimed Houdini’s feats of illusion came from his mediumistic powers.  Doyle adamantly refused to accept Houdini’s explanations his illusions were mere trickery performed by a highly skilled magician.

I believe the attitudes of both Houdini and Doyle are wrong.  It seems to me both attitudes represent the easy way out.  In one case, you simply declare everything a hoax or a trick.  In the other case, you simply accept everything as true.  Neither requires much critical thought because you go into the situation with our mind already made up.  There’s no need to conduct any investigation or any research because you either already believe it’s true or you already believe it’s a lie.

Honest, open-minded skepticism is the much less “easy” attitude.  This attitude forces you to critically analyze the situation.  It forces you to engage your brain to actually think about the situation since you don’t go in with a prejudgment.  Does this mean you’ll get it right every time?  Of course not, but it does force you to arrive at a conclusion based on your observations instead of your preconceived decisions.  Along the same lines, I believe this attitude also allows you to accept if you’re initial analysis proves wrong.  With the other two attitudes, it’s not easy to admit you were wrong since that goes against you underlying paradigm.  Have you honestly analyzed your attitude?

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Christian Bashing Has No Place in Paranormal Research

Posted in Commentary, History, Religion with tags , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by S. P.

Galileo

Why is Christian bashing, especially bashing the Catholic Church, so prevalent among paranormal researchers?  Sorry, gang, you don’t have to be “pagan” to have an interest in the paranormal.  I find it hypocritical to the extreme when some people in the paranormal field claim to be “open minded,” yet have no problem denouncing others’ religious beliefs simply because those beliefs don’t coincide with their own.  The director of one organization in Florida just can’t seem to help himself when it comes to putting down Christianity and the Catholic Church at every opportunity.  I’m interested in the paranormal because of my religious beliefs, not in spite of them, so knock it off with the Christian and Catholic bashing!

Most of the bashing is in the form of worn-out clichés and unfounded, but popular, myth.  Allow me to address a couple recent examples I’ve seen.

The first myth is the Church used Latin in the Middle Ages to keep people from reading the bible in order to “hide” it from them or some other such nonsense.  Even a moment of research reveals most people at the time were illiterate and if you did read, you knew how to read Latin.  Latin was the universal language of the literate and educated – in particular it was the language of science, allowing scientists speaking different languages to still share information with each other.  It was similarly used by the Church as a “universal” language – it didn’t matter if you were in Rome or London; the Church “spoke” the same language.  Bibles were chained to lectionaries, not because of a desire to keep it from the people, but because it was considered such an important and rare book it needed to be secured from theft.

The idea the illiterate didn’t know the Bible because it was in Latin is absurd and shows a great ignorance on the part of the person making the claim.  The average, illiterate peasant likely had a much better grasp of the Bible than the average, college-educated American today.  In the Latin Mass, the Epistle and Gospel are read in Latin as part of the rite; however the priest reads both in the vernacular prior to his homily – so the people did regularly hear the Bible in their own language.  In addition, the architecture, art, and statuary in medieval churches provided visual images of biblical stories.  The Church didn’t use Latin to hide things from the people, instead she was able to spread her message around the world because of Latin.

Another myth portrays Galileo (1564-1642) as a lone crusader persecuted by a narrow-minded, superstitious Church.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  If you actually study Galileo in depth, you’ll find he comes across as something of an impatient and conceited pompous ass.  Galileo demanded his theories, many of which were later proven incorrect, be unquestioningly accepted as fact.  The Church repeatedly offered Galileo an “out” by asking him to instead correctly label his theories as theories instead of fact.  Galileo consistently refused.

During Galileo’s time, Latin remained the language of science.  However, Galileo chose to write in the vernacular, often using bawdy prose, in an effort to “play to the people” instead of subjecting his work to the review and critique of fellow scientists.  When his friends and supporters, including many in the Church hierarchy up through Pope Urban VIII, begged him to tone down his style and simply state his theories were not fact, Galileo arrogantly replied: “”You cannot help it … that it was granted to me alone to discover all the new phenomena in the sky and nothing to anybody else.”  Not exactly the speech of a persecuted underdog.

Because of his attitude, many of his fellow scientists were hostile to Galileo and condemned his theories.  It was not the “enlightened reformers,” but the Roman Catholic Church that sponsored Galileo’s lectures and supported his honest endeavors.  In fact, Pope Urban VIII, Cardinal Bellarmine, and many other leaders of the Church publicly supported Galileo’s scientific work and many of them owned telescopes made by him and conducted their own observations.

Galileo was placed on trial only once, in 1633.  During his trail, the Church treated him as a guest of honor in Rome, providing him a palatial apartment and a personal servant.  He was given a moderate sentence (the recitation once a week for three years of the penitential psalms, which he had already been doing anyway and voluntarily continued to do afterwards, a practice taking only fifteen minutes per week) for publishing as pure doctrine what he was told to publish as theory.  Galileo did not spend a single day in prison. Additionally, the Church never prohibited Galileo from continuing his work and studies, and never barred him from receiving visitors.  In fact after his trail, he lived for a time in apartments provided by the Archbishop of Siena.  Galileo died at the age of 78 in his own bed, with the plenary indulgence and blessing of the pope.

I recognized there’s others involved in paranormal research who do not share my religious views.  However, I don’t constantly and consistently put-down and attack their beliefs.  I ask the same consideration in return.

2010 All rights reserved.  This copyrighted material may not be reposted or reproduced in any form without permission.]

The Problem with Paranormal “Certification”

Posted in Commentary with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by S. P.

Diploma

There are several different groups (or more correctly individuals with websites claiming to be official sounding groups) offering so-called “certification” in paranormal investigation.  I have no problem with people taking these courses if they’ve thoroughly researched the provider and understand what they’re getting (or not getting as the case may be) – after all, I’m a strong believer in the free market and people’s freedom to spend their money as they see fit.  However, I believe some of these “certification” courses imply more than they can possibly deliver in terms of a real “certification” and some use marketing practices I consider often border on unethical.  Caveat emptor, buyer beware, strongly applies when it comes to the paranormal “certification” or “degree” business.

In the professional word, “certification” generally involves meeting standards of specialized training, testing, and experience for a particular field.  These standards are developed by nationally and internationally recognized certification agencies.  I know of no professional certification standard which is developed by one person.  Instead, a board of experts in the field jointly develops a set of standards which members or directors of the certification agency must approve.  Once standards are in place, a similar process is used to keep the standards up-to-date.  The important points are certification standards come from a recognized organization and are developed by a group of recognized experts in the subject.

What do we have with all the paranormal “certifications” and “degrees?”  First, there is no nationally or internationally recognized certification organization for paranormal studies.  Instead, there are just various groups offering “certifications” and “degrees” for sale.  This leads us to the second issue – all of the paranormal “certifications” offered for sale that I know of were developed by one person and it’s that person who’s generously offering to sell you his or her so-called “certification” or “degree” course.

I find it very unethical some of these “certification” sellers also plaster their websites with warnings to the public not to allow investigators on their property unless they hold XYZ certification.  Wow, so no one should consider a researcher competent unless he happens to hold the certification you sell?  No conflict of interest there at all . . .

Another tactic I’ve seen lately is paranormal “certification” sellers comparing their courses to the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON) Field Investigator (FI) examination.  This is a poor comparison.  First, MUFON is an international membership organization with a forty year history.  As such, they have more in common with a professional certification agency than one guy or gal cranking out “certifications” from his or her home office.  Second, MUFON does not claim the FI examination confers a “certification.”  Nothing in the FI Manual or FI examination says “certification.”  Instead, it’s more of a standardization manual for the FI position.  It provides a way to make sure every FI is operating from the same standard foundation when it comes to procedures.  Third, the FI manual, now in its fifth edition, was developed by a committee of researchers, not just one person.  Finally, the FI Manual does not offer an opinion on UFOs or aliens.  Instead, as mentioned, it provides standard operating procedures on how MUFON wants FIs to conduct an investigation.  It’s a procedures manual, not an explanation of UFOs and aliens.

What would be necessary for the comparison to hold to the paranormal field?  First, a nationally recognized “ghost” group would need to exist instead of hundreds of local groups who share almost no communication with each other.  Second, this national group would need to form a committee to develop agreed standards.  Third, the membership or directors of the group would have to approve the standards.  Fourth, a method to teach these standards to members and examine them for competence would have to be developed.  None of this exists, and considering the paranormal field often seems to have more internal conflict than the UFO field, I frankly doubt such an organization will ever exist.  However, until it does, comparing XYZ group’s “certification” course to the MUFON FI examination does not hold.

Again, I have no problem with someone spending their money on these courses if they understand what they’re getting.  I’ve seen a couple of these courses which appear to offer some generally good information and food for thought.  However, the person taking the course must understand it is not a true certification course.  These courses are for informational purposes only and no matter how highfaluting sounding the title or the group (even if they call themselves a “college”), they do not confer any sort of real “certification” or “degree” as those terms are understood in the professional or academic world.

My personal opinion is one can learn all he or she needs to know in order to research the paranormal by reading several of the very well written books available today from recognized researchers in the field.  Instead of spending $70 to $100 or more on a “certification,” you can invest that money in an excellent reference library where you learn not just one person’s opinion, but the views of several researches.

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UAVs and UFOs

Posted in Commentary, UAP/UFO with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2009 by S. P.

RQ-170

Photos of an unknown aircraft, dubbed the Beast of Kandahar, have circulated around the internet for the past several months.  This week, the Air Force issued a statement confirming the existence of this unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).  It’s officially known as the RQ-170 Sentinel and was developed by Lockheed Martin to “provide reconnaissance and surveillance support to forward deployed combat forces,” according to the Air Force statement.  The “RQ” designation identifies the craft as an unarmed UAV, as opposed to the “MQ” designation for the Predator and Reaper UAVs which are armed aircraft.

Kenneth Arnold

Reports of triangle-shaped “UFOs” date back decades – in fact during Kenneth Arnold’s famous sighting near Mt. Rainier on June 24, 1947, which ushered in the modern UFO craze, he reported the craft as vaguely triangular in shape (technically crescent-shape).  Given the documented history of triangular shaped aircraft, manned and unmanned, from the close of World War II through the present day, with aircraft such as the B-2 and RQ-170, how many of those triangle-shaped “UFO” sightings were actually misidentified military aircraft?

Northrop N-1M (Circa 1940)

Many people think military UAVs are a new development.  However, the history of UAVs, or remote controlled aircraft, dates back to shortly after the development of heavier-than-air flight.  By the end of World War I, engineers developed rudimentary remote control systems.  Refinement of these systems continued through the 1920s and 1930s.  World War II gave a great boost to perfecting remote control of even large aircraft, including B-17s.  Today’s reconnaissance UAVs trace their history back to the 1950s when cameras were first fitted to UAVs for surveillance.

As the charts on this site (http://www.uavforum.com/vehicles/overview.htm) and this site (http://www.fas.org/irp/program/collect/uav.htm) show, a large variety of UAVs have been produced since the close of World War II.  Many of these craft have unusual shapes, which would easily lead the unknowing observer to classify a sighting as a “UFO.”  Keep in mind as well that without a human pilot, the craft is limited only by its structural capabilities, not by the limitations of the human body – therefore UAVs are capable of higher sustained g-loading and more abrupt maneuvers than an aircraft with a human pilot.

CL-327 UAV

Certainly UAVs do not account for all unidentified aerial phenomena (UAP).  However, it’s very likely UAVs and experimental aircraft do account for a significant number of UAP reports.

This brings up a very important point: investigators of any type of unknown event must begin with the assumption that a “normal” explanation exists for the activity.  Only when all normal explanations are exhausted should other explanations be considered.

Far too many self-styled “investigators” begin with the assumption whatever type of activity they’re researching exists, be it ghosts, Big Foot, aliens, or whatever.  So when someone reports a ghost or a “UFO,” these types of “investigators” go into the situation with the pre-loaded assumption that the explanation for the activity is a ghost or is space aliens.  This is a fundamentally incorrect approach.  Instead, the initial assumption should be that it’s not a ghost or it’s not space aliens.  This mindset keeps the investigator focused on looking for normal explanations first.

True anomalous phenomena are very rare events.  If investigators ever hope to gain any credibility, they must approach the subject with strong discipline and healthy skepticism.  If you claim ghosts and aliens are everywhere, is anyone going to listen to you that one time when you actually find something?

2010 All rights reserved.  This copyrighted material may not be reposted or reproduced in any form without permission.]

The Trouble with “Orbs”

Posted in Commentary with tags , , , , , on December 7, 2009 by S. P.
.
Look, a haunted house:

Ghosts?

It has to haunted, after all, see all those “orbs.”  They’re “spirits.”

Uh, no, they’re not.

Two of the worst things to invade the paranormal field are compact digital cameras and self-styled “investigators” who have no clue about how the equipment they’re using operates.  The combination of these two factors has given rise (perhaps “plague” would be a better word) to the so-called “orb” photos littering the internet.

Want me to immediately dismiss you and/or your group as non-credible?  Just plaster your website with “orb” photos which are obvious non-paranormal photographic artifacts.

Why did a plethora of “paranormal” “orb” photos only appear after the development of compact digital cameras?  Why did literally decades of 35mm photography not produce the same amount of “orbs” as compact digital cameras have produced in only a few years (frankly, despite all my pre-digital era reference books, none, zero, nada contain photos of “orbs” claiming they are of paranormal origin)?  Compact digital cameras must be “magic ghost catchers!”  Perhaps, but I think a far more likely explanation is users not understanding how their camera works.

Numerous knowledgeable people have explained the “orb” phenomena in great detail, so I’m not going to spend much time on an in-depth explanation.  The Orb Zone (http://www.theorbzone.com/index.htm) is one such site which provides a very in-depth and detailed explanation of “orbs.”  The bottom line is very simple, your “orbs” are merely reflections of the flash off bits of dust, pollen, or even insects which, unlike ghosts, do proliferate nearly every single spot on earth at all times.

Don’t think there’s that much dust around?  Have you ever seen a sunbeam shinning through a window in a clean home?  I guarantee even in the cleanest home, you will see a shaft of dust illuminated by the sunbeam – and that’s inside, in a “clean” environment.

Now, most “paranormal” photographs are not taken during the day in a clean home.  Instead, they are often taken in old, or otherwise not the cleanest, buildings or outdoors, which is filled with dust and pollen even if you don’t see it (don’t believe that – just ask someone who suffers from allergies).  All these places are filled with tiny particles just waiting for your flash to illuminate them.

In a “normal” situation (i.e. the one in which the camera was designed to operate), there is generally some natural lighting so the flash doesn’t fire at full power.  However, when “investigators” are “ghost hunting,” they’re taking the photographs in near total darkness and the flash fires at full power – which produces a significant illumination source for dust, pollen, insects, and bits of “stuff” which might be floating around.

Backyard with Compact Digital

If you want to capture some “orbs” all you need to do is go out in your own backyard on any given night.  Take a few photos with a compact digital camera and you’re almost sure to end up with “orbs” in the photo.  Try the same experiment with a digital SLR (especially one with an external flash attached) and it becomes very unlikely you will see any “orbs” in your photos.  This just builds more proof to the explanation on the Orb Zone (see above) that compact digital cameras produce “orbs” due to the close proximity of the flash to the lens as well as the extremely short focal length (the distance from the lens to the light collection plane – the light sensor in digital cameras and the film in non-digital cameras) in compact digital cameras.  The digital SLR moved the flash away from the lens (and moves it even further when using an external flash) and it has a significantly longer focal length.

Backyard w/Digital SLR

Does this discussion mean absolutely no photographs exist of “orbs” which might be of paranormal origin?  Absolutely not.  As in my post below, out of hundreds of photographs, you will run across one which doesn’t present an obvious explanation.  So I do leave the door open to the possibility of paranormal activity manifesting in a photograph as an “orb.”  However, if your photograph is a transparent “bulls eye” pattern, I’m sorry to tell you it’s not a ghost!

2010 All rights reserved.  This copyrighted material may not be reposted or reproduced in any form without permission.]

The Dreaded “Orb”
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