Ghost Hunters

Season 5 Episode 16

Glimmer Men

Aired Wednesday 10:00 PM Oct 07, 2009 on Syfy

Episode Fan Reviews (1)

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  • Questions of proof

    I've started reading Jason and Grant's latest book, "Seeking Spirits", and as usual, it does bring to light a number of interesting points. This particular book focuses on the cases that took place before "Ghost Hunters" began, and the format has changed to give Jason and Grant a more balanced participation in the writing process. Some will be interested to know that Grant finally gives details on the reason why he became interested in investigating the paranormal. It's quite the story.

    Just from what I've read so far (and I'm only about a third of the way into the book), there are some interesting discrepancies. I'm sure some will question the timeline of Grant's involvement with RIPS/TAPS, for example. There are also stark differences between what they say in the book regarding their methods and what is seen on the show, and few of those differences can be explained away as part of the editing process. And some of the "evidence" discussed is hard to swallow (as with their previous book, "Ghost Hunting").

    I've also had the chance to watch another show called "Ghost Lab". I may ultimately have some more detailed thoughts on that show, but for now, I find it more interesting to make a general comparison. It's amazing to see how many of the general criticisms I've made of TAPS in recent years apply without much revision to this new show. In particular, the poor standards of evidence, the rampant misuse/misunderstanding of equipment and science, and not a little arrogance on the part of the group leaders in thinking they are innovative beyond the rest of the ghost hunter pack.

    All of which reminded me, yet again, that a lot of the shortcomings we see in the TAPS investigations are reflective of the majority of the paranormal investigators out there. Even the groups with much stronger investigative technique tend to adhere to poorly-conceived "theories" and assumptions. The biggest problem with paranormal investigation, after all, can be the underlying assumption that spirits of the dead are the cause of unexplained activity!

    In my professional life as an engineer with a heavily-regulated industry, I often find myself reinforcing one key principle: 1) if it isn't documented, it didn't happen. It's not a question of integrity. If it doesn't happen in a way that can be verified independently, it didn't happen. So the trick is to document everything vital to making the eventual claim that your results are reliable and that your process at getting those results is sound and justifiable.

    Documentation is not just putting pen to paper; it's the sum total of all the monitoring data collected during a process (or, in this case, an investigation). It's the reason why personal experiences are supposed to be dismissed during an investigation, and why a book full of anecdotal reports from witnesses is still not proof. It's just a collection of entertaining stories.

    Even if something is documented (and all the production and TAPS footage of an investigation qualify as documentation), there is still the matter of how the documentation was conducted and the limitations that must be kept in mind. Just because Jason and Grant are documented as hearing noises or seeing shadow move does not mean that there is proof. The same applies for cold spots, as another example.

    In the case of technical data, it comes down to the limitations of the device. What does the instrument read? What is the range of its capabilities? How does it take its measurements? What is the proper operation of the device? Can it, and is it, calibrated against a standard? Without a solid understanding of these basic factors (and several more), it's all too easy to assume the result indicates paranormal activity.

    So the standards of proof in this case are fairly high, and that is why I rarely ever accept the "evidence" on the show as proof. It's why I often frame an evaluation by considering what my reaction would be if I had encountered the same data or incident during one of my own investigations.

    For the record, this is a point that is often missed when critics and skeptics debunk TAPS themselves. It's one thing to say that it's possible to replicate the data or incident, and therefore conclude fraud. It's quite another to document that it was done in that particular manner, and thus "catch them in the act". One is supposition followed by subjective judgment; each person must evaluate whether or not they choose to believe the supposition. ("The chair moved because Grant was using fishing line.") The latter is actual, documented proof that can be independently verified without opinion coming into the matter.

    That said, there are plenty of times when I think Jason and Grant accept things that have an obvious, mundane explanation as "paranormal" for the sake of the show. And there are times when I strongly question the validity of what hits the air. In the case of the St. Augustine Lighthouse investigation, I find myself wondering if they actually did catch something. But in all cases, it comes down to another key principle from my professional life: "There's a difference between what I believe, and what I can prove."

    Case #1: USS Salem, MA

    I love it when they investigate naval vessels. The conditions are like a mental funhouse, with unusual shadows, reflections, and sounds all over the place. The fact that the team is in something of an alien environment also makes it easy for things to be misinterpreted, but there's no denying the entertainment value!

    The EVP and the knocking sounds could have been normal mechanical sounds from the vessel itself. This is especially true for the knocking heard by Steve and Tango; it's the kind of sound one would expect from something industrial, like a pump or air handler. They seemed to point to some kind of ductwork as the source. On the other hand, I would expect the client to recognize such sounds and readily identify them.

    Case #2: Cornwall Jail, Canada

    The incident with the cell door provides a good example of what I mean by strength of documentation. Because Grant was holding a camcorder, they managed to get two angles of documented footage at the time of the incident. This provides proof that Grant, while close to the cell door, was not close enough to close the door himself. Other footage shows what it takes to make the door close. It's not proof of anything paranormal, but it does eliminate the possibility that Jason, Grant, or the cameraman intentionally closed the door.