ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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ASSAP websiteWelcome to the ASSAP paranormal blog! Though this blog is aimed at anyone interested in the paranormal, it will be of particular interest to the paranormal research community. Updated frequently, but not regularly (don't expect something new every day!), it covers any paranormal topic, as well as highlighting recent changes to the ASSAP website. You may not notice it but this site changes on an almost daily basis.

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27 Feb 2008: Earthquake and poltergeists

Today's earthquake in northern England was unusually strong for this part of the world. People from other countries will, no doubt, consider 5.2 on the Richter scale to be puny. It was, however, enough to shake houses and their contents.

Many years ago, small earthquakes or tremors were suggested as a possible natural explanation for object movement in poltergeist cases. As anyone who has ever been in an earthquake will know, you can hardly ignore them. The strange feeling of solid ground shaking under you is very disconcerting and disorientating. While earthquakes can move objects in houses, it's unlikely people would fail to notice the other symptoms. It's also unlikely that the whole neighbourhood or region would fail to notice it too. Plus, poltergeist activity can go on for months, which would require a lot of earthquakes.

The earth tremor poltergeist theory was always on shaky ground. For anyone caught up in last night's quake, I doubt even one will imagine they were visited by a poltergeist in the night.

26 Feb 2008: Don't mention the misreporting!

Before the rise of the TV ghost hunting shows there were few people researching ghosts. Interestingly, those that did turned up little, if any, evidence to support the idea that ghosts were spirits. Instead, many favoured the stone tape theory. Since the TV shows, interest in ghost research has expanded hugely and the idea of 'ghosts as spirits' is practically a given among the newcomers. Has the evidence from haunting cases changed radically with the arrival of new investigators? That hardly seems likely. What HAS changed is the way many cases are investigated. Most are now use an assumption-led model. This is an example of how the way cases are investigated can radically affect the outcome.

It is a problem that very few paranormal researchers acknowledge. But the fact is, the way paranormal events are reported and researched can affect the final interpretation of their causes. That is not to imply that some investigators are incompetent or, worse, that they lie. Instead, many fail to recognise problems inherent in witness evidence or particular methods of investigation. These factors can systematically undermine the interpretation of gathered evidence.

The problem of how the paranormal is frequently misreported is one of the major stumbling blocks preventing progress in the field. We need to be ruthless and reject the weak evidence, the results from poorly designed or managed investigations and the ancient dubious (probably legendary) material. Only by studying the best evidence can we hope to make sense of it all.

There is a new article summarising some of the problems with gathering evidence. Like the summary of the best evidence about ghosts and hauntings, there seems to be little coverage elsewhere on the web of these matters.

Further reading (new page): Misreporting the paranormal

21 Feb 2008: When it's too good to be true

We all dream of that Hollywood moment, when we see a ghost close up and take several perfect photographs of it just before it disappears. For most researchers it will never happen and, when you see something similar on the web, Hollywood might indeed be responsible!

From time to time, you will come across a photo or video on the web which clearly shows a Hollywood moment! Fantastic poltergeist activity caught on camera, an obvious ghost strutting their stuff or even an crystal clear alien space craft landing in full view. Too good to be true? That's the question you should ask yourself straight away. There's a reasonable chance that, though it may come with a reasonable sounding story, the 'evidence' may the unacknowledged product of a film studio. Often it is part of a viral marketing campaign, ahead of some new horror movie or video game. Or it could be an old fashioned hoax. Either way, if it doesn't come from a credible source, you should treat it with suspicion.

One thing you can do straight away is to look it up with a web search engine. Just take the title of the video, or your own description of it, and add the word 'fake' to the search string. This may well turn up an admission by a film studio that it is their product or the results of someone else's investigation into the subject. Though these 'products' are not intended to be taken seriously by paranormal researchers, some sadly will.

20 Feb 2008: The Wakefield ghost

For some reason, the 'Wakefield ghost', which hit the news last October, has become a popular on various forums recently. Here is a link to the Wakefield Express where you can read the story and see the video. There are several points to note while watching the video. Firstly, the 'ghost' remains completely stationary, despite the vegetation and runners moving about freely. Secondly, the 'ghost' becomes brighter and fades precisely in step with the the intensity of the sunshine. This indicates that the 'ghost' is actually lens flare. The 'ghost' doesn't move because the camera (which is where the lens flare occurs), presumably on a tripod, is stationary. The 'ghost' becomes brighter as the light source, the sun, shines brighter.

Though the lens flare here may suggest a human figure, albeit a strange one, we shouldn't be surprised by such odd shape. Lens flare can take up almost any shape, from a vague foggy haze to classic 'orbs'. Another interesting point here is that a transparent figure is thought to be a ghost when the vast majority of apparitions look perfectly solid. We probably have the media to thank for the idea of 'transparent ghosts' as the idea certainly didn't originate with real ghost reports.

Another interesting point is how the figure is supposed to look like a Roman soldier. Personally, I'm not even convinced it looks like a human figure, never mind a Roman soldier. By 'humanising' the shape in this way, it enhances the popular idea that it a real ghost and not just flare. Thus are legends born!

18 Feb 2008: Vampire orbs

Vampire orbs - keep away from the windows!The belief that orbs are paranormal is like a vampire - it refuses to die, despite all the evidence, and worse, it sucks the life out of serious research. While it is highly unlikely that any serious paranormal researcher thinks orbs are anything other than photographic artifacts, there are still plenty of people out there willing to believe it, including some active ghost investigators. Why is is the vampire orb so persistent?

One reason is undoubtedly the continued reinforcement of the idea by some TV ghost hunting shows. Another reason concerns the kind of people who study anomalous phenomena. Anomalies are those annoying little facts that contradict generally accepted ideas. They are what excites us! It is then, perhaps, unsurprising that there is an idea in part of the anomaly research community that, while MOST orbs are natural, just a few are not. This means that, as anomaly researchers, we apparently need to track down all these anomalous orbs individually and apply the garlic. But is that really sensible? If a 'normal' orb is indistinguishable from an allegedly 'paranormal' one, must it still be investigated?

There will always be a few orbs that look different. However, with a little thought and some experiments it has always proved possible to explain and reproduce them. For most researchers the lesson is obvious - the vampire orb is dead! If 0.1% of orbs are paranormal, why on earth should they 'imitate' the other 99.9% which are known to have natural causes? If gravity is the known cause of the downward flow of water in waterfalls, no one would speculate that there might be some other mechanism responsible in a tiny number of waterfalls somewhere in the world.

As paranormal researchers we have to realise that, even in anomaly research, there is a tipping point where the overwhelming evidence is enough. Let the vampire orb rest in peace!

PS: The photo? Vampire orbs looming behind a window blind. It's scarier if you've seen vampire movies ...

17 Feb 2008: A short natural history of ghosts

haunted houseI've revised the new ghost page a lot in the last few days. I wanted to make it more accessible. I felt I had a responsibility to do so after failing to find any comparable material readily available elsewhere on the web. It might well be out there but, if it is, people aren't going to stumble on it very often.

Of course, there is a huge volume of material on the web about ghosts. The vast upsurge of interest in the subject has seen to that. However, the bulk of this material is more about what people think ghosts are, rather than their natural history. Without such a natural history, summarising what we have observed about ghosts over the decades, it is difficult to see how you can move on to the next stage of deciding what they are.

I freely admit that, though many ghost cases are explainable in terms of misperception, hallucination and misreporting, there remains a group that are currently unexplained. They may be unexplained simply because there is not sufficient information available about the case or maybe because they are truly beyond current explanation. This is why it is vitally important to continue with ghost research. However, it is high time we broke out of the tyranny of assumption-led investigation and returned to neutral, scientific research.

14 Feb 2008: My Valentine to nature!

InsectorodI love nature! What I love most about it, besides its beauty, is the way it obeys its own rules, whether we understand them or not. The planets orbit the sun whether even if we don't fully understand gravity. People can produce their theories, right or wrong, about nature but it takes precisely zero notice.

When you look into nature you discover ever more subtle layers of complexity. We know the planets orbit the sun, following Newton's laws. Except they don't! Relativity, a more complete picture of gravitation, gives a more accurate prediction, particularly of the orbit of Mercury. One day we will have another layer of subtlety to add, beyond relativity. Each new theory of gravity explains not only all the existing properties but stuff that didn't quite fit before.

Will we ever reach the ultimate layer in our knowledge of nature? Will there be a law which describes gravity perfectly in all situations? Maybe, who knows. This process of finding better and better theories to describe natural phenomena is, of course, purely a human activity. Nature is indifferent to the process.

Is there space for the paranormal in this search for the ultimate laws of nature? Yes, there is! It is the apparent anomalies in nature's behaviour that hint that we don't yet fully understand it. The paranormal is, by definition, all about anomalies. It is about things that our current understanding of science says shouldn't happen. So, yes, paranormal research can, in theory, play a role in extending science and our understanding of nature. The only proviso is this - we must be sure that the paranormal phenomena we observe really are not understandable in terms of current science. We must be sure things are they way they appear!

My Valentine card, above, is a new photo of two insectorods accompanied by more conventional flying rods. It illustrates the complexity and beauty of nature.

12 Feb 2008: What do we really know about ghosts?

Spooky stairs What exactly IS a ghost? Until quite recently, there was a small band of dedicated paranormal researchers patiently investigating this question. They examined witness statements, the witnesses themselves and the places where they saw ghosts, for answers. After over a century of research, some ideas about the true nature of ghosts have indeed emerged though the central mystery remains.

Unfortunately, there is now a fad for assumption-led investigation. It can't really be called 'research' since the assumptions embedded within its methods show that the investigators have already decided what ghosts are before they start. Why bring in a medium unless you already assume that ghosts can be contacted that way? This fad may well have deprived us of a whole generation of people who would otherwise be carrying on the important work of explaining ghosts.

One result of the assumption-led approach is any number of websites expanding, often to extraordinary lengths, on the popular theory that 'ghosts are spirits'. By contrast, there is very little available on the decades of work based on spontaneous reports of actual ghost witnesses. Ironically, ghosts are almost never seen by anyone on assumption-led investigations but they are, nevertheless, the primary source of much information about ghosts on the web.

So I created a new web page which is an extremely brief summary of the research by serious ghost investigators into the features, and possible causes, of ghost reports. Sadly, this material is difficult to find. There is little on the web while books about it are long out of print and relevant scientific papers are not easy to access.

Further reading (new page): What do we really know about ghosts?

11 Feb 2008: Just because you don't see it, doesn't mean it isn't there ...

Comma butterflyWould you walk past this magnificent Comma butterfly, basking in the sun, without seeing it? Plenty of people did as I was taking this photo on Saturday. Butterflies are very rare this time of year (though probably becoming commoner because of ever earlier springs) but nevertheless, very few people noticed it. Had someone taken a photo with the butterfly flying through it, it might have appeared as a flying rod. Of course, few people (except me!) actually go out to take rod photos, so they are usually only noticed after the event. And yet the photographer might claim afterwards 'there were no butterflies, I would have noticed them' and 'it's February, too early for butterflies' and so on.

This sort of reasoning is all too common in paranormal research. The argument is 'there was no evidence that ...', meaning that the observer didn't notice something, therefore it can't be an explanation for an apparently paranormal report. This is often reinforced with the second argument that 'something could not have happened', therefore it didn't. Butterflies don't fly in February in the UK, therefore it couldn't have been a butterfly. Textbooks may say that butterflies don't normally appear in February but that is a generalisation. A few butterflies DO appear in the winter months and, with an exceptionally mild winter, like this one, the numbers are likely to be higher than usual.

This sort of logic is really about probabilities - it is unlikely to have been a butterfly because none was noticed and it is unusual for them to be about at this time of year. You could therefore conclude that a butterfly is unlikely but NOT that it was impossible. Since classifying something as potentially paranormal requires normal explanations to be eliminated, not simply unlikely, it is not a valid argument. And yet, people still do it ...

6 Feb 2008: A better insectorod

Insectorod - flying rod and insectToday, the sun was shining, the insects were humming, surely a perfect day to catch some insectorods! These bizarre creatures are half insect, half flying rod. They are more difficult to capture than ordinary rods. It is important that they still look like insects as well as having obvious rod-like features. My previous effort was suggestive but not the money shot. So here's the big one!

It looks like a sort of flying fish with that 'tail' (actually a wing beat)! The exposure time was 1/50s, making it easily achievable with a video camera. This shot, like all the flying rod photos on this website, was actually done with a still camera. It shows the bizarre light trail made by a single insect flying. You can see 2 - 3 wing beats represented by the 'appendages' sticking out above the 'body'. It certainly looks a lot clearer than most of the flying rods you see elsewhere. That was because a telephoto lens was used. It is clearly a rod and yet also remains a recognisable insect (albeit one apparently with two wings on the same side and a fish tail!). You could almost believe it was a very odd unknown creature!

5 Feb 2008: Over the edge

Mystery faceThe photo, right, shows a strange skeletal figure wearing a red top. The eyes, nose and scarily gaping mouth give this bizarre figure a ghastly, ghostly look. The figure appears to be leaning heavily on something as if unable to stand for some reason.

Regular readers will already be smelling a rat! You can see some zoomed out versions of this photo here. They might throw some light on where this ghostly figure came from! The version of the photo here has been slightly 'enhanced' from the one on the other page, to make it spookier!

The lesson from this sort of photo is that there is a definite limit to the resolution of digital photos. If you go beyond that limit, what you are seeing is really artifacts caused by a combination of the actual objects in the photo and the layout of rectangular pixels.

As a general rule, if you zoom in so much that you can clearly see individual pixels, you are beyond the resolution of the photo. You can no longer trust that what you are seeing is real! You can't see the individual pixels in the photo above because the photo editing software has cleverly averaged them out during resizing. Unfortunately, that may lead you into the trap of thinking what you are seeing is real! It isn't! If you can see the pixels - stop and zoom back until you can't. In the pixel zone, madness lies!

4 Feb 2008: Huge mystery bird

HeronCould it be a pterodactyl? Or perhaps some other prehistoric bird? It certainly isn't the Texas mystery bird! It was undoubtedly a dramatic sight, drifting slowly across the sky. OK, I doubt if it's fooling anybody but, given the number of people who report Venus as a UFO, why not a Grey Heron as a strange menacing mystery bird?

A survey has revealed that one in four Britons think Winston Churchill was fictional while many think Sherlock Holmes really existed. I am not sure how accurate such popular surveys are. You can get hugely different results depending on exactly how the survey questions are phrased. Nevertheless, this popular blurring of fact and fiction doesn't surprise me in the least. Most people naturally believe they know fact from fiction, but the way the media presents certain material can easily cause confusion.

The paranormal, in particular, sits uncomfortably right on the fault line between fact and fiction. It is a fact that people consistently report seeing ghosts, for instance. However, the idea that ghosts are spirits is not supported by the evidence from scientific investigations. It is a concept derived largely from fictional ghost stories. Similarly, it is true that people often report seeing UFOs - ie. objects in the sky that they cannot identify. However, there is little or no evidence from investigations that these objects are alien spacecraft. That idea comes largely from science fiction.

The situation is made worse by 'reality' TV shows. Though called 'reality' TV, such shows are edited, events staged and scripts used. Worse, the ghost hunting variety of reality shows use 'assumption-led' methods, based largely on fictional ideas rather than scientific research. If the public were surveyed about its ideas on the paranormal, I'm confident that fiction would easily win out over fact.

1 Feb 2008: The Tunguska event

One century ago (on 30 June 1908) there was a massive explosion in Siberia, centred on a remote area near the Tunguska River. Some 80 million trees over an area of around 2,000 square kilometres were felled by the event. Just about every anomaly researcher has heard of it. It is interesting because its origins were not immediately apparent. Officially, it has always been put down to a large meteor or comet. The problem is the lack of any crater or meteoritic debris. This has left the field wide open for speculative explanations.

Among the more exotic explanations offered up has been a natural nuclear detonation, antimatter, a black hole and, naturally, the actions of a UFO. For the purposes of the last explanation, the term UFO does not mean 'unidentified flying object' but rather an alien spacecraft. Though many people think they are the same thing, they are not. Many people see things in the sky that they cannot identify every day (UFOs). However, there is little evidence that any of these sightings are alien ships.

The 'official' explanation for the Tunguska Event is that the comet or meteor exploded in the air, several kilometres above the ground, which was why there was no crater or debris. However, last year an expedition led by Luca Gasperini of the University of Bologna found the site of a possible impact crater at Lake Cheko. It is thought that debris from the comet or meteorite may lie beneath the bottom of the lake. Though the evidence is controversial, it represents an important step towards resolving this longstanding anomaly. The team who investigated the lake plan to return this year. It would be fitting if the mystery was finally solved one hundred years after the event.


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© Maurice Townsend 2008