ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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ASSAP bloggerWelcome 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.

Whenever new information becomes available on a subject ASSAP covers, it is added to the relevant pages of the website straight away. So, just because you've read a page, don't assume it will still be exactly the same when you next look. That way the ASSAP website remains an up to date research resource.

The photo (above right, pic by Val Hope) is the ASSAP blogger himself, out looking for anomalies wherever they are to be found, so that you can read about them here.

Important note: If anything in this blog does not make sense, try following the links in text! If it still doesn't make sense, that's probably my fault ...

Previous blog pages ... (including ghosts, UFOs, poltergeists, flying rods, miracles, orbs, hypnotic regression, big cats, vampires, near sleep experiences, premonitions, shadow ghosts, paranormal photos, auras, river monsters and dozens of other subjects)

30 March 2011: Talking to the media

If you thought you had a ghost in your house, would you call a newspaper? Years ago the answer would almost certainly be no. People generally did not want publicity when ASSAP started, for instance. A guarantee of anonymity was one of the first things we put in our code of conduct!

Times change and with many people having no problem believing in the paranormal, few have a problem with being identified as a ghost witness. Indeed, with the current attitudes towards celebrity, it may be seen as an easy way to get noticed! Even within the paranormal research community there are people just waiting to get on a TV ghost hunting show!

Should we think any differently about a case if the first port of call of the witness is the media? No, would be my answer! All cases should be investigated thoroughly and only then judged on their merits. The involvement of the press can make a proper investigation more difficult. Ideally, a paranormal investigator should be the first person to interview a witness in detail about their experience. If they've already spoken to reporters, friends and even mediums, memories can alter (see here).

Some people might question why a paranormal witness would go first to the media. This is, of course, what someone solely interested in celebrity would do. But many people faced with weird experiences simply don't know who to turn to. Even if they do go to paranormal group first, what happens next will vary hugely, depending on the particular group involved. And there are thousands of such groups around nowadays. My advice would obviously be to talk to ASSAP, or a similar organisation, first but few members of the public would know that.

So what are we to make of any evidence presented in the media? I would treat such information as useful 'background information', rather like what most witnesses disclose when they approach a paranormal group. So, in effect, it makes little or no real difference to the course of any thorough paranormal investigation that might be carried out.

What is really sad is that media publicity is likely to lead to witnesses being approached by many paranormal investigators, not to mention others eager to help in different ways. This might sound good but it is not what people under stress necessarily need. And, once again, how do they choose who they want to help them?

Calling a newspaper may not be the best thing to do if you think your house is haunted but it is an understandable reaction when faced with something weird and unfamiliar. Not everyone knows to call ASSAP!

29 March 2011: Roof heron

Grey HeronMany years ago I was riding a train, idly staring out of the window, when I saw a plastic heron on the apex of someone's roof. People use these plastic birds to dissuade the real thing from raiding their garden ponds. I guessed that someone had put this particular garden ornament on their roof as a joke, or possibly to 'liven up' the neighbourhood. It was certainly a striking vision.

But then the heron moved! I was shocked! It had just never occurred to me that the bird could be real. I could not imagine how such a large bird could land safely on the apex of of a steeply sloping roof. But somehow it had! In fact, herons nest in trees and so are used to landing on precarious perches. Nature is full of surprises!

I mention this sighting today for two reasons. Firstly, it is an example of how unconscious assumptions can sometimes stop us seeing what is really there. If that heron had not moved I would still believe, to this day, that it was plastic. Such unconscious assumptions can make us think xenonormal observations are really paranormal. Like turning a poorly seen tree into a ghostly figure.

My second reason? I saw another heron on the apex of someone else's roof this morning. So, it's unusual but not that rare it seems!

28 March 2011: The lessons of history

If you thought you had a ghost in your house, would you start researching its history? That's the reaction of a surprising number of ghost witnesses! It's a reaction that says a lot about how ghosts are generally perceived. They are seen by many people as 'earthbound spirits' with 'unfinished business'. Though a common plot in paranormal fiction, there is little evidence for the involvement of spirits, earthbound or otherwise, in real ghost cases. Given that most ghost cases turn out to have xenonormal causes, a better initial course of action would seem to be to establish if the case is paranormal at all.

In fact, I'm not convinced that historical research is ever particularly useful in ghost cases, despite its popularity among some paranormal researchers. How do you link reports of odd knocks, apparent object movement and an unidentified apparition with a some point in a history of perhaps hundreds of years? Though people claim to find such connections they rarely, if ever, stand up to close scrutiny.

This search for a historical cause for ghost cases, whose real explanations are usually very much in the here and now, appears to be part of a human urge to turn ghosts into stories. Perhaps this comes from the fact that most people come across far more ghosts from fiction than real life. So when we come across a real ghost, we feel there must be a 'story' there. The evidence from real cases is that the occurrence of ghosts and hauntings generally tend to be random. In most cases, they just happen! Indeed, it is one of defining characteristics of real ghost cases. This desire for a 'story' around real ghost cases may also explain the widespread use of assumption-led investigation methods.

So, when you go to investigate a case and you find the witness busy researching the history of a place, don't be too surprised. Such a historical account is unlikely to contribute anything worthwhile to the investigation, unless it uncovers previous paranormal reports. But you need to be aware of such research in case it starts unconsciously feeding back into witness reports. If someone decides their haunting is related to an old woman who used a stick, watch out for references to knocks sounding 'like a walking stick on a stone floor'!

25 March 2011: Can a box be a ghost?

Is the Chupacabra really a mangy coyote or a figure from a science fiction film? Possibly both and several other things according to this story, which also provides a direct link between movies and people subsequently seeing monsters from them. Regular readers will know that I bang on about this from time to time.

Meanwhile, back in less monster-haunted England, the weather has been unseasonably warm of late. So I wasn't surprised to catch a glimpse of a man in a startlingly white shirt as I walked along the road the other day. However, something seemed odd, so I turned round for another look. The man had been curiously close to a brick wall, as if leaning on it. Not something you usually do when wearing a nice clean white shirt.

Needless to say there was no one there and no time for anyone to have moved out of sight. Instead, there was one of those boxes that the post office uses to store letters when they are being delivered. I'm not even sure what these boxes are called but they are common in the UK. Someone in a van drops off a load of mail into one of these boxes to be delivered by someone else on foot. Anyway, this box was bright silver and set against the wall. It didn't look that much like a person but, when you only get the briefest of glimpses in peripheral vision, misperception can run riot sometimes.

It's the first misperceived ghost I've seen in a while. I'd was starting to think I'd lost the knack. Perhaps the sunshine helped! Maybe ghosts are not restricted to dark, gloomy places after all!

24 March 2011: EVP, ambient noise or context?

Suppose you've held a ghost vigil and you are reviewing sound recordings. These days you might be looking for EVP. Here is a sample for you to listen to that you might have captured. It may sound like noise but if you play it repeatedly you might hear a voice. To me, it sounds like 'hello'. Don't worry if you hear another word or phrase or simply noise. Some people are good at picking these things up, others are not.

Now listen to this sample. You'll probably agree it sounds a lot different. The tone is not the same, for a start. But, if you listen repeatedly to this sample you may pick up another word, just after the main burst of noise. It might be saying 'winter'.

In fact, the first sample is part of the second, longer one. If you listen carefully you should find it right at the end. The difference in tone is because the first sample has been filtered to remove everything over 2000 Hz. It's interesting how the same recording can produce different 'words' depending on which what comes before it! In fact, 'hello' and 'winter' are pretty much exactly the same section of the original recording!

The noise was produced by handling the recorder, which had a built-in microphone, during recording. So the sounds are purely mechanical noise. There was no voice to be heard at the time of recording. This is an experiment anyone with a sound recorder can do.

It is quite easy to produce apparent voices in this way. You just make a recording of ambient noises, like people walking about, creaking floorboards and furniture, handling noises like those here, and so on. Eventually you will come across a section, usually short, where the noise happens to have a rhythm that resembles that of human speech. If you extract that section and play it repeatedly, you might get lucky and put your brain into 'speech mode', where suitable noises are interpreted as human speech. When this happens you will hear 'words' rather than the noise actually present.

The important point is that this effect is enhanced by extracting just the voice-like bit from the sounds around it. By removing this context, your brain may not realise it is listening to ambient noise and be more easily put in 'speech mode'.

I mention all of this because I've just added this example as a new entry to the EVP gallery (experiment 5 sample 11). And also because I was talking about the importance of context earlier this month. It just all seemed to fit together nicely.

PS: BUFORA is holding a conference 'UFOs - The Mysteries, the Myths and the Rumours' on 2 July 2011 in Newcastle. Details and booking here.

23 March 2011: Why I dislike paranormal photos made using film cameras

There is a school of thought among paranormal researchers that film is superior to digital when it comes to analysing weird photos. I disagree and here's why.

The usual reason given to favour film is that you have a negative. While having a negative can show that a print is a fair representation of the original photo, so what? The vast majority of paranormal photos are artifacts produced during the act of taking a shot. And if someone wants to manipulate an image, there were plenty of virtually undetectable techniques available before the days of digital, both during original exposure and in the darkroom.

I think film has two major disadvantages when it comes to analysing paranormal photos. Firstly, digital photos have EXIF data, allowing you to see exposure data that hardly anyone records (by hand!) with film. It is amazing how many people do not notice that their flash has gone off, usually as portrait fill-in. Long exposures are often not noticed either. Both can make a big difference in producing photographic artifacts and are easily detected from EXIF data.

The second problem with film is that there is a whole extra stage involved in producing a print. This process, development of negatives and prints, has a whole set of its own possible problems that can produce photographic artifacts. What's more, many people don't even do their own processing, so their photographic material has to go through a handling process where more pr0blems, like accidental exposure, can occur. It is so much simpler and safer with digital. You take a photo and there it is! You know the full history of the photo from camera to computer.

So, when people ask me to look at their weird film photos, I'm reluctant to do so. There are so many more places for a film photo to 'go wrong' between exposure and final print. What is more, film photos sent by email have to be scanned to get digitised. That's yet another stage for things to go wrong, with issues like resolution, colour reproduction and so on.

My advice to anyone taking photos on paranormal investigations is simple. If you can, use a digital SLR!

PS: For more info on the Seriously Strange conference mentioned yesterday, see here.

22 March 2011: Put 10/11 September in your diaries!

ASSAPToday I remembered, for no special reason, that I had not heard anything new about the ASSAP 30th Anniversary Conference for a while. So, I emailed chairman Dave Wood to ask him what the latest was. Moments later there was an update on facebook, from him, concerning that very event. I emailed Dave back, thinking it was a slightly unusual way to reply to my query, only to hear it was a total coincidence! So, it seems I happened to think about the conference just at the moment when, completely unknown to me, Dave was releasing early details on it. Telepathy? Well, certainly an odd coincidence!

Years ago I suppose we might have been impressed by such a coincidence if it could be shown that two events occured within an hour or two. Nowadays, in the days of electronic communication, a coincidence needs to be within minutes, like this one (which was under 8 minutes!), to be really impressive! It makes you wonder just how close two events should be in time to constitute a remarkable coincidence.

Anyway, the news is that the conference is called Seriously Strange and is happening 10-11 September 2011 at the University of Bath. There are 20 confirmed speakers, so this is a major event in the paranormal calendar! More details will follow shortly! So keep those dates free in your diary!

21 March 2011: Going up!

If the paranormal is really as it appears, a challenge to existing science, that's fantastic! If it isn't, well that's great too! The way I see it, paranormal research is about finding explanations for weird experiences, no matter what their cause. I think there is a distinct possibility that something beyond current science IS required to explain some weird experiences. However, I also recognise, from experience, that most apparently paranormal experiences are actually xenonormal.

However, you don't have to look far to find some people defending certain evidence as paranormal when it can be easily explained by the xenonormal. Many weird effects reported by witnesses are easily reproducible, without using anything that was not there at the time of the original weird observation. Here are just a few examples of things that are hard to defend:

a) orbs - OK not many paranormal researchers still think these are paranormal, given the extensive research that has shown they are out of focus bits of dust, but some still do

b) 'weird' EMF meter readings - even saying that a reading is 'weird' means you know what is normal for a location which requires proper baselines which few people obtain - and an 'unusual' EMF meter reading can be caused by any number of things - see here - anyone checked for three phase interference?

c) untested natural causes - an investigation is finished, the report is written and there are still some 'unexplained' phenomena left but then someone suggests an obvious natural cause for them - unfortunately it is too late to go back and test it - these things happen but instead of accepting that 'unexplained' does not mean 'unexplainable' some people defend their report by saying that they 'would have' spotted such a xenonormal cause at the time, despite having no actual evidence that they looked for, far less eliminated, it

d) going from one example to many - some one eliminates a possible xenonormal cause for an unexplained event in one case and then concludes this must apply in all similar cases in the past - maybe it's true but without evidence that the cause was sought and eliminated it is an assumption too far!

The use of such arguments and methods appears to imply that, because evidence for the paranormal is difficult to collect (something I would not dispute), we must therefore suspend normal scientific standards for data collection. In fact, many sciences have difficulty collecting data, particularly at the leading edge of their subject. They do not, however, decide to lower their standards because of these problems. Instead they think of innovative ways to collect data!

If paranormal research resorts to 'special rules', then it is little wonder that many people, particularly scientists, have little time for the subject. We should be raising standards, not dropping them! While, thankfully, this is happening with parapsychological lab experiments, it is not in field research where there assumption-led methods currently dominate. If we want field paranormal research to be taken seriously we must apply the highest scientific standards we can, within the limitations that inevitably apply to our work. Most of us may be amateurs but it does not mean we should not act like professionals.

18 March 2011: Is there any point to paranormal research?

I'm not a news junkie but there are times, and this is one of them, when I feel compelled to watch the news often. There are momentous events going on around the world at the moment that are difficult to ignore! At times like this you may ask, why do I study the paranormal when there are so many other, seemingly much more important, things happening in the world?

Firstly, if the paranormal is as it appears, beyond current scientific thinking, then its existence has profound consequences for everyone and everything, not least science. Secondly, even if this turns out to be not to be the case, it still raises important questions about perception and belief. For instance, whenever eyewitness evidence is used to justify an important action, I feel anxious, knowing how unreliable it can be. If people can misperceive ghosts, UFOs and monsters, what other things are they seeing which are not as they seem?

Neuroscience has shown that what we experience of the world is an illusion, constructed by our brains from sensory input, memory and expectation. And yet, most people believe what they experience absolutely and without question. Is that a healthy state of affairs? Paranormal research can assist by illustrating such matters graphically. People may scoff at someone who claims to have seen a monster but believe them without question when they positively identify a person who allegedly took part in a major crime. To me, these situations are equivalent but to most people they are poles apart. Many paranormal reports are produced by misperception but some 'normal' ones are too! By studying misperception we can find clues that may tell us how to detect, from witness reports, when it is happening.

So, yes, paranormal research IS important, whether the paranormal is real or not. So I make no apologies for taking it seriously, just as I do the news.

17 March 2011: Still going after all these years

In a few weeks time ASSAP will be 30 years old! On 10 June 1981 ASSAP was officially started. As a founder member I was at that meeting, though I cannot remember anything about it! What I DO recall is that things were very different in our subject in those days. The past is indeed a foreign country!

ASSAP's formation was big news in the field at the time. There were far fewer groups and people involved in anomaly research then. The foundation of a new national society was a big event! I suspect that now hardly a week passes without a new ghost hunting group forming.

When ASSAP started, the idea of studying a range of anomalous subjects was still quite novel. Now, of course, it is commonplace. There were already obvious signs of connections between various subjects. For instance, UFO witnesses often had a history of psychic experiences. Nowadays we can appreciate that people can misperceive or hallucinate almost anything. Whether it is interpreted as a ghost, lake monster or UFO is largely down to the circumstances of the observation. And that is just one of the more obvious connections between anomalous subjects!

It was, of course, long before the current 'ghost hunting boom' so attitudes towards hauntings were much more diverse among paranormal investigators. Many people favoured the idea of ghosts as recordings. Not many investigators thought that ghosts were spirits because the evidence from cases did not really support the idea. Even poltergeists were seen as more likely to be unconscious PK produced by a person present rather than a spirit. In some cases, of course, poltergeist activity was found to be produced entirely consciously by people present - hoaxed, in other words!

There was a feeling in the early 1980s that, after a century or so of serious paranormal research, we might finally be on the verge of major progress in the subject! Thirty years later I recognise that this is a feeling common to the young and those new to the subject! Experience has shown otherwise! We certainly never anticipated a reversion to widespread Victorian spirit ideas of ghost research in the twenty-first century!

Luckily, in parallel with the ghost hunting boom, and its associated assumption-led methods, there have been a small group of people doing long term serious scientific research. Many of these people have been doing their research since the early days of ASSAP. Sadly, in recent years, people who might have been attracted to the serious end of the the subject, have instead been distracted into by the ghost hunting boom. If they eventually want something a little more serious and look for like-minded individuals, ASSAP can act as a meeting point.

It is, of course, always a temptation to jump on a bandwagon. It is easier to resist if there is an alternative around. That makes me think that, if ASSAP has achieved anything useful in 30 years, it has been to consistently support serious research!

15 March 2011: Atlantis real after all?

There have been many books and articles written to explain the legend of Atlantis. Its position, supposedly in the Atlantic Ocean beyond the Pillars of Hercules, and its demise in a single day and night are difficult to reconcile with our current understanding of geology. Many people take the position that the legend needs to be interpreted in a less literal sense and have suggested real locations over a huge area. But recently old landscapes, previously obviously above sea levels (indicated by the presence of river valleys), have been discovered deep under the North Sea between Scotland and Iceland!

There is an article about these remarkable findings in this week's New Scientist. The landscapes are not on the ocean floor but below it, under 2km of sediment. It seems that 55 million years ago, an area of sea floor was thrust upwards for a kilometre, high enough to form an island. Then, a million years later, it dropped once again to the sea floor. And it appears that such 'sudden', by geological standards, events could have happened all over the world, particularly near continental plate boundaries.

There is a continental plate boundary in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There is also one that stretches from mid Atlantic to the Pillars of Hercules (modern Straits of Gibraltar). So it is conceivable that there is an area of land, once above sea level but now buried under sediment, somewhere in the Atlantic not far west of Gibraltar. It is highly unlikely that it would have sunk in one day but there could have been sudden catastrophic episodes, enough to destroy any human population, while the land slowly sank.

This new discovery of lands that can rise and fall in the blink of an eye, in geologic terms, could revive the idea that the Atlantis legend could actually be taken in more literal terms than previously thought!

By coincidence, there has recently been a new claim that Atlantis was a city in Spain that sunk under a marsh! See here for more details!

14 March 2011: Instruments and people - tests for the paranormal?

One of the 'tests' frequently used to see if an event might be paranormal is if something is only noticed for the first time on a recording. For instance, a defining characteristic of EVP is that it appears on a sound recording despite not having been heard at the time. Or a figure in a photo may be seen as a ghost if they was not noticed when the photo was taken. Similarly, orbs and flying rods only appear in photos or videos, having not been noticed during recording.

For some people, this apparent ability of instruments to pick up what we cannot marks out a phenomenon as paranormal. This might be put down to instruments having extra sensitivity compared to humans though, in fact, for consumer sound recorders or cameras this is hardly ever the case.

The problem is that such phenomena usually turn out to be artifacts of the way the instrument works and, specifically, how it varies from human senses. With orbs it is about a nearby object, like a dust particle, being out of focus (we hardly ever see things out of focus with the human eye). With flying rods it is motion blur (which humans only see with the naked eye in rare circumstances). And with EVP recordings, the recorder may simply be closer to the source of a faint noise or nearby people may simply not be paying attention at the time.

Instruments act differently to human senses. In particular, they generally record everything within their sensitivity range. By contrast, humans only notice one or two things at a time and automatically block out background noise after getting used to it. So, it it inevitable that instruments will pick up things we do not.

So the idea that if something is recorded but not noticed at the time it must be paranormal is not really a good test. Nor is it a good test if we experience something that instruments fail to pick up. Instruments do not misperceive or have near sleep experiences, so it inevitable that we will sometimes experience things that cannot be objectively recorded.

The problem arises because people tend to regard both themselves and instruments as objective recorders of their surroundings. For instruments this is closer to the truth but there are still artifacts produced by the way they work. For humans it is much further from the truth. Lots of factors affect how we experience the world and we miss much of what is going on around us.

So these 'tests' of paranormality, revolving around differences between human and instrument perception, are not particularly helpful. It is always worth investigating such cases but most of the time natural causes can be found to be responsible.

11 March 2011: Dreaming of ghost vigils

Recently I dreamed I was out at night, unable to get home. It reminded of that feeling you get on ghost vigils after a while, when you finally stop thinking something exciting will happen at any second. It is a feeling of fatigue and poor concentration due to sleep deprivation (most ghost vigils being held overnight).

OK, here comes yet another admission. I've sometimes nodded off briefly during long overnight ghost vigils! This is yet another problem with dark vigils. The lack of sensory stimulation added to tiredness and lack of much happening can soon overpower you. Such quick involuntary naps might not even be noticed by other participants in the dark.

There are two obvious important problems that such naps create. Firstly, the napper will miss things that other people present notice. If several report hearing a loud, obvious noise it might appear paranormal when the napper hears nothing. The other problem is that nappers might enter a REM state and start dreaming. In normal sleep, it takes a while for dreaming to start after someone nods off. But these are not normal conditions. So you might get the napper reporting something weird that no one else notices when it is, in fact, a near-sleep or dream experience. Again, the discrepancy between witness testimony could be taken as a sign of the event being paranormal when it is not.

Nodding off is a lot less likely on a lit vigil. Anyone who does nod off is likely to be quickly woken up when other participants notice. You really have to wonder why anyone ever does a dark vigil for ghosts given the many serious downsides.

9 March 2011: What you see depends on what you've seen before

The neuroscience discovery that perception depends on previous life experience can be hard to appreciate. It implies that we may all perceive slightly differently, depending on our life history. Does it mean that one person sees a fish pond or cheese grater differently to the next person? In reality, since most people of the people we meet in everyday life share very similar life histories, compared to someone from an Amazon tribe for instance, it might be true but make little practical difference.

One field where it DOES make a difference is in paranormal research. That's because most people witnessing something weird are generally seeing something they don't recognise. Or, if they have regular strange experiences, they are witnessing something they recognise as paranormal, even if it is a misperception.

I see the idea of perception relying on past experience regularly, when examining paranormal photos. People frequently report seeing faces or human figures in photos when they are not at all obvious to me. I think this is because I see the bush, or whatever, because I spend a lot of time taking photos of things like bushes and examining them carefully. Others see a face, partly because of an in-built human tendency to see faces in random shapes but also because they don't immediately recognise the bush for what it is. I should explain that these objects, like bushes, are usually badly blurred or out of focus or very distant and small in the photo. If the bush was obvious for everyone to see, I doubt anyone would see it as a face! As I've commented before, paranormal photos usually have problems photographically - they are the ones most photographers would instantly throw away.

But even blurred or badly out of focus bushes are still recognisable as bushes to those, like me, who are used to examining photos closely. To someone not used to such blurred images, their indistinct shapes can sometimes suggest other more familiar objects. Faces and human figures are popular simply because we have an in-built tendency to seek such shapes out when viewing any scene. Look at a landscape picture and you'll pick out any human figures present almost immediately while bushes will be way down the pecking order of things you notice.

The lesson for paranormal researchers is this - don't expect to see exactly what paranormal witnesses see or report! If you were lucky enough to be standing next to a witness as they saw a ghost or UFO, you may see something quite different, depending on your life experience. I think this may be why few paranormal researchers ever see ghosts or other phenomena. Because they are used to wandering around spooky places at night, they recognise naturally caused odd lights or shadows that others may report as ghosts. Sadly, it means many ghost researchers are doomed never to see a ghost, unless a genuinely paranormal one crosses their path! Here's hoping!

8 March 2011: Yes, but ...

Imagine you're listening to someone's account of a weird experience. As the story unfolds you realise there is nothing in that conflicts with misperception as a likely explanation. You tentatively suggest misperception as a possibility to consider. 'Yes, but ...' starts the reply. You are then told something about the experience, not previously mentioned, that blows misperception decisively out of the water.

Chastened, you start to consider other possibilities. But hang on! There is only one 'awkward fact' between the weird experience and an otherwise closely fitting misperception explanation. Do you continue to think about other, less likely possible explanations, or take a closer look at that single 'awkward fact'?

Firstly, the 'awkward fact' is not really a fact at all. It is simply one part of an account drawn from witness testimony. That means it is subject to all the many problems of such testimony (see here), from hallucination to confabulation. The 'awkward fact' is no stronger a piece of evidence than the rest of the account. The difference is that the rest of the account all points consistently to a particular explanation. It is certainly worth testing that solitary 'awkward fact' to see how it stands up to critical analysis. It many cases it will be found wanting.

But surely anomaly research is all about 'awkward facts', you may say. If we test them all to destruction, where does that leave anomaly research? This is a good argument - many great discoveries have started with 'awkward facts'. On the other hand, if you always dismiss ideas because of 'awkward facts', you might be missing a consistent picture simply because of a single poor observation. A balance needs to be struck between these extremes.

If the 'awkward fact' survives a grueling analysis, so be it. You will have to consider other ideas. But frequently the 'awkward fact' is accepted too easily by people used to anomaly research. It can leave an account labeled 'mysterious' or 'unexplained' when there is, in fact, a perfectly simple explanation for it. Always test 'awkward facts' hard to see just how strong they are really.

7 March 2011: Whodunit?

When I was young, I preferred ghost stories to detective stories. Now it's the other way round, despite my ongoing consuming interest in ghosts.

The appeal of detective stories has changed for me as I've got older. Initially it was all about who committed the crime. Nowadays that bit of it barely registers. I don't care whodunit, I'm much more interested in the character of the detective and the way they solve the crime. I realise that the way fictional detectives are portrayed is often scarcely realistic. How long do you suppose a maverick, persistently rule-breaking cop with severe personal problems would really last in a modern police force? Nevertheless, I admire the unlikely way in which the crimes are solved, where insight and imagination always win out over footslog and computer databases.

Most ghost stories are, by contrast, a bit dull. It's not just the fact that they bear little relation to real life ghost cases. As I've mentioned, nor do most detective stories. The problem for me is this - what is the point of the ghost in the story at all? Most ghost stories are essentially mysteries, little different to a detective story, which just happen to involve a paranormal element. In many cases you could easily substitute, say, an old diary for the ghost. It could easily provide all the necessary clues to drive the plot forward without any need for strange knocks in the night. To me, most ghost stories are essentially detective stories, but without the detective. And, as I've said, since it is the detective and their methods that I find interesting, that doesn't leave much to hold my attention.

4 March 2011: It all about context!

Suppose someone shows you a digital photo of a ghost. The picture has been closely cropped and is heavily compressed but at least you know where the ghost is because someone has helpfully circled it. Would it convince you? Now suppose someone plays you a recording, ostensibly of a spirit voice. The recording sounds tinny and unnatural but there is undoubtedly a voice-like quality to it. And just to make sure you understand it, a very real voice comes on just before and tells you exactly what words you are supposed to hear. Would that convince you?

If, in the first example above you had, instead, the original unedited ghost photo, the 'apparition' could look less convincing. And if you had a series of photos, or a video, of the same scene taken at the same time, it might become obvious that the 'ghost' wasn't at all what it appeared.

And if, in the second example, you had a much longer version of the original sound recording, or even a video, the 'voice' might appear more like some heavily edited background noise.

These may be extreme examples but a lot of evidence of the paranormal is presented in ways that lack important context. This is why even a minor report of the paranormal needs to be thoroughly investigated and full recordings and notes should always be kept and made available for those who want to judge for themselves. Indeed, the whole point of paranormal investigation is to recreate the original context of a report as closely as possible. Only in that way can natural causes be satisfactorily eliminated.

3 March 2011: First time witnesses

According to a recent survey, a quarter of adults in the UK have had a ghostly experience. That's around 12 million people! So why aren't we knee deep in ghost reports? It's because most of these people have probably only had one experience in their lifetime. This is backed up the everyday experience that, if you ask around among your friends, you'll generally find most have had one weird experience in their lives but few people have repeat ghostly experiences.

This means that most ghost reports are likely to be from first time witnesses. So what, you might ask? Well, if you've seen something weird before, or if you are a trained observer, you know what to do when you see something unusual. You might, for instance, check out the area to see if there could be an obvious natural explanation. If you have a camera you would obviously take as many photos as possible. If you have a notebook, or even a mobile phone, you could take as many notes as possible.

You would do these things because we know that we can only pay attention to one thing at a time, so if you're seeing what you think is a ghost, you will probably miss something else going on that provides a clue to a possible natural explanation. Also, our memory of events will change and fade over time so documenting the incident and scene as quickly as possible can help to save as much accurate information as possible. Lastly, things change at any location over time, so by looking for possible natural explanations as soon as possible you can catch anything that might only be temporary. By the time a paranormal investigator turns up to have a look, the cause of the incident might have gone!

Now obviously, someone who has never witnessed anything weird before is unlikely to do any of those things. Instead, they may well be shocked and perhaps not remember much at all. This means that a lot of vital information about the incident will be lost straight away. This probably explains why so many ghost reports are difficult to explain. It's not so much because of their extraordinary nature as that so much vital information is simply missing to start with.

1 March 2011: Do ghosts need a new story?

Orange UFOI've recently heard that they don't make as many TV documentaries as they used to. Some of the 'slack' is taken up by increasing numbers of movie documentaries. But there are also docudramas, where factual information is dramatised to get it across. I admit I prefer these to conventional documentaries. It is easier to understand a novel concept if you are seeing it through the eyes of a sympathetic character than simply hearing someone being interviewed about it.

Stories have always been used to pass on useful information. People who memorise difficult bits of information, like the order of cards in a randomly shuffled deck, often use the technique of stories to remember. As well as recall, drama can also help us understand novel concepts in the first place. When we sympathise with a character in a story, we experience things as if we were them. And experiencing a thing is always a much better way to understand it than simply being told about it. Indeed, it is personal experience of life that can make the unfamiliar appear paranormal, even when it is just xenonormal.

When you explain to people that most ghost sightings are caused by misperception and various forms of near sleep experience, you can almost see their eyes glaze over! Most people see ghosts as characters in real life stories, not artifacts of perception. It is therefore not surprising that people think ghosts are spirits even though the evidence from actual ghost cases does not tend to support the idea.

Perhaps what is needed is a 'story', or 'narrative' as they say these days, to put across the way real ghosts behave. We need something to compete with the idea of ghosts as autonomous characters. If anyone has any ideas, I'm open to suggestions!

The lowest photo on this page shows an orange UFO videoed recently. The full story is here.

For a review of paranormal research in the noughties, see here.

Last month's (February) website figures are an average of 8248 hits per day. This is around the same as the previous month's 8373 daily average.

ASSAP

Previous blog pages ...

  • Feb 2011 (including predicting the future, ghost bird, time slip, weird floor, what do we really know about paranormal)
  • Jan 2011 (including the ghost hunting boom, orange UFO, EVP experiment, extreme normality)
  • Dec 2010 (including microsleeps and road ghosts, shadow ghost in snow, lack of ghosts in photos, anthropomorphism)
  • Nov 2010 (including EMF meters, auras, evidence for precognition, sensitisation, the ghost hunting boom)
  • Oct 2010 (including black orbs, UnConvention, mirror visions, levitation, flying rods and orbs)
  • Sep 2010 (including a ring tone from the roof, shadow ghost video, time slip explanation, daylight orb video)
  • Aug 2010 (including Parisian UFO, sense of presence, SLI, consulting experts, misperception)
  • Jul 2010 (including Sherlock Holmes as a paranormal investigator, haunting sounds, what ARE hallucinations)
  • Jun 2010 (including the Loch Ness Monster, gorilla video, getting ghost stories the wrong way round)
  • May 2010 (including ball lightning, Wem ghost photo, waking up twice, eyewitnesses, Robin Hood)
  • Apr 2010 (including causes of road ghosts, new orb evidence, bird UFOs, UFO photo, not quite seeing is believing)
  • Mar 2010 (including experiencing hypnagogia, consciousness, belief, prolonged misperception, doppelganger)
  • Feb 2010 (including visual continuity errors - AKA ghosts, near sleep experiences on trains, spontaneous OOBEs)
  • Jan 2010 (including intelligent oil, SLI, inducing OOBEs, orange UFOs, the bleak midwinter)
  • Dec 2009 (including review of research in the noughties, pretty orbs, imperceptions, river monster)
  • Nov 2009 (including EVP without a recorder, demons and entities, why only some people see ghosts)
  • Oct 2009 (including grey ghost, near sleep experiences, a triangular UFO and seeing David Beckham)
  • Sep 2009 (including latent memory, Tufted Puffin, Bermuda Triangle and garden poltergeist)
  • Aug 2009 (including official UFO files, partial ghosts, flying rods and miracles)
  • Jul 2009 (including garden poltergeist, big cat video, orbs and hypnotic regression)
  • Jun 2009 (including thoughts from nowhere, shadow ghosts, premonitions and metallic UFO)
  • May 2009 (including analysing paranormal photos, making ghosts and ghost lore)
  • Apr 2009 (including phantom bird, choice blindness and grass that gets up and walks away)
  • Mar 2009 (including deja vu, ghostly mists, weird UFO photo, white ghosts and naked eye orbs)
  • Feb 2009 (including hidden memories, coincidences, auras and window UFOs)
  • Jan 2009 (including animals sensing ghosts, vampires, flying rod season and a haunted path)
  • Dec 2008
  • Nov 2008
  • Oct 2008
  • Sep 2008
  • Aug 2008
  • July 2008
  • June 2008
  • May 2008
  • April 2008
  • March 2008
  • February 2008
  • January 2008
  • December 2007
  • November 2007
  • October 2007
  • Even older

© Maurice Townsend 2011