ASSAP: Paranormal Research
ASSAP: Paranormal Education
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There are certain misconceptions about paranormal and anomaly research that have gained widespread currency, even though there is little or no compelling evidence to back them up. Since the same misconceptions come up again and again, it makes sense to list them in one central place. The list will be added to from time to time.

Here is a list of just a few of the commoner misconceptions, along with reasons why they are wrong.

EMF meter misconceptions

Popular misconception: EMF meters can detect EIFS.
The reality: EIFs are experience inducing fields. They are a particular kind of complex, varying weak magnetic fields that have been shown in the laboratory to induce magnetic hallucinations, resembling such things as ghosts. The vast majority of EMF meters are incapable of detecting EIFs because they cannot distinguish EIFs from other common sources of electromagnetic fields. This is because they don't capture relevant frequency information. See here for more.

Popular misconception: EMF meters can detect ghosts.
The reality: There is no compelling evidence that this is true. There are one or two anecdotes around about but they are extremely vague, severely lacking in relevant details and often a source. What is needed is a proper study showing consistent EMF meter reading changes while people are actually seeing ghosts. Not only is there no such study, at present, but there are good theoretical reasons (such as their inability to distinguish between different sources of electromagnetic fields) for thinking an EMF meter could never act as a ghost detector. See here for more.

Ghost misconceptions

Popular misconception: Ghosts are spirits. Or hallucinations. Or misperceptions. Or telepathy. Or 'recordings'. And so on.
The reality: The most popular idea is that ghosts are spirits. People also often debate whether ghosts might be hallucinations, misperception, telepathy, 'recordings' or lots of other possibilities. However, the evidence from careful investigation of ghost cases shows that different ghost sightings actually have different causes.

Ghosts (which can be practically defined as is 'human - sometimes animal - figures, witnessed by someone, which cannot be physically present') are a 'multiple cause phenomenon', with quite different explanations resulting in similar sightings! Some ghost sightings are caused by hallucination, many others by misperception, some by coincidence and so on. This explains how ghosts can apparently have quite different characteristics in different cases. A witness may apparently interact with a ghost when it is caused by hallucination but this won't happen with one caused by misperception. Oddly enough, given popular ideas about ghosts, there is little, if any, evidence that they are spirits. Most ghost sightings, when carefully investigated, prove to be caused by misperception or hallucination.

The problem with looking for a single explanation for all ghost sightings is that the evidence is, overall, highly contradictory. This makes it impossible to come up with a testable theory that would explain all the evidence. But when different explanations are considered for different sightings, it soon becomes obvious that the term 'ghost' actually covers a whole group of phenomena that all result in someone seeing a human figure! The reason why ghosts are often considered a single phenomenon appears to be due to the strong cultural meme that sees ghosts as spirits.

Popular misconception: Ghosts haunt!
The reality: In the narrow dictionary sense, a ghost does indeed 'haunt'. But the phenomena reported as hauntings are somewhat different. A haunting is a series of unexplained strange incidents generally associated with a particular physical location. Though these are commonly attributed to the actions of a ghost, there is often little evidence for this. In many cases no apparition is ever seen. Further, when apparitions ARE seen, they are not doing the things reported in the haunting, like moving objects, knocking on walls and so on. The idea that there are invisible ghosts causing hauntings is an assumption rather than something supported by compelling evidence. Many of the odd things that occur in a haunting case are often found, on investigation, to have different, unrelated causes. Ghosts are also frequently sighted where there are no associated haunting phenomena. See here for more.

A widely noticed, but rarely discussed, feature of hauntings brings yet further doubt to the idea that ghosts cause hauntings. As everyone who has ever organized a ghost vigil knows, strange phenomena are not evenly spread through a haunted location but occur at particular hot spots. Other areas produce no reports of strange activity. Furthermore, these hot spots usually have the same phenomena happen each time they are observed. So footsteps might be heard in one room, but never in others, and objects may move solely in a kitchen. it is difficult to reconcile these hot spots with the idea of a ghost moving freely around and purposefully 'haunting' a property. See here for more.

Popular misconception: Most ghosts are invisible most of the time
The reality: This is such a widely held assumption that it seems odd that it is not apparently supported by compelling evidence. Here is a summary of where the evidence ought to be: (a) witnesses often see ghosts vanish - this could be accounted for with sightings caused by misperception or hallucination, as many are; (b) witnesses sometimes report seeing partial or (very rarely) transparent ghosts - these, too, could be accounted for by misperception or hallucination; (c) haunt phenomena - see 'ghosts haunt' above; (d) there are photos showing figures that were not seen by the photographer at the time of exposure - but see here; (e) there are photos showing transparent figures - but see here.

The evidence shows that ghosts are a 'multiple cause phenomenon'. It is therefore difficult to generalize about the characteristics of all ghosts. This may explain why it is so difficult to pin even one consistent property - that they are mostly invisible - on them.

Paranormal investigation misconceptions

Popular misconception: Witness testimony is generally reliable and accurate.
The reality: We all tend to feel that what we personally experience and remember is an accurate representation of reality. However, research shows this not to be the case. Right from the moment of perception, what we experience is only an approximation of real physical reality. Indeed our brains offer us the edited highlights of what our eyes actually see. And after the experience, our memories fade and alter over time. See here for experiments involving people witnessing unexpected events.

Popular misconception: Witness testimony, being anecdotal, is of no value
The reality: While, as discussed in the previous point, witness testimony is not generally very accurate, it does not follow that it has no value. When someone reports a mundane, trivial incident they are highly likely to be believed. However, they are no more nor less likely to be accurate than if they reported something extraordinary (when they may not be so readily believed). The difference is, thus, due to what is being reported rather than the witness themselves. In every case, when someone witnesses something there is an explanation, whether it is an external objective event or an internal subjective one. To dismiss all reports of the extraordinary as 'imagination' or 'made up', particularly when multiple reports show common elements, is thus clearly not a credible position. On investigation, few such 'extraordinary' reports are easily dismissed. In many cases the witness has an objective experience but with subjective elements - in other words they misperceive something perfectly real as something else, which isn't. Misperception happens all the time as part of our normal sensory perception, it is simply rarely noticed. Just occasionally it produces something apparently extraordinary. Thus, there is nothing 'wrong' with the witness, nor their report. They have had a perfectly valid experience, no more nor less real than ones we all have all the time. The fact that many paranormal reports contain common elements points to a valid experience worthy of study. Even misperception involves an objective external sensory stimulus.

Popular misconception: Investigators can never get at the truth of an incident because they weren't there.
The reality: While investigators who are not present at an incident will never experience what the witness did, it does not follow that they cannot explain the observation. Investigators can use techniques, like cognitive interviewing, to obtain as much accurate detail as possible from witnesses. In addition, they can examine the area where the incident occurred to look for evidence that might explain the witness report (see here for instance). Most importantly, they can use their knowledge of many similar incidents to reconstruct how a reported event may have happened.

Popular misconception: Science cannot be used to investigate the paranormal.
The reality: Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the paranormal involves forces and effects beyond the current state of science to detect or measure, as some claim. The fact that we receive reports of the paranormal shows that, at some point, these paranormal effects must somehow impinge on the ordinary world. If they did not, we could not experience them. And if an effect occurs in the ordinary physical world, even if it is only a subjective experience in someone's brain, it must be measurable by science. So, even if we cannot measure the paranormal itself, we can measure its effects. So, it follows that science IS an appropriate tool to study the paranormal, no matter what its origin. See here for more.

Paranormal photo misconceptions

Popular misconception: Most paranormal photos are fakes.
The reality: Most apparently paranormal photos do not show anything paranormal. However, only a tiny minority are deliberately faked. The vast majority are photographic artefacts like orbs. The number of fakes may have increased lately, due to the ease with which smart phones can produce 'ghost photos' very easily through 'apps', but they still form only a small minority of the hundreds examined by ASSAP. Whether there are any genuinely paranormal photos out there remains debatable.

Popular misconception: Orbs are caused by bits of dust.
The reality: Most orbs are indeed caused by bits of dust (watch dust turn into orbs here), as well as insects, water droplets and other small objects. However, the crucial missing part of this explanation is that all these objects are actually OUT OF FOCUS. This fact explains such defining aspect of orbs as their characteristic circular (or sometimes diamond) shape. The idea is expanded in the orb zone theory which has been tested and explains known characteristics of orbs in detail.

Popular misconception: Some orbs are caused of moisture.
The reality: Some orbs are caused by water droplets. It might seem like nit-picking but 'moisture' implies water vapour, which is a gaseous form of water that is invisible and so cannot form orbs. To form orbs, an object must be able to reflect light, which water vapour cannot. Water droplets by contrast, in the form of rain drops (where it can form tails) or mist or fog, DO reflect light.

Popular misconception: A tiny percentage of orbs really are paranormal.
The reality: This could be true except that (a) there is no current compelling evidence for it and (b) no current consistent way of distinguishing 'ordinary' orbs from supposed paranormal ones. There have been many objections made to the naturalistic interpretation of orbs. They have, however, been thoroughly investigated and are dealt with here.


© Maurice Townsend 2011, 2012