ASSAP: Paranormal Research
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Assumption-led investigations

A lot of current ghost research is 'assumption-led'. In other words, investigators start with certain assumptions, like 'ghosts are spirits', and then seek evidence to confirm that assumption. This is circular logic and not the way science works. In science, you start by collecting evidence in a neutral way, ensuring it is accurate, and then using it to form theories that explain the evidence. These theories are then tested to see if they are correct.

While assumption-led ghost research is currently popular, it has not produced any obvious breakthroughs in ghost research. Instead, ideas about the nature of ghosts have not moved forward from the initial assumptions used. It would seem that either the assumptions are indeed correct, or the research isn't leading anywhere. Given the lack of evidence, from neutral investigations, supporting the assumptions it would appear that the latter is right.

Here are some of the techniques commonly used in assumption-led ghost research:

Use of mediums assumes that mediums can contact ghosts
calling out assumes ghosts can hear and react
baselines at start of vigil assumes instrumental readings at the start of a vigil are 'normal'
taking orb photos assumes orbs are paranormal and associated with ghosts
using Ouija, seances assumes ghosts can be contacted by these methods
EMF meters to detect ghosts assumes ghosts can be detected by EMF meters
dowsing for ghosts assumes ghosts can be dowsed
researching former inhabitants assumes ghosts are former inhabitants of haunted site
vigils in graveyards assumes ghosts are more common in graveyards than elsewhere
trying to record EVP assumes ghosts can be contacted with EVP
using instruments to ask questions assumes ghosts can manipulate devices like torches, EMF meters, etc
holding vigils in the dark assumes ghosts are easier to detect in the dark

Some, or all, of these assumptions might be true, however there is little or no evidence from neutral, non-assumption-led ghost investigations to support them. Though mediumship, Ouija, seances, orbs, etc., are all subjects well worthy of research in their own right (and ASSAP does so), they can be studied anywhere, anytime. Indeed, they are far better studied individually, in properly controlled circumstances, when all the variables can be monitored. Introducing them into a haunting investigation merely adds a whole stack of unknown variables making any meaningful analysis impossible.

Importantly, all these assumption-led methods can produce apparently positive results in ANY location, haunted or otherwise. So seances, EVP recordings, orb photography and so on can be done anywhere. EMF meter readings can vary from a baseline in any building. Many un-haunted locations have interesting histories that may suggest events commonly thought to lead to ghosts. You could hold a vigil in a completely un-haunted location and get much the same results as in a haunted one. Even in combination they do not indicate the presence of a haunting or ghost.

Ghost vigilThe use of assumption-led techniques increases the likelihood of suggestion as a factor generating spurious evidence. If people are expecting to contact a ghost, as the use of some of these techniques implies, then they are more likely to accept random events as a positive response. The fact that the investigators usually know the results of previous investigations at the site further also increases the importance of suggestion.

So why are these questionable methods used at all? The reason almost certainly stems from the central implicit assumption that 'ghosts are spirits'. In fact, in most cases of haunting, no actual apparition is witnessed. Though odd sounds, object movement, etc. are commonly reported by casual (ie. not involved in the investigation) witnesses , there is no obvious evidence that implicates the involvement of 'spirits' at all. Most, if not all, of the symptoms reported by such initial witnesses have several alternative explanations. Even in cases where an apparition is seen, it usually does not appear to react to its surroundings or anyone present. This does not fit well with the idea of a 'spirit' actively haunting a location. Thus, taking the results of neutrally investigated cases over many decades, they don't offer strong support to the idea that a 'spirit' might be involved. So, it isn't even clear that ghosts are always associated with hauntings.

The concept that ghost are 'spirits' appears to be largely a cultural phenomenon. It is a widespread belief among the public, probably spread largely through fiction and media coverage rather than as the result of real life haunting cases. The popularity of the idea is probably why TV producers use assumption-led methods in their ghost hunting shows. It is what the public expects!

Some investigators have suggested, as an alternative to 'spirits', that ghosts might be a sort of 'replay' of a 'recording' of a scene from the past. However, even this 'stone tape' theory is questionable when examined against the evidence. The fact is, we don't really know what causes hauntings or what ghosts are. Unfortunately, assumption-led investigation methods are not bringing us any closer to answering these questions.

Evidence-based investigations

Luckily, there is an alternative to assumption-led investigation of ghosts. It was widely used before the TV ghost hunting shows and deserves to be more widely adopted once again. The approach is a more scientific, neutral, evidence-based method. Evidence-based investigations start with no assumptions as to what a ghost is or what may be causing a haunting. So, how does it work?

For a start there is no assumption that a haunting is associated with a ghost. If no apparition has been seen, what you have is a series of unusual events associated with a particular location. The first important question to be answered is - is a particular site even haunted?

The best way to decide if a site is haunted is to interview first-hand, casual, independent witnesses. In this case 'casual' means that the event witnessed was unexpected - the witness did not visit the site in the hope of experiencing paranormal activity. Being 'independent' means that the witness has not been in contact with other witnesses and is unaware of any reputation the site may have for being haunted. If two or more apparently reliable witnesses can be found for a single site, it is a reasonable basis for thinking that there might be a haunting. Obviously, if the accounts share similar features, that further strengthens the idea that there is something going on that requires explanation. You should note that the mere fact that somewhere has a reputation for being haunted, or that it has been featured on TV, is no guarantee of anything!

Having established that a site is probably haunted, the next stage is to record and/or explain the phenomena reported by the witnesses. It is not assumed that all the reported phenomena have natural explanations, but the possibility should be vigorously tested in every case. It is entirely possible that a particular haunting may actually consist of a series of unconnected unusual events, all with natural causes (see xenonormal). The only connection may be in the minds of the witnesses who believe the events to be caused by ghosts.

In assumption-led investigations, 'new' phenomena (ie. not previously reported by initial witnesses) are often reported during vigils . However, many of these may be the result of the assumption-led techniques used, rather than anything to do with the actual haunting on site. Such reports may be completely irrelevant to the haunting and may, as a consequence, make it more difficult to explain.

If 'new' phenomena are recorded on a neutral, evidence-led investigation, they are much more likely to be related to the actual haunting. That's because they were recorded, by witnesses or instruments, without any assumption-led techniques. It is crucial, in scientific ghost research, that instrumentation (and particularly its limitations) be understood by those operating it and interpreting results. In addition, the limitations of witness testimony also need to be understood. Provided such precautions have been observed, it perfectly legitimate to assume that 'new' phenomena recorded on vigils are relevant to the haunting.

Neutral, evidence-led investigations seek to explain observations by casual observers that have been attributed to a haunting. They offer the possibility of supplying real answers to the question of what is the cause of weird goings-on in someone's house. They may also take us forward in explaining what hauntings and ghosts are.

© Maurice Townsend 2008, 2010, 2012