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One I missed during the week, what with all the Darklore fuss: as part of a Halloween posting, our good friend Alan Boyle – MSNBC science editor and writer of the most excellent Cosmic Log – explored “The Science of Spooks“. It’s a great post because it covers a lot of the ground we cover here on TDG, with links to further reading material. However, I do feel the need to call Alan on a couple of his statements.

Firstly, Alan notes the efforts of William James and the SPR to find evidence of an afterlife. Alan concludes that “[t]heir efforts ultimately fizzled out, draining their credibility in the process.” I think this statement, without clarification, gives the wrong message – the “fizzling out” and “credibility” issues were not due to the group not finding evidence – far from it, nearly all of these top scientists became convinced by the evidence they witnessed – but were instead from orthodox (some might say physicalist) science resistance to accepting the results.

Secondly, Alan mentions Professor Richard Wiseman as having “investigated (and ultimately debunked) the case of the Hampton Court haunting.” Now while Richard Wiseman’s comments to the popular press seem to reflect this as being the case, I have more difficulty finding these conclusions in his actual scientific papers (this misrepresentation to the media has not been an uncommon occurence with Professor Wiseman). For instance, here are excerpts from the conclusion to the paper on the Hampton Court haunting:

…Hampton Court Palace has a considerable reputation for being haunted. The results of this experiment suggest that this reputation is understandable, given that such a high percentage of participants reported experiencing unusual phenomena when walking through two allegedly haunted areas of the Palace. The experiment provided no support for the notion that the experiences could be explained by suggestion alone, and only modest evidence that magnetic fields caused the experiences. However, clearly believers tended to report significantly more experiences than disbelievers, and those reports tended to cluster or focus in certain areas…future studies need to examine the extent to which these findings generalise to other buildings that do, and do not, have a similar reputation for being haunted. This work also needs to investigate other mechanisms that may cause believers to report more experiences than disbelievers, and why people report phenomena in some areas, but not in others. Until such work provides clear-cut conclusions, the explanation of the ‘ghostly’ activity at Hampton Court Palace, and other allegedly haunted buildings, is likely to remain something of a mystery.

Not exactly a debunking, in my opinion. In another paper on the Hampton Court Haunting, Wiseman and colleagues firstly mention that “these empirical findings validate several characteristics of spontaneous haunt experiences suggested by anecdotal reports”, and then go on to conclude:

Both experiments have demonstrated that the reputation of these locations is not based upon questionable eyewitness testimony, nor can the distribution of the experiences within the sites be explained bywitnesses’ prior knowledge. Instead, the data strongly support the notion that people consistently report unusual experiences in ‘haunted’ areas because of environmental factors, which may differ across locations. Further, our experiments have started to identify some of these factors, including the variance of local magnetic fields, size of location and lighting levels — stimuli of which witnesses may not be consciously aware. Taken together, these findings strongly suggest that these alleged hauntings do not represent evidence for ‘ghostly’ activity, but are instead the result of people responding—perhaps unwittingly—to ‘normal’ factors in their surroundings.

Now, I would like to point out that I am not saying Wiseman and colleagues are wrong. I’m extremely interested in the topic of magnetic fields and their relationship to paranormal events (from hauntings through to UFO sightings). But, firstly, Wiseman’s study certainly did not “debunk” the haunting. Secondly, there is a flaw in the conclusion, and it is one that I repeat often here on TDG. The paper claims to have identified factors that cause the events, when in actual fact all they may have done at this point is found a correlation. Just because there is a magnetic field variance present, does not mean it is ‘causative’. It could, instead, be ‘conducive’ to certain events happening, or it could be a ‘symptom’ of events happening. The mistake is in thinking from a physicalist position, rather than a truly objective position.

And that’s my soapbox lecture for today…