Science and Skepticism

Believing in Ghosts: Science and Skepticism

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This is Part Two of a Three part series

Part One: Faith and the Paranormal

Part Three: Merging Science and Faith in the Paranormal

“A person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions.”

This is the definition of a “skeptic,” graciously provided by Mirriam-Webster. More importantly, this is how many people classify themselves when they’re asked the question: “Do you believe in ghosts?”

As a tour guide that gives New Orleans Ghost Tours, I’ve asked this question many-a-time to my guests. The consensus from the group is almost always a resounding, “Oh yeah, you won’t believe what I’ve seen.” Then, my gaze flicks to the sole person staring blankly back at me—he or she is usually huddled next to a group of friends who are nothing less than enthusiastic—and I reiterate my question, as I’m genuinely interested in learning his or her beliefs.

Generally speaking, the answer is unanimous across the board: “I’m a skeptic.”

After giving more ghost tours than I could even attempt to count (I won’t, just so you know), I’ve found that “I’m a skeptic” generally translates to “I’m a non-believer.”

(Disclaimer: This is not always case, but I would put it at about 80-85% from my experiences).

If we are to compare “skepticism” to “non-believing” I do think we would come up on the wrong side of the equation. By definition alone, the two are not the same. Doubt is not synonymous with disbelief, as the former implies that there is a shred of question and the latter is full rejection.

Ancient Greek philosophers once labeled themselves as “skeptikoi,” as they were followers of the philosopher Pyrrho. A skepticos (the singular form) believed in inquiry or reflection. Thousands of years later, Miguel de Unamuno would write in his 1924 article, “Essays and Soliloquies,” that a “Skeptic does not mean him who doubts, but him who investigates or researches as opposed to him who asserts and thinks that he has found.”

According to Tim Nealon, the founder of Ghost City Tours and a paranormal investigator for over a decade, “skepticism, when it comes to ghosts and hauntings (and everything else in life), should be a large part of your thinking. In today’s paranormal ‘field’ too many people are willing to accept that anything and everything is a ghost.”

But does there exist a fine line between skepticism (in terms of investigation) and the all-out acceptance of hauntings and spirits?

For many, the desire to prove that ghosts and hauntings exist have led to them relying on “science” for answers. Does science have the answers?

Science and the Paranormal

No doubt, TV has had a hand in inciting the paranormal “craze” in the last twenty years or so. One of the earliest ghost-hunting shows was Most Haunted, a UK program that aired on the Travel Channel here in the States. Yvette Fielding was both host and one of the show’s creators, and though there was a bit of a rotating cast—for both the living and the dead—the premise always remained the same: to bring in a team of paranormal investigators and visit locations all over the world in hope of documenting ghostly activity.

By the time that Most Haunted aired its final episode in 2010, there were a slew of other ghost-hunting shows that had taken over TV. Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson, the founders of The Atlantic Paranormal Society (T.A.P.S.), starred in probably the most famous series, Ghost Hunters. They’d come together, apparently, because they were frustrated with the way that other investigative groups conducted ghost-hunting.

For Hawes and Wilson, they believed that “[they] approach ghost hunting from a scientific point of view” (Ghost Hunting: True Stories of Unexplained Phenomena from The Atlantic Paranormal Society, 270). As Benjamin Redford has pointed out, however, Hawes and Wilson spent a grand total of four paragraphs (of 273 pages) discussing their scientific methods in a chapter called “The Scientific Approach.” Four paragraphs, from the most (allegedly) credible ghost-hunting show on TV? Does this seemingly lack of scientific methodology mean that science in its basest form cannot coincide with paranormal activity?

Elaine, one of Ghost City Tours’ leading guides on our ghost tours and ghost hunts in New Orleans, put it this way: “The paranormal is, by its nature, almost impossible scientifically [to] prove. For something to be scientifically provable, it must be capable of being disproved with experiments that can be repeated. You never know if a ghost is going to show up, if it is going to be able to give you evidence, or if it will be the same evidence as last week.”

Experiments on Hauntings

The fact that ghost are “impossible” to prove has been a sticking point for scientists, though that hasn’t stopped them from trying. Over the years, scientists have attempted various experiments to discover whether or not ghosts exist. They’ve tested infrared signals; the mental state of the person who “experienced” the haunting; electromagnetic fields (EMFs); cognitive personality traits; and have even conducted base-controlled tests on psychics and mediums.

Their verdict? Ghosts and spirits do not exist.

In its basic form, science requires that the investigator do just that: investigate. In one study from 2007, a group of researchers decided to test the infrared levels at Mary King’s Close in Edinburgh, Scotland. Originally exposed to the sky and city, the bottom levels of these thirteen-story structures were closed off in the 1600s so that the Royal Exchange building could be extended overhead. This left many narrow alleys and corridors completely disconnected from the bustling city above—and also spawned a great many ghost stories.

Rumors of murders and of plague victims being placed in the walls have circled Mary King’s Close ever since, and are discussed even further on ghost tours which take guests and descend to the closes. Guests have reported feeling nauseous, lightheaded and, at times, even nervous or panicked. (I myself have taken a tour and can admit to feeling much the same).

Inquiring scientists then began to wonder if infrared levels were the reasoning behind guests feeling strange or hearing noises usually attributed to hauntings. Subsequently, the scientists raised the infrared levels during a 2007 ghost festival. Later, they asked people how they felt during that tour. Those subjected to the infrared had experienced temperature raises, and also reported that they’d had an incredibly spooky experience. (This test was run in conjunction with a group who proceeded through the tunnels and underground space without any alteration to the infrared).

In a different study from 2000, a cognitive neuroscientist from Laurentian University in Canada used electromagnetic fields to “stimulate the brain of a 45 year old man who’d reported previous ghostly experiences.” With the magnetic fields, the researchers were able to “conjure” a similar apparition that the man had seen man years before.

Understandably, the man panicked and experienced a huge rush of fear envelop over his body. The researchers documented this all.

For scientists, it is less that ghosts and hauntings do not exist and more about the fact that they can’t prove it. So, what does this mean for the paranormal world?

Desperate to Prove the Paranormal

As paranormal TV shows grew with exceeding popularity, so did the need for ghost tours. For many people, visiting a haunted city like New Orleans or Savannah isn’t complete without a ghost tour. There’s nothing like unveiling the often-dark and secretive side of a city to make your trip a success. (Or maybe that’s just me). It isn’t much of a shock to walk down the street at night, only to see a group of people standing on the sidewalk with their cameras and cellphones all aimed at the building in question.

What are they doing?

Trying to capture ghosts, of course. Or, at least, the residual imprint of spirits.

(Disclaimer: It has since become widely understood in the paranormal world that 99% of 'orbs' are not the energy or manifestation of a spirit).

It’s part of the fun of a ghost tour, but with more and more people taking ghost tours, so does the desire to capture that residual imprint of spirits. (What’s the point of taking a ghost tour if you can’t see a ghost, am I right?)

To fulfill this desire, many Ghost Tour companies in the last few years have taken to promising guests the opportunity to catch “real” ghosts by using ghost-hunting equipment on their walking tours. These companies legitimize their product (the tours) by arguing that the equipment itself will prove any paranormal activity experienced by guests through “science.” Through this avenue, they hope to gain credibility among the masses.

That credibility is an illusion.

Paranormal investigators, most of whom are skeptics in the truest definition of the word, understand that the likelihood of capturing any ghostly evidence while on a ghost tour is slim to none. Crowded streets, busy bodies standing just beside you, the weather, even, are all elements that tip the scale to tampered evidence.

So why use the ghost-hunting equipment on a tour, anyhow? In all likelihood, Ghost Tour companies probably use the supposedly “credible” ghost-hunting equipment because there is a recent, pressing desire to learn about ghosts and to understand what “science” tells us does not exist.

(In truth, the equipment can be credible and reliable, but only in pre-approved, quarantined locations. The middle of the street with cars racing past and horses clip-clopping down the street and the drunk dude standing next to you really doesn’t count).

Proving the Disprovable

It’s all too easy to jump at the creak of a staircase or the whisper of a girl’s voice on an EVP recording.

In talking to Elaine, who leads ghost hunts for Ghost City Tours, she explained that she does her best to discount a lot of things that many guests would immediately declare as paranormal evidence. “Say I hear a sound,” she said, “I will announce that I heard something, see if anyone confirms that they heard it too. If no one heard it, I assume it’s my ears playing tracks on me. If someone else heard something, I will ask they heard.”

In effect, Elaine uses scientific methods to uncover what exactly is going on during her ghost hunts. Easy as it might be to claim that anything is an apparition or a ghost, it’s much better to sit back and think about your surroundings while eliminating anything that might have posed a threat to the investigation.

In doing so, there’s a good chance that the true hauntings of a location might reveal themselves to you.

Hauntings of 1022 Royal

1022 Royal Street, which is situated in the French Quarter, is the location where Ghost City Tours holds overnight ghost hunts five night per week. For three of those nights, Elaine is usually in charge of those investigations. When growing up, Elaine often felt that her rather liberal episcopalian background influenced her ideas on the paranormal. Unlike other denominations, she didn’t feel as though her church told her that studying the paranormal was bad and her interest in ghosts and hauntings grew from there. In fact, she often went to the library to read up even more. On one particular occurrence, she was reading up on Duke University’s 1970s parapsychology experiments when complete strangers walked up to her to inform her she’d be going to hell for read the material.

Over time, Elaine developed a wider understanding of the paranormal. As she told me, “I think the concept of ghosts and spirits is just part of our cultural miasma. Which can actually be really harmful to investigating scientifically, because there are so many things we just take for granted. Like ‘ghost’ automatically equals dead human spirits.” Scientifically, Elaine was quick to point out, we have no idea what “ghost” translates to on the supposed Other Side.

In conducting ghost hunts at 1022 Royal, Elaine has maintained that same approach, even when most people’s instincts would have pointed to “ghost!” and stayed there.

A photo the ghostly house at 1022 Royal Street in Haunted New Orleans, Ghost City Tours.
The rear of Haunted 1022 Royal Street in the French Quarter.

On a particular night a month or so ago, she and her guests (broken into two groups) gathered at the end of the night. Despite the fact that it was unscientifically proven, they all—Elaine included—felt as though they were being watched. Without warning, all of the K-2 meters began to go off. Elaine and the group began to ask the spirit questions, and the K-2 meter responded would go off in direct response to the questions.

It was enough to make goosebumps appear ripple on the skin of even the firmest of nonbelievers. Then, one of the women told Elaine of the spirit that she and her group had been talking to earlier. The spirit’s name was Samuel and that time, chills really did run down Elaine’s spine. She hadn’t told a single person that night of any spirit named Samuel, as they had no evidence of a spirit named Samuel at the location. Only, a few weeks earlier a different guest at 1022 Royal had reported to Elaine of a spirit named Samuel that she and her group conversed with on an EVP session.

Turns out, the information given to Elaine from both women was exactly the same. Even more, the information she’d gathered from the women reflected and matched a couple of experiences that she’d had that she not shared with anyone. Not a single soul.

For Elaine, “the most important scientific markers for paranormal activity is repetition.” The event hadn’t been a shot in the dark, it had been the same experience twice. “If it happens again, I’ll be really happy,” she explained.

How does Skepticism and Science Fit in the Paranormal World?

Fact is: ghosts can’t be proved. Not in the classic “let’s hold various experiments” way, at any rate. Even ghost hunts or “lockdowns” require the investigators to eliminate as many outside, interfering sources as they can in order to achieve less contaminated evidence.

Does this mean that we should not believe in ghosts at all? No, this is not the case at all. Nealon has argued that it’s imperative that people seeking the paranormal question everything. In taking a scientific approach (i.e. questioning and reflecting), he has only made himself more open to new concepts and ideas within the paranormal sphere.

“When doing an investigation, you have to question everything. And actually do it, not just say you do so that you can feel good about what you’re doing, all the while thinking everything is a Ghost,” says Nealon emphatically. Being a skeptic within the paranormal world is perhaps the best device or strategy that a person has at his or her disposal.

And even for those like Elaine and Nealon who both believe in ghosts, being a skeptic does not mean that they disbelieve. Sometimes, understanding the paranormal simply means that we don’t understand it at all, which is where science—and more specially, technology—seeks to close the gap and provide us that ever-elusive knowledge.

And as Tim Nealon has so eloquently put it, “the fact that people can think that they can control ghosts—or even understand them—shows the depth of human arrogance.”

So, the why? The how?

Maybe ghosts and hauntings just are.