Respectful Insolence

For skeptics, TV news in my hometown sucks.

Actually, it sucks for just about anyone with two brain cells to rub together, but it’s especially painful for skeptics and scientists to watch. On one station last year, there was the most credulous report I’ve ever seen about–of all things–orbs! It was presented as though these “orbs” in photos were actually ghosts or spirit presences, rather than the reflections from bits of dust in the air or on the camera lens that we know them to be. As I pointed out at the time, not even die-hard ghostbusters take orbs seriously anymore. They’re so…1970s. Yet there was Ama Daetz gamely slogging through the story, interviewing credulous believers along with the token “skeptic” who wasn’t even a skeptic, and breathlessly asking if these “orbs” could be evidence of life after death. One of TV news’ prouder moments, it definitely was not. Then there’s Steve Wilson, investigative reporter extraordinaire, who has completely fallen for virtually every antivaccine myth there is. Worse, he’s way behind the times, still flogging the mercury myth. Apparently the new Generation Rescue line of “too many too soon” and “toxins‘ hasn’t permeated his skull.

This week I became aware of another one. In this one, our intrepid newscaster has gone beyond mere orbs. She’s found what she thinks is an honest-to-God haunted house, and has the video to show it.

Well, not really.

The story starts with our intrepid reporter, Silva Harapetian, breathlessly talking about strange goings-ons in a Detroit area house into which a local couple had moved two months ago. Soon after they moved in, they claim they heard banging in the walls, strange noises, and voices. Most curious of all, they relate the story of seeing letters mysteriously appear on a certain window. In typical fashion, Harapetian shows not one whit of skepticism. Like most of the credulous, she takes the stories at face value. Apparently Harapetian and her producers are unaware that virtually every haunted house thus far that has been seriously investigated by someone like Joe Nickells and not “ghostbusters” has been found to have perfectly reasonable explanations behind the strange happenings there.

The easiest things to explain are the noises and creaking of the floors. Old houses like the one in the story frequently have creaks and other strange noises. Add to that people who are clearly superstitious and believe in ghosts, and it is not unusual for such noises to become in their mind slam dunk evidence of a haunting. Their imaginations run away with them. Moreover, it’s not uncommon for people to “hear things” in the middle of the night. Similarly, the story of a religious photo having fallen face-down is not particularly compelling evidence. A random draft could have done it. She could have done it and forgotten about it. In any case, I always wonder, if ghosts are so powerful, why do they restrict themselves to manifesting themselves to humans in such limited ways? Come one, surely there must be ghosts out there with enough imagination to come up with more devilishly clever ways to make themselves known than knocking over a picture and making the floor creak. As Bob Carroll writes:

Many people report physical changes in haunted places, especially a feeling of a presence accompanied by a temperature drop and hearing unaccountable sounds. They are not imagining things. Most hauntings occur in old buildings, which tend to be drafty. Scientists who have investigated haunted places account for both the temperature changes and the sounds by finding sources of the drafts, such as empty spaces behind walls or currents set in motion by low frequency sound waves (infrasound) produced by such mundane objects as extraction fans. Some think that electromagnetic fields are inducing the haunting experience.*

The only aspect of this story that’s quite as straightforward to explain is the appearance of the mysterious writing on the mirror, a manifestation of which much is made. Apparently, when the wife took a shower one night, she went downstairs afterward, only to come back upstairs and find writing on the bathroom mirror. They didn’t show the writing very long, but it didn’t look like anything I recognize. What it rather looked like is what happens when someone writes in the mist on a mirror with his finger. Then, supposedly, another message appeared on another mirror. It is not mentioned whether these mirrors were brought to the house by the couple or had been there before. I rather suspect the mirors were probably there, leftover from the prior owners. In that case, it’s certainly possible that there was some sort of writing there before that only became apparent upon application of a high humidity mist. In any case, any approach to investigating such a house is not to assume immediately that the cause is supernatural. Rather, the correct approach is to rule out all the possible naturalistic causes, particularly the obvious ones, before contemplating the possibility of the supernatural.

The only naturalistic explanation Harapetian seems to consider is that someone might be playing a joke on the family, not an unreasonable possibility to consider, albeit far from the only one. Unfortunately, Harapetian blithely dismisses this possibility by simply noting that the doors and windows are locked, making it very hard for a stranger to enter. Apparently it never entered her mind that another, equally likely, naturalistic explanation is that this is some sort of hoax. Indeed, I lean in that direction myself, given that the woman’s husband didn’t believe her at first but apparently did after the lettering appeared Multiple other possibilities suggest themselves. Unfortunately, Harapetian was too credulous even to consider these possibilities and too lazy to do even the most minimal additional investigation that might have revealed likely naturalistic explanations for what was observed. She could have tried to have the mirror analyzed. She could have stayed overnight and tried to document the strange anomalies claimed. She could have stayed overnight and focused video cameras on all the mirrors in an effort to catch any culprit. My guess is that all these mysterious happenings would have ceased if a couple of skeptics were directly observing what was going on and started up again as soon as they left. Ditto if they had planted cameras in areas of the house where these mysterious events were occurring. Either they would have stopped, or they would have started happening somewhere where the cameras weren’t monitoring. (Isn’t that what always happens with those clever ghosts?) But that’s just a guess on my part, playing the odds. Harapetian’s crack team did to one bit of investigation, though. Can you guess what it is?

They did some digging to see if a violent crime or death had ever occurred in their “haunted house.” That’s it.

So, let’s see. Do we have everything needed for a crappy, credulous news story about a “haunted house”? Breathless reporter? Check. Couple who recently moved into a house hearing mysterious noises and seeing mysterious sights? Check? Credulous reporter and producers not doing even the most basic things that might reveal a naturalistic explanation. Double check. So what are we missing? That’s right! I know.

We need to bring in the exorcists! Well, not exactly exorcists, as they are Eastern Orthodox and not Roman Catholic Priests. The Catholic Church loves it its exorcists, but I hadn’t been aware of a tradition of ghostbusting and exorcism in the Eastern Orthodox church, but they do it pretty well. We see them walking through the house saying prayers and waving around incense, interspersed with interviews in which one of the priests pontificates on the existence of evil and the power of God. Lovely.

I don’t know why I still get worked up over credulous excuses for news reports like this. I really don’t. TV news, particularly in local markets, is more akin to “bread and circuses” in hard times than it is in actually reporting news. It also never ceases to amaze me how TV reporters can be so skeptical and hard-nosed when it comes to the claims of politicians, but throw them in a “haunted house,” and they willingly become part of the woo. In doing so, they take their place at the vanguard of the forces destroying critical thinking skills and skepticism.

Comments

  1. #1 DPSisler
    April 16, 2009

    One comment: BBC America World News.

  2. #2 Dunc
    April 16, 2009

    It also never ceases to amaze me how TV reporters can be so skeptical and hard-nosed when it comes to the claims of politicians

    When it suits them. Other times, not so much…

  3. #3 Ramel
    April 16, 2009

    Oh yeah, here in the UK we have even lower standards! Sky News actually gave us video fotage of a bug crawling across a CCTV camera lens.

    http://news.sky.com/skynews/Home/UK-News/Ghost-Captured-On-CCTV-At-Croxteth-Hall-Liverpool/Article/200904115257658

    Although my favourite was from the show “Most Haunted” a couple of years ago when the did the halloween special in Sabden (Not far from Pendle Hill, famous for the witch trials). Someone spotted an orb in one of the clips and made such a big deal out of it that I took a closer look. I saw the orb was attached to a dark shadow and leaned in for a closer look to discover an arm! Turned out the orb was the sound guy’s watch….

  4. #4 Mojo
    April 16, 2009

    One comment: BBC America World News.

    The BBC appears to have credulous journalists of its own.

  5. #5 Ruth
    April 16, 2009

    Detroit is becoming a ghost town anyway.

  6. #6 Eric Lund
    April 16, 2009

    Yet there was Ama Daetz gamely slogging through the story

    If you had given that name to a fictional TV news anchor, the editors/reviewers would properly be all over you for it. But Ms. Ditz^H^H^H^HDaetz appears to be a real TV news anchor. Stranger than fiction.

    It also never ceases to amaze me how TV reporters can be so skeptical and hard-nosed when it comes to the claims of politicians

    As Dunc said, the problem is usually that TV reporters aren’t skeptical enough about the claims of politicians. Remember Saddam’s WMDs? They didn’t exist either, and it only would have taken a moderate amount of skeptical reporting to come to that conclusion.

  7. #7 Brigid Keely
    April 16, 2009

    My husband and I lived in an apartment that gave me the absolute creeps. I was on edge and felt like someone was watching me all the time. It was particularly bad when I was home alone at night. My husband poked around and found an ungrounded outlet. He fixed it and the creepy feelings stopped. He claims that a lot of “haunted” feelings are ungrounded outlets and the like.

  8. #8 Iason Ouabache
    April 16, 2009

    If she had been more skeptical than she wouldn’t have had a story to tell. It was in her best interest to be credulous.

  9. #9 IcedLatte
    April 16, 2009

    Entertainment keeps people tuned in. Entertainment sells ads. You watched, you blogged. That’s success to the reporter and station manager.

  10. #10 MarkW
    April 16, 2009

    The quote from Bob Carroll mentions infrasound — I read somewhere that some frequencies of infrasound can set up a resonant vibration in the human eye, causing all sorts of visual weirdness, up to and including hallucinations of human figures.

  11. #11 Michael Simpson
    April 16, 2009

    Well, Orac better not tune to the History Channel. Ghosts, UFO’s, Nostradamus, and the 2012 end of the world cruft seems to be its focus these days.

  12. #12 desiree
    April 16, 2009

    i dunno, i was skeptical of hauntings, but then i experienced what i refer to as the disappearing/reappearing tweezers incident. i was visiting my in-laws, and my tweezers disappeared (not unusual). i looked EVERYWHERE for 3 days, then remembered i had a second pair. so i tweezed my embarrassingly overgrown eyebrows, set the second pair of tweezers down on the desk that i had totally cleared while looking for the first pair, and DH and i went for a walk. when we got back, there was the first pair of tweezers, lying perfectly parallel to the second pair!
    really, how can you explain this? either i’m so …what’s a nice word… unobservant that i missed the tweezers for 3 days when they were right there, actually cleared them off the desk and put them back on without realizing it, and set the second pair right there next to the first without noticing, or it was some kind of ghost thing. i certainly fear the first explanation a whole lot more than the second.

    however, in this case, my vote goes with the husband or wife making it up for attention. people just want to be on TV.

  13. #13 Scott
    April 16, 2009

    I read somewhere that some frequencies of infrasound can set up a resonant vibration in the human eye, causing all sorts of visual weirdness, up to and including hallucinations of human figures.

    I find that highly dubious, and would be interested in a cite if one is available. There doesn’t seem to be anything on the subject at arxiv, and there likely would be if it were physicists doing the research. “infrasound and human and eye and resonance” on pubmed also turns up nothing.

    Now, that it could have various interesting effects I don’t doubt. I am specifically questioning the claim of a resonance effect.

    1. Not sure exactly what the speed of sound in the eye is, but it’s probably close to that in water, i.e. 1500 m/s. The scale of the eye is on the order of centimeters, so typical frequencies would be on the order of 10^5 Hz – hardly infrasonic.

    2. Given that the eye rests in the eye socket and is connected to various nerves, muscles, etc. it would likely be “strongly coupled” in the mechanical, physical sense; this tends to disturb resonances.

    That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But from a first-principles physics standpoint, it seems rather unlikely.

  14. #14 Scott
    April 16, 2009

    really, how can you explain this? either i’m so …what’s a nice word… unobservant that i missed the tweezers for 3 days when they were right there, actually cleared them off the desk and put them back on without realizing it, and set the second pair right there next to the first without noticing, or it was some kind of ghost thing. i certainly fear the first explanation a whole lot more than the second.

    Or, somebody else moved them. Either innocently, or as a prank. Far more likely than either of the options you mention, IMO.

  15. #15 Sigivald
    April 16, 2009

    Desiree – The obvious answer is that your in-laws are all ghosts!

  16. #16 Michael Simpson
    April 16, 2009

    Just because something is currently inexplicable doesn’t mean the explanation must be supernatural. In other words, Occam’s razor, should be our default philosophy.

    There are no miracles or ghosts…just scientific explanations awaiting to be understood.

  17. #17 sophia8
    April 16, 2009

    I spy an employment opportunity here:
    “LIVING IN A HAUNTED HOUSE?
    Worried by ghosts, disturbed by poltergeists, kept awake by unexplainable noises? SKEPTI-SITTERS have the answer!
    It has been scientifically proven many times that ghosts and other paranormal phenomena hate the aura of skeptics, and will always immediately depart any building where skeptics are.
    So hire one of SKEPTI-SITTER’s crack team of fully-qualified credentialed skeptics to stay in your house, keep the ghosts away and give you a good night’s sleep! Our rates are low and we offer generous discounts for weekly, monthly and annual contracts. (Caring for pets and houseplants billed separately.)”

  18. #18 MarkW
    April 16, 2009

    Scott: I just remember reading it somewhere. I have no cites or anything beyond a vague memory. I was merely throwing the idea out for discussion if you like.

    However infeasible it sounds it’s more feasible than the “ghosts = supernatural spirits” idea I guess.

  19. #19 SC
    April 16, 2009

    Please. You’ve not been subjected to the local news anywhere near Southington, CT, recently. “When we return we’ll give both sides of the story – was the house haunted?” Gah.

    I just googled it and came upon a *ahem* ghost forum where people were discussing it (a few years ago – long before the film). Now I need some skeptic soap to wash off the woo.

  20. #20 MarkW
    April 16, 2009

    Not exactly a cite but this seems to be (similar to) what I remember reading:

    http://ghosts.monstrous.com/infrasound.htm

  21. #21 desiree
    April 16, 2009

    the chances of my ILs or DH playing a prank are lower than the chances of it being a ghost. it really is me or the ghost. not even a pet to blame!
    it’s embarrassing to talk about this here of course, thank you everyone for being nice. it’s so minor, but it bugs me because i really don’t know what happened. oh well.

  22. #22 Vorn
    April 16, 2009

    Sophia8: that is the best ever.

  23. #23 Skemono
    April 16, 2009

    My mother has a similar story to yours, Desiree. If I recall it correctly, one time she was very tired and went to bed with her earrings still on. When she woke up, one of the earrings was missing. She combed through the bed, patted the carpet, even put some hose over a vacuum cleaner tube and swept it over the carpet (the vacuum would pick up the earring but it would get caught against the hose). She couldn’t find it–that earring was just missing.

    Several days later, when she was getting ready for work, she opened the medicine cabinet in the bathroom, and heard a faint “tink” sound as her earring fell into the sink. How it ever got there, no-one knows. If it had just been the next day, then she might have believed that it was stuck in her hair and fell out, but after a couple days? Not so likely.

    So the theory goes that Pickles the Gremlin took her earring, got bored with it, and gave it back. That’s now the running joke in our family when things disappear–Pickles took them.

    So Desiree, the answer to what happened to you is clear: Pickles the Gremlin borrowed your tweezers to pluck his own eyebrows. When he was done with them, he put them back.

  24. #24 nanoAl
    April 17, 2009

    resonance! yuck. woo. theres pretty much no way that sound would cause you to hallucinate. your eyes pick up electromagnetic oscillations, not pressure oscillations.if your eyes got resonating, it would really hurt, and your vision might have the slightest bit of distortion, depending on how the refractive index of your optical fluid changes when it is compressed. it wouldn’t look like a human figure though, it’d be a pin cushion pattern related to the spherical nodes from resonating waves in the eye. I’ll try and calculate that on the weekend. hmmmm

  25. #25 Pareidolius
    April 17, 2009

    I remember back in my magical-thinking twenties how easily I could freak myself out. Like the time I read “Communion” and was CERTAIN that there was an alien right next to my bed and that I was paralyzed. My roommate came home and turned the hall light on and I realized that my terrifying alien was my shirt tossed over the back of a chair. I’ve looked back on dozens of things I used to swear were supernatural, and now I can see how I really just wanted them to be true . . . but they were just magical thinking in action.

  26. #26 Scott
    April 17, 2009

    A bit of further poking around finds some academic cites of the 18 Hz figure, though I can’t find the original source. Must be talking about transverse rather than longitudinal waves.

  27. #27 ???
    April 17, 2009

    It was presented as though these “orbs” in photos were actually ghosts or spirit presences, rather than the reflections from bits of dust in the air or on the camera lens that we know them to be.

    Cold-hearted orbs that rule the night?
    Remove the colours from our sight?
    Red is grey and yellow white,
    And we decide which is right,
    And which is an illusion.

  28. #28 khan
    April 17, 2009

    When the wind is just the right speed and direction, the front storm door starts moaning.

  29. #29 gaiainc
    April 17, 2009

    Desiree, you are not alone. My mom left an envelope with pictures that she was going to take to her sister’s birthday party on my living room couch. It was a manilla envelope in plain sight. My couch is blue, so one would think it was obvious. Yet, when my mom asked me to look for it in my house, I couldn’t find it. I would swear I looked at that couch over and over again, but I never saw it. Yet, there it was when I looked the next day. Even my husband didn’t see it there. People are very good at not seeing things. My husband showed me a video a while ago where a man asked an audience to watch a video and keep track of the basketball that was being moved around. Afterwards, he asked if anyone noticed anything. About 1/3-1/2 of the room did. He replayed the same video and there was a person in a gorilla suit that walked through the people moving the basketball around. I never saw that the first time around.

    That said, this whole haunted house story is pathetic. Oy.

  30. #30 EspressoFrog
    April 20, 2009

    That number on the mirror, that’s a European 7. Has a bar in the middle, like we’re taught here. I know cause when I did the mistake of signing checks in the USA I was often asked “is that a 3 ?” (and asked why would I use a check ?)

    Now, you’d think your decent american ghost would do a proper american 7 ? So that leaves us with.. the European husband (or his family ghost).

The site is currently under maintenance and will be back shortly. New comments have been disabled during this time, please check back soon.