Science Skeptical of Spirit Sightings Organizations who promote rational thinking, such as Los Angeles’ Independent Investigations Group (IIG) encourage critical examination of paranormal claims. They regularly investigate reports of ESP, clairvoyance, psychics and ghosts from a scientific position.
Salem Weekly asked two IIG members, Executive Director Jim Underdown and Steering Committee member David Richards, to comment on hauntings.
SW: Has there ever been a scientifically verified incident of a ghost sighting anywhere in the world?
Richards: Not that we know of.
Underdown: No, not really. There have been lots of interesting photos, videos, and stories, but nothing very convincing in the way of good evidence.
SW: What explanations does a group like IIG give for phenomena that are commonly given for proof of hauntings?
Underdown: Seasoned skeptic groups like the Independent Investigations Group have been fielding these types of claims for many years. There are a variety of explanations that seem to recur. For instance, the ghost-sightings-while-in-bed-at-night stories often involve the person being in some state of consciousness in between being asleep and being awake. When someone is in this gray area, he or she feels like they’re awake while dream elements creep in. I’ve experienced this, and it’s very convincing…
Places sometimes get reputations for weird occurrences or hauntings. When this happens people expect to see ghosts and so interpret any odd or unexpected event as proof of the haunting. Sometimes strange things just happen. Statistically, they have to. If nothing bizarre ever happened simply by chance, that would be weird!
Richards: The IIG has investigated several locations reported to be “haunted”. We also have colleagues that have done similar investigations. To pool the results of the investigations of our own plus our colleagues, the things typically found include evidence of rodent, bird, or other animal or insect infestations; noisy pipes; cracks that allow drafts in the house that are not only chilly but also blow doors closed and so forth; faulty electrical wiring that makes light fixtures flicker or operate intermittently; pranks by children/neighbors [or] intentional hoaxes by the owners of the property.
Also fairly common are hallucinations caused by drugs (prescription or otherwise); a mental illness that can cause hallucination, for example, schizophrenia; and hypopompic and hypnogogic hallucination and/or sleep paralysis including the “hag phenomenon” (there’s lots of information available online about these phenomena).
Lastly, we need to consider the possibility that there’s a toxin present that may be causing hallucination. For example ergot fungus or similar compounds, or carbon monoxide gas poisoning, for example, from a faulty fireplace, gas heater or oven. Carbon monoxide can cause horrific hallucinations at doses below the fatal dose. It’s an important item to be checked at any location where unexplained things are sighted or heard. There are documented cases of “haunted” locations where the problem was traced to carbon monoxide leaks, going back hundreds of years.
SW: We heard you offer a $50,000 reward for scientifically verified paranormal activity. Is this true? If so, what procedure do you use to investigate hauntings or ghost sightings?
Underdown: The $50,000 is still available to anyone who can show us good evidence of a ghost. In fact, we’re working out the details of testing someone who’s been making audio recordings of ghosts. Our test will consist of showing the ghosts something simple (a word or number), having him record the ghosts after they see the word or number, and see if the right answer made it back to our believer. We’ll give him a fair chance to show us.
Richards: The procedure we follow if a location is said to be haunted (a house for example), is to first separate family members and get them to each tell their own story in isolation from each other. Very often we find the stories of what’s going on are vastly different from different family members. Typically we find out that one person is having the experience, whatever it is, and the spouse may not be having any experiences but is “going along with it” so as to not create conflict. In these cases the process stops very quickly after the interview, because there’s no cohesive phenomena with multiple witnesses to investigate.
If we run into a situation where we get the exact same story or reported phenomena from multiple people at the site so it appears there really is something tangible going on, then our investigation would be guided by what they’re reporting. In the vast majority of cases we usually find mundane potential explanations for the reported phenomena. Just like the police, you need to set up a perimeter and control who is coming and going.
If you aren’t controlling the perimeter of the area you’re investigating, people could be sneaking in and out, conducting a hoax or playing pranks on you. Even if it isn’t a hoax, they could be removing key evidence from the scene, perhaps even unconsciously.
We haven’t yet had to abandon an investigation without finding a probable rational explanation.