TAPS and Trickery at the Pasadena Playhouse

Britt Griffith, star of Syfy’s Ghost Hunters and Ghost Hunters International took the stage Saturday night at the Pasadena Playhouse to deliver a lecture on ghost hunting and to do a Q&A with excited fans.  Tickets to the event, originally $30, were lowered to $5 due to poor sales.  By the time Griffith took the stage, only about 1/3rd of the available seats were taken.

Credit: Luis Castillo

After saying that he was a bit rushed and would only be able to talk for about an hour, Britt kicked off his performance by stating, unequivocally, that he never faked evidence on Ghost Hunters, nor did he ever see anyone he worked with fake anything.  “I don’t know how they do things on other shows,” he said.  “But we never faked anything.”  And if that sounds like a weird way to kick off a show to you, I would agree.  But roughly 35 minutes later, these words would blow up in his face.

Lou Castillo, an independent paranormal investigator in California and self-proclaimed “believer,” attended the evening’s festivities and reported what went on directly to me throughout the night.  A longtime listener of the internet radio show and podcast, Strange Frequencies Radio, that I host along with my friend Bobby Nelson, Lou is affectionately known by us as our “West Coast Correspondent.”

Britt put on an entertaining show, Lou told me.  He told jokes, regaled the audience with tales from behind-the-scenes of the Ghost Hunters program and showed clips of pranks the cast has pulled on each other.  He also gave advice to would be paranormal investigators, explaining why the crew uses certain pieces of equipment and warning that, should they ever be traipsing around in abandoned locations, it may be smart to invest in a carbon monoxide detector.  Later, creating a bit of an “Us vs. Them” atmosphere, Mr. Griffith gave a few of his thoughts on skeptics, pooh-poohing “what skeptics would have you believe” as it pertained to paranormal photography and EVP recordings.

What really got the audience excited, however, was Britt’s buildup to a secret piece of video never before seen from one of their televised investigations.  “West Coast Correspondent Lou” described it as “black and white night vision footage of a hotel where, down a hallway, what looked to be an elderly man moving right to left, then left to right” could be seen.  It never made air, apparently, due to the request of the proprietors of the location itself.  They felt that showing this on television would possibly scare clients away, or maybe even stir up activity at the location more.

Griffith stated that there was no one down the hallway who could have been pulling a fast one on them.  Certainly no one that could have escaped the watchful eye of the video recording equipment set up.  And if a skeptic tells you that it could have been faked by the crew themselves, well remember, TAPS never faked anything while Britt Griffith was around.

Credit: Luis Castillo

It was at about this time, when the atmosphere in the Pasadena Playhouse was at its peak, that something strange happened.  A light fixture which was placed up on-stage began to flicker a bit.  What was happening?  Was the power going to go out?  Then, quickly, it moved, right around 3 inches or so and seemingly on its own, back and slightly toward the left of stage.  The audience gasped and one attendee shouted out, “Did you see that?  It moved!”  Tension was beginning to mount and excitement at what was thought to clearly be a paranormal occurrence was at a fevered pitch.

Griffith, seemingly oblivious to the movement of the light fixture asked for details from witnesses.  He asked folks to keep an eye on it and, before continuing with his presentation joked, “if it moves towards me, someone please let me know!”  He pressed on with his talk, but it is easy to understand why many of the eyes in the room were focused elsewhere.  Just then, mere moments after the original event, the light fixture moved again.  Not quite as far this time, but certainly a noticeable distance.  People began to scream once more and onlookers rose from their chairs.  The room filled with the light of a dozen or more flashbulbs going off in an effort to capture real-life paranormal phenomenon on camera.

Soon thereafter, and once things settled down, Griffith finished up with the Q&A portion of the evening and those curious about the light fixture walked up onstage to check it out for themselves.  Mr. Castillo hurried to be among them.  He witnessed a few people taking photographs of the fixture, but jumped in front of them to get a better look at the setup before they could start touching it.  The first thing he noticed, he said, was how heavy it was; certainly not something that could be moved easily.  He also noticed the base of the fixture and the thick electrical cord that was attached to it.  But immediately doubts about the authenticity of the event came to his mind.  The cord was was stretched out as straight as could be, not at all how a cord would look if the light fixture it was attached to had moved on its own.  In that case, one would expect the cord to have some slack to it and perhaps even be in an “S” shape.  And it was then that he noticed where this very straight cord led:  back and to the left of stage, behind the curtain of the Pasadena Playhouse.  Exactly the direction the fixture had moved toward two times earlier.  Easily, Lou saw how someone could have pulled the cord from behind cover to make it appear as if the fixture was being moved by an unseen phantom.

While Lou could see all the evidence pointing to fakery almost immediately, the others folks around him couldn’t.  Nor, he says, would they listen to reason.  While they were discussing their luck at having witnessed true paranormal activity, Mr. Castillo tried in vain to explain to them what probably really happened.  In fact, he even had a suspect in mind to who pulled off the stunt.  A younger blonde woman, who he says attended to Britt throughout the evening and was possibly an employee of the theater, was suddenly nowhere to be found.

But the other TAPS True Believers (TTBs) were unswayed.  Lou was told that he was taking the wrong perspective, or even just denying what they all had seen with their own eyes.  “But it moved!” one said to him.  “You’re just a skeptic.”  A friend of Lou’s, who was attending the event with him, stepped in at this point.  Lou, he told them, was not a skeptic at all, but someone who very much believed in ghosts.  And though Lou tried his best to explain to the onlookers that, while he would love for it to be real, what they had all seen was likely a very simple trick.  But it was useless.  The others had saw what they saw and their minds were made up.  It was a paranormal event and no one could tell them otherwise.  Their money was well spent.

I have seen similar instances much like Lou described to me in so-called paranormal hotspots across the country.  In both private residences and public locations, “seasoned paranormal investigators” and other curious onlookers fall for obvious hoaxes or fool themselves into believing that a natural event is something paranormal.  In many of those cases, the expectation of ghostly activity trumps rational explanation.  But with Britt Griffith and the Pasadena Playhouse, I think the fame and respect factor played in heavily.  Not wanting to believe that Britt Griffith, a TAPS team member they look up to and have enjoyed watching on television, could be involved with staging paranormal activity, they ignored all the evidence that pointed toward a hoax and instead walked away believing it was genuine.

Was Britt in on the fakery?  There is no way I can say for sure.  Perhaps a rogue Pasadena Playhouse staff member decided to spice things up a bit.  After all, the theater has a few paranormal legends attached to it and has welcomed amateur groups in before to investigate.  This could have been a perfect opportunity to add to the stories.  And, probably, add to the ticket price of future events as well.

What I am sure of, however, is that there was no paranormal activity involved Saturday night.  But a number of people, falling victim to expectation and the loss of critical thinking in the face of someone they deem to be an authority figure, became yet another case study in the psychology behind perceived paranormal experiences.

Then again, some folks call me a skeptic.  So maybe that’s just what I would have you believe.  Right, Britt?

TAPS and Trickery at the Pasadena Playhouse

Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics

UFOlogy can be considered a fuzzy term. In one aspect, it could refer to the study of the abstract concept of UFOs as a cultural phenomenon. More commonly, it describes the study of an unsupported claim, that unidentified flying objects are (occasionally) alien space craft. The larger figures of this field would argue that this is not, in fact, an unsupported claim, endorsed by mountains of collected data. And their numbers DO seem impressive. In the case of Project Blue Book, a study conducted by the USAF from 1952 -1970, a staggering 22% of the 3200 cases were deemed “unknown”. but are these numbers substantial? Project Blue Book and more specifically, Project Blue Book special report 14 are frequently cited as solid evidence for the existence of alien spacecraft, yet mainstream science is not convinced. Are scientists simply not looking at the evidence or are the proponents of UFOlogy cherry-picking?

In December of 1951, US air force captain Edward J Ruppelt, the first director of Blue Book, met with members of the Battelle Memorial institute, A Columbus, Ohio based think- tank, in an effort to make the study “more scientific”. The Battelle group evaluated over two thousand reports and classified them into four categories: Doubtful, Poor, Good, and Excellent based on the following factors:

1. The experience of the observer deduced from his occupation, age, and training

2.The consistency among the separate portions of the description of the sighting

3. the general quality and completeness of the report

4. Consideration of the observer’s fact- reporting ability and attitude, as disclosed by his manner of describing the sighting.

the resulting figures of the mentioned categories are:

Doubtful produced 13% unknowns

Poor- 16.6% unknown

Good-24.8%

Excellent- 33.3%

These are very provocative results and they didn’t go unnoticed by flying saucer proponents, such as Stanton Friedman. In many of his lectures and interviews, he claims that if only the “debunkers” (skeptics) actually read special report 14, they would have the evidence they ask for. But does this study support the extraterrestrial hypothesis?

The Battelle group didn’t seem to think so, as written in the report:
“…the danger lies in the possibility of forgetting the subjectivity of the data at the time that conclusions are drawn from the analysis. It must be emphasized, again and again, that the conclusions contained in this report are based NOT on facts, but on what many observers thought and estimated the true facts to be.”

This seems a little strange coming from the “holy grail” of ufologists. More so from the study’s conclusion:

“It is emphasized that there was a complete lack of any valid evidence consisting of physical matter in any case of a reported unidentified aerial object.

Thus, the probability that any of the UNKNOWNS considered in this study are “flying saucers: is concluded to be extremely small, since the most complete and reliable reports from the present data, when isolated and studied, conclusively failed to reveal even a rough model, and since the data as a whole failed to reveal any marked patterns or trends.

Therefore, on the basis of this evaluation of the information, it is considered to be highly improbable that any of the reports of unidentified aerial objects examined in this study represent observations of technological developments outside the range of present day scientific knowledge.”

When all is said and done, you have a very subjective report on what could be, at best, described as UNKNOWN occurrences. This is to say, if it is possible to determine who is a reliable witness in the event of a UFO sighting, but how is one more adept at such a thing than others? Are there certain professions or personal characteristics that mitigate or even eliminate the tendencies of misinterpretation, exaggeration, or false memory? It’s the UFOlogist that makes the leap, connecting UNKNOWN with alien space craft, being that there is no supportive evidence of such a connection. The only mystery left here is how anyone could make such an assumption based on the information contained in Blue book special report 14. Surprisingly enough, the report speculated on this phenomenon as well:

Could it be that UFOlogists are being taken in by a handful of the more exciting cases and running with them or is there more merit to the UNKNOWN cases than the report give credit?

In an effort to establish a standard “flying saucer model” the group re-evaluated the 434 best unknowns and produced a sort of top 12 list. Included in this list are such cases as:

While a few of the other cases did, in fact, appear to be more saucer-like in nature, in one way or another, each case failed to meet the standards of the report. As mentioned in the introduction, the data was very subjective and it is unknown in each case how much time may have elapsed before the accounts of each event were written down and submitted to the study, not to mention the fact that this entire report is based only on anecdotal evidence. A hard pill to swallow for any rational mind.

So, remember not to be taken in by impressive sounding statistics, because they are usually being twisted to bolster a weak argument. And in the case of Flying saucers, remember that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and a few figures from a half- century old report does not extraordinary evidence make.

References:

http://www.ufocasebook.com/pdf/specialreport14.pdf

Lies, Damn Lies & Statistics

Standard Deviation

While I believe myself to have been careful in the process of creating and writing the Bent Spoon, with the intent of offering objective and open- minded views of the paranormal, I have come across a number of obstacles, which face every skeptic, that I

by Nick Callis

thought I should address and I wish both fellow skeptics and believers to consider before making any judgements on any particular paranormal topic. First of which is presupposition and bias, which I believe stems directly from the arrogance of the individual, whichever side of the fence they may inhabit.  This behaviour may, in fact, be unavoidable, for I struggle with it every time look at a new UFO photo or the latest viral poltergeist video. My immediate, gut reaction is that it is fake. While I have trained myself not to act on this instinct, I feel that it can’t ever be suppressed. Without speaking for everyone else, I will simply say that it is MY nature. By simply looking at a photo or online video, I cannot truly make a valuable judgment without supportive evidence and unfortunately, that is hard to come by. While this, by no means, equates as anything close to acceptable proof of the paranormal, I cannot rightly dismiss its nature. I can only state that I don’t know. This is a phrase that paranormal investigators should become comfortable with. “I don’t  know.”
This brings me to my second point, which is jumping to a final conclusion prematurely. In other words, referring to a case as solved. Unfledged debunking is becoming a common sight in my circles and unfortunately, other people are running with the conclusions, copy/ pasting more and more, until it’s become the official solution.

Image

To illustrate, we have what appears to be a photograph of a ghost. (If you are familiar with this photo, bear with me) Some may say that it’s clearly photoshoped, others might claim that it’s a case of pariedolia caused by a spider/ tent caterpillar’s web or a plume of smoke, and others may very well believe that this is a genuine full- bodied apparition.

Now without the remaining photos from this set, any of the above explanations are as good as the next, though some are more likely than others, yet none of the above are correct, as seen below:

ImageThese types of knee- jerk assumptions have become all too routine and they often result in vain dismissal, but does the end justify the means? Is a half -assed solution justified so long as you can cry “debunked” at the end of the day?

The fact of the matter is, with most cases, after- the- fact analysis is insufficient. Incidents of alleged paranormal activity occur in uncontrolled environments with innumerable variables to account for. The idea of ruling out the ordinary, thereby  leaving the extraordinary doesn’t logically work. To make a claim from either perspective is simply speculation without proper evidence to support that claim. Most cases will eventually have to boil down to what is “most likely” and mundane explanations will always trump supernatural ones. If you favor the supernatural solution, then the burden of proof lies on you to prove it and if we skeptics ask for conclusive proof then we owe it to the rest of the crowd to give the same.

Standard Deviation

Progression

by Nicholas Callis

Say I am in my bedroom and I want to go to the kitchen. The most efficient path, being a straight line, is obstructed by a wall. Let’s also say that I am… inexperienced in traversing my home. I plot my kitchen- bound course and, of course, I am impeded by the wall. What is my next plan of action? Continuing on my path, I can by no means make any progress to the kitchen.
As absurd as this analogy is, there is a parallel to modern ghost hunting. The assortment of tools and techniques used by the majority of paranormal investigators is fully known to be found lacking, to say the least. So why not abandon the K2 meters and digital thermometers? Why continue talking to dictaphones and “going dark”? It’s time we give up the ghost, so to speak, and make a course adjustment in the field of paranormal investigation.

While many make the claim, I have yet to see a ghost hunting team employ the scientific method. But why, you might ask, would we use the scientific method when investigating phenomena outside the realm of science? Well, to those who would ask this, know that the term paranormal does not mean outside the realm of science, but maybe more precisely, seemingly outside the realm. You see, by claiming that it is, indeed, outside of science’s reach, you are making leap of judgement about a phenomenon that has no true characteristics that have been documented or established by the field at large.
The reader should also be aware that the term science does not represent a body of knowledge, but a method of pursuing truth. An endeavour that I would assume appeals to all ghost hunters.

So, where does it all begin then? How do we tackle these extraordinary claims using science? Simple, We employ a Null Hypothesis! A null hypothesis is a prediction made by the investigator that they try to disprove or nullify. So, for example, instead of beginning an investigation by deliberately seeking the paranormal explanation, instead propose that all the claims are the effect of natural causes. Then you simply create tests to either confirm or reject your proposal. k2 meters and digital voice recorders don’t come into play. And why should they? There is no empirical evidence to support their use and so, should be discarded.

The next step is creating and performing tests to disprove your prediction. This would entail creating events and circumstances that would produce the effect of the paranormal claim. If they are successful, you will have supported your hypothesis that the phenomena was indeed natural. Of course, we should keep in mind that unexplained does not mean unexplainable. In other words, if your tests fail, it is still unwise to jump to the paranormal conclusion, since you may not have all of the factors at your disposal. Whatever caused the phenomena in question took place in an uncontrolled environment, so there are bound to be lurking variables that you cannot possibly account for. The most important thing to know is that it’s OK to say “I don’t know”.

Finally, we come to the results and what to do with them. Instead of pouring over hours of audio and video, searching for anomalies, publish your collected data (consisting of the claims, your hypothesis, and your tests) to a blog or your team’s facebook page so that your peers and colleagues can review and repeat the tests you created and add valuable input to your investigation.

Hopefully I’ve made a case for progression in paranormal research. While I understand that it may be hard to reject the familiar form of “tradition” in ghost hunting, we should all make sure not to trade what is rational for ritual.

Progression

A Picture of Paranormal Fraud

There is a paranormal group that goes by the name of Ghosts of New England Research Society.  G.O.N.E.R.S, for short.  Recently, they began publicizing a hoaxed ghost photo as authentic.  They have also been using the hoax, in part, to promote an episode of the Discovery Channel series “American Haunting” that they’ll be featured on this fall.

Understandably, this has gotten a number of people in the paranormal community up in arms.  Fraudulent ghost photos are something most investigators decry and, indeed, it was skeptical paranormal investigators themselves who spotted the fraud in the first place.

ImageThe photo, taken at Ryder’s on Main, a bar and restaurant in Meridan, CT shows the hazy silhouette of what G.O.N.E.R.S calls “The Holy Grail of Paranormal Research:  A Full Body apparition of what appears to be a women in 1920s-30s period attire…”  Of course, anyone familiar with famous ghost photos recognized this image as the well-documented “Madonna of Bachelor’s Grove” taken at the Chicago cemetery by members of the Ghost Research Society in the summer of 1991.  It had simply been superimposed on a photo taken inside Ryder’s on Main by way of photoshop or perhaps even a smartphone app.

Skeptical paranormal investigator Kenny Biddle who, in full disclosure, must also be noted as a contributor to The Bent Spoon, first spotted the forgery on Facebook, drawing attention to the striking similarities between the images and quickly swayed opinion.  While many on the thread were originally hyping it up as a great piece of evidence, they soon turned to castigating the paranormal team in question for using it to market themselves.

Image
The story soon went viral and Ghosts of New England Research Society took the image down, apparently not commenting publicly on the matter.  Many in the paranormal community have taken this incident to be the prime example why paranormal investigation is not accepted by the scientific mainstream.  Even Brian Harnois, former cast member of the longest running fraudulent paranormal reality series on television, Ghost Hunters, said it is incidents like this that caused him to retire from the field.

In defense of G.O.N.E.R.S, it is unclear whether they hoaxed the photo themselves, or were duped by the bar/restaurant.  Either way, however, the paranormal team is culpable.  They should have known how famous the Bachelor’s Grove image is, for one.  Secondly, they should not have publicized and promoted the photo from Ryder’s on Main to get attention for their upcoming television exposure.  They fell into a trap they set themselves with their own ignorance.

But is this really the cause of paranormal investigation not being taken seriously by science?  Is fraud really the reason ghost hunters don’t get more credit from the scientific establishment?  I think not.  Fraud happens in science as well.  Things like peer review help eliminate it, something most paranormal enthusiasts don’t seem to use.  But even having examples of fraud throughout the history of science gives no one logical license to distrust the scientific process.  It has worked for hundreds of years.

No, the reason ghost hunters are not taken seriously by science is because they do not respect science.  Ghost hunters, by and large, have a fundamental misunderstanding of how to operate under proper scientific methodologies or even to control their experiments.  The evidence they put forth is not given credibility because it isn’t evidence.  At best, it is often just anomalies they found on their digital voice recorders or readings they took on their EMF meters.  Anomalies which, by the way, have been explained countless times by science-based investigators.

If there’s a lesson that can be learned from Ghosts of New England Research Society, it is this:  your photographs are not proof of ghosts.  But it can be proof that you don’t seem to know what you are doing.  So, if you want to be taken seriously by science, start taking science seriously and educate yourselves.

A Picture of Paranormal Fraud