Wednesday, November 5, 2014

One More Reason We Need Skeptics

I never thought the day would come that I would posting something here from James Randi's website. I honestly can't stand the guy. He's smug, dismissive, and not nearly as "skeptical" as he claims to be. I remember him railing against the pointlessness of meditation back in the late 1990's, even though by that time neuroscientists had published a number of solid studies demonstrating its cognitive benefits. He's not pro-science, he's "pro-science-that-he-happens-to-like."

But unfortunately we still need people like him, and here's why. Remember this story about efforts to exorcise a supposedly haunted house in Indiana? I say "supposedly" because soon after I posted my article about the exorcism it was revealed that the ghostly image in the above photograph was faked using a popular iPhone photo manipulation app. Check the link there - it's not even a clever fake.

One of the things I don't like about Randi's approach is that he always starts with the presumption of fraud whenever paranormal events are reported, but at the same time once you know that fakery is involved it throws everything into question. According to reports, the Ammons family moved into the home and immediately began experiencing paranormal activity. There were no previous reports of anything paranormal at the house, which is unusual for a legitimate haunting.

Hauntings tend to stay put for a couple of reasons. Much of the time the activity is being produced by something in the environment rather than ghosts. Poorly-shielded wires can produce excessive electromagnetic fields that can make people feel uneasy, or in cases of extreme sensitivity even hallucinate. Mold can trigger various cognitive effects. Unusual noises made by the house can be mistaken for ghostly activity.

But what all those things have in common is the house itself. It also is true that in most cases that appear to be genuinely paranormal, the activity tends to be associated with the property. There's a reason, after all, that the "haunted house" is such a common trope. One the other hand, paranormal activity can be faked just about anywhere, and that's what appears to be going on in this case.

Today the James Randi Education Foundation reports that the house has been purchased by Zak Bagans of the reality television program Ghost Adventures, who is producing a documentary film about the case and denying access to other paranormal investigators. Bagans is well-known for his sensational ghost-hunting tactics and over-the-top hyperbole, and apparently encounters ghosts everywhere he goes.

Obviously, he was convinced he would find something anomalous. He always does. On the show Inside Edition, he emphasized the “Biblical” nature of the reports from the house and expressed concern that “people could DIE!!!” (ignoring the fact that the subsequent or previous residents didn't have issues – why let FACTS get in the way of a good story).

From what I could find, no other paranormal investigators were allowed access, including non-paranormally inclined investigators. Joe Nickell of the Center for Inquiry attempted to have a look but only got as far as the front yard with the tenants there at the time.

Nickell, who has extensive experience in investigating such cases, concluded that it was hardly about demons at all:

"In summary, no demons possessed anyone in this case, except in the figurative sense. What were really unleashed were the dark aspects of superstition, ancient dogma, lust for notoriety, the greed of cynical hucksters, and the stubborn unwillingness of some to be reasoned with."

Even the police officer involved in the case knew it would be made into a movie. By February, deals were being struck. Rev. Michael Maginot, the priest that did the exorcism, signed a deal with Evergreen Media Holdings, the same production company that did “The Conjuring”. Maginot also agreed to help Bagans with his documentary.

There was a bidding war for the Ammons’ version of the story. Relativity acquired the life rights to the version of the first hand experiencers. Last week, the entertainment news site TMZ posted an update from Bagans about how things are going at the house. As you might expect, the haunted hype machine remains in full swing.

Regardless of my personal feelings about Randi, he's right to call this out. We don't know if anything happened in the house as reported, and the only piece of solid evidence is such an obvious fake that it was spotted by commenters on Facebook. Reading over the case itself, it sounds more like kids acting out and playing on the mother's religious beliefs, and if the officer involved had some inkling that the case could become a movie that might be why a fake ghost wound up inserted into an official photograph.

Here's what needs to happen in the interest of legitimate paranormal investigation. Bagans' documentary needs to fail, and it needs to fail hard. If it goes on to become another "Blair Witch" fiasco, scammers will start showing up out of the woodwork with bogus reports and make proper investigation even more difficult than it already is. At this point fakers don't have a lot of motivation to make up hauntings, but the moment they see there's big money to made all that could change quite quickly.

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