The flaw of "working to disprove"

We’ve all seen Mario and Luigi on TV going through one Ghost House after another trying to “disprove a haunting”. They claim to be investigating “scientifically” and that’s why they’re trying to disprove it. Because that’s what scientists do, right? They try to prove a conclusion wrong and, if they can’t, it must be right!

There are so many problems with this it’s hard to know where to begin. First, it’s what I call the “right by default” mentality and you see it all over in the worlds of religion and the paranormal. For the religious they will demand an answer, usually to something so complicated they wouldn’t understand a real answer if you were able to give it, and, if you cannot deliver one on the spot, hey, they have an answer for you! And since you don’t have one (if you do, they will reject it, so it doesn’t count) then THEIR answer must be right!

The paranormal community does almost exactly the same thing. Can YOU explain what that light in the sky was? Of course you can’t. You can give some uneducated guesses, but being simple guesses with no information to go on they are all easily dismissed by the believer. So they become convinced it was a “UFO” (read “alien space ship”, but rarely said out loud) based on what it COULD NOT have been.

So already there’s a huge problem with their approach. They are going in with the answer, but they will only accept that answer if they first rule out everything else. So what? They already went in with a default answer in their back pockets just waiting to be pulled out if they can’t explain something they saw. There is nothing whatsoever “scientific” about that.

And then there’s the data they collect and the equipment they misuse and abuse. EVPs require background noise because your brain can’t spot nonexistent patterns in nothing. But it’s hard to spot those in next to nothing too, so they have a couple of tools to help. First there are the “audio filters” which fundamentally alter the sound in a way to produce MORE background noise! That certainly helps our brains find patterns that aren’t there. But maybe even that isn’t enough. Enter the white noise generator! Now we can contaminate the hell out of the data! We’re sure to find something then!

And they just love the IR thermometers, don’t they? You can get an instant reading of the cold spots in the air! Actually, no, you can’t. IR thermometers are designed to bounce an infrared beam off a surface a given distance away. They have minimum and maximum effective ranges, usually about a foot and a half. Again, waving them around like you’re Harry Potter fighting off the Dark Lord introduces contamination into your data, allowing them to simply manufacture data literally out of thin air.

And do you know how they choose which cameras are “best” for their work? It should be obvious by now, they choose the cameras most likely to produce “results”. Not the ones with the largest wavelength detection range (all modern cameras can see infrared. Point your TV remote at your phone camera and push a button to see this). If they’re seeing something outside of the visible spectrum than the camera with the widest spectrum range would be the best one to detect it. But they don’t look up the specs. They ask each other what others have gotten the best “results” with.

If your “scientific equipment” includes an IR thermometer you don’t intent to use to take a surface temperature in a given range, a tape recorder (because the motor and spinning tape produce recorded white noise) and the same camera you take pictures of your kids with, I’m sorry, but you’re only about as “scientific” as any plumber without a PhD could be.

I disagree on the last sentence. A plumber is often times an extraordinary technician. That alone should make him more “scientific” than modern day ghost hunters. And the ghost hunters should be classified as anti-scientific anyway.

The whole “Mario and Luigi”, “Ghost House” and “plumbers” lines were jabs at the show, Ghost Hunters in which two plumbers employed by Roto-Rooter “scientifically” investigate claimed hauntings. I wasn’t dissing plumbers, just those plumbers. However, I would not hire a plumber to head a scientific investigation, rewire my house or perform brain surgery. I would totally hire a plumber to do plumbing, though, and have.

When channel surfing, I may have stopped briefly on one of those goofy shows for long enuf to see the typical scene of the “researchers” in a spooky dark setting, and one of them suddenly gasps “What’s that? Did You hear that?” The others immediately stiffen with apprehension, tho it is not clear that anybody heard anything. And in this moment of discomfiture, they go to commercial, and I continue on trying to catch another TV entertainment wave.

I didn’t give up all of my woo all at once, so I actually watched the show the first season or two. Essentially two plumbers who think themselves to be “armchair scientists” would go on a ghost hunt. They would tell themselves that they were going to “disprove the haunting” so they could feel good about believing ridiculous things. Then they would freak themselves out on the way there, get there, set up, turn off all the lights and walk around in the dark trying to freak themselves out more so they could have “an experience”. That’s what the great majority of them are actually out to get out of ghost hunting. It’s all about the “experience” they might have. The so called “data” they collect is just to validate this “experience” after the fact so they can feel good about going out the next time. They can feel as if they are actually doing “research” when all they’re really doing his hoping to psych themselves out enough to get some dopamine action when a broom falls over or a board creaks.

W: They claim to be investigating “scientifically” and that’s why they’re trying to disprove it. Because that’s what scientists do, right? They try to prove a conclusion wrong and, if they can’t, it must be right!
I hear fans of Karl Popper saying something to this effect all the time.

I don’t think that’s what he’s really saying, but am still curious what your impression of his ideas?

Popper is known for his rejection of the classical inductivist views on the scientific method in favour of empirical falsification. A theory in the empirical sciences can never be proven, but it can be falsified, meaning that it can and should be scrutinised by decisive experiments.

Obviously science needs and is made up of both. Popper was definitely not saying the same thing the ghost hunters are.

To understand the difference you first have to fully appreciate exactly what it is the ghost hunters are doing here. They are not really doing anything unique. Their method is the same as it is for any belief in the paranormal. They just throw in some pseudoscience to disguise it.

The way a normal paranormal claim is validated follows a pretty distinct pattern. The claim is made, skeptics give alternative answers, those answers are rejected by the believer until the skeptic is unable or unwilling to give any further possible explanations. The believer feels validated by having the only remaining answer which the believer did not reject. It doesn’t matter that the skeptic rejected it. It’s all about self validation. It also doesn’t matter that they gave so little information as to solicit only random rational explanations which had a very low chance of being correct. Subconsciously, that is often by design.

What the ghost hunters are doing is exactly the same thing with one minor difference. They are trying to eliminate possible alternative answers before they are given. That’s the only difference. Other than that its exactly the same as it is for any paranormal claim. Instead of “I don’t accept that” they say “We checked for that”. What they are not doing is working toward empirical falsification. They are eliminating possible alternative explanations for that particular case, not testing the basic tenants of their beliefs to eliminate the entire belief as a possibility.

I don’t pretend to fully understand the exact nature of what Popper was suggesting, but I do know it wasn’t this.