inFact with Brian Dunning inFact with Brian Dunning


Ghost Hunting

Can you really detect ghosts using a few basic instruments? We're going to take a look at these tools and find out.

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Ghost hunting shows have been popular on television for a long time, and one reason is that the investigators use real science. Right?

Wrong. Running around in the dark, pretending to see and hear things, shining a flashlight around, and saying "What was that?" is not how we do science. Oh, and by the way, doing all that while saying "We're doing this scientifically" doesn't make it science either.

Here's the number one reason why using instruments to detect ghosts is wrong. Ghosts don't have any known detectable properties. There's not a single physical characteristic that's known to be consistent with a ghost. Consequently, there's not a single reading on any instrument that anyone can say represents a ghost.

So these guys like to make the excuse that they're only looking for anomalies. Strange readings that aren't explained by anything else in the house. Well, sorry, but that's no different. Stating that an anomaly on some instrument represents a ghost, implies that science has established that ghosts have such an effect on such instruments. The truth is that ghosts have no known properties, and have never been shown to register in any way on any kind of equipment.

Moreover, the guys on TV don't even use their instruments properly. It's almost as if they put more emphasis on drama than on science!

Infrared thermometers and thermographic cameras can only see solid surfaces. You can't see a cold spot in the middle of the room with them; you can only see the wall beyond.

Electromagnetic field meters have a range of only a few inches. They have to be kept perfectly still, and the field has to be moving, like alternating current. They can detect fields farther away only if those fields are huge, like a lightning bolt, and you wouldn't need an instrument.

Audio recorders do record whatever sounds are heard, but it must be well controlled. When the recorder is under the sole control of a television crew committed to producing a dramatic show, the results are highly questionable.

Maybe one day someone will discover that ghosts exist. If they do, it will be by following the scientific method. That will give us a theory that will tell us how a ghost is manifested, and we'll know what to look for. If that day comes, it will be a great day to go ghost hunting.

— Brian Dunning

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References & Further Reading

Barušs, Imants. "Failure to Replicate Electronic Voice Phenomenon." Journal of Scientific Exploration. 1 Jul. 2001, Volume 15, Number 3: 355-367.

Fraden, Jacob. Handbook of Modern Sensors: Physics, Designs, and Applications. New York: Springer Science + Business Media, Inc., 2004. 243-251.

Juliano, David. "Ghost Hunting 101." Ghost Hunting 101. The Shadowlands, 1 Jan. 2009. Web. 2 Nov. 2009. <>

Knoll, Glenn F. Radiation Detection and Measurement. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2000. 29-57, 103-119, 201-215.

Lipták, Béla G. Instrument Engineer's Handbook: Process measurement and analysis. Stamford: CRC Press, 2003. 575-578.

Radford, B. "Ghost-Hunting Mistakes: Science and Pseudoscience in Ghost Investigations." Skeptical Inquirer. 1 Nov. 2010, Volume 34, Number 6.


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