Thursday, January 28, 2010

The History Channel Loves Ghosts

At work today I ran across an awesome article from the Onion entitled Science Channel Refuses to Dumb Down Science Any Further. I got a laugh out of it, forwarded it to my brothers, and went on my merry way. Great story, huh?

Fast forward to 6:36 PM EST - While flipping stations I paused on the History Channel at the sight of two guys standing around with a FLIR camera. A-ha, I thought, if anyone on TV has a FLIR camera, then they must be looking for ghosts. Sure enough, the Mystery Quest narrator soon began a grim intonation:
The average temperature of the room was measured at 72 degrees...but the anomalous spot on the wall measures nearly 80 degrees. With power cut off to the house, the hot spot on the wall cannot be explained. Investigators believe that it is a vortex, a portal through which spirits enter our world.1
Wow, really? Apparently it's the case that temperature fluctuations in a powered down office building can only be explained by way of portals to another dimension. Nevermind the possibility of variations in wall density, electrical current being passively drawn to unlit light fixtures or other machinery, or even the remote possibility of an animal moving around inside the walls, clearly the most plausible explanation is a heretofore undiscovered portal to another plane of existence.

Putting aside all other arguments for a moment, I'd also like to point out that FLIR cameras, for all their versatility, are not built to detect portals to the afterlife. I checked the official FLIR website to make sure. They are used for "building diagnostics" - not to diagnose hauntings, but to diagnose irregularities in insulation, air and gas leakage, electrical problems, plumbing issues, and structural damage. Watching some of the promotional videos on the site, it becomes pretty obvious that if you go through any empty building with a FLIR camera you're going to see a lot of "hot spots" and irregular heat patterns, the sources of which may not be immediately obvious to someone who isn't trained to interpret the readings from the camera. I fear I must suggest that some ghost hunters may not be using their FLIR equipment with quite the level of sophistication that, say, a structural engineer or building inspector might.

There are plenty of mundane explanations for temperature fluctuations within a building, they just aren't sexy enough to get people to watch a TV show.2 Also note the fallacious line of reasoning we've been fed by our dear announcer: "Wow, there's no explanation...except we have the explanation." That's just not true. We actually have a ton of possible explanations: Gas leaks, bad insulation, an opossum, even (just maybe) a "vortex". Just finding something weird isn't science in and of itself, it's only observing the presence of a phenomenon. The real task, the actual science to be done, is to identify and subsequently eliminate, through experimentation, as many of the potential explanations for the phenomenon as possible in order to say "X is most likely caused by Y."

Unfortunately our ghost hunter friends seem to have mistaken the beginning of an investigation for the ending. They began with the assumption that an empty, unpowered building would have no naturally occurring anomalous heat patterns. When they found a hot spot, they wiped away all natural explanations by simply saying "well, it can't be anything normal"...and thus it must be supernatural. And, conveniently, they arrived at just the conclusion they were hoping for.

The History Channel may not have stooped quite to the level of the "Science Channel" in the Onion's wry piece, but these days it's not too far above it.

1.) As usual, this is paraphrased from memory.
2.) Here at home the bedroom is generally about 10 degrees cooler in the winter than the rest of the apartment, even with the heat turned on and all of the vents open. It's not a ghost, it's shoddy insulation.


alysdexia said...

You ever tired of strawmen?

A gas leak would be cooler, not warmer.
Where are the holes and food and watter for your infestation? (However, termites may be a better guess. But why is there no deterrend or hot spots everywhere?)

Temperature fluctuations at ghost sites are usually a small patch in the middel of the room, not in the wall or ground.

Skippy the Skeptic said...

-I'm- the one beating strawmen? Did you see the show I'm discussing here, brother? The "vortex" in question was indeed a "hot" spot on the -wall-.

I direct you to the "building diagnostics" link in my post, and specifically to the subsection "Property and Facility Management" on that page. Some of the examples shown on there look -exactly- like the "vortex" that was discussed in the show.

alysdexia said...


Some? There was one. The thing is, hot spots in the shape of men or limbprints come up in FLIR ghost hunts often. Here's a list of shows you must check out:

Skippy the Skeptic said...

Sorry about the brother thing. I don't make a habit of checking people's profiles before responding to their comments.

Regarding your comment about hotspots "in the shape of men or limbprints", I must remind you that FLIR cameras are complicated pieces of equipment that require training to use correctly. Infrared cameras, especially ones that aren't calibrated well, often pick up heat reflections, wherein in an object that isn't generating its own heat shows up as hot on a FLIR because it's reflecting another environmental heat source (for example, the guy holding the camera). For a pertinent example, see this video:

In a broader sense, I'm curious as to your strategy here. I've written a post to that says, in essence, "this specific aspect of this specific episode of this specific show was bunkum." Your response has been "yes, but you haven't explained every other alleged paranormal event shown on paranormal entertainment shows."

I don't think i should have to say that there are numerous problems with using paranormal TV shows as evidence when discussing ghosts. For one thing, and I saw this mentioned on the Syfy channel forum you linked me to as well, is that the show you're watching is edited together from just a tiny snippet of all the raw footage that is show on site.

You've no way of knowing if the footage your seeing has been manipulated in some way (either by the inclusion of actual special effects of, more likely, simply by clever editing), and given the fact these shows are made specifically to attract viewers and sell advertisements, you must surely understand that the makers of these programs have every incentive to make them as "sexy" and provocative as possible. At the very least, there's no reason at all to suspect that there's an especially tough quality control process for -any- of these ghost hunting shows.

alysdexia said...

That's a pretty cool analýsis (on YT), but you'd need specular reflectors which leaves mirrors and windows only. Sometimes FLIR picks up men down stone hallways, and oftentimes one doesn't need FLIR as there are many shadowmen sihtings by all kinds of people. A few of the shows in my list were of ghost hunters, and the many others were reports from everyday people who don't need the former to reinforce their meetings. There isn't another paranomic/juxtanormal happening as widespread or with as many sýnonýms as ghosts.

I'v posted a rebuttal to two pages by TIPS against two Ghost Hunters episodes.