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.1Wow, 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.